Venereal Disease in the First World War

Before the men of the Canadian Expeditionary Force had even reached the battlefields of France, their hospitals were already filling up with patients. Many of these men had not been wounded in training accidents however, instead they had contracted some form of Venereal Disease, or VD, as a result of having unprotected sex with local women. The sense of adventure that overwhelmed many of the first overseas volunteers during the First World War often found them on leave in small towns throughout the English countryside where alcohol and women were plentiful, and a lack of available prophylaxis allowed the spread of diseases such as gonorrhea and syphilis to reach epidemic levels.

A great majority of the men of the First Contingent had been born in England, and this return to their homeland meant that they could visit their wives and families on leave. Initially, the men were allowed nightly leave to spend time with family, however many men took advantage of this policy, spending the nights in bars and brothels with local women when their family was nowhere nearby.[1] This marked the beginning of the epidemic of VD and nightly leave was later banned as a result. As VD rates continued to rise amongst the men, officers and chaplains held lectures on the morality of their actions, using terms such as “clean living” and “manly Christianity” in a vain attempt to encourage abstinence.[2] Although these lectures stuck with some, the overwhelming sense of adventure and curiosity resulted in many men continuing to have intercourse with local women and prostitutes. During the four months that the CEF spent at Salisbury Plain, 1,249 men were reported in the medical logs as having some form of VD, and they had not even reached the battlefield yet.[3] By the end of the war, 15.8% of Canadian overseas troops had contracted some form of VD, a number six times higher than that of British forces, but similar to the other Dominions within the empire.[4]

As Canadian troops entered front line fighting for the first time, VD rates decreased in the trenches, but remained high behind the lines. With plenty of spending money and large red-light districts in Paris and other French cities, soldiers from all entente nations would flood army-regulated brothels when on leave. Medical officers would regularly inspect these brothels and prostitutes with sexually transmissible diseases were jailed in hopes of protecting the soldiers.[5] Prostitutes were not the only ones to face punishment for carrying VD however, soldiers were threatened with reduced pay, and notification of their next of kin.[6] Regular inspections were conducted behind the lines that were often embarrassing and undignified. Although pay was rarely reduced, the practice of notifying the next of kin had some negative impacts. In 1916, the practice was discontinued following the suicide of an officer after finding out his wife had been notified.[7]

Treatment for VD was a punishment in its own right. Special hospitals for VD patients were set up and often regarded as deterrent. Patients would be treated with Salvarsan and mercury which offered uncomfortable and sometimes serious side effects such as jaundice and convulsions.[8] Other treatments included irrigation, which was painful and undignified resulting in many men to opt for chemical treatment instead.[9] These long and uncomfortable stays in VD hospitals often averaged between 50 and 60 days, with the majority of patients recovering and returning to the front.[10] After learning of this prolonged stay in hospital, many soldiers would either fake a case of VD, or purposely have intercourse with an infected prostitute in order to get out of frontline service.[11]

Towards the end of the war, many of the allied armies, including the Canadians, began issuing protection for soldiers in order to stop the spread of VD. By 1918, personal prophylaxis were standard issue amongst Canadian troops. As a result, VD rates reached their lowest of the entire war, with 81 cases per 1,000 men.[12] In 1917, the American entry into the war also brought on calls to close regulated brothels in France.[13] Both the British & French authorities refused to give in to the American demands until the movement gained momentum within their own ranks. In 1918, the movement had gained support amongst British civilians and officers. The result was the barring of British troops from entering French brothels.[14] The ban was met with outrage from both British soldiers and French authorities, who had always favoured regulated prostitution. This backlash was not enough however, and the ban remained in effect until the end of the War.

Following the war, soldiers who had contracted some form of VD were still eligible for pensions, however their pensionable disabilities were more often as a result of other wounds suffered service as opposed to VD. Private Albert Cooke spent a month in hospital in 1919 with Gonorrhea, his pension however, was for respiratory issues as a result of gassing in 1917. Similarly, Private Thomas Hannah was hospitalized with Gonorrhea in 1918, and was also granted a pension for respiratory issues as a result of poison gas.

Venereal diseases reached epidemic proportions among Canadian troops during the First World War. A combination of little available protection and an overwhelming sense of adventure amongst the men helped to fuel the spread of diseases such as gonorrhea and syphilis, yet the Canadian Expeditionary Force remained a formidable opponent on the battlefield.



[1] Tim Cook. At the Sharp End (Toronto: Penguin, 2007), 81.

[2] Mark Harrison. “The British Army and the Problem of Venereal Disease in France & Egypt during the First World War,” Medical History 39 (1995), 139.

[3] Cook, At the Sharp End, 81.

[4] Ibid, 82.

[5] Ibid, 388.

[6] Journey Steward & Nancy Wingfield. “Venereal Diseases,” International Encyclopedia of the First World War (2016), 3.

[7] Harrison, “The British Army and the Problem of Venereal Disease,” 140.

[8] Harrison, “The British Army and the Problem of Venereal Disease,” 140.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Steward & Wingfield, “Venereal Diseases,” 4.

[12] Harrison, 148.

[13] Ibid, 143.

[14] Ibid, 146.