Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

They Didn't Want to Die Virgins: Sex and Morale in the British Army on the Western Front, 1914–1918
reviewed by James Thomas

They Didn't Want to Die Virgins: Sex and Morale in the British Army on the Western Front, 1914–1918

by Bruce Cherry
Helion and Co., 2016

Illustrations from They Didn't Want to Die Virgins (author's collection)

Describing Victorian soldiers, Rudyard Kipling wrote that "single men in barracks don't grow into plaster saints." The generation of "Tommies" who fought in the Great War, as well as those in all wars before and since, are very much the same. Civilians quite often combine a total ignorance of the life of a soldier with a need to idealize them as their nation's finest young men, flawless and pure. Nature has made most men, especially most young men, very sexually...enthusiastic. Armies around the world have always had their "camp followers" and readily available "bawdy houses." With small professional armies fighting in foreign lands, civilians could remain blissfully ignorant of how men in uniform dealt with their sexual needs and desires. However, the vastness of the First World War expanded all military matters exponentially, including coping with that most basic of human drives.

Giant armies were now made up of more men in uniform than had ever been seen before, slaughtering each other in vast numbers with unprecedented violence, The sheer numbers of young men, combined with a total dearth of young women, and those men living with the near certainty of violent and painful death or injury, intensified their sexual needs. Ironically and sadly, the Great War occurred near the end of the long overly moralistic Victorian Era, when all things sexual were stifled, hidden away, or driven underground. Now the children of the Victorians were thrown into the double dose of unheard-of violence and unspoken sexual impulse. Bruce Cherry's outstanding book They Didn't Want to Die Virgins tells the story of these young men and the British Army's and government's attempts to deal with all things sexual in the war while dealing with civilian pressure for enforced celibacy.

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For the soldiers themselves outlets for sexual energy were sought in all avenues, from increasing availability of pornography and masturbation to friendly French and Belgian women and prostitutes approved and not approved. For the Army the goal was maintenance of morale and avoidance of disease. Seemingly worse than their fear of disease was the Army's concern that if soldiers' "normal" sexual needs were not met, they might turn to each other, and "unnatural" sexual congress between men would most certainly destroy the morale of the Army.

In a war that was grinding away the nation's youth at an alarming rate with shell fire and rifles, it would be unthinkable to lose men to venereal disease or bad morale. For the government it was the struggle between meeting the physical needs of the troops — including their sexual needs — and keeping civilians, whose support was essential for continuing the war effort, from knowing too much about the realities of the war's horrors and the men's sexuality. There were also, of course, the additional problems of coping with Tommy's sexuality by the French Army, French civilians, and the French government, all of whom had to deal with the British soldiers' presence in their country.

For Bruce Cherry, the research necessary to write this book posed more problems than the usual difficulties confronting historians. Even in more modern times, an individual's sexuality is rarely discussed openly. For young men of the Victorian/Edwardian generation, even diary writers were reticent about recording sexual matters. Direct references in official documents are also quite rare. Cherry does a masterful job digging out information, learning from the periphery, analyzing data, and then collating all the material and presenting to the reader a masterful study. It is ironic that while sexuality is such a fundamental part of all humans, talking about it is difficult and trying to examine this largely unspoken topic from the past is even more challenging. In They Didn't Want to Die Virgins Cherry overcomes these challenges and presents to the reader an excellent glimpse into the multifaceted sexual life of Britain's soldiers of the Great War.

James Thomas


  1. This is fascinating since it's a topic so little touched upon. A fine review, too. I wonder how similar things were with the French and American soldiers... DB

  2. A story from WW2. US troops landed in North Africa in late 1942, just as the limited supplies of penicillin became available. The Surgeon General for Operation Torch had to decide whether to allocate it to treat wounded soldiers from the front, or newly arrived GIs who got VD in the brothels of Casablanca. He chose the wounded soldiers. The European Theater Surgeon General overruled him! He said the wounded were not going back to the front any time soon, while the new arrivals were fit but for the VD. Because the US needed soldiers at the front immediately, penicillin was prioritized to treat VD.

  3. My father served in the Navy in the Pacific Theater during WWII. He was at sea from 1941 having been at Pearl Harbor until the middle of 1944 just before the attack on Saipan. His biggest regret was that he was at War and at Sea during his peak sexual years during his early 20's. Imagine thousands of young men in the Pacific taking their sexual frustration out on the enemy.