Sexing Up Canada’s First World War

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This essay was originally posted on 3 March 2015

By Zachary Abram

VD Poster 1Canadian cultural memory of the First World War is conspicuously asexual considering Canadians had among the highest rates for venereal disease in the British Expeditionary Force, with an infection rate that reached as high as 28.7%. [1] Anyone with a passing interest in the First World War is familiar with Trench Foot and its symptoms are synonymous with the squalor of trench warfare. Yet, only 74,711 cases of Trench Foot were treated during the entire war.[2] Venereal Disease accounted for 416,891 hospital admissions in the British Army.[3] A soldier was five times more likely to be admitted to hospital for syphilis and gonorrhea but in the popular imagination it is Trench Foot that persists. There is a reticence, perhaps the result of inherited Victorian prudery or the unwillingness to “sully the reputations” of the war dead, to discuss soldiers’ sex lives. As a result, discussions of the First World War tend to elide the bedroom in favour of the trench.

There is no such silence, however, in Canadian war novels. Sex workers are a common trope in Canadian war fiction.[4] They begin to appear in novels of the 1930s, when Canadian war literature began to shy away from Romantic depictions of soldiers as Christian crusaders. There was a concerted effort to represent the war “as it was” and these realist novels emerged as an antidote to the nationalist myth making of previous efforts. In these novels, sex workers are rarely singled out for derision and, in fact, are acknowledged to have played a vital role in the war effort. The more prurient aspects of their job are de-emphasized in favour of praising their domesticating prowess. In some Canadian war novels, such as Generals Die in Bed by Charles Yale Harrison, or All Else is Folly by Peregrine Acland, sex workers facilitate the forging of a distinctly domestic space so far away from home. Indicative of the persistent schism between the front and the home-front, however, this proxy space inevitably becomes untenable, and the relationship between soldier and sex worker comes to stand-in for the fraught relationship between soldier and home-front and vice versa.

In addition to acknowledging the sexual lives of soldiers, Canadian fictional representations of wartime sex work also disrupts the accepted narrative of women’s work in the First World War. The First World War is often cast as a period of liberation because it hastened the integration of women into paid work and relieved many women of their tether to the domestic sphere. This belief serves as a politically comforting national imaginary that entwines the First World War, and women’s performance in it, with an unstoppable march towards progress. Penny Summerhill argues that the First World War actually served as a catalyst for the segregation of women into lower-paying “inferior” sectors of work while not relieving them of their domestic duties at all. Yet, even Summerhill’s worthwhile study is insufficient because it fails to adequately address one important facet of the wartime economy – sex work.

When a British soldier was deployed to the Front in 1914, a short message was folded into his Pay Book from Secretary of State for War, Lord Kitchener. It read, “In this new experience you may find temptations both in wine and women. You must entirely resist both.”[5] What is noticeably absent from Lord Kitchener’s adorable edict is exactly how this was to be accomplished. In his memoirs, Private Frank Richards wrote of Kitchener’s message: “They may as well have not been issued at all for all the notice we took of them.”[6] The young, lonely, and frightened soldiers were understandably insubordinate and frequented sex workers with regularity. Army brass was well aware of what happened when its enlisted men were on leave but its policy towards hiring sex workers vacillated between crude pragmatism and Kitchener’s idealism. The British army encouraged abstinence but there was no punishment for contracting VD, only for concealing it.

In her article, “Male Heterosexuality and Prostitution During The Great War,” cultural historian Clare Makepeace identifies the two primary reasons why soldiers chose to frequent brothels. The British Army chose to turn a blind eye to brothel visits because of a prevalent belief that it was unhealthy for men, especially married ones, to abstain from sex for too long. Rather than as a means of satisfying physiological impulses, soldiers’ letters and memoirs reveal that they visited sex workers either as a reward for surviving battle or as a means of escaping a culture of immanent death. Second Lieutenant Dennis Wheatley asked, “Why should a man who had been deprived of women for possibly many months and might be dead within a week, be denied a little fun?”[7] Canadian novels of the First World War confirm this view but add an element not discussed by Makepeace – the desire of Canadian soldiers to create a proxy domestic space overseas, the desire for the comforts of home.

The experiences soldiers had with sex workers were by no means monolithic. Many soldiers queued up behind their comrades for a brief turn with a woman. Corporal Jack Wood described the scene outside one such establishment as “a crowd, waiting for a cup-tie at a football final in Blighty.”[8] Canadian novelists, however, deemphasize these mercenary encounters and depict affairs that almost resemble courtship. In Harrison’s Generals Die in Bed, for example, the unnamed narrator comes to associate sex workers with the idea of home before he is even shipped out: “I like this girl’s brazenness. She is the last link between what I am leaving and the war.”[9] While on leave in London, he enlists the services of a sex worker named Gladys whom he calls “that delightful combination of wife, mother, and courtesan – and I, a common soldier on leave, have her!”[10] The Freudian implications are fairly obvious: “She does not call me by name but uses ‘boy’ instead. I like it. In a dozen different ways she makes me happy.” The physical act of sex is barely mentioned. Instead, Gladys satisfies his other non-carnal needs: “There is a glorious breakfast on the table… How well this woman understands what a lonely soldier on leave requires.”[11] For Gladys, sex work is inextricably linked to the performance of domesticity: “She is a capable cook, and delights in showing me that her domestic virtues are as great as her amorous ones. I do not gainsay either.”[12]

The sex workers in Canadian war fiction are usually one-dimensional and are not afforded much of an interior life. Gladys exists primarily to help the protagonist recover from trauma. He confesses, “I am a criminal. Did I ever tell you that I committed murder?” This takes Gladys aback. When the narrator clarifies that the “murder” he committed was of an enemy in the trenches, Gladys is relieved, “You silly boy. I thought you had really murdered someone.”[13] The ideological schism between those who have been to the front and those who have not is exacerbated when Gladys takes the protagonist out for a night on the town. As the burlesque dancers sing an up-tempo version of “Oh, It’s a Lovely War” in front of the Union Jack, Gladys and the rest of the audience erupt in applause. The narrator cannot share in their revelry: “These people have no right to laugh… They should be made to remember.”[14] He is grateful for the respite Gladys has given him but the disparity between propaganda and reality reveals the pretence of their domesticity.

Sex work remains an understudied aspect of the First World War. It’s not clear what has caused this cultural amnesia but it does a disservice to the enlisted man not to conceive of him as a full person with desires. It also does a disservice to the sex workers who, although they may have chosen their profession out of financial necessity, provided soldiers with a brief reprieve from their duty. The two most enduring archetypes of the Great War soldier in the popular imagination cannot accommodate this discussion. The image of the soldier as the saintly knight of Romance still persists to some extent. Arthurian knights tend not to frequent prostitutes. The other lasting archetype, the young innocent sent to his death by old fools, similarly does not allow for much nuance. State sanctioned efforts at memorialisation, in addition to allowing for sincere expressions of grief, lean heavily on allegory and tend to reinforce socially conservative values. Fiction, on the other hand, allows for the representation of a full person’s interior life. In a realist novel, characters transcend allegory and soldiers are permitted to be flawed human beings whose sexuality and sexual choices were understandably influenced by the war. It is no surprise, then, that novels offer a unique space for dealing with taboo aspects of the wartime experience.


Zachary Abram is a doctoral candidate in English/Canadian Studies at the University of Ottawa. His dissertation traces the representation of the soldier in Canadian war fiction. His written work has appeared in Studies in Canadian LiteraturePapers of the Bibliographical Society of CanadaThe Dalhousie Review and others. He is assistant editor of The Bull Calf Literary Review. is featuring this post as part of  “Canada’s First World War: A Centennial Series on”, a multi-year series of regular posts about the history and centennial of the First World War. 

[1] Tim Cook, Shock Troops: Canadians Fighting the Great War 1917-1918 (Toronto: Penguin, 2008), 176.

[2] T.J. Mitchell and G.M. Smith, Medical Services: Casualties and Medical Statistics of the Great War (London: HMSO, 1931)88.

[3] Ibid., 74.

[4] A non-comprehensive list of Canadian war texts that feature sex workers: All Else is Folly by Peregrine Acland (1929) Generals Die in Bed by Charles Yale Harrison (1930), “The Original” by W. Redvers Dent (1930), God’s Sparrow by Philip Child (1937), Execution by Colin McDougall (1958), The Wars by Timothy Findley (1977).

[5] George Arthur, Life of Lord Kitchener, Volume 3 (New York: Cosimo, 2013), 27.

[6] Clare Makepeace, “Male Heterosexuality and Prostitution During The Great War” Cultural and Social History Volume 9, Issue 1 (2012): 67.

[7] Ibid., 69.

[8] Ibid., 71.

[9] Charles Yale Harrison, Generals Die in Bed (Toronto: Annick Press, 2007), 17.

[10] Ibid., 94.

[11] Ibid., 93-94.

[12] Ibid., 94.

[13] Ibid., 95.

[14] Ibid., 89.

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