Brothels could be found near to both Allies and German front lines during World War One. As the front lines did not move a great deal for much of the war, brothels in certain towns became a fixture and were frequented by many soldiers. While brothels may have caused outrage among some back home in the UK, they were seen as an accepted way of life in France and Belgium.
The use of brothels by the British mirrored society back in the UK. Soldiers and officers had different brothels that they used. The soldiers used so-called ‘Red Lamp’ brothels while the officers used ‘Blue Lamp’ brothels, that were better furnished and more comfortable that ‘Red Lamp’ brothels. One soldier who used a ‘Red Lamp’ brothel claimed that all a room he used had in it was a stretcher, one thin sheet and one blanket. Officers, however, could expect champagne at ‘Blue Lamp’ brothels and some even employed cooks to provide officers with some decent cooked meals. The Germans had a similar arrangement and when the front line did finally move some distance in 1918, British officers used the brothels previously frequented by German officers and the British soldiers had to use the German soldiers’ equivalent.
The brothels were legally called ‘maisons tolérées’ and the ones used by the British were liberally spread around northern France. They were legalised establishments and many in authority (though not all) believed that they served a positive purpose and helped to keep the soldiers in good spirit for the task ahead. Each brothel was managed by a madame and the women who worked in them had to undergo regular medical checks as STI’s were a major problem. By 1917, there were 137 legalised brothels in 35 towns across northern France. They attracted soldiers to a particular town, Le Harve for example, where other businesses benefitted from the soldiers being there – cafes and restaurants in particular. In 1915, medical staff from the British Army made a study of how many British soldiers used the brothels in Le Harve. They estimated that there were 170,000 visitors in that year but their records did not state how many individual soldiers this equated to and it has to be assumed that some of these 170,000 visitors would have re-visited the brothels when on leave and be counted twice.
Senior officers felt that the brothels best served married men in the army. They were concerned that married men might lose their fighting spirit if they did not have some form of sexual stimulus on a regular basis. This apparent lack of faithfulness to one’s wife was condoned as well on the basis of ‘needs must’. The British Army needed its men to be at the peak of their physical condition and it was felt that this seeming lack of fidelity was in fact nothing of the sort. The only voice on high that did not share such a belief was Lord Kitchener who even went as far as to issuing a note to advise British soldiers to avoid women while in France. The first members of the BEF were even forbidden to talk to French women though eventually they were given crude English/French language guides to assist them while they were in France.
However, the spread of gonorrhea and syphilis among soldiers was a major concern. ‘Blue Lamp’ brothels usually had condoms for officers to use but this was not the case in ‘Red Lamp’ brothels. 150,000 British soldiers contracted either gonorrhea or syphilis and needed hospital treatment. Syphilis meant a thirty day stay in hospital and stories emerged of soldiers who would actively seek out prostitutes in brothels who were known to have syphilis to contract the disease and get thirty days out of the trenches – regardless of any long term medical issues. It is difficult to assess the validity of such stories and they might only be stories for the trenches. It was considered a stigma to have syphilis then – even if you were a soldier fighting for your country. The treatment for syphilis – using mercury – was less than pleasant.
When it is considered that hundreds of thousands of men fought in the British Army during World War One, there is very little hard evidence about the use of brothels by soldiers – almost certainly because many had either wives or long term girlfriends at home and knowledge about such liaisons would almost certainly not have gone down too well. Also almost nothing is known about what happened to the women who worked in the brothels, especially after the war ended in November 1918. If it is known that 150,000 British soldiers got either gonorrhea or syphilis while serving in France, then a great many of these women also had these diseases. For that very reason – because of the stigma involved – little is known about what the future held for these women.