Venereal Disease

 In Challenges

The concept of venereal disease carries with it a unique double jeopardy impact for the sufferer: an often painful physical anguish combined with the embarrassing social stigma which prevented talking about it even to close friends. This is prevalent even today, but was a totally taboo issue in Victorian times, as well as the Edwardian period leading into World War 1.

Yet it doesn’t take much imagination to understand why affliction rates were so high among soldiers of the Great War, regulars and officers alike: infection rates were as high as 250 out of every 1,000 men. But think about it! You are in your late teens or early twenties, an age when you are wired to explore the idea of marriage and all of the desires that go with it. But then you are yanked out of whatever peaceful thing you were doing in life, thrown onto a battlefield, not knowing whether you would make it through the day. With that backdrop, it is more easily understood why these young men took sexual pleasure, and with it heightened risk.

This was even more pronounced for the Commonwealth soldiers who came from all over the British Empire. They signed up ‘for the duration’, which meant they would not see their homes or families for years; you couldn’t travel back to Canada, New Zealand or South Africa, and return to the front, with one or two weeks’ leave. Further, these lads were paid more than their English fighting mates. So, with plenty of leisure time in France or England and plenty of money, the soldiers ventured out. This was more tempting in France where prostitution was openly legal and proffered as thriving businesses near every war front.

That Lt Robert Courtenay Pitman’s service records show he was afflicted with gonorrhea in December, 1916 and January, 1917 was a surprise to me in my research for Seeking Courage, but not an abhorrence. The surprise was because he was such a careful methodical person, who thought through every action. Yet I was not disappointed for the reasons outlined above, and  because I somehow knew his particular circumstances were not nefarious or reckless.

Yet not knowing the exact reason for the affliction, I needed to first decide if it fit the story line (it did as it was historic) and then how it happened (which I had no understanding because of social taboos). To build out the story, I drew from the medical reality that is the asymptomatic nature of the disease in women, who could therefore unknowingly and innocently pass it along. To satisfy my angst about throwing my fictional Cissy under the bus for being irresponsible, I spoke to a ‘sex anthropologist’ at a local university who confirmed the episode could easily have been real, and likely was during the War, many times over.

Cure was a difficult issue for bacterial gonorrhea, since only later in 1928 was penicillin first used. Things just weren’t the same as they were to become during, say, the Vietnam War when on the first sign of disease the soldier would get a big, tumbler full of antibiotic shot in his butt and sent on his way. Rather, the painful application of such substances as silver nitrate alongside weeks of healthy eating and bed rest was the prescription. The Seeking Courage story line delves into this a bit.

Finally, the moral dilemma: venereal disease was nothing new in WW1; it is written about in Mutiny on the Bounty during its famous late 1700s exploration. Another example was Prince Ernest, Prince Albert’s brother (husband to Queen Victoria) who had a syphilis which changed his life in a material way. Still, the British generals in 1914-18 played up the morality of it’s existence in an attempt to manage their soldiers, typically through a Christian guilt credo.  They had to have known their lads would ‘wander’, and probably held some level of understanding. But they needed bodies on the battlefield so remained resistant to acceptance. It is noted though, contracting venereal disease was not a violation of military law, although concealing it was. Once in hospital, the individual would be assessed ‘pay stoppage’. This was a minor penalty (compared to the affliction) and was representative of a ‘no work-no pay’ policy since the soldier ‘voluntarily’ , albeit temporarily, removed himself from the military.

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