Gas and Gonorrhoea in World War I

Today the biography of another soldier awarded a military medal in World War I has been added to this webpage. Sergeant George Abraham was lucky to survive the war; he was shot, gassed and suffered from Gonorrhoea. His story is featured because, he was gassed by friendly fire and because venereal disease was common but little discussed during or after the war.

Gas was used extensively as a weapon in World War I.  Mustard Gas is well known but other gasses also caused carnage. Phosgene is a colourless gas that smells like freshly cut hay. It is highly toxic and was used by both sides in the War.   Shells containing the gas were fired into enemy trenches, often as a precursor to an attack. The gas would mix with water in the lungs and eyes forming hydrochloric acid. The eyes were burnt as were the lungs. The worst effects occurred several hours after the initial exposure.  It caused fluid on the lung and often an abbess on the lung.  Many soldiers died from the effects of this gas.  The practice of immediately following a gas attach with a troop advance often had dire consequences.  It was thought that gas would provide cover for troops to charge the enemy trenches. A change of wind would see the advancing troops as well as the enemy overcome by the phosgene. Death or a long period of recovery in hospital was the result of such friendly fire.

Over 8% of Australian troops were infected with sexually transmitted diseases during the War. Almost a quarter of them had Syphilis and most of the others, Gonorrhoea.  There were no antibiotics and so Syphilis, especially, was not cured. This disease was commonly treated by mercury injections. Because it abated, symptoms disappeared, often for years. Soldiers were said to be cured and sent back to the front.  After the war soldiers returned home and passed the disease onto their partners. Gonorrhoea had a series of painful treatments including disinfecting the urinary tract with potassium permanganate or scraping out the infection.

Brothels spread venereal diseases. They were common in the towns around the war zone. The French had a policy of legalising brothels and having frequent inspections of the prostitutes who worked there. The British vacillated in their policy towards brothels. For most of the war they abided by the French policy although there were many politicians, defence personnel and churches who strongly opposed them.  When America entered the war her troops were banned from the brothels and could be court marshalled if they frequented them. No matter the policy, they were enormously popular.

There were two types of brothels. Those frequented by officers where more like clubs.  They contained bars, restaurants and nicely appointed bedrooms. The girls were well dressed and attractive. They were advertised with a blue light. Those in the ranks lined up in front of a red light above a doorway.  As the brothel opened the men charged into a room with scantily dressed girls waiting for them. When it was their turn to be entertained they were shown into a small room, often with nothing more than a camp stretcher, a sheet and a blanket.

Many officers thought that the ranks would be more relaxed and ready to fight if they were able to indulge in a little sex. Other authorities believed that married men, who were used to a relationship with their wives, would be happier if a brothel was available. The problem of infidelity did not seem to arise. These same authorities encouraged unmarried men to avoid the brothels as it was argued that they were not used to sex and could therefore do without it.

The troops ignored all advice. Many had a fatalistic view of their future and thought that as much enjoyment as possible should be squeezed into their few days or weeks. Some men even welcomed an infection because that would involve a month or more in hospital; a month or more away from the front.  George Abrahams was infected twice and spent a total of four months in hospital.  All together he probably spent more time in hospital, in training and travelling than he did at the front line.

We can learn so much about World War I from the people who were there.

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