Sex and Morale in the British Army on the Western Front 1914-18
By Bruce Cherry
It seems that no part of the First World War Tommy’s life has been left unturned in our quest to understand and comprehend the war and what the men went through. We know about life in the trenches, what he ate, his equipment, the battles he fought in, and the letters he wrote home. Yet one aspect of his life is often left unspoken – sex. Perhaps this is because it does not fit in with the all were heroes/sacrificed innocents/lions led by donkeys (delete as appropriate) narrative still propagated by some, or perhaps because the extent and impact of sex has been underestimated or overlooked in our desire to focus on the men and the battles. Either way, it is an aspect of the war that is unlikely to be the subject of a TV documentary anytime soon.
However, Bruce Cherry has left no stone unturned to document what must be the most comprehensive examination of the British Army’s sex life during the war. At the heart of the matter is an underlying assumption that the men had to have their needs met. However this could not be publically acknowledged by the military. Cherry looks at the impact sex could have on the morale of the men, as well as the attitude of the British Army towards it. He examines how the met satisfied their sexual needs – from ‘official’ army brothels, to unsanctioned establishments, the use of prostitutes, exchanges traded for goods, or simply just for pleasure. He also delves into where these dalliances took place – when on leave at home, in billets, behind the lines, or in some cases even when in the trenches.
Of course it is difficult to quantify the sexual activity that occurred during the war; by its nature it was something the men would not often openly write about, and the army rarely documented. Yet Cherry has scoured the archives and uncovered a plethora of personal accounts and oral recollections which make for fascinating reading. What surprised me somewhat was the number of memoirs that I had read that mention activities such as visiting (or at least acknowledging the presence of) brothels. Unfortunately using these accounts it is impossible to extrapolate the extent to soldiers took advantage of the services on offer; some accounts mention queues out the door whilst others state they were not very popular. However from Cherry’s examination of available evidence (such as recorded instances of venereal disease), it is likely that their use was perhaps more widespread than commonly thought.
As well as men paying for sex, he also looks at other relevant aspects such as the use of pornography, homosexual relationships, and convictions for crimes such as assault, sodomy, or rape. However he is limited in these areas by the lack of statistics and accounts, and some of his findings are based on supposition rather than hard facts.
The book is based on Cherry’s PhD, and certainly reads like an academic study, but this should not put off the more casual reader; overall it is another worthwhile addition to the excellent ‘Wolverhampton Military Studies’ series and one that sheds further light on the social aspects of the First World War.