|Anti-Prostitution Poster for the AEF|
By Gary Mead
There was a degree of hypocrisy in the way the AEF's top officers handled the alcohol question, just as there was over the issue of sexual relations with French and, later, during the Occupation, German women. The AEF's senior officers paid lip service to concern over the morals of the ordinary soldier, but the provision of YMCA and other voluntary organization entertainments, clubs and shows, along with the establishment of some educational outlets, was made partly with a view to the public image back home, and partly from the belief that the devil finds work for idle hands. . .
As for the type of women who might conceivably have been deemed at the time to be of "bad reputation"—prostitutes—the AEF tried to impose on the rank-and-file soldier impossible standards. The French embraced the inevitable and established a system of licensed brothels behind the front lines: establishments with a blue light over the front door were for officers, those with a red light were for other ranks. The typical charge was 15 francs for 30 minutes, or about $2.85 at the contemporary exchange rate. British troops were perfectly free to visit these establishments until in May 1918 the British War Office ruled them out of bounds. Even then the British authorities preferred to turn a blind eye. For the first four months after arriving in France the Doughboys were not under any formal ban from visiting brothels. This changed once Pershing realized how serious a problem VD was for the British and French, who both lost millions of troops' days each year as a result of sexually communicable diseases. Doughboys were then formally banned, on pain of severe punishment, from visiting brothels.
Venereal diseases were from the first the subject of grave concern to General Pershing, and he took a great and useful interest in their prevention. The problem was aggravated by the fundamental differences of opinion between the French and the Americans as to the best means of prevention and control. The French believed that the legalization and control of prostitution were important and highly desirable, and they acted on that belief. The Americans believed that such measures were pernicious and most undesirable, and they acted on their belief. These contradictory opinions were never brought into accord.
Being barred from bordellos is one thing, abstinence is another. There is no way of quantifying how many Doughboys had sexual relations with prostitutes or those who did not charge for the service, but it is evident from the archives that the typical AEF soldier had a normal inclination to indulge this need whenever possible. Various inter-Allied conferences were held throughout the war on what Pershing euphemistically referred to as "this age-long evil," all failing to persuade the French to close down the licensed brothels. Some AEF chaplains tried to persuade men of the dangers of VD, rather than preach the virtues of prophylaxis: 'We had [a] saying "15 minutes with Venus and 3 years with Mercury." This was prior to the invention of penicillin.
Source: Excerpted from The Doughboys: America and the First World War; Reprinted by permission of the author and publisher.