In this new experience you may find temptations both in wine and women. You must entirely resist both. - Lord Kitchener
One hundred years ago this past June 28th, Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria-Hungary was assassinated, triggering a series of events which set Europe ablaze within weeks. By November the German advance had been stopped at Ypres; in the four years between that battle and the signing of the armistice ninety-six years ago today, the battle-lines of the Western Front became entrenched and only barely moved until the last few months of the war. So while the soldiers on other fronts had to make do with the usual assortment of camp followers, local girls and any brothels which survived the operations that brought the lines to that spot, both sides on the Western Front were able to avail themselves of the services of established brothels in the towns near the front on each respective side. Well, the officers could, at least; proper brothels which had existed before the war generally displayed blue lamps, signifying that they were forbidden to enlisted men by military regulations. Lower ranks had to content themselves with makeshift red-lamp facilities, sometimes the new French Bordels Mobiles de Campagne, but more often just commandeered pubs or other buildings whose facilities might consist of little more than, as one soldier reported, “a stretcher, with a very thin sheet and blanket.”
In 1914, Western civilization had not yet sunk into the modern madness of pretending that healthy young men can simply “just say no” to sex without ill effect (or that they should); with rare exception, absolutely nobody in military leadership imagined that they could really stop men from visiting brothels by ordering them not to. Of course, the British tried to anyway; unlike the Germans (who issued the troops both condoms and disinfectant) and the French (who issued entire brothels), British military officials issued only the epigrammatic advice from Lord Kitchener while quietly allowing the troops to visit French brothels under the excuse that they didn’t want to offend their allies and hosts. Since blue lamp facilities were established houses staffed by experienced professionals with a supply of condoms, they had no problem with sexually transmitted disease. The same, however, could not be said for the red lamps, and since the troops were issued neither prophylactics nor proper information, STIs ran rampant. Over 400,000 cases were recorded among British or Commonwealth troops during the course of the war, 150,000 of them on the Western Front alone; altogether roughly 5% of the men were infected at least once, three and a half times the infection rate among French troops and fully seven times the German rate.
By 1915 nurse Ettie Rout persuaded the New Zealand authorities to begin issuing prophylactic kits to their troops, and Canada soon followed suit; Britain’s response was to garnish the pay of soldiers who contracted STIs and treat them in separate, second-rate hospital facilities in order to punish and shame them. Considering that an English Tommy’s pay was a scant one-fifth that of his counterparts from Canada and Australia (sixpence a day vs. two and a half shillings), it’s hardly surprising that infected troops preferred to hide their infections and/or treat them with ineffective patent medicines or folk remedies. It is commonly claimed that many soldiers purposefully practiced unsafe sex in the hopes of trading thirty days in the trenches for thirty in hospital, but there is virtually no evidence to support this; in fact, given the pay garnishment, the stigma and the unpleasant side-effects of the arsenic-based medicines of the time, it hardly seems likely that many would purposefully pursue such a strategy. And in any case, the story is unnecessary to explain the high disease rates among the British troops; the pigheaded policies of their leaders were more than sufficient for that. By 1916 they began providing basic health education and encouraging soldiers to “disinfect” themselves after sex, but until the end of the War refused to issue condoms for fear that such a measure would attract public accusations that the Army was affording the men “opportunities for unrestrained vice”.
The United States only entered the Great War at the very end, but given that its institutional prudishness dwarfed even that of the United Kingdom, it seems likely that had the War not ended when it did, the Yanks’ VD rate would have challenged the Tommies’. After all, not even the British had gone to the absurd length the Americans recently had, in criminalizing the act of prostitution itself; it’s even possible that a longer war would have given Washington more opportunity to impose its “white slavery” hysteria on the rest of the world back then as it is doing now. But as things turned out, that did not happen; it took another century and another world war for the sane Franco-German approach of making allowances for human nature to lose out to the dangerous and delusional Anglo-American one of denying it, and for the idiotic strategy that resulted in half as many STIs as there were deaths in battle to become the dominant one over most of the world.