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Maisons Tolérées

Written by Clare Makepeace

Look behind the trenches, to the neighbourhoods where soldiers took their respite from the Front. You will find a prominent part of the First World War soldier’s life but one that rarely today is discussed.

Dotted across the towns of northern France were maisons tolérées, or legalised brothels. They housed professional prostitutes who worked under the discipline of a madame and were subject to regular medical inspections. Outside these settings, vast numbers of amateur prostitutes also plied their trade in streets, hotels, cafes and bars. For at least a significant minority of men, irrespective of their rank or nationality, a visit to these women was part-and-parcel of being a soldier at war.

Visits to French brothels by British soldiers were officially allowed. It was traditional for the British army to accept the local customs wherever they were based. Not wanting to offend their allies, the British High Command insisted that brothels should be kept ‘in bounds’ for most of the war.

There were different types of brothels for different ranks. Officers frequented the more luxurious Blue Lamps; the other men were serviced in Red Lamps. For some, a visit to a prostitute provided them with a fleeting relief and escape from the slaughter and filth of the trenches. For others, it was an essential part of the fighting. A way in which a fit and energetic man could work off steam.  For virgins, these visits were particularly urgent. They wanted to experience carnal pleasure before being killed.

A brothel visit did not just buy men a momentary release from the war. Sometimes its legacy could be more long-lasting. In 1916, a staggering one in five of all hospital admissions of British and Dominion troops in France and Belgium was for a sexually transmitted infection (STI).

Treatment of syphilis or gonorrhoea required a hospital stay of about 30 days. For some, this was an attractive option. A prostitute who had an STI could charge more money than an uninfected one. This speaks volumes about the despair some felt on the Western Front. STIs were heavily stigmatised at that time and syphilis was treated with injections of mercury, which usually did nothing to prevent the fatal progression of the disease years later.

But what does this also say about the desperation of those infected women who were selling sex? In fact, what do we know about the prostitutes in this story more generally; the tens of thousands who were employed in this way?

The answer is very little. Throughout all my research, I have not found a single account by a female sex worker describing what she went through during the First World War. This silence makes it hard to write about them, but it should not deny them their place in history, alongside the likes of munitions workers or female auxiliaries, as groups of women who saw their employment and economic opportunities change with the war.

We owe it to the past to recognise this aspect of the First World War. We also owe it to the present. Sexual exploitation against women and children in wartime remains a formidable challenge. If we prefer to overlook this aspect of a war that happened a hundred years ago is, what chance do we have of tackling it today?


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