An introduction to homosexuality and homoplatonic relationships in the British Army of 1910-1918 | Edward Ashworth

I. Pre-war context

  1. Society

In Edwardian Britain –  unlike many of its European colleagues –  homosexuality was strictly forbidden; even more between men, even more in the Army. Still populated by hardened Regulars, the strict obedience to King’s Regulations would ‘take a hit’ with the arrival of the New Army battalions; then the Territorials; then the conscripts in 1916.

Perhaps because the Wilde trials were still very present in the British public’s mind, laws against homosexuality were severely enforced during this period, more so than  during the interwar period and the Second World War. This led to an unavoidable lack of source material concerning homosexuality during the Great War.

One must keep in mind that the Edwardian era was immensely different in its perception of relationships between men. Despite the laws quoted above, camaraderie and close intimacy between men were, curiously, very much tolerated, and even more between young men and their older counterparts [1]. A look at a few dozens of photographs from the era is enough to point out that positions presented by comrades-in-arms – whether homosexual or heterosexual –  would be considered queer through today’s male gaze. The line between legal male friendship and illegal homosexuality was indeed very thin.

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A group of officers posing outside a French brothel.

  1. The army as centre of homosexual fantasies

Before he enlisted in the Great War as an officer, one of the unashamedly homosexual photographer Montague Glover’s favourite subjects was soldiers. [2] As explained by James Gardiner in his book, the main homosexual fantasy in Edwardian Britain, not much different from today, was of the soldier (especially the ones of the Royal Guard, which would later earn themselves a reputation of being ‘readily available’) and the sailor. Many of Glover’s photographs were taken at the Guards’ Barracks in London and represented soldiers and cavalrymen of the Royal Guard sometimes even in their undergarments. The others were privately taken at his home and represented men he liked in Guard uniforms, supplied by Glover himself.

Gardiner makes a note of how widespread male prostitution was around Wellington Barracks. It was not only a feature of the British army; before and during the war, in both the British and French armies, soldiers on leave (furlough) would earn some extra money on their rather weak pay by offering their services. Not  just the Guards’ barracks were famous among the homosexual community at the time, but officers often took advantage of their position to ‘introduce men from the ranks to prospective clients on a commission basis’.

I suspect this practice would have faded out with the arrival of the war, when men had other things to do than stand guard all day.

II. The Great War

  1. Paternalism

The ‘natural distance’ between officers (at the time, almost exclusively members of the British upper class) and Other Ranks led to the doctrine, mainly enforced since the Victorian era, of ‘paternalism’ [3]. It consisted in a much closer relationship to the men than other armies at the time; what is indeed the relationship of a father to his sons or an elder brother to his younger counterparts. (See  First World War poem ‘In Memoriam’ by Ewart Alan Mackintosh, linked below).

This doctrine would prevent the British Army from starting mutinies such as the Chemin des Dames in the French Army, in 1917. Officers were indeed responsible for the good care of their platoon or company and were even to sign documents certifying that their men were properly clothed and washed.

From paying supplies from their own pocket for their men, closing their eyes on minor offences or saving their lives (and vice-versa), subaltern officers were strongly encouraged to keep a positive relationship with their men. The line of military authority and strong friendship with the men would blur even more with the arrival of New Army and Territorial battalions. Less keen on discipline, –  especially of newly commissioned officers, among which the youngest were 19 –  far less than the men of the platoon they were meant to command, such stringency became difficult to enforce. [4]

Relationships between subalterns and Other Ranks (and especially between the officer and his soldier-servant) would properly be called ‘love’ and a prime example of homoplatonic affection allowed for the reason of social class distance supposedly making homosexuality impossible. Although officers favoured relationships with officers and men with men, this was not always the case.

Former First World War serviceman Thomas McIndoe would recall in 1975, rather amusedly, how an officer exclaimed ‘Oh, what a lovely clean boy!’ after being thoroughly impressed by his shaving done with a brand new razor – quite rare at this time in the trenches –  before asking him to help with his own growing facial hair. [5]

  1. Development of physical intimacy

The First World War changed men’s perception of physical touch and intimacy, and this is particularly visible in period literature. On many pictures, it is possible to see soldiers cuddling up for warmth on firesteps in the hard of winter, officers dining with their men rather in their dugouts, wounds being treated or blankets being pulled up.

Sharing a tent or living near each other in an almost permanent fashion led men to tolerate some things (although more so from married men than single ones) better than before the war. ‘Brook, Jackson and myself all had homosexual tendencies (…) and in the days and nights of stress we masturbated, but kisses on unshaven faces were rare, and then only at moments of acute danger’. [6]

Others momentarily accepted the possibility of comfort, before turning back on it such as Second Lieutenant Yates who denounced his fellow officer, Second Lieutenant Ernest Dunn, for sexual acts they had shared earlier. ‘(…) It is evident that Dunn was quite open about his need for comfort and emotional support due to his continuing fragile mental condition; a need to which his accuser seems to have initially responded positively’ [7].

One thing to be noted is that even heterosexual men could be ‘pushed towards that kind of temptation’ as women in the frontline were rare and the existence of brothels not immediate. Indeed, as Lord Kitchener recommended to resist ‘both temptations’ (wine and women), the British Army had no official brothel. The French would open theirs – some buildings separated between those for men and those for officers that the British soldiers, fearing to die as virgins, would rush to visit – but this would not happen until 1915.

Tommy Keelee (an odd and yet heterosexual fellow, who had spent some time of the war dressing as a woman to play on frontline theatre stages for female company-lacking soldiers who did not quite guess he was a Lance Corporal in disguise) recalls being inappropriately touched by a sergeant with whom he had to share a room: ‘[He] felt the sergeant’s hand wandering near his bottom. He brushed the hand away, but it returned. ‘Don’t you dare!’ said Tommy, but the sergeant did dare, so (…) says Tommy, ‘I really battered his head and face’. (…) ‘But, I was a bit sorry for him afterwards. There was no such thing as real girls around, and anything was good enough.’ [8].

III. Modern perception of the Great War

  1. The War Poets

It must be noted that the modern public views the Great War through historical figures, among which many were homosexual or related to homosexuality in some sort of way.

The most famous of them might be the war poets (Owen, Sassoon, Brooke, Graves and many others). Their relationships and homosexuality shaped their poetry in such a way that it would be unthinkable to deny their nature. Wilfred Owen, Rupert Brooke, Siegfried Sassoon and Robert Graves were all known to have engaged in same-sex affairs in their lifetime ; Charles Sorley and Ivor Gurney are also suspected of having male lovers. [9]

By extension, their poetry and perception of male affection (very present in Owen’s poetry; The Ghost of Shadwell Stair, There was a navy boy, Maundy Thursday, etc.) shaped the general public’s vision of the Great War due to their heavy presence in British secondary education.

They also happen to be the prime example of why there is such a lack of material on First World War homosexuality. After the war, Wilfred Owen’s brother, Harold, burned or censored many letters written by him to which one must add the bag of letters that Owen explicitly asked his mother to burn without reading a single one of them. [10]  Their contents remain unknown.

  1. Other notable figures

Although extremely uncertain, claims have been made that Lord Kitchener, the iconic poster figure of the war, was homosexual. He indeed lived for nine years alongside his companion, Captain Oswald Fitzgerald. Although such claims cannot be confirmed, especially due to Kitchener’s habit of burning his own papers, there was certainly a very intimate relationship between the two of them that, if it cannot be called homosexual, was certainly homoplatonic. [11]

Another famous literary work representing the First World War in the eyes of the general public would be ‘Journey’s End’, by R. C. Sherriff. Himself a First World War officer, he is described as such by one of his biographer : ‘His love life is a total mystery. (…) Most (…) seem to have intuited that he was gay – a likely hunch I’d say’. [11] Another biographer, Roland Wales, adds,  ‘Throughout his entire life there is no evidence of Sherriff entering into any kind of physical relationship with anyone’. [12]

The play describes homosocial relationships between officers at the time. Captain Stanhope, kept under the watch of the older officer Lieutenant Osborne (nicknamed ‘Uncle’) is, during one of his drunken hazes, tucked in bed by him. ‘Kiss me, Uncle,’ he demands. ‘Kiss you be hanged,’ Osborne answers. [13]

Staged by James Whale, a former First World War soldier and a known homosexual Hollywood director, the first film actor for the role of Stanhope would be Colin Clive who had given in to drunkenness due to not coming to terms with his sexual orientation. Whale seems to have seen an interesting parallel between the two men.

Finally, a focus on the famous work ‘Testament of Youth’ by Vera Brittain brings us to an important example that is Edward Brittain, the brother she lost to the war.

An officer in the Sherwood Foresters, he  was given a ‘talk’ by his commanding officer in June 1918, warning him that the army censor had discovered letters from him, sent to another officer, talking about having sexual relationships with Other Ranks in his company. Brittain, afraid of having to face a court-martial for an offence that was more so an offence for corrupting his social inferior than for acts of homosexuality, threw himself into enemy fire the next day to avoid bringing that kind of shame to his family. [14]

After many efforts, Vera Brittain finally came to know the truth about his death, from his commanding officer, which she seems to have staged in her book ‘Honourable Estate’.

As such, it is interesting to see how forbidding homosexuality in the ranks seems to have reinforced that temptation more than anything else. The perception of the First World War by the modern British public is undoubtedly shaped by the life experiences of its main figures, a phenomenon not present in other armies at the time.


Sources:

[1] ‘Fighting Proud’, Stephen Bourne

[2] ‘The Private Pictures of Montague Glover’, James Gardiner

[3] ‘Six Weeks: The Shot and Gallant Life of the British Officer in the First World War’, John Lewis-Stempel

[4] ‘Some Desperate Glory: the diary of a young British officer,’ Edwin Campion Vaughan

[5] ‘Shaving in the Trenches: Washing and Grooming in the Great War’, Alun Withey

[6] ‘The Bells of Hell Go Ting-a-Ling’, Eric Hiscock

[7] ‘Jamaican Volunteers in World War I’, Richard Smith

[8] ‘The Telegraph’, 2013, Joshua Levine

[9] ‘Youth that dying touch my lips to song’: The poetry of men who loved men in the First World War‘, Kevin Childs

[10] ‘Wilfred Owen’, Dominic Hibberd

[11] ‘Journey’s End: The Classic War Play Explored’, Robert Gore-Langton

[12] ‘From Journey’s End to the Dam Busters: The Life of R.C. Sherriff, Playwright of the Trenches’, Roland Wales

[13] ‘Journey’s End‘, R. C. Sherriff

[14] ‘Vera Brittain: a Life’, Mark Bostridge


Edward Ashworth was born in Corsica but gained an interest in British history & culture after teaching himself English.

He has been awarded several prizes by the French Ministry of Education and the French National Veteran Office for his work on the First and Second World War. His additional work in the Wellington Street Review can be found here.


Further Reading:

Santanu Das

Ken Childs

&

Our LGBT History & Literature Archive

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