Homosexuality and the First World War

Unsurprisingly, little is written about homosexuality in the armed forces during the Great War; it was illegal and those caught were subject to corporal punishment, so there would have been little reason to shout publicly about liaisons. Most evidence is found among diaries and later autobiographies of those who went on to become prominent writers or artists, such as JR Ackerley and EM Forster.

The English situation for gay men had been extremely unpleasant even before the outbreak of war. In the wake of Oscar Wilde’s trial (1895) and the emergence of greater sexual freedom, homosexuality was more openly discussed than in the Victorian era, though just as harshly condemned. When war was declared, the social and political response to homosexuality became even more intolerant.

Purely platonic?

The trenches were an all-male environment and for many provided their first close encounter with homosexuality. A new community where the classes co-operated closely and forged passionate alliances gave some young officers an unexpected glimpse of love amidst the horrors. The men often idolized their public-school officers and in turn the officers grew to love, and to sometimes romanticize, their men.

For the most part, the bonds formed between officers and men, although intense, were paternalistic and platonic. However, for young homosexuals like JR Ackerley, Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon and others, these relationships were tinged with the erotic. Many had their eyes opened by the experience.

The reality of the situation remained stark though: punishment was quickly enforced and reputations were ruined. During the war, 22 British officers and 270 soldiers were court-martialled for homosexual acts. Homosexuality was viewed as a practice that would not be tolerated.

Read more about Surrey LGBT icons and their role in the First World War:
Ethel Smyth, JR Ackerley, Noël Coward and EM Forster

Sources:

  • Chandra Oroszvary, ‘Official responses to homosexuality during World War I’, The Undergraduate Journal of Humanities, Spring 2006
  • Joshua Levine, Forgotten Voices of the Somme, 2014
  • Robb, George, British Culture and the First World War, 2002

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