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Sexuality And The Role Of LGBTQ Armed Forces In WW1

lesbian gay bisexual transgender

GRAPHIC CONTENT: Please note that this article contains adult themes and descriptions of a sexual nature unsuitable for children


The stereotypical image of war is of societies reduced to their binary extremes – men as virile, handsome, masculine fighters and women as their doting, dutiful waiting wives.

But this being the end LGBTQ month, Forces Network has chosen to take a special look at those who bucked the trend.

It was, after all, “the ghastly violence and horrible human toll of World War I”, as Laurie Marhoefer points out in ‘The Conversation’, that spawned our modern gay rights movement.

Trans rights also became something to fight for, at least for one early pioneer, the German-Jewish sexologist and doctor Magnus Hirschfeld. The group he founded, the Scientific Humanitarian Committee, is recognised as being the world’s first LGBT rights group.

And his 1930 book, ‘The Sexual History of the World War’, certainly adds a whole different dimension to our understanding of the conflict.

For those who may go on to pick up and have a read for themselves, it’s worth bearing in mind that the language is, quite naturally, reflective of prejudices held at the time – for instance, things considered a part of an equal and diverse society today are frequently referred to as ‘perversions’, and variations thereof.

The narrative structure is also a bit disorienting, because although Hirschfeld is attributed as the author, it’s clear from the way it’s written – in a third person that frequently quotes Hirschfeld as well as other ‘sexperts’, and other eyewitnesses – that the book was produced by those at the centre he founded.

The centre’s role as aggregator for all things Great War and sex-related is evident in this quote, which also illustrates how men who had been heterosexual in peacetime were coping with the conditions of trench life:

"A former French lieutenant has told us (that one) day, as he was inspecting the dugouts, he came to a dimly lit corner where a tremendous crowd of poilus (French infantrymen) and a mysterious fluid caused him to stop at the threshold to see what was going on. Unseen he observed that they were standing around a young private... who was reciting something with the greatest elan (arduous spirit) and the most impressive vividness. The Parisian was describing his bridal night in the gayest colors, accompanying his story with appropriate movements of hand, body and head, and the most ludicrous tones, even to the imitation of a woman's voice. The excitation into which he had gotten himself was communicated to his comrades. 'As far as I could make out in the darkness, they seemed to be drawn closer and closer to him and to hang onto his words. Finally, on tiptoe, I crept nearer. After my eyes had grown accustomed to the semi-darkness, I was able to see clearly the purpose and effect of the vivid recitation of this youth... The delighted and ravished poilus were standing around with unbuttoned trousers..."

Hopefully he did not put his hand in the 'mysterious fluid'.

Crossdressing for theatrical purposes was, of course, a common sort of entertainment and Blackadder fans may recall how this was turned into a sort of trans-themed plotline in one episode to great comedic effect.

Just like the men, women too were forced to improvise when circumstances deprived them of the men they had ordinarily had sexual congress with.

One such case is of women in German-occupied areas who were confined to hospital for extended periods whilst they were treated for STDs (‘venereal diseases’, or VDs.) In these centres, sexual contact with anyone, particularly fighting men, was strictly prohibited.

But that didn’t stop some women finding a substitute once their sexual frustrations had gone on long enough:

“One evening the supervisor saw a blue light gleaming on the second floor. Since any illumination was prohibited, he went upstairs to investigate, and saw the following: In a circle a mob of women all in their night shirts or underthings were huddled. On a chair stood a light which was concealed by a blue paper. Two naked girls, Chapsal and impudent Berte, were dancing an erotic pantomime in the boldest way, Chapsal acting as the man and Berte as the woman. The group hummed a melody and finally broke out into hoarse cries when the two dancers embraced each other. There was kissing and one of the audience put a read paper over the light which threw a lurid reflection on the bare flesh when the real act began with all its wildness. Chapsal’s robust arms worked energetically. Her hair fell upon her athletic shoulders and only her breasts betrayed the fact that she was a woman. Berte had turned her head in my direction. Merriment and mockery laughed out of her eyes and face; but soon passion gripped her and contorted her features and she gave herself completely, without realizing that it was only a woman who was possessing her in complete and glorious fulfilment.”

There were also, of course, those who sought out role-reversing positions not just as a substitute for heterosexual relations but as an expression of who they naturally were. 

There is one reference to male transvestites going to their district commanders dressed as women and offering to serve as nurses or canteen women rather than as soldiers. It is noted that as the war went on and men became scarcer, this offer was likely taken less and less seriously.

There is another instance of a transvestite soldier home on furlough swapping clothes with his sister, who was rather masculine looking and offered to go back in his place. But in the end, she was dissuaded by the prospect of serious punishment.

Though in some cases, women soldiers were encouraged to serve openly in the ranks.

In 1917, the Russian government created ‘The Women’s Battalion of Death’, meant to shame the, by now, reluctant and war-weary men into fighting on.

A quote from the unit’s commander in the excellent series ‘The Great War and the Shaping of the 20th Century’, makes clear how strict the atmosphere was for these women soldiers:

“I marched the recruits to four barber shops where barbers closely cropped one girl’s head after another. Giggling was strictly forbidden. As soon as one of them disobeyed an order, I quickly removed her uniform and let her go.”

Once in the line, the girls soon fulfilled their remit, and led by example:

“The colonel gave the signal, but the men on my right and to the left would not move. We decided to advance into order to shame the men. Some of my girls were killed outright, many were wounded.”

They weren’t all killed in battle. Women’s Battalion members were at the Winter Palace in October 1917, when the Bolsheviks broke in – i.e. during the Russian (communist) Revolution.

Russian Revolution
Winter Palace in Saint Petersburg, seen from above (image: Godot13)

Elsewhere, women had to work harder to get into the ranks. It’s clear from the book that the thinking of the time regarded any woman who wanted to join up as a ‘female transvestite’, social roles being much more confining and prescriptive than they are today.

We of course now know that this was both overly medicalising things – women today, of course, serve in masculine positions in the military and elsewhere whilst also being feminine in other areas of life – and too conservative – because some people dubbed ‘transvestites’ would have actually been transsexuals.

One example of the latter case follows:

“In one of the suburbs of Berlin there was a girl, Erna B, a domestic, who had several times applied to the military authorities with the most passionate and earnest request that she be permitted to join the army. Her first request was made immediately after the outbreak of the war when she was eighteen. Of course, at that time she was refused and was informed that in the German army women were not wanted. When she came of age, she once again applied, both in writing and in person, for permission to join.”

Here it becomes clear that this was about identity for Erna:

“She asserted that ever since her childhood she had always felt and acted like a boy, and that she had always been interested in masculine activities and professions. Because of these assertions the physician of the post where she was applying began to think that this girl might be a case of erroneous sexual determination, one of those remarkably interesting cases which in recent years have occupied the attention of scientists. For this reason she was turned over to the specialist, Dr. Magnus Hirschfeld, with the request that he ascertain whether Erna B. was a case of erroneous sex determination which would warrant legal alteration of her sexual status. As a matter of fact, the examination revealed that the masculine feeling of the young girl was due to her physique and her spiritual life, the masculine male sex characters being so predominant that she could be regarded as belonging to the male sex. On the basis of these results, the Fraulein requested the court at Potsdam to permit her to change her name from Erna to Ernest and also to wear masculine clothing.”

Speaking of ‘The Importance of Being Ernest’, the playwright Oscar Wilde, who of course was prosecuted for his homosexuality, would almost certainly have applauded Hirschfeld’s efforts to also try and improve the perception of gay soldiers (dubbed ‘urnings’):  

“We have already mentioned that the homosexual soldiers were very brave warriors.”

first world war poet
Siegfried Sassoon (picture by George Charles Beresford), or ‘Mad Jack’, was an exemplary soldier as well as being homosexual

British officer Siegfried Sassoon, who was gay, was dubbed ‘Mad Jack’ because of his exceptional gallantry:

“We have now to call attention to the fact that homosexual officers were especially noted for their kindly treatment of the men entrusted to them. Nevertheless the military authorities and the hinterland maintained their antipathy to homosexuals, and, not content with merely eliminating urnings from the army whenever they were detected, they also maintained a very lively propaganda against these unfortunates, evincing a terrifying ignorance of the true nature of the homoerotic constitution. In this propaganda they were abetted by the moral societies who distributed to the soldiers little tracts which branded as more shameful than anything else that (‘shameful act’) which man does… to another.”

Some gay soldiers pushed back, and tried to convince their comrades that homosexuality wasn’t something to be feared or looked down on. One German soldier who won the Iron Cross said:

“I worked very faithfully for the common cause, gave many of our fellows our literature and got them to the point where they were interested in the fact of homosexuality and then answered the questions which their interest would prompt them to ask. I came across some remarkable views and many times I was dismayed at the horrible lies which had been disseminated about us. Stupidity seemed to be celebrating its greatest triumphs in regard to our condition. I am certain that if everyone would do his share in the interests of the whole class of homosexuals and help dispel the legendary lies concerning us, great progress would be made. I will admit, though, that it is somewhat easier for me in as much as I can talk wisely, since I have overcome false modesty and become filled with the consciousness of my destiny. Would that all my colleagues could be freed from their oppressive burden through open and valiant combat!”

It was the infamous ‘Paragraph 175’ that made homosexuality illegal in Germany, and there might be severe punishments for anyone caught engaging in it whilst in the army. One former soldier told Hirschfeld:

“During the winter I was wounded near Bakalarzewo and found myself the youngest officer of the regiment of a reserve battalion at O. Despite my very respectable size I was known as Baby. One day there came an ensign from the cadet corps, Count L. with whom I immediately fell in love. We had known each other slightly from the corps. He returned my love entirely for he, a blond, blue-eyed fresh youth of eighteen, was also an urning. Soon we became inseparable friends and the major and other older officers rejoiced at the splendid relationship which had grown up between superior and subordinate, for Karl had been placed in our company and had been more or less entrusted to my hands. So I took care of his education and soon he received his sword and with it the permission to live outside the garrison, and to stay out after the tattoo whenever he wished it. What was more natural, then, than for him to live at my residence…”

In ‘Fighting Proud’, Stephen Bourne shows that one British gay couple, a World War One and a World War Two veteran, were able to hide their homosexuality within an employer-employee relationship, with one acting as the other’s chauffeur. 

The book also speculates that Britain’s greatest First World War icon, Lord Kitchener, may have been gay, since too never married and had a similarly close relationship with a younger man. The pair died together, along with 735 others, in 1916 when their ship, HMS Hampshire, hit a mine on route to Russia.

first world war
Was Secretary of State for War Lord Kitchener gay? The question is explored on in the book ‘Fighting Proud’ by Stephen Bourne © IWM (Art.IWM PST 0414)

But the German couple, in this case, were not able to keep their love affair secret, and tragic consequences resulted:

“Later on, when they were considering my discharge, they found this fact especially very peculiar and grave. So Karl and I lived together, went into service together, etc. When we didn’t go out for an evening, we dismissed the servants and sat for a long time arm in arm, in close embrace, saying many tender and lovely things to each other, spinning golden for the future and building castles in the air…. Sometimes it was very late when we got to bed. To you, doctor, I can confess that we also engaged in sexual activity, but only rarely and in a thoroughly fine, esthetic, but never punishable, form. For two whole months we enjoyed our love happiness together.”

The two men were eventually discovered in bed together by an officer and broken up, with one of them sent to the front (where he soon died) and the other brought before a court.

Hirschfeld also reports on fears that homosexuals might ‘infect’ others with their ‘perverse inclination’. 

While its true that homosexual activities increased during the war, the obvious explanation that it was down to a lack of women, as opposed to some ludicrous ‘gay epidemic’, is also given:

“In reports there are other examples of pseudo-homosexual actions but… merely as a result of sex hunger. One such case, the account of a homosexual soldier, is published in the report of a Committee. One night when this soldier, had finished his watch at the telephone, one of his comrades came over to him and requested that he have sexual intercourse with him. This soldier, a perfectly heterosexual man, had no suspicion that the other was a homosexual. He would have made the same request of any other comrade who was known or friendly to him. Such homosexual acts of heterosexual men were carried out simply faute de mieux (‘for want of a better alternative’.)”

As one might expect, alcohol use enabled some who might be gay or bisexual to reduce their inhibitions. 

Though, with regards to consent, this wasn’t always a good thing. One lieutenant, “(w)hile very drunk… lured some orderlies into a billiard room and, after putting out the light, had embraced them and made homosexual proposals to them. This man, a former student, had previously been quite heterosexual and had had normal intercourse with women. In his defense, the lieutenant asserted that he was hopelessly drunk and the examination revealed no reason to doubt his contention.”

The prejudice against gay people wasn’t just repressive, it could also have militarily and politically gigantic effects – at least, that was what happened with Alfred Redl:

“The dark side of this picture as far as the Austrian army was concerned was shown to the world when the espionage activities of the Austrian commandant, Redl, were revealed. This Redl, who was constitutionally homosexual, was at the head of the secret service of the Danube monarchy; and he fell a victim to his homosexual love for the Russian military attache at Vienna who utilized this fact by employing the infamous device of blackmail known to have been used against many homosexuals.”

As Luke Harding explains in ‘Collusion’, this kind of blackmail - ‘kompromat’ - has been a favoured tactic within Russian espionage for a long time. The difference back then was that the bar for blackmailing was clearly lower – no need to go to the trouble of getting a pee tape:

“In this way (the Russian attache) compelled Redl to sell to the Russians the plans of the Austrian general staff. All this became known later and was held to be responsible—which was probably not true—for the defeat of the Austrian forces during the first months of their Russian campaign.”

VAD nurse
A memorial to Vera Brittain, whose brother was probably gay – see below (image: Jonathan Hutchins from geograph.org.uk)

The anti-gay official line also led to much self-loathing amongst gay soldiers, who were commonly regarded as being less masculine than heterosexual men:

“’I am speaking of virile homosexuals in front service. In contrast to their heterosexual comrades they suffer from a number of disabilities. Thus we find among them a large number of so-called neuropaths, the labile condition of whose nervous system leaves much to be desired in the way of mental health. Furthermore the majority of them are inferior to the heterosexual fellows in physical capacity, which becomes particularly manifest in the first period of drill. I myself experienced during the first weeks of my training what an enormous amount of will-power was necessary to keep me from failing and breaking down. Then, too, there are the spiritual humiliations which are added to the crop of sorrows when one’s comrades or superiors observe, or even surmise, one’s failing I need not say that the sensibilities of the normal soldier on this point are none too delicate. In view of these facts it seems to me that for the homosexual to survive the period of training is a greater achievement than in the case of this normal brother’.”

I contacted Dr Sarah Johns at the School of Anthropology and Conservation at the University of Kent to find out what the latest scientific data has to say about homosexuality. Specifically, we asked her if the notion that homosexual men are less masculine than heterosexual men has any truth to it.

The answer is not really, although there may be some instances where this applies (which might have been the cases that people in the First World War generation picked up on.)

Essentially, Johns used baldness as a metaphor, because there are multiple causes (heredity, hormonal changes, medical conditions, stress, medications, hair styles, or just shaving one’s head) that all have the same result: hair loss.

It’s almost certainly similar with homosexuality, Johns said, in that multiple genetic and physiological pathways can account for it.

One of these pathways though is hormonal, and evidence for this shows up in what might seem like an unexpected place: your fingers.

Some studies have suggested that the D2 to D4 digit ratio (meaning how your index finger compares to your ring finger) gives some indication of your prenatal hormonal exposure. In other words, the amount of testosterone or oestrogen you were exposed to whilst in your mother’s womb, as far as the theory goes, influenced the relative lengths of your index and ring fingers. Longer index fingers mean more oestrogen and less testosterone, and vice versa for longer ring fingers. 

(This can and does have an influence on the baseline for these hormones throughout your life, though bear in mind that they are also influenced by environmental factors as well as puberty; some people with high oestrogen or testosterone might not show it in their fingers because the burst of hormones they got in adolescence also influenced their baseline as adults.)

Johns indicated that there is good evidence to show that some gay men have higher D2:D4 ratios than heterosexual men (as in, higher prenatal oestrogen exposure), though again, this only applies in some cases – remember that it is only one of the possible pathways the leads to homosexuality.

In case you are tempted to get out your ruler, bear in mind that differences in the measurements can be quite subtle. For example, according to the Wikipedia page on digit ratios, one study by the University of Alberta showed that the average female D2:D4 ratio was 0.97 (meaning that the index finger is 97 percent as long as the ring finger) whereas for men it was 0.95.

My ratio came out to 0.87, which is a significant enough difference to be quite visible, though that too brings up the next important point: diversity matters.

Work by the anthropologist Helen Fisher has resulted in four very distinct, and overlapping, dating personalities that Fisher has tracked in order to better understand romantic compatibility. That’s because hormones don’t just affect us physically but are also powerful neurotransmitters (as in, they influence the way our brains work.) 

January Nelson gives a handy summation of the four main personality types in Thought Catalogue:

Directors – people who are high in testosterone, and who are generally very analytical, detail oriented, self-confident, assertive, emotionally contained and logical; though, on the downside, also “less socially aware, with poorer emotional recognition, less eye contact, (and) less verbal fluency”. Nelson also points out that they tend to be “extremely sensitive to social rank”, though in her book ‘Why Him, Why Her?’, Fisher says this is only true to a point. Beyond that (as in, someone whose brain is wired by even higher testosterone) independence becomes more important than status.

Negotiators – people who are high in oestrogen and oxytocin. They tend to express “agreeableness, cooperation, intuition, empathy and… generosity.” On the one hand, “they have a strong ability to remain mentally flexible”, but on the other hand they “can sometimes be too ambiguous… and may appear wishy-washy…”

Do these descriptions sound familiar? They are the stereotypical neurologically highly masculine male and highly feminine female – stereotypes that can and do apply to some people, but that don’t occur all the time. 

To get more of a sense of the complexity, let’s first look at the other two personality types:

Explorers – people who are high in dopamine, the novelty-seeking hormone. This makes a person more spontaneous, adventurous, energetic and enthusiastic but also more impulsive. Fisher has pointed out that Explorers, on average, make more money than the other types but they also spend (and lose) more (and cheat on their partners more.)

Builders – people who are high in serotonin, which is associated with stability, regularity, caution, self-control and orderliness (among other traits.)

A summation of Helen Fisher’s personality types; Fisher’s work, also featured on BBC’s Horizon, hasn’t yet been rigorously peer reviewed but is grounded in science

Essentially, everybody is some mixture of all four types, which is why, when discussing the similarities and differences between men and women, for instance, both things can be true: men and women have the same hormones but, in aggregate, they have them in different proportions – which is why they are both similar and different.

But the types are also not binary – men can be Negotiators and women can be Directors.

How does all this relate to the military, much less the experience of gay people in the military? 

Well, hormones don’t explain everything about us – there are clearly other important traits, like our susceptibility to neuroticism and our level of agreeableness, or our place on the psychopathy scale, that must be some mixture of genetics and environmental influence and that both overlap with and lie outside of hormone levels. 

But hormones play big role, and the quintessential military personality, according to Fisher’s book ‘Why Him, Why Her?’, is a Director-Builder, someone high in testosterone and serotonin.

This was my result, which also indicated that I was very low on the Negotiator scale, but again, this isn’t binary – I have done the test with several people and a number of my close male friends are Negotiators.

What Fisher has also stressed in her work – and this is a perfect message for our era – is that all four types matter. Even animal personalities can be influenced by these four or five key hormones.

And one can see why. Research suggests our ancestors were often segregated by sex, with men hunting or going to war and women caring for children. It would have made sense to have slightly more logical, task-focused, detail-oriented male directors trying to track down the woolly mammoths, and slightly more nurturing, socially-attuned female negotiators caring for the children.

But if a predatory animal strayed too close, having some higher-testosterone women around would have been advantageous; and having a group of males composed entirely of competitive, rank-obsessed cavemen probably wouldn’t have been best either, if following this theory. Having some men who were more socially adept, who could help improve the intra-group (and, perhaps also, inter-group) dynamics and cohesion must have helped a lot.

(Likewise, people high in serotonin probably helped promote calm, routine stability whereas people high in dopamine were necessary for exploration and new discoveries).

A good friend of mine I met on a training course some years ago was an NCO in the Army, and in retrospect, I think he would have shown high Negotiator traits if he had taken Fisher’s test. It obviously makes sense for the military to have a lot of people who might be Directors, given the nature of the job – but one can see how having some Negotiators around must also help improve inner-unit dynamics.

So basically, in following this theory, this all points to the fact that, in aggregate, some gay men are slightly more likely to be Negotiators (or at least, lower on the Director scale) than their heterosexual peers, and this slight difference may be what was picked up on during the Great War era. But again, it’s only one of the pathways – that means there are and were also high-testosterone (Director) homosexual men and high oestrogen (Negotiator) heterosexual men.

And none of it really matters anyway, because, as noted, everyone can be useful when their talents and traits are properly recognised and utilised. Homosexuality is not some ‘unnatural perversion’, but, Johns points out, very possibly just a set of genes that lead to higher fertility when they show up in women, and a higher chance of homosexuality when they end up in men (because they increase the likelihood of an immune response from the mother to the Y-chromosome in her as-yet-unborn sons.)

Unfortunately, as we know, that wasn’t the prevailing view at the time. And when self-esteem reached its nadir for some gay men in the First World War, the prospect of a heroic death might have seemed like the only way out:

“Among the causes which drive homosexuals to war perhaps the most tragic one is that wish or hope, expressed by more than one of their number, that a bullet might put an end to their life which they regard as being a complete failure from the point of view of the present conditions and notions. Driven by this feeling, any an urning officer exposed himself to the thickest rain of bombs and the most deadly attacks. Only recently a flier whom I had congratulated on his distinctions replied that in truth, his disregard of death was nothing more than disgust with life. Many other homosexuals felt exactly the same way. Here, for example, is the letter of a simple bomber:

“Every evening the boys would go out for some girls. This would probably give them a great deal of pleasure. Many times I was asked why I didn’t go along. I was too embarrassed to give any answer and turning away sought to find some task which I could bury myself in…. It is my greatest wish to get into the field as soon as possible and to meet an honorable death for otherwise I will be compelled later on to make an end of my rotten life due to my homosexual tendencies for which I am not at all responsible. It is better that my mother should be able to say, ‘My Fritz died a heroic death for his fatherland,’ than that people should say, ‘So! A suicide, eh?’”

VAD nurse
The same Vera Brittain memorial as above but from a different angle (image: Brian Deegan, geograph.org.uk)

This, of course, was also a danger on the British side. 

Vera Brittain’s memoir ‘Testament of Youth’ deals with her disenchantment with the war (after her initial patriotism and enthusiasm), brought on by the deaths of her fiancée Roland, her friends Victor and Geoffrey, and her brother Edward.

The latter was killed, gallantly, it was thought, in action in 1918.

But as Bourne shows in ‘Fighting Proud’, in the end, after years of investigation, there turned out to be far more to the story:

“One 12 June 1918, Edward’s commanding officer, Colonel Hudson, had received a communication from the Provost Marshal, the head of the Military Police, informing him that a letter written by one of his officers, while on leave, to another officer in the battalion, had been intercepted and censored at the Base. The contents of this letter made it plain that the two officers were involved in homosexual relations with men in their company. The more senior of the two was Captain Brittain. [Hudson] had a conversation with Edward in which he gave him a warning […] Edward turned white and made no comment. But it was clear he had understood. Edward was the only officer killed on 15 June. After the battle, Hudson had reached the terrible conclusion that, faced in all likelihood with the prospect of a court martial when they came out of the line, imprisonment and the subsequent disgrace that would ensue, Edward had either shot himself or deliberately courted death by presenting himself as an easy target for a sniper’s bullet.”

Because of the subterfuge necessary to being homosexual then, and the more conservative sensibilities of the time, it is difficult to get a detailed account of what life as a homosexual soldier was really like.

But there is an alternative to first-hand testimony: modern historical fiction.

‘The Eye in the Door’ is the second instalment of Pat Barker’s ‘Regeneration’ trilogy, a series of books that centre on the friendship between poets Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Own. They first met while undergoing treatment for PTSD at Craiglockhart war hospital in Scotland.

As well as the fact-based personalities, Barker works in fictional characters such as the young officer Billy Prior.

Held back in Britain for medical reasons, Prior has been seeing a munitionette named Sarah Lund – though, on this occasion, she’s not been receptive to him sexually and the two have parted without having had intercourse.

first world war home front
Women did work in munitions factories during the war, but also within other industries to make up for the dearth of men – here women cut leather for boots © IWM (Q 28640)

Here, Prior, who is bisexual, goes looking for an alternative:

“Back in the park, under the trees, he began to relax. Perhaps it was his own need that coloured his perceptions, but it seemed to him that the park on this spring evening was alive with desire. Silhouetted against the sunset, a soldier and his girl meandered along, leaning against each other so heavily that if either had withdrawn the other would have fallen. It made him think of himself and Sarah on the beach in Scotland, and he turned away sharply. No point thinking about that. It would be six weeks at least before he could hope to see her again…

“He sat on a bench and lit a cigarette, still trying to decide what to do with the stump of his evening. He needed sex, and he needed it badly. Tossing off was no use, because… because it was no use. Prostitutes were out because he didn’t pay. He remembered telling Rivers, who’d been his doctor at Craiglockhart War Hospital, the ‘loony bin’ where he’d spent five months of the previous year, about a brothel in Amiens, how the men, the private soldiers, queued out on to the pavement and were allowed two minutes each. ‘How long do officers get?’ Rivers had asked. ‘I don’t know,’ Prior had said. ‘Longer than that.’ And then, spitting the words. ‘I don’t pay,’ No doubt Rivers had thought it rather silly, a young man’s ridiculous pride in his sexual prowess, his ability to ‘get it’ free. But it was nothing to do with that. Prior didn’t pay because once, some years ago, he had been paid, and he knew exactly how the payer looks to the one he’s paying.”

Then a fellow officer arrives, and the dynamic shifts:

“’Got a light?’

“Automatically, Prior began tapping his pockets. At first he hardly registered the existence of the speaker, except as an unwelcome interruption to his thoughts, but then, as he produced the matches, some unconsciously registered nervousness in the other man’s voice made him look up… (he saw an) officer’s peaked cap, dark eyes, a think moustache defining a full mouth, the face rounded, though not fat. Prior was sure he knew him, though he couldn’t remember where… (after lighting a cigarette, the man) sat further along the bench, looking vaguely around him, the rather prominent Adam’s apple jerking in his throat. He left leg was stretched out awkwardly in front of him, presumably the explanation of the wound stripe on his sleeve.

“Prior could see the problem. This wasn’t exactly the right area (of London), though it bordered upon it, and his own behaviour, though interesting, had not been definitely inviting. He was tempted to tease. Instead he moved closer and said, ‘Have you anywhere to go?’

“’Yes’. The man looked up. ‘It’s not far’.”

world war one tanks
The home front in 1918 - tanks parading in London (image: National Library NZ on The Commons)

The two men escape to a nearby house, where the man struggles with his keys in the door:

“Prior’s companion was having trouble with the lock. ‘Part of the (war) damage’, he said over his shoulder, pulling a face. He jabbed the door with his shoulder, then seized the knob and pulled it towards him. ‘It works if you pull, I keep forgetting that’.

“’Not too often, I hope’, said Prior.

“His companion turned and smiled, and for a moment there was a renewed pull of sexual tension between them. He took off his cap and greatcoat, and held out his hand for Prior’s. ‘The family’s in the country. I’m staying at my club’. He hesitated. ‘I suppose I’d better introduce myself. Charles Manning’.

“’Billy Prior’.

“Covertly, they examined each other. Manning had a very round head, emphasized by thick, sleek dark hair which he wore brushed back with no parting. His eyes were alert. He resembled some kind of animal, Prior thought, an otter perhaps. Manning saw a thin, fair-haired young man, twenty-three or four, with a blunt-nosed, high-cheekboned face and a general air of picking his way delicately through life. Manning pushed open a door on the left, and a breath of dead air came into the hall. ‘Why don’t you go in? I won’t be a minute’.”

Manning gets whisky and they both sit down in the deserted house, removing the protective sheets from the furniture to sit down. It is ghostly and awkward:

“Prior watched Manning carefully, noting the MC ribbon, the wound stripe, the twitches, the signs of tension, the occasional stammer. He was in a state, though it was difficult to tell how much of his nervousness was due to the situation. Which was dragging on a bit. If it went on they’d demolish the whole bloody (whisky) bottle and still be swapping regimental chit-chat at midnight. All very nice, Prior thought, but not what I came for. He noticed that Manning’s eyes, though they roamed all over the place, always returned to the stars on Prior’s sleeve. Well, you knew I was an officer, he said silently.”

Unlike Manning, Prior is working class. He’s also street smart, socially intelligent:

“He was beginning to suspect Manning might be one of those who cannot – simply cannot – let go sexually with a social equal. Prior sighed, and stood up. ‘Do you mind if I take this off?’ he said. ‘I’m quite warm’.

“He wasn’t warm. In fact, to coin a phrase, he was bloody nithered. However. He gook off his tie, tunic and shirt, and three them over the back of a chair. Manning said nothing, simply watched. Prior ran his fingers through his cropped hair till it stood up in spikes, lit a cigarette, rolled it in a particular way along his bottom lip, and smiled. He’d transformed himself into the sort of working-class boy Manning would think it was all right to fuck. A sort of seminal spittoon. And it worked. Manning’s eyes grew dark as his pupils flared. Bending over him, Prior put his hand between his legs, thinking he’d probably never felt a spurt of purer class antagonism than he felt at this moment. He roughened his accent. ‘A’ right?’

“’Yes. Let’s go upstairs’.

“Prior followed him. On the first floor a door stood open, leading into a large bedroom with a double bed. Manning pulled the door shut. Prior smiled faintly. ‘E would not take Oi into the bed where ‘e ‘ad deflowered ‘is broide. Instead ‘e went up and up and bloody up. To what were obviously the servants’ quarters. Manning pushed open a door at the end of the corridor, handed Prior the lamp and said, ‘I won’t be a minute’.

“Prior went in. A double bed with a brass bedstead almost filled the tiny room. He sat on the edge and bounced up and down. It was quite possibly the noisiest bed he’d ever encountered. Thank God the house was empty… Two housemaids’ uniforms hung (on the wall), looking almost like the maids themselves, the sleeves and caps had been so neatly arranged… Prior’s mother had started her life in service in just such a house as this. He looked round the room, the freezing little box of a room, with its view of roofs, and, on a sudden impulse, got one of the uniforms out and buried his face in the armpit, inhaling the smell of sweat. This impulse had nothing to do with sex, though it came from a layer of personality every bit as deep. Manning came back into the room just as Prior raised his head. Seeing Prior with the uniform held against him, Manning looked, it had to be said, daunted. Prior smiled, and put the uniform back on the peg.

“Manning set a small jar down on the table by the bed. The click of glass on wood brought them into a closer, tenser relationship than anything they’d so far managed to achieve. Prior finished undressing and lay down on the bed. Manning’s leg was bad. Very bad. Prior leant forward to examine the knee, and for a moment they might have been boys in the playground again, examining each other’s scabs.

“’It looks as if you’re out of it’.

“’Probably. The tendons’ve shortened, you see. They think I’ve got about as much movement as I’m going to get. But then who knows? The way things are going, it anybody out of it?’

“Prior straightened up, and, since he was in the neighbourhood, began to rub his face across the hair in Manning’s groin. Manning’s cock stirred and rose and Prior took it into his mouth, but even then, for a long time, he simply played, flicking his tongue round and round the glistening dome. Manning’s thighs tautened. After a while his hand came up and caressed Prior’s cropped hair, his thumb massaging the nape of his neck. Prior raised his head and saw that Manning looked nervous, rightly, since in this situation it was a gesture of tenderness that would precipitate violence, if anything did. And Manning was in no state to cope with that. He went back to his sucking, clasping Manning’s buttocks in his two hands and moving his mouth rapidly up and down the shaft. Manning pushed him gently away and got into bed. They lay stretched out for a moment side by side. Prior rolled on to his elbow and started to stroke Manning’s chest, belly and thighs. He was thinking how impossible it is to sum up sex in terms of  who stuffs what into where. This movement of his hand had in it lust; resenting, of Manning’s use of the room among other things; sympathy, for the wound; envy, because Manning was honourably out it… And a growing awareness that while he had been looking at Manning, Manning had also been looking at him. Prior’s expression hardened. He thought, Well, at least I don’t twitch as much as you do. The stroking hand stopped at Manning’s waist, and he tried to turn him over, but Manning resisted. ‘No’, he said. ‘Like this’.

“Athletic sod. Prior unscrewed the jar, greased his cock with a mixture of Vaseline and spit, and wiped the residue on Manning’s arse. He guided Manning’s legs up his chest, being exceedingly careful not to jerk the knee. He was too eager, and the position was hopeless for control, he was fighting himself before he’d got an inch in, and then Manning yelped and tried to pull away.”

This being the days before ‘no means no’, Prior continues to interpret non-verbal cues and trusts his instincts; as opposed to stopping and checking with, or suggesting to, Manning that proceeding with dominating him in this way will be hot for both of them:

“Prior started to withdraw, then suddenly realized that Manning needed to be hurt. ‘Keep still’, he said, and went on f***ing. It was a dangerous game. Prior was capable of real sadism, and knew it, and the knee was only an inch or so away from his hand. He came quickly, with deep shuddering groans, a feeling of being pulled out of himself that started in his throat. Carefully, he lowered Manning’s legs and s****d him off. He was so primed he was clutching Prior’s head and gasping almost before he’d started. ‘I needed that’, he said, when it was over. ‘I needed a good f***ing’.

“You all do, Prior thought.”

The post-sex talk gets onto the difficulties, legally, of being gay during the period. In the first book of the series, ‘Regeneration’, we learn that Prior feels like he is a failure for having broken down and required psychological treatment. As the men connect over their various war injuries, it’s quite plain that Prior still has a complex about his PTSD, or ‘neurasthenia’.

Pat Barker’s ‘Regeneration’ reimagined for the stage

“’Where’d you get it?’ Prior asked, nodding at the wound.


“’Oh, yes. Your lot were in the assault on the ridge?’

“’That’s right’…

“Prior said, ‘I’ve just had a (medical) Board (review)’. He didn’t want to talk about his condition, but he was incapable of leaving the subject alone. Manning’s silence on the subject, when a question would have been so much more natural, had begun to irritate him.

“’What did they say?’ Manning asked.

“’They haven’t said anything yet. I’m supposed to be Permanent Home Service, but with things the way they are…’

“Manning hesitated, then asked, ‘It is neurasthenia, isn’t it?’

“No, Prior wanted to say, it’s raging homicidal mania, with a particular predilection for dismembering toffee-nosed gits with wonky knees. ‘No, it’s asthma’, he said. ‘I was neurasthenic, but then I had two asthmatic attacks in the hospital, so that confused things a bit’…

“’Are you still on sick leave?’ Manning asked, after a pause.

“’No, I’m at the Ministry of Munitions. In the…’ He looked at Manning. ‘And that’s where I’ve seen you. I knew I had’.

“’Manning smiled, but he was very obviously not pleased. ‘Just as well I didn’t call myself ‘Smith’. I thought about it’.”

The two men get onto how it is that Manning has ended up seeing the same psychiatric doctor as Prior, Dr. William Rivers:

“’…I… er… I was picked up by the police. About two months ago. Not quite caught in the act, but… The young man disappeared as soon as we got to the police station. Anyway’.

“’What happened?’

“’Oh, we all sat around. Nobody did anything unpleasant. I sent for my solicitor, and eventually he arrived, and they let me go. Wound helped. Medal helped’. He looked directly at Prior. ‘Connections helped. You mustn’t despise me too easily, you know. I’m not a fool. And then I went home and waited. My solicitor seemed to think if it went to court I’d get two years, but they probably wouldn’t give me hard labour because of the leg’…

“They lay and looked at each other. Manning said, ‘You were going to say which part of the ministry—’

“’Yes, so I was. Intelligence… And you?’

“’I’m on the fifth floor’.

“Evidently the location was the answer. Manning turned and threw his arm across Prior’s chest. ‘Do you fancy a bit of turn and turn about? Or don’t you do that?’

“Prior smiled. ‘I do anything’.”

Thanks to Sarah Johns at the School of Anthropology and Conservation at the University of Kent for assistance with this article.

To find out more, read ‘The Sexual History of the World War’ by Magnus Hirschfeld, ‘Fighting Proud’ by Stephen Bourne and ‘The Eye in the Door’ by Pat Barker.

To find out more about Helen Fisher, visit her page and take her personality test, or read her book ‘Why Him, Why Her?’

For more on Russian espionage, past and present, read Luke Harding’s ‘Collusion’.

Cover image: The Cenotaph in Whitehall by Carcharoth

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