Illumination: the undergraduate journal of humanities: Spring 2006

official responses to
during World War I

     Official responses to homosexuality during the First World War were characterized by a curious schizophrenia. Soldiers were encouraged to bond emotionally with their troops under the auspices of camaraderie, and yet they were not supposed to actually fall in love. In pre-war years, liberalism, especially in Germany, had fomented the beginning of a sexual revolution. With the war, however, came an oppressive social order that, in many European countries, associated homosexuality with treason. Another dichotomy existed for the soldiers themselves: they were physically and emotionally closer to each other than to anyone else in their lives, but this closeness expressed itself only partially through sex. Many soldiers, in fact, remarked on their lack of sexual desire in the trenches. In France, Germany, and England, World War I prompted a reactionary backlash by already restrictive governments. Shifting wartime social mores presented a difficult paradox for men: they suggested the possibility of homosexuality to soldiers, while at the same time discouraging these men from acting upon their newfound knowledge.

Socio-Political and Martial Responses to Homosexuality Before and During the War

     Although homosexual acts committed in private were not illegal under French law as they were under English and German law, the social prejudice against homosexuality was strong in France, especially during the war years. Since at least 1886, when a book entitled Les Invertis (le Vice Allemand)[1] was published, the French had identified homosexuality with Germany. This association was strengthened by the Eulenburg Affair of 1907, in which the Kaiser’s chancellor and confidant, along with two other aristocrats, participated in a series of trials and counter-trials after being accused of violating Paragraph 127 of the penal code, a statute that prohibited “unnatural vice” between two men. Though Eulenburg died before the trials could be concluded and the other two men successfully countersued their accusers for libel, the trials—as scandalous as that of Oscar Wilde—irreparably linked the nation of Germany with homosexuality in the minds of the English and, especially,   [p. 43]   Page Imagethe French. Indeed, the connection ran so deep that one way of propositioning men in public restrooms at the time was to ask, “Parlez-vous allemand?”[2] This association of homosexuality with Germany meant that gay French men were considered not fully French and thus akin to traitors.

     This homophobic attitude prevailed throughout the war, concurrent with a belief that to be a male patriot one must both fight in the war and father children, thereby restoring the war-depleted French population. Marie-Monique Huss claims that “just as, at the front, the most crucial problem was felt to be one of insufficient numbers, so, on the home front, Frenchness seemed to be under attack because not enough babies were being born.”[3] Picture postcards of the time, perhaps the finest and clearest example of French propaganda, were blatant in their encouragement of heterosexuality and procreation. One of a “Mariage sur le Front”[4] reads “Vous servez deux fois la France.”[5] Another depicts an expectant couple, who say, “J’aimerais mieux un fils pour en faire un soldat.”[6] Homosexuals, who were considered incapable of engaging in either combat or procreation, were considered unpatriotic.

     The English political situation for gay men had been extremely unpleasant even before the outbreak of war. In the wake of Oscar Wilde’s trial and the emergence of greater sexual freedom, homosexuality was more openly discussed than in the Victorian era, though just as harshly condemned. For instance, when the father of poet John Betjeman discovered that his son had been corresponding with Lord Alfred Douglas, they had the following conversation:

“Do you know what that man is?”
“He’s a bugger. Do you know what buggers are? Buggers are two men who work themselves up into such a state of mutual admiration that one puts his piss-pipe up the other one’s arse. What do you think of that?”[7]

Men caught performing homosexual acts were subject to corporal punishment under the British Criminal Law Amendment Act. Between November 1, 1911 and October 31, 1912,

Andrew Hutchison
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  [p. 44]   Page Imagetwenty-three men were whipped fifteen strokes with a birch for having committed “unnatural crime[s].”

When war was declared, the social and political response to homosexuality became even more intolerant. Like the French, the English associated homosexuality with Germany. Though it was less crucial than in France, the insistence upon fecundity as a way to restore the dwindling male population also had a place in English propaganda. Because of these dual

Allison Kirby
Cake Show
digital collage

associations, homosexuality in England, like in France, was seen as tantamount to treason. It was this belief that led to what are perhaps the most outrageous and the most pitiable trials of the war, respectively the trials of Noel Pemberton Billing and Sir Roger Casement.

The Eulenburg scandal had made homosexuality into a peculiarly German phenomenon. Noel Pemberton Billing, a Member of Parliament, and his associate, the American Harold Spencer, made use of this generally accepted convention when they drafted their inflammatory and accusatory article, “The Forty-Seven Thousand,” for publication in Billing’s journal the Vigilante. According to them,

There exists in the Cabinet Noir of a certain German Prince a book compiled by the Secret Service from reports of German agents who have infested this country for the past 20 years, agents so vile and spreading such debauchery and such lasciviousness as only German minds can conceive and only German bodies execute.


They further claimed that “there had been many persons who had been prevented from putting their full strength into the war by corruption and blackmail and fear of exposure,” and that

incestuous bars were established in Portsmouth and Chatham. In these meeting places the stamina of British sailors was undermined. More dangerous still, German agents, under the guise of indecent liaison, could obtain information as to the disposition of the Fleet . . . Wives of men in supreme position were entangled. In Lesbian ecstasy the most sacred secrets of State were betrayed. The sexual peculiarities of members of the peerage were used as a leverage to open fruitful fields for espionage.[8]

 These hysterical claims were at last challenged by the actress Maud Allan, who sued Billing for libel after he accused her of being one of the 47,000 in a short paragraph he entitled “The Cult of the Clitoris.” The trial was a long, involved, drawn-out farce. Numerous witnesses were called in to testify to the existence of the entirely fictitious Black Book cited in the article “The Forty-Seven Thousand,” while others were brought in to impugn the character of Oscar Wilde and the morals of his play Salomé, in which Allan was acting and which first prompted Billing’s accusation. Although the supposed association between homosexuality and treason was already explicit, Billing further developed the correlation between a country of treasonous homosexuals and England’s poor performance in the war. He claimed that

after three and a half years of war, it was time that the things to which he had referred should see the light of day . . . If they were true how much more necessary it was that the influence, the mysterious influence which seemed to have dogged our steps through the whole conduct of the war, which, after three and a half years of war, kept German banks open in England, which left Germans still uninterned in that Court at that moment, which had paralyzed the Air Services of this country and had prevented our raiding Germany, should be removed.[9]

Incredibly, Billing was acquitted, to the approbation of the general public.

The trial of Sir Roger Casement was similarly unjust. Casement had previously distinguished himself by publicizing and fighting against the atrocities perpetrated by colonists in the Belgian Congo. Later, during the First   [p. 45]   Page ImageWorld War, he found an opportunity to seek Irish independence by aligning himself with Germany. He traveled to Germany to recruit Irish prisoners of war in an attempt to form a brigade to fight on the side of the Germans. Although he was distinctly unsuccessful in this attempt, he was nonetheless brought to trial on the charge of treason. To counteract the national sympathy for Casement and the popular appeal for a reprieve, the prosecution circulated copies of excerpts of his diaries—called the “Black Diaries”—among a group of English and American journalists. These diaries contained accounts of Casement’s homosexual activities, and the rumors of their existence were sufficient to quiet public objections to his trial. Though the prosecution nowhere mentions the diaries by name, the specter of their presence is visible throughout the trial. In prosecutor Lord Birkenhead’s opening statements, he described Casement’s attempt to persuade Irish soldiers as an “overt act” and a seduction:

The treason which is charged against the prisoner is the treason which consists of adherence to the King’s enemies in the enemy country, and in relation to that treason evidence will be given to you of many overt acts; of the attempt to seduce, and in some cases the actual seduction of His Majesty’s soldiers from loyal allegiance to His Majesty.[10]

This sexualization of Casement’s strictly political affair is repeated in the prosecution’s closing remarks:

We are now in a position to connect this landing [of a German vessel on the shores of Ireland] quite simply, quite clearly, and quite inevitably with the acts of seduction and the treasonous plans which were outlined in Germany.[11]

Later in the trial, Birkenhead alluded to the diary found upon Casement at the time of his arrest, which contained entries referring to his treasonous activities, merely as “a diary found.” Though not referenced by name, jurors would have immediately associated this phrase with Casement’s Black Diaries. As the poet and novelist Alfred Noyes said, “the misunderstanding was deliberately contrived, with a most cunning and elaborate misuse of associated ideas, for the benefit of the jury and of the public who had already heard rumours of the ‘ diary found.’

[12] The prosecution’s deft manipulation of a homophobic jury—and, by extension, a homophobic country—meant that the initial furor and outrage over Casement’s situation quickly died down once knowledge of his diaries was leaked to the public. This lack of public support resulted in Casement’s hanging for treason in 1916. Both of these trials increased the social stigma against homosexuality, in the process making life more dangerous for practicing homosexuals in England.

Whether it was because class prejudice protected officers from greater persecution, because they were afforded greater privacy in which to conduct their affairs, or because they actually participated in fewer homosexual liaisons than lower ranking enlisted men, only twenty-two officers were court-martialed for homosexual activity during the First World War, compared to 270 soldiers. This relatively small number is no doubt due, in part, to the severe punishments prescribed for those convicted of homosexual activity. The Manual of Military Law contains the following passage in its chapter “Acts of Indecency:

“It is a misdemeanour punishable with two years’ imprisonment for any male person, either in public or in private, to commit or be a party to the commission of any act of gross indecency with another male person, or to attempt to procure the commission by any male person of any such act; and it is also a misdemeanour to do any grossly indecent act in a public place in the presence of more persons than one, or to publicly expose the person, or exhibit any disgusting object.[13]

The punishment for sodomy was even more extreme; it received a minimum sentence of ten years and a maximum sentence of life. An officer who committed either of these crimes

Brooke Hausman
Army Men
plastic army men

Tyler Robbins
composite photo

  [p. 47]   Page Imagewould be discharged from the army before being sentenced.

Germany had a similarly restrictive policy. Paragraph 175 of the German penal code states that “sodomy, when it is perpetrated by persons of the male sex or by people with animals, is to be punished by imprisonment; and can be recognized with justification for the loss of civil rights.”[14] About 500 men were imprisoned each year for homosexual activity. While in most cases the charges were dropped, the defendant nevertheless had to deal with the attendant loss of social position, including, often, the loss of his job. As in England, German military law forbade homosexual acts:

According to the official standpoint of the German military authorities on this subject, whenever, during the war, cases of homosexual constitution and practice would be discovered, there would have to be military punishment meted out. In most cases they concerned officers who were immediately sent home and placed before the military court; whereas non-commissioned officers and common soldiers usually got off with some slight disciplinary penalty like a fortnight’s arrest—this owing to the chronic scarcity of cannon fodder in the German army. If the suspected officer was not able to dispel every bit of doubt, he was certain to be discharged, even if the military court found him not guilty . . . As far as the judgments of the military court are concerned, when there was no evidence that coitus had taken place but only that the constitution of the officer had expressed itself in kissing and being tender to his subordinates, the penalty was a humiliating prison sentence.[15]


The prejudice these men encountered is further demonstrated by the fact that former officers who had previously been discharged on the grounds of homosexuality were sometimes permitted to return to the army, but only “as volunteers without any rank or title; occasionally they became substitute officers, but they could never hope for promotion.”[16]

Medical Responses to Homosexuality

Sex researchers in England and Germany such as Havelock Ellis and Magnus Hirschfeld were at the forefront of the homosexual rights movements in their respective countries. At the time of the publication of Ellis’s book Sexual Inversion, one of the foremost psychological journals, The Lancet, refused to print a review of the book, stating that:

[t]he author’s view happens to be that sexual inversion is far more prevalent than we believe it to be and that the legislature does injustice to many by regarding as crimes the practices with which it is bound up. He has failed to convince us on these points; and his historical references and the ‘ human documents’ with which he has been furnished will, we think, fail equally to convince medical men that homo-sexuality is anything else than an acquired and depraved manifestation of the sexual passion.[17]

Rather than seeing homosexuality as “an acquired and depraved manifestation,” Ellis argued that homosexuality was a natural and irreversible sexual inclination. He discussed hypnotism and psychoanalysis as “treatments” for homosexuality, only to dismiss them as useless. Ellis didn’t believe that homosexuality was a disease, and therefore saw no reason why there must be a cure for it. In fact, he felt that “the various disorders often associated with homo- sexuality . . . were more often associated with society’s attitudes than with the sexual orientation itself.”[18] Because of these views, Ellis allied himself with such reformists as John Addington Symonds and Edward Carpenter, both of whom agitated for the decriminalization of homosexuality and the public acceptance of it as a legitimate and innate aspect of human sexual experience. Ellis and Carpenter founded the British Society for the Study of Sex Psychology in 1914. The society combated homophobia through scientific arguments and proclaimed as their goal the eventual legalization of homosexuality.

Similarly, the German sex researcher Magnus Hirschfeld considered homosexuality to be congenital and morally unproblematic; thus, he attempted to reform Paragraph 175 of the German penal code. Prior to the abovementioned Eulenburg Affair, Hirschfield had received considerable support from a relatively large proportion of liberal Germany. After the scandal, however, that support dwindled. Paragraph 175 was still in effect by the time the Nazis came to power. Hirschfield founded the Scientific Humanitarian Committee in order to promote gay liberation and helped to organize the first Congress of the World League for Sexual Reform in 1921. Like Ellis, he dismissed psychoanalytic approaches to dealing with homosexuality. The only “treatment” that he endorsed was his own “adjustment therapy,”   [p. 48]   Page Imagein which the patient was encouraged to accept his or her homosexuality and to find societal love and approval by associating with other homosexuals. Hirschfeld’s views were supported by his extensive research. As one soldier who “asserted that on the basis of his experience in the garrison and elsewhere the extremely common notion that there were two homosexuals to every hundred men was an exaggeration” himself admitted, “his few observations were insignificant by the side of the thousands which Dr. Hirschfeld had investigated.”[19]

In France, the medical climate more closely resembled the nation’s conservative political climate. Doctors and psychologists despaired at the presence of homosexuals who could not do their part to repopulate France. Even more damningly, homosexuals were considered by French medical practitioners to be morally and intellectually immature, and thus incapable of being good soldiers. Following Freud’s logic, male children learned both heterosexuality and male values from their fathers. Gay men, presumably denied this necessary male influence, would never learn what the French psychologist Hesnard called, “those obligations, more or less abstract, that are subsumed under the general heading of Reason: duty to school, to society, to one’s homeland, and to one’s profession.”[20] Trapped in a childish and narcissistic stage of moral development, gay men lacked the patriotism, the moral responsibility, and the impulse for self-sacrifice that supposedly characterized the French soldier’s raison-d’être. Given these prevailing attitudes, it is not surprising that French doctors had strict ideas about treatment for homosexuality: “[the] proposition [that homosexuality was as healthy as heterosexuality] was anathema to doctors like Nazier, Drouin, and Hesnard, who, steeped in the discourse of the medicalization of homosexuality, considered a cure elusive but nonetheless essential.”[21] The various proposed methods of curing homosexuality included hormone therapy, psychoanalysis, and self-censorship. Regardless of how it was dealt with, homosexuality was considered by the French medical practice to be a threat to the national character, most especially in conjunction with the physical threat presented by the war with Germany.

Self-Restraint and Repression in the Trenches

Despite the prurient confessions of various officers who claimed to choose their attendants based on physical beauty, officers engaged in sex mainly with other officers, and enlisted men with other enlisted men. As historian Niall Ferguson says, “in so far as it is possible to generalize, what the men liked in an officer was not his good looks but his willingness to ‘ muck in.’ Positive comments about officers were often prompted by their ‘ digging and filling sand bag[s] . . . like the rest,’ ‘ having guts . . . in a trench,’ or ‘ handl[ing] a spade.'”[22] While it lessened the social gap, familiarity between officers and enlisted men could not dispel this gap entirely. An officer might, by dint of his bravery and willingness to perform hard work, be a “comrade,” but it required a further leap to then make him a sexual prospect. Nor did this socially conscious boundary exist only in one direction; officers were also more likely to form attractions to fellow officers than to the men for whom they cared greatly, but did not desire—at least not enough to risk the consequences of homosexual actions. As one soldier explained,

[t]here was no sexual contact with anybody in the services. The simple reason [for me was], I got promoted to sergeant from corporal. As you’re getting promotions, you couldn’t take no chances. I had several chances, mind you, with two or three different private soldiers I knew. You can gauge ‘ em, but the point is, when you come to look at it you say to yourself—Well, is it mind over matter? You know, you say to yourself, No, I mustn’t. You’re jeopardising your chances, because if something happened you’re going to get a court martial.


Prior to his promotion, this soldier had engaged in sex with other soldiers, but, as he said, “you got no chance for very much. It all had to be done in a moment.” According to this account, he was also one of the few gay men to actually practice homosexuality while in the army. Far more common are accounts emphasizing repression of homosexual desires. One account states that “there were all these men and I saw them bathing and everything, but I was much more mental than sensual, and I think that’s probably why I wasn’t interested.” Another soldier states that “sexuality at the front for me was generally quiescent, except as a casual, self-contained chore.”[23]

It was the rare officer who, like Michael Davidson, felt both “an inveterate ‘motherliness,’ the broody fussiness with which he coddled all [his] boys—plaguing them about warm underclothes or changing their wet socks, and   [p. 49]   Page Imagetrying to ‘feed them up’ after they were already full,” and an explicit sexual attraction to the soldiers under his command. The paternal instinct he felt was shared by scores of young, naive officers who were suddenly responsible for the lives of even younger and more naive boys. As Davidson wrote in his autobiography, “I know that in all my relationships, other than the most casual, I’ve been driven just as much by a passionate protectiveness as by sexual interest,” and in enumerating the men with whom he was most familiar, he includes “the pathetic elderly, homesick for their wives; the youngest and prettiest.”[24] Whatever platonic feelings Davidson had for his men, he was nonetheless aware of his sexual attraction to them. Most other officers were either far less conscious of their homosexual desires or far more successful in repressing them. As historian Florence Tamagne writes, “the psychologist W.H.R. Rivers encountered several cases of officers torn between their sexual desires and a strict notion of duty and of military discipline that obliged them to sublimate their feelings into a more impersonal interest in the well-being of their men.”[25] My translation. Under the influence of the prohibitive military and legal codes, most English soldiers subsumed their sexual desire for each other into an intimate but asexual comradeship.

Among the German soldiers, there appears to have been a much higher incidence of this homoerotic feeling being expressed through actual homosexual acts. According to Hirschfeld,

The assumption that the consciously erotic form of comradeship was not infrequent is the more justified since there are reports of a not inconsiderable number of such cases between soldiers of the same rank as well as between soldiers and officers.[26]

These relationships were even facilitated by the families of northern France, who often sympathized with the pairs of lovers and allowed them to meet at their homes. Both in the frequency of their homosexual expression and in the way that homosexual desire could subvert the military hierarchy, the war experience of gay German men was considerably freer than that of French and English soldiers.


Although various psychologists, including Havelock Ellis, had popularized the belief that homosexual relationships thrived during wartime, in fact there may have been no increase in the number of English or French men having sex with each other, even in the masculine milieu of the Front. This did not prevent the French, English, and German societies and governments from enforcing ever more restrictive policies against homosexuality. In the aftermath of the war, however, a significant number of these men, no longer under the keen eye of the army, found they were able to express the homosexual love and desire they had first encountered in the trenches. In this way they became part of the progressive evolution of the gay rights movement. The German soldiers, who had never been so bound by the military proscriptions of homosexuality, returned to a home less condemnatory but not much more accepting of homosexuality than France or England; the rise of Nazism soon deprived them of those few freedoms and what little hope for a sexual revolution they had previously enjoyed.


[1] The Inverts (the German Vice)

[2] “Do you speak German?”

[3] Marie-Monique Huss, Pronatalism and the popular ideology of the child in wartime France: the evidence of the picture postcard.”The Upheaveal of War: Family, Work and Welfare in Europe, 1914-1918. Ed. Richard Wall and Jay Winters. (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1988), 329.

[4] Marriage at the Front

[5] “You do France a twofold service.” Huss, 343. My translation.

[6] “I’d prefer a boy, that he might become a soldier.” Huss, 343. My translation.

[7] Hugh David, On Queer Street: A Social History of British Homosexuality 1895-1995, (London: HarperCollinsPublishers, 1997), 31-32.

[8] Philip Hoare, Oscar Wilde’s Last Stand: Decadence, Conspiracy, and the Most outrageous Trial of the Century. (New York: Arcade Publishing, 1997), 57-58.

[9] Marilyn Shevin-Coetzee and Frans Coetzee, World War I and European Society: A Sourcebook, (Lexington: D.C. Heath and Company, 1995), 182.

[10] Frederick Birkenhead, The Speeches of Lord Birkenhead, (Toronto: Cassell and Company, Ltd, 1929), 83-84.

[11] Birkenhead, 88.

[12] Brian Inglis, Roger Casement, (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Inc., 1973), 350.

[13] Samuel Hynes, A War Imagined: The First World War and English Culture, (London: The Bodley Head, 1990), 224-225

[14] John C. Fout, “Sexual Politics in Wilhelmine Germany: The Male Gender Crisis, Moral Purity, and Homophobia,” Forbidden History: The State, Society, and the Regulation of Sexuality in Modern Europe, (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1992), 265.

[15] Magnus Hirschfeld, The Sexual History of the World War, (New York: Cadillac Publishing Co., 1941), 136.

[16] Hirschfeld, 131.

[17] “Editorial on the publication of Havelock Ellis’s ‘ Sexual Inversions,'” Sexology Uncensored: The Documents of Sexual Science, Ed. Lucy Bland and Laura Doan, (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1998), 51-52.

[18] Jeffrey Weeks, Coming Out: Homosexual Politics in Britain, from the Nineteenth Century to the Present, (New York: Quartet Books, 1977), 64.

[19] Hirschfeld, 129.

[20] Martha Hanna, “Natalism, Homosexuality, and the Controversy over Corydon”, Homosexuality in Modern France, Ed. Jeffrey Merrick and Bryant T. Ragan, Jr., (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996), 217.

[21] Hanna, 221.

[22] Niall Ferguson, The Pity of War, (New York, Penguin Books, 1998), 349.

[23] David, 60-61.

[24] David, 40, 57.

[25] Florence Tamagne, Histoire de L’Homosexualité en Europe: Berlin, Londres, Paris: 1919-1939, (Paris: Éditions du Seuil, 2000), 37.

[26] Hirschfeld, 135.

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