Friday, May 26, 2017

The Camp Follower

Changing Billets, Picardy by William Orpen

Mademoiselle from Armentieres, Parlez-vous,
Mademoiselle from Armentieres, Parlez-vous,
You didn't have to know her long,
To know the reason men go wrong!
Hinky, dinky, parlez-vous!
            -- verse from one of most popular soldier songs of the war
                (“Mademoiselle from Armentieres” sound link here)

Illustration from Songs My Mother Never Taught Me
Prostitution was viewed as a major military and societal problem during the First World War. Research has found that while “Trench Foot has come to symbolise the squalor of the conflict in the popular imagination, a man was more than five times as likely to end up in hospital suffering from Syphilis or Gonorrhoea.”[i] An estimated 5% of soldiers serving in the British army during the war were infected with a venereal disease, and the infection rate for the Canadian Expeditionary Force was over 28%.[ii]

In his war memoir Goodbye to All That, Robert Graves tells of one young officer’s visit to a brothel in Rouen, commenting “There were no restraints in France; these boys had money to spend and knew that they stood a good chance of being killed within a few weeks anyhow. They did not want to die virgins.”[iii] British cultural historian Dr. Clare Makepeace has researched first-hand British soldiers’ encounters with prostitution and brothels, noting it was a commonplace aspect of the war about which little was written or discussed.[iv] 

Perhaps it is all the more surprising then that in November of 1914 when America’s Poetry magazine published its war poetry issue, Maxwell Bodenheim’s poem “Camp Follower” was selected for inclusion. Bodenheim was an American who seemed to revel in scandal; a biographer has written, “In his lifetime Bodenheim was at least as well known for his drunk and dissolute behavior as for his writing. Today he’s mostly remembered for the tawdry way he died.”[v]

D.H. Lawrence complained to Harriet Monroe, the magazine’s editor, that the poem was “something for the nasty people of this world to batten on,”[vi] but several years later,  J.W. Cunliffe also included “The Camp Follower” in his anthology Poems of the Great War.

The Camp Follower

We spoke, the camp-follower and I.
About us was a cold, pungent odor—
Gun-powder, stale wine, wet earth, and the smell of
            thousands of men.
She said it reminded her of the scent
Mobile brothel used by the Austrian Army.
Sign = Mobile Pleasure House No. 20 for officers only
In the house of prostitutes she had lived in.
About us were soldiers—hordes of scarlet women, stupidly,
            smilingly giving up their bodies
To a putrid-lipped, chuckling lover—Death;
While their mistress in tinsel whipped them on….
She spoke of a woman she had known in Odessa,
Owner of a huge band of girls,
Who had pocketed their earnings for years,
Only to be used, swindled and killed by some nobleman….
She said she thought of this grinning woman
Whenever she saw an officer brought back from battle,
            dead….
And I sat beside her and wondered.
              —Maxwell Bodenheim


The poem opens with what seems to be an intimate conversation between a war prostitute and an observer, but it reveals little about the woman who is euphemistically named in the title, except her bitterness at the ways in which the powerful manipulate others.

Instead, the exchange highlights the vast numbers of those caught up in the war and its effects, from the ripe smell of “thousands of men” to the “huge band of girls” whose bodies are not their own. Boldly, the poem argues that the soldiers and prostitutes share a deep commonality, as it likens the troops to “hordes of scarlet women.” Both men and women are the whores of war; both have “stupidly, smilingly” surrendered their bodies to others’ control. 

The common soldiers are the harlots of Death, a “putrid-lipped, chuckling lover.” Urged on by their “mistress in tinsel” – perhaps a reference to the glittering appeal of state-sponsored war propaganda or the gold decorations of the military hierarchy – the men are goaded into battle.  Drawing a parallel between military officers and the madams who run the brothels, the prostitute displays no grief when both come to bloody ends and are used and swindled by others in their turn.
The narrator of the poem stands apart – neither a soldier nor a prostitute. His only response is to listen and wonder. Written in 1914 by an American, the poem captures the passive stance of the United States as it watched the spectacle of the Great War unfold. 


While “The Camp-Follower” draws a connection between soldiers and prostitutes, in actual practice, the two were treated very differently. Women were criminalized and blamed for the spread of venereal disease and bore the stigma of immorality. In England, the 1916 Defence of the Realm Act made it illegal for a prostitute to approach a man in uniform, and further legislation during the war gave police the right to medically examine suspected prostitutes.[vii]

In Germany, “Any member of the military found to have a venereal disease was required to reveal the identity of any woman who might have transmitted the disease. Any woman accused of having sex with several men within a month – regardless of whether she accepted payment for this—could find herself a ‘registered’ prostitute after two warnings (Usborne, 1988: 392). Here as elsewhere, the blame and punishment fell upon women rather than men.”[viii]

The historical record has preserved few if any first-hand accounts of prostitutes themselves; they are forgotten voices and silent victims of the war who have nearly been erased from memory.

Unknown woman, William Noel Morgan collection


[i]Richard Marshall, “The British Army’s fight against Venereal Disease in the ‘Heroic Age of Prostitution,’” posted on WW1C Continuations and Beginnings, using research from T.J. Mitchell and G.M. Smith, Medical Services: Casualties and Medical Statistics of the Great War (London: HMSO, 1931).
[ii] Richard Marshall (see above) and Zachary Abrams, “Sexing Up Canada’s First World War” posted March 3, 2015 on ActiveHistory.ca, citing research from Tim Cook, Shock Troops:
[iii] Robert Graves, Goodbye to All That (Harmondsworth, England: Penguin, 1975), 195.
[iv] Dr. Clare Makepeace, “WW1 brothels: Why troops ignored calls to resist ‘temptation’,” BBC News Website, 27 February 2014.
[v] John Strausbaugh, “Maxwell Bodenheim,” The Chiseler: Forgotten Authors, Neglected Stars, and Lost Languages Rediscovered.
[vi] Quoted in Ernest W. Tedlock, “A Forgotten War Poem by D.H. Lawrence,” Modern Language Notes, 67.6 (June 1952), 410. 
[vii] Richard Marshall, “The British Army’s fight against Venereal Disease” (see above).
[viii] Susan R. Grayzel, Women and the First World War (New York: Routledge, 2003), 72.

7 comments:

  1. Fascinating to learn that STD's were more common that trench foot. Sad to hear that women were so poorly treated and blamed for the follies of men. Things haven't changed much today when women are subjected to things like campus rapes and are blamed for it.

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  2. The more things change, the more they stay the same? The connections between the First World War and today are surprising and striking.

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  3. Thanks for this really nice article and the blog is too good.


    sadness and reality of war

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    1. Thanks for reading and leaving a comment, Robyn.

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  4. Another terrific poem. I find these really fascinating. I had no idea that venereal disease was such a scourge and don't recall many references to it in the WW1 books I've read. Though I do remember Edith Bagnold, I think, describing a soldier dying from the effects of a venereal disease, and a lack of sympathy she describes on the part of the nurses.

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    1. Thanks VERY much for the Edith Bagnold reference - so many wonderful stories waiting to be found!

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  5. I think, describing a soldier dying from the effects of a venereal disease, and a lack of sympathy she describes on the part of the nurses.
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