Dr Clare Makepeace delivers her lunchtime lecture

Sex and the Somme. Soldiers visited brothels to escape the "lunatic world of war."

Posted on centenarynews.com on 20 June 2014
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Mike Swain listens to a lunchtime lecture given by UCL Teaching Fellow Dr Clare Makepeace entitled "Sex and the Somme" about the hundreds of thousands of First World War soldiers who used brothels

When we think of the First World War the black and white images which spring to mind are likely to focus on soldiers in muddy trenches waiting to go “over the top,”  Christmas truces, or famous war poets like Wilfred Owen, Robert Graves or Siegfried Sassoon.

But in her UCL lunchtime lecture at the offices of The Guardian newspaper in King’s Cross, London, Dr Clare Makepeace argued that the little-known role brothels  played in the lives of Tommies is a legitimate study for historians because it reveals the complex attitudes to sex, marriage and male duty at the time.

In the British Army in the Great War 400,000 cases of Venereal Disease were treated. In one experiment in one street in Le Havre, France, researchers recorded 171,000 men attending brothels over a 57 week period.

In 1916 one in five of all admissions of British and Dominion troops to hospitals in France and Belgium was for VD.

There were 137 legal brothels across 35 towns in France and sex could be paid for in cafes. So there is good reason to believe that “a significant minority” visited brothels, Dr Makepeace said.

Yet there is very little in the archives from men about the brothels. And no testimony at all from the girls who worked in them.  

Lord Kitchener

Every Tommy carried with him a pamphlet from Secretary of State for War Lord Kitchener which reminded soldiers that the honour of the British Army depended on their conduct. Their duty could not be done unless their health was sound, he said.

“Be constantly on your guard against any excesses,” he warned. “In this new experience you may find temptations in both wine and women. You must entirely resist both temptations and while treating all women with perfect courtesy you should avoid any intimacy.”

The pamphlets were ignored by many. Before the war only 6% of enlisted men were eligible for marriage and there was a strong belief that army morale was dependent on sexual activity. Commanders allowed troops to follow sexual customs in the regions of the empire where they were posted.

There was also a wider belief dating back to Victorian times “that regular intercourse was necessary for a man’s health,” Dr Makepeace said.

Married men

It was more acceptable for married men to visit the brothel. 

“Men had become accustomed to sex in the marital bed and deprived of this regular satisfaction the brothel was regarded as an acceptable alternative.”

Lt R Graham Dixon summed up the attitude of the men. “We were not monks, but fighting soldiers are extraordinarily fit, certainly with an abundance of physical energy. And although bought love is no substitute for the real thing at any rate it seemed better than nothing and in any case it worked off steam.”

Other soldiers visited brothels to escape the horrific conditions in the trenches and used the war as an excuse and separation from their normal lives and behaviour.

Lt Dixon said later: “It was, as it were, shut off from normal human relationships and belonged to this lunatic world of war and to nowhere else.”


War poet Captain Robert Graves wrote: “There were no restraints in France, these boys had money to spend and knew they had a good chance of being killed in a few weeks anyhow. They did not want to die virgins.”

Experiences of the brothels were different. The British were held back from visiting because of poor pay. At one brothel Australians queued at one door for the younger girls, the British at another for older prostitutes.

Brothels for officers had blue lamps, lower ranks red. Lt Dennis Wheatley recorded going to a brothel with an 8 sided mirrored room and a blonde on a divan. Later, they breakfasted on an “omelette, melon and champagne.”

Officers were more ready to share prostitutes with their German enemies than with their own men. Colonial troops were barred from the brothels. Indian troops faced severe restrictions preventing them having any sexual relations with white women. Men in the South African labour corps were kept in camps surrounded by wire.

Dr Clare Makepeace answering questions with  journalist Richard Norton-Taylor

Dr Makepeace concluded: “The historian’s job is to understand lives of the past in all their complexity. What troubles me about the Centenary is that many of the projects, in my opinion, simplify our understanding of the war. They erase that complexity which surrounded soldiers’ lives.

“When we think of the First World war we regularly think of soldiers going over the top or waiting in fear for that moment. What we don’t think of is the great unidealistic or unsentimental way in which many men reacted to that prospect. They had sex with prostitutes.”

 © Centenary Digital Ltd & Author