In late 1914, the powers of Europe, through sheer momentum, brinksmanship gone wrong and bungled foreign policy, marched to war with one another in a series of declarations that would be comic if the resulting history were not so tragic.
Following the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in 1914 by a Serb, Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia. The assassination in itself strikes at a greater twist of history: Archduke Ferdinand was much less bellicose and war-driven than his father (he was actually something of a liberal reformist). Had his father, Francis Joseph I, been shot instead – or died/rescinded power two years earlier than he did – then the history of the world might look remarkably different than today.
In amongst the political machinations of the various European powers that followed, it can be hard to remember the individual element in these wars. This conflict featured the greatest mobilisation of personnel the world had ever seen and amassed the greatest death toll to boot. The majority of people raised in Britain will doubtless have images of trenches, dug-outs and no man’s land imprinted into their mind through history lessons, the likes of Blackadder and dusty museum pieces featuring cross-sections of the trenches which, along with obstructing objects and visual barriers, manage to additionally cut out any element of human suffering.
A glossed-over element for me, however, is the experience of the gay man in this period. Some refused to or found reasons not to fight, though this is not the whole story. However, our investigation involves a little backpedalling. Before I do so, however, I have to apologise twice: once for the very fleeting coverage I can give to the subject matter owing to constraints of space and, connected to this, again for the impersonal way this brief treatment necessitates I portray the very real lives of homosexual men during the period.
Homosexuality in Britain
In 1885, the British penal code was modified to “improve the moral climate of the county”, according to Professor Mort in his book, Dangerous Sexualities. The original idea of the move was do things like elevate the age of consent for women from 13 to 16, though a Liberal MP, Henry Labouchere, added a surprise amendment just before the vote. Labouchere advocated the outlawing of any homosexual contact whatsoever and parliament duly passed the bill into law. Oscar Wilde was found guilty in 1895 using this legislation and imprisoned on the basis of his sexuality. The story would, no less tragically, be repeated later with Alan Turing and countless others.
Obviously, the passing of a law against something does not rid the world of it (though some countries might do well to consider this carefully), though it does give us an insight into the ‘official’ mindset at the outbreak of war in 1914. There was presumably some anxiousness amongst the moralising so-and-sos with the thought of so many men in such close contact for so long in a trench situation. Misinformation aside, 22 officers and 270 enlisted men were court-marshalled for homosexuality during the war; this figure, though no doubt only representing a small sample of the totality of such experience, is remarkably smaller than I might have guessed. However, examination of evidence from the trenches by psychologists and historians turn up far more evidence for homoerotic feeling than intent or action and seems to suggest that homosexual inclination was widely repressed. A key factor here might well be time and availability of privacy – the trenches were hardly designed to allow men to have time to themselves and relied on close communication for effective operation. In such an environment, therefore, there might simply not have been much chance. The implications for the numbers, however, are unclear – too many variables mean that any speculation gets us no closer to the truth.
European attitudes to homosexuality
But what were attitudes like towards homosexuality? We have covered the legal position in Britain, though the situation in France was much different. Any laws prohibiting sodomy were repealed in 1791, during the revolution, and so homosexuality was technically legal in France during the war. There are even accounts of French families near the front line taking pity on love-struck British soldiers and offering them a base of operations for their secret rendezvous.
However, this does not mean that the French attitudes towards homosexuality were much better than across the channel. Homosexuality was viewed as inherently immoral and un-French – the practice of homosexuality was actually seen synonymously with Germanness in both France and Britain. Soliciting French men during the war would be known to ask other men “Parlez-vous Allemand? [Do you speak German?]”. Because of this, homosexuality in France was largely seen as akin to treason. There are suggestions that this might partly be the reasoning, too for some British reserves about homosexuality at the time – as homosexuality does not lead to procreation, it deprived the nation of children with which to defend itself. In this way, too, one might view the chief British sentiment at the time towards homosexuality as a treasonous act, only made more poignant by the very real loss felt by so many families during the war.
The link between homosexuality and Germanness in French and British minds during the early twentieth century is probably in part due to the Eulenberg scandal, where key members of Kaiser Wilhelm’s cabinet and entourage were ‘outed’ between 1907 and 1909. The chief ‘offender’ (and eponymous character) amongst these was Philipp, Prince of Eulenberg-Hertefeld, who managed to cop off with General Kuno vo Moltke. The high-echelon dalliances were the talk of Europe and brought about all sorts of jokes on the continent that the Kaiser’s advisers were all interested in rather more than solely the interests of the fatherland.
Homosexuality in Germany was illegal during this time, and homosexuality in the military was punished with a long prison sentence (compared to the contemporaneous British practice of a flogging). However, despite the harsh consequences for natural feeling, there appears to have been a much higher incidence of German homoeroticism in the trenches being expressed (based solely on private accounts, which is all we really have to measure this sort of thing). It appears that Germans – particularly the officer class – were either more willing to turn a blind eye to homosexual meetings or else were better at evading notice. The sad epilogue to this rise in liberal German sentiment was the rise of extremism back in Germany that would follow the war and end whatever brief freedoms Germans might have enjoyed.
The major problem with all of this information is that we cannot really draw conclusions from it. Owing to the fact that our evidence during this period comes from personal (and therefore private) accounts, we really have no idea how widespread action of homosexuality was during the war. The stories of gay men during this period are much the same as at most points in history – denial, repression and fear – yet tinged with the greater promise of destruction thanks to the ‘great’ war.