The War on Clap: How the Allies Fought VD
by Xan Holbrook
There’s a wonderful phrase that the idiot-savants at the British Army Rumour Service, or ARRSe, love to employ to describe something truly invincible. That term is squaddy proof.
The thinking goes something like this: you can build something, spend billions testing it in civilian circles, and claim (and have your results claim) that the thing is unbreakable. Give it to a grunt for ten minutes, and they’ll find a way to break it. The squaddy proof title is a Holy Grail, and thus yet un-obtained. A few have come close, like the L1A1 SLR (the FAL, to you yanks) and the AK-47.
The list of things which are nowhere close to squaddy proof stretches for miles… and that includes the soldiers themselves.
The problem of sexually transmitted diseases and soldiers is age old. What you may not know is that it’s once again on the rise.
I personally contend that the Sexual Revolution did not start in the sixties, and I do not know for sure when the final push over the hill to today’s glories began… but I do say that sending chaps to fight overseas during WWII got the cogs turning in everyone’s heads. Not only in how we approached sexual health, but sexual liberation too. It’s no coincidence that the 1950s saw gay advocacy and militancy explode in activity, when countless wartime memoirs, including those of Kingsley Amis and Gore Vidal, mention the availability of blowjobs in the barrack room.
What is lost on most people about the Second World War is its scale. More planes were shot down in that war than fly today. Britain mortgaged entire countries to pay for its war effort. Before the Normandy Landings, so much material was concentrated on the channel ports that people joked that the barrage balloons were the only thing keeping the south coast of England afloat. Seeing that the Allies had no French ports to dock their ships at, they literally fucking built one and brought it with them. With almost 25 million men serving between the British Empire and the USA alone, that’s one hell of a libido that needs satisfying.
The Axis militaries took a vicious realpolitik approach to the issue of their men’s sex drive. Industrialized prostitution, through kidnapping and forcing women into sexual slavery, most notoriously in the Nazi joy divisions and Japan’s comfort women, continued in every occupied land. The use of rape as a weapon of war remains a topic that keeps old wounds open, most notably in the relations between Germany and the old Soviet states. Thankfully, the Western Allies did not employ such callous measures.
The concern over the spread of STDs was not simple prudishness (despite the reference to masturbation as ‘childish’ and something to be avoided). According to Richard Marshall, during World War I, up to 5% of all British hospital admissions were for venereal diseases. In 1918, there were 60,099 hospital admissions for VD in France and Flanders alone. By contrast, only 74,711 cases of ‘Trench Foot’ were treated by hospitals in France and Flanders during the whole of the war – and this total also includes cases of frostbite. Little wonder that this was referred to as the “Heroic Age of Prostitution” with so much disease running rampant.
When it came time for a second round of nightmarish slaughter, the armies of Eisenhower were better prepared. Thanks to mass media, we can see how it was done. Rank misogyny played a huge part, especially in how women were seen as carriers and spreaders as opposed to the men in uniform. The art style on posters owed much to the USA’s recruiting of pulp artists for the war effort. The twee, sniggering tag lines of such PSAs were remembered fondly by those who served.
It is reassuring to note that, even then, such rhetoric came across as cloth-eared. Spike Milligan, Monty Python’s chief weirdo inspiration, had this to say about the efforts to keep the soldiers clean:
The Catholics had occasional visits from Father Holything who seemed horrified at the thought of any soldier having sexual intercourse.
“Be careful of strong drink my sons,” he warned. “Bear in mind it excites the sexual appetites, therefore if you see a comrade drunk, bring him home and bathe the parts in cold water.” It was great to know how to be a Christian, all you needed was an erection and a bucket of cold water. He warned, “Avoid loose women.” I never told him straight that the women I knew were so loose they were falling to bits. Anyway, we had nothing to do with loose women, we were all sleeping with highly respectable officers’ wives, whose husbands were away at the war.
Posters and rhyming couplets weren’t the only way that the command tried (and failed, to a great extent) to keep men from catching khaki fever. I’ve said before that America’s mastery of film stood it in good stead to create some complete howlers, and the anti-VD propaganda of the era is cinematic gold. A favorite example is the film Three Cadets. It’s available for free, so you can watch it and choose your own favorite example of how catching crabs will lead to Nazi world domination. I, for one, learned that itchy bollocks can cause a plane crash.
The British approach was refreshingly blunt. The films produced were cheap and largely educational, so no special effects could be afforded. Fortunately for them, they had the real thing, warts and all. And I really do mean, warts. Another attempt, not undertaken by the Americans so far as I can tell, is the use of chemical suppressants. Crudest of all these was the use of bromide in cups of tea. The patriot in me weeps.
Christopher Hitchens once described warfare as the ‘great masculine equivalent to childbirth’. Although I would disagree with such a bold claim, it’s worth noting that such a grand, shared experience as the liberation of Europe and the defeat of Japan eviscerated old attitudes to do with sex, masculinity, warfare and society, just as the Great War had done beforehand (English Literature, as taught in schools, marks the pre-modern period specifically as Pre-1914 Literature).
These posters, films and school-master-ish moralizings represent the last stand of that shadowy, hush-hush, pearl-clutching world before Ginsberg, Kinsey, Warhol, the Mattachine Society, the pill, Freidam, Steinam and The Griswold ruling kicked the door off its hinges.
So, have fun. But always remember, people – flies spread disease. So keep yours closed!