It is by no means easy to paint a picture of the private and married lives of Belgian couples during the First World War: the war itself, and the political, economic and social upheavals that it entailed, occupy the centre stage of history. How couples coped with married life is by no means the first issue that springs to mind in connection with the Great War, and there are almost no sources to turn to on the subject. And yet there is a certain interest to be found in addressing what was such a delicate subject at the time, from which much can be learned about the private lives of civilians and about contemporary society, a society built on high moral principles and uncompromising social standards.
The war and enemy occupation would also allow for certain transgressions of social codes and attitudes towards sex that were little spoken of once the war was over, but that did not ultimately succeed in negating the work of the legions of decency. Quite the contrary, in fact; it might even be said that the guardians of morality emerged all the stronger as a result… as did serious concerns as regards the birth rate and sexual hygiene.
Before the war
In the early 20th century, relations between men and women were governed by the strictest of social codes. A woman's role still conformed closely to the traditional image. The patriarchal family model reigned supreme. Prior to marriage, a girl was deemed subject to the authority of her father, with no real power to make her own decisions ; after marriage, that authority transferred to her husband as head of the family, with absolute authority over his wife, an authority that would only grow as the birth of children laid additional educational and moral responsibilities on his shoulders. As far as feelings of love were concerned, we can only quote Antoine Prost: “The role of feelings within a marriage at this period is difficult to define: all we can really say is that social norms did not consider romantic love as either a precondition for marriage or a criterion for its success”. Sexual relations, which were expected to take place only within the bonds of marriage, had but a single, socially proclaimed and assumed purpose: the procreation of children. The important thing was to found a family and to provide an heir, preferably male; any element of pleasure was strictly taboo.
In a pastoral letter on the subject of conjugal duties, published before the war, Cardinal Mercier, Archbishop of Malines, asked couples to put their duty to found a family before all other considerations. He went on to roundly condemn pleasure (which he broadly equated with birth control): “It were better (for your daughters) that they should not marry, rather than be delivered up as innocent victims to libertines who, after a misspent youth, feel a desire to settle down but who, in reality and perhaps unknowingly, seek only to satisfy a need for wellbeing or easy enjoyment.” Abbé Nysens said much the same when addressing newly-weds in 1912: “Childless couples are those most prone to infidelity!" and "All those agents of vice with their perfect timing seek to instil in the minds and hearts of young married couples a fear of children and the love of pleasure". Sternness and sobriety were all that mattered; the obligation to procreate came first, even before the man's satisfaction. There was, naturally, no official recognition of women's pleasure.
At most, the cardinal was willing to admit that when circumstances (medical circumstances included) so dictated, a man should make allowances for a wife's legitimate refusal to submit to her conjugal duties.
Birth control by physical means such as the condom came under fierce attack. Groups such as the Ligue Mariale contre l'Immoralité and the Ligue Nationale pour le Péril Vénérien headed by Professor Bayet were already engaged in a bitter war on the immorality they saw as a threat to society. The early 20th century brought a kind of boom in the medical world, with the discovery of new treatments for venereal diseases, chief amongst them syphilis and gonorrhoea.
In 1889 and 1902, Brussels hosted international conferences on the prophylaxis of venereal diseases, a field in which the Germans were great specialists. Feminists also joined the fray, taking up arms in the war on immorality, venereal diseases and prostitution, all of which they perceived as posing a threat to the physical, social and moral wellbeing of women.
The battle against venereal diseases went hand in hand with the campaign against immorality. Doctors cited social causes for such diseases: an excess of alcohol, over-eating coupled with excessive pleasure (!) during the act itself. Moral laxity was held to blame and moral austerity was very much on the official agenda in the early years of the century, but the coming war would not so much overturn the moral order as provide a pretext for a relative, unspoken and ultimately temporary deviation from that order.
During the war: a lowering of standards
The urgency and hazards of war blurred the limits of morality. For the fighting men, the omnipresence of death awoke in them an overpowering urge to live and to make the most of life. They also came under intense psychological pressure that needed an outlet. This resulted in a degree of tolerance for their (mis)behaviour. A soldier far from home might well, if he were not physically exhausted, be tempted by a sexual experience. Bars peopled by available young women opened up not far from the front lines but the Belgian military authorities, unlike their French, British or German counterparts, did not go so far as to set up their own brothels, no doubt more for reasons of economy than of morality. Little accurate information has survived, and the main post-war interest in the subject came from writers of literature.
Periods of leave offered other opportunities for men and women to meet. Belgian soldiers in Paris might also come into contact with prostitutes or engage in one-night stands. Such encounters offered plenty of scope for a soldier who took no precautions to contract what we now refer to as an STD. Soldiers could also visit a sweetheart, fiancée or wife, if she were not trapped in occupied Belgium. Provisions were made for couples to marry by proxy, so not all marriages were consummated immediately and some, perhaps, never. Exchanges of letters between the "wartime penfriends" (marraines de guerre) and soldiers provided yet another opportunity for men and women to come into contact, and led to any number of short or long-term relationships as well as perfectly respectable marriages.
Since it was impossible to keep tabs on soldiers at all times, the army had perforce to rely on their discipline and bombarded them with lectures on sexual hygiene that had just two main aims: to educate the men, and to terrify them to the point where they would no longer succumb to temptation, or at least as little as possible. It is hard to say whether or not the strategy paid off, but the intent to provide health education was certainly there. More to the point, a soldier away from the front for treatment was one soldier less to face the enemy. There was also an ideological reason behind the lectures: the country needed men of sound health to start or expand their family once they came back from the front. It was a delicate balancing act, between unofficially winking at the soldier "having a good time" and yet warning him of the physical and moral dangers – the danger to the nation, even – of catching a sexually transmitted disease.
Prostitution increased in occupied Belgium, mainly in urban areas and especially in Brussels, a thoroughfare for German soldiers. The occupation authorities kept a watchful eye on those visiting the brothels but did little to deter soldiers from doing so. Some, including Governor Von Bissing himself, considered it a necessary evil to allow soldiers their rest and relaxation after the horrors of combat. As a result, venereal diseases ran rife, despite the inspections carried out by the authorities and the quarantining of infected women.
Since it was impossible to keep tabs on soldiers at all times, the army had perforce to rely on their discipline and bombarded them with lectures on sexual hygiene that had just two main aims: to educate the men, and to terrify them to the point where they would no longer succumb to temptation, or at least as little as possible. It is hard to say whether or not the strategy paid off, but the intent to provide health education was certainly there. More to the point, a soldier away from the front for treatment was one soldier less to face the enemy
Feelings strong enough to endure separation
For couples deeply in love when forcibly separated by the outbreak of war, it was a long wait. Their longing to be reunited is revealed in the letters that somehow got through despite the breakdowns in communication. The letters also give an insight into some couples' feelings for one another. A Belgian prisoner of war held in Germany, for example, kept up an extensive correspondence with his wife, with whom he appeared to be deeply in love, writing:
“I have nothing else to do but to love you and long for you”
For those prisoners writing, often with the greatest difficulty, to their beloved, these letters were a way to put their feelings into words, and we get an inkling of the depth of feeling behind such restrained words as: “I love you madly" or "I miss you terribly”.
The same yearning can be detected in the words of the wife/sweetheart: “Best love and kisses from your adoring wife” .
How couples coped with married life is by no means the first issue that springs to mind in connection with the Great War, and there are almost no sources to turn to on the subject. And yet there is a certain interest to be found in addressing what was such a delicate subject at the time, from which much can be learned about the private lives of civilians and about contemporary society, a society built on high moral principles and uncompromising social standards.
The war over, morality resumes its crusade
Once the war was over, the soldiers returned to their wives, fiancées, or sometimes even the fiancées married hastily during a few days' leave in France or Britain. Little is known about the actual reunions, although we know from their letters that many couples were eagerly awaiting the day. Logically enough, once the lovers were reunited, they no longer needed to write, but it is safe to assume that their reunions were happy and affectionate. While Belgium's birth rate continued to decline, a slight peak was observed in autumn 1919, probably as a result of peace being restored and soldiers coming home. While these reunions may have brought great joy, they might equally have led in the shorter or longer term to tensions, with a discovery of adultery or symptoms of a venereal disease suggesting infidelity on the part of at least one of the partners.
As far as moral values were concerned, the interlude that war had created came to an abrupt end, and there was no significant shift in society's moral stance in the immediate post-war period. The leagues of decency and the pro-family advocates were still very much in evidence, more energetic than ever in their attempts to boost flagging birth rates. It was not so much a question of "repopulating" Belgium, which had suffered far fewer losses than the other belligerent nations, as of simply populating the country.
Any lapses in moral standards that might have occurred during the war years were not mentioned, or mentioned only with the greatest discretion, making it very difficult to study them in any detail. The consequences – moral, social and medical – nevertheless existed and had to be dealt with in the post-war world. Once again, there are few sources available but there appears to be a definite increase in the number of newspaper advertisements offering solutions and remedies for a variety of personal problems (unwanted pregnancies, intimate diseases, etc.). Soldiers – well, at least those who had not been made prisoner – carried a certain aura and no doubt also made the most of their advantage when socialising.
As far as moral values were concerned, the interlude that war had created came to an abrupt end, and there was no significant shift in society's moral stance in the immediate post-war period. The leagues of decency and the pro-family advocates were still very much in evidence, more energetic than ever in their attempts to boost flagging birth rates. It was not so much a question of "repopulating" Belgium, which had suffered far fewer losses than the other belligerent nations, as of simply populating the country
As a kind of conclusion…
Despite the scarcity of sources and the difficulties in comparing them (many of them consisting of private archives), there is still much to be learned about the romantic, love and sex lives of Belgians during the First World War, and the questions raised are as much historical as sociological. Perhaps some personal stories will remain forever secret. Are there private archives still out there, preserving treasures that the historians of tomorrow will rejoice at unearthing? Or is it perhaps better this way? Let us close the bedroom door softly as we tiptoe away...