No Sex Please, We’re British: Stemming The Tide Of STDs During WWI

10 November 2017

Gender and Sexuality

Global conflict naturally incurs all manner of hardships and challenges, but one that rarely permeates modern discussions of the First World War is the exponential spread of sexually transmitted diseases, or the effort made to curb them. However, preventing venereal disease wasn’t just a matter of good medicine. In fact, medicine was sometimes the last thing on people’s mind when trying to avoid these debilitating infections. 

Venereal disease became a catastrophic problem for the military, with vast numbers of soldiers spending upwards of a month off the front line. Estimates put hospital admissions for venereal disease at over 400,000 cases (compared to just over 74,000 for trench foot). This cost the military vital resources; “syphilis and gonorrhea,” wrote the Director of the Boston Dispensary, “are the single most serious cause of illness and inefficiency in the army” (Davis, Michael M. Jr; Dec 1918. The Modern Hospital: vol. XI, no. 6.). 

The “venereal evil” was a prevalent threat that was known and well understood. Medical Services and Warfare 1850-1927 contains a particularly rich cache of documents discussing many aspects of venereal disease; you can see records of soldier’s admissions for venereal disease, learn about the symptoms and read about the measures that governments put in place to control them.

Bar graph showing numbers of troops diagnosed with sexually transmitted diseases in the British Armies in France, between March 1915 and December 1916. The number of cases per 100,000 troops is recorded at the foot of the x axis. From the Annual Report on Infectious Diseases in British Armies in France for 1916 © The National Archive, Kew.

Bar graph showing numbers of troops diagnosed with sexually transmitted diseases in the British Armies in France, between March 1915 and December 1916. The number of cases per 100,000 troops is recorded at the foot of the x axis. From the Annual Report on Infectious Diseases in British Armies in France for 1916 © The National Archive, Kew

Bar graph showing numbers of troops diagnosed with sexually transmitted diseases in the British Armies in France, between March 1915 and December 1916. The number of cases per 100,000 troops is recorded at the foot of the x axis. From the Annual Report on Infectious Diseases in British Armies in France for 1916 © The National Archive, Kew.

It is the way in which preventative measures are discussed, particularly in Britain, that I found especially interesting, as preventing sexually transmitted infections was as much of a social and political problem as it was a medical and military one. On the one hand, British leaders just didn’t want to talk about such an indecent subject. However, when it was discussed, the problem of venereal disease was inextricable from those of promiscuity, morality and religion. Either approach was inherently damaging to the health of the troops, who were delayed effective action and common-sense advice. 

A pamphlet published by the Society for the Prevention of Venereal Disease is particularly useful for examining attitudes in the aftermath of the First World War. Comprised of speeches from a meeting in 1920, this pamphlet illustrates the dominant attitude that abstention and good old fashioned Christian chastity is the best way to prevent venereal disease. The views of Sir James Crichton-Browne, MD are particularly illuminating:

Medical work, reports 1850-1927 Â© Hoover Institution Library & Archives. To see this document from the collection in full, please click the image.

Putting to one side the possibility that venereal disease causes Bolshivism (though that in itself is probably worth a blog post or two), Dr Crichton-Browne’s views were popularly held, and highlight a key concern with effective preventative medicine – if we make it safe for people to have sex, people will have even more sex – and we can’t have that. Nonetheless, Dr Crichton-Browne is genuinely invested in preventing this disease, and emotively laments the effects that venereal disease has on soldiers:

Medical work, reports 1850-1927 © Hoover Institution Library & Archives. To see this document from the collection in full, please click the image.

Dr Crichton-Browne and the Society to which he belongs want to curb the spread of venereal disease, and acknowledged that simply advising soldiers to think on their Christian morals wasn’t doing the trick, and more practical measures were required. He critiques the British government’s plans for disease prevention, and promotes the Society’s own suggestions. The government are planning to provide clinics to which “transgressors” can repair after they have “committed their sin” to be disinfected by professionals. The Society suggest providing personal disinfectant packs that men can use themselves after sex, treating potential infections far more quickly and saving public money. This notion of portable disinfection packs caused moral panic amongst the establishment, as a man would be able to “carry it about in his pocket to be ready at a moment’s notice”. It’s lucky the good doctor didn’t go so far to suggest the distribution of condoms, which were being readily utilised in other European nations. I can hardly imagine the bedlam. 

Dr Crichton-Browne is no lone voice in this pamphlet; doctors, politicians and soldiers weigh in on the issue, sharing experiences from the war, opinions on morality, and suggestions for policy. This document also contains further valuable publications on venereal disease taken from the collection at the Hoover Institution Library & Archives. The one theme that remains consistent, however, is that despite the enormous advances in medicine made during and after the First World War, when it came to venereal disease, the British were simply too prudish to execute existing procedures to quell to spread of vicious infections, and such behaviour undeniably cost even more lives.

Medical Service and Warfare: 1850-1927  is available now. For trial access to the full resource and price enquiries, please email us at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

About the Author

Rachael Gardner - Stephens

Rachael Gardner - Stephens

Joining Adam Matthew in January 2015 has given me the chance to work with exciting and diverse material, from photographs and dispatches for Migration to New Worlds, to British diplomatic papers for our forthcoming project on the Middle East - perfect fodder for a history geek!

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