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

Thursday, July 19, 2018

Brothels at War

By Tony Langley

Here are two photos taken during the Great War showing brothels for soldiers. Both were taken on the Eastern Front, though of course such activity and establishments were to found in every theater of war.

This is a photo of a mobile brothel as used by the Austrian Army.
The sign designates it as "Mobile Pleasure House Number 20—For Officers Only."

Such photos are, however, not easy to find. Obviously, virtually none were published in the mainstream media—except for one example here in which the photo editor must have been extremely naive or having a private joke. Most photos of brothels, sex workers, and the like were published in the postwar period in various pacifist, anti-militarist books edited by the German activist Ernst Friedrich (1894–1967). Krieg dem Kriege  (Make War Against War) was essentially a collection of horrific photos that intended to show the horrors of war to the general public. The images were generally provided by veterans sympathetic to the anti-war cause and were often private souvenir photos taken during the war years. Some were also purloined from military or hospital archives. They showed mass graves, trenches filled with the dead, decomposing bodies on battlefields, horrific wounds, executions and hangings, and also a number of photos of brothels that were set up to cater to the needs of German and Austrian soldiers. By including these photos in a militant anti-war publication, Friedrich meant to show the demoralizing and socially debilitating effect of all aspects of warfare to the general public. 

This photo appeared, by mistake no doubt, in a German family news magazine called Die Woche (The Week). The caption announces the building as a "teahouse" in the Galician city of Lida, whose friendly attendants warmly welcome our soldiers. Upon a second look, there seem to be quite a number of young waitresses for such a rundown-looking establishment. Besides, on the Eastern Front, coffee or tea houses were virtually synonymous with brothels. The photo editor was either quite naive to let this photo appear in a family magazine or else having a private joke. In any case, it is one of the very few photos of a brothel ever to appear in print in the regular media during the war.

There were also several French interwar publications advertised as showing for the first time "Secret Images from the War". Often the imagery was taken from Friedrich's publications, which, as anti-war material, were freely and widely distributed in countless formats and sizes. Oddly enough, though, as if in keeping with the wartime tendency of vilifying the German enemy, no photos of French or other Allied nation brothels or bawdy houses were used. This even though, as everyone knew, prostitution in France (and Belgium) was completely legal and regulated by laws and ordinances.


  1. It must have been difficult to keep the mobile version discreet. It can't have been very sound-proof and the carriage springs must have creaked something awful.

    1. I heard that the springs were regularly greased just for that contingency.

  2. Max Bodenheim's "The Camp Follower" offers another interesting perspective:

    1. Thanks Connie for this thoughtful response, which deepens today's posting.