# Prostitution and health

Between 1914 in 1918, the health problems amongst civilians were doubtlessly more significant than in peacetime. Famine is certainly the main guilty party. Do the Germans occupying Belgium suffer from the same ills?

Deaths due to accident or illness amongst the battalions are quite rare, and appropriately distributed over the four years of the war. The various illnesses that would affect the occupation forces are distinguished according to the location and the moment. While dysentery is the illness that does the most damage in the early part of the hostilities, typhus takes its place in 1915.

The case of venereal diseases is very interesting: indeed, they are found almost exclusively in the cities, and represent a taboo at the time. In fact, a man whose state of health indicated the presence of a sexually transmissible disease would be sent to the cells…

The men are mistrustful of Belgian barbers who would deliberately try to cut their mustaches

Prevention

The physicians in the battalions, generally two in number, very quickly organise mandatory medical inspections, every week or every two weeks. These serve to examine the health of all of the men, but also their hygiene. It is not rare to see the organisation of targeted medical examinations, such as for the feet or oral health with advice on how to use a toothbrush being given to the men as they leave. Baths are also mandatory, taking place in the city two or three times per week. Also, all men arriving in the battalion, back from the front or the Ersatz (the German army reserve) must undergo a complete examination. Men coming back from the front are generally in better health than the men coming directly from Germany.

Typhus will cause the greatest number of problems. An illness that develops in places where hygiene conditions are deficient, typhus is transmitted to humans by mites, fleas or lice. While this illness ravages the trenches, it is also very present within the Belgian population. For prevention purposes, all battalions receive, with their orders, the list of numbers and street addresses of diagnosed cases amongst civilians. To prevent this illness from spreading throughout the army, multiple means are used. Each house with an identified case is marked with a panel that reads "Vorsicht -TYPHUS- Betreten des Hauses streng untersagt" (Attention, Typhus, entry into the house is strictly prohibited). In the Liège region, just in 1916, more than 200 homes were infected by typhus and quarantined by the German forces. Information leaflets on prevention means are continually distributed to the men. The advice includes, for example, leaving buildings open to the fresh air when the temperature allows it, and regularly washing bed linens. Also, preventive treatments with three injections over three weeks will be administered every 3 to 6 months to all of the men.

Finally, in late 1917, barber services are assigned directly to the various battalions, since "the men are mistrustful of Belgian barbers who would deliberately try to cut their mustaches".

Illnesses and treatments

Dysentery is the first illness to ravage the ranks of the Landsturm. After dozens of hours without stop spent on a train heading to Belgium under the sun in August 1914, tremendous numbers of men arrive at their destination in poor shape. A great many of them must get right back on the train since the illness has weakened them so much. The reaction from the commanders is quite simple: after a week, the decision is made to order beer in order to avoid water, and three weeks later, the epidemic has completely disappeared.

In case a benign illness, patients are directly looked after by the battalion physicians, in the battalion's quarters where rooms have been set aside for this purpose. When the illness is more serious or an epidemic fills the available beds, the patients are then sent to civilian hospitals, transformed into military hospitals for the duration of the hostilities. Finally, if the illness persists or it appears that the patient will never return to the degree of health needed to continue his service, the patient is sent to Germany and transferred to the Ersatz. The Landsturm battalions have quite a high percentage of soldiers returning to the country due to illness. The officers very quickly report on this in their writings / reports, and explain this phenomenon by the already significant number of men arriving ill at the battalion, injured during their youth or affected by a birth-related illness that left them unfit for military service, which is why they are in the Landsturm. One officer estimates that 35% of the men who were armed at the start of the war are in a health condition that prevents them from staying at the front.

At the start of the war, the offices are pleased with the physical condition of their men. Regarding the first exercise marches of some 40 km in the direction of the Dutch border or to the South, they declare: "The attitude of the men is quite appropriate. Despite the demanding march, they display no fatigue. No one had to report to the physician."

When a case of typhus makes a massive appearance in the vicinity of the quarters of the battalions, no effort is spared: all of the buildings are treated from top to bottom, sheets, clothing and other linens are all disinfected. Each man also receives a treatment after a bath and an advanced medical check-up. Contaminated persons are quarantined in military hospitals. The lucky ones are sent to Spa for convalescence.

The other illnesses affecting the men are described very little, most of the time due to ignorance as to what they really are. Other than a few cases of tuberculosis, the officers often describe the illnesses requiring a return to Germany as a blood deficiency or regular poor health.

Finally, to give an idea of the scope of the illnesses, the Würzburg battalion, for example, has an average of 13 men in bed between May and December 1916, with 16 beds being occupied that December. This figure will only increase: in 1917, on average, almost 19 men are ill at the same time. Even in June, with its usually nicer weather, this number climbs into the 20s, which the officer explains as being due to the decrease of food rations. In December, the battalion has no fewer than 34 patients in the hospitals. Starting in that month, in fact, the sources examined here no longer refer to the state of health, but rather the state of illness. Finally, the average will climb to more than 22 ill soldiers within the battalion in 1918. There are various reasons : in their reports, the officers immediately blame the newcomers coming from the reserves, who are in very poor health and immediately put in the hospital. Then, an epidemic of Spanish fever spreads throughout the battalion during the final months of the war. After appearing in June, it was thought to have disappeared at the end of the month, only to return with a vengeance in September, killing several in the battalions. This illness also causes many victims within the civilian population, that initially considers it to be just a simple flu.

The opening of bawdy houses is encouraged in order to improve control

Deaths

A battalion has 1000 men, and despite their age, already advanced in most of the cases, and considering the exercises demanded of them, there are fairly few deaths amongst to the Landsturm during the occupation years. In the Erlangen battalion, which primarily patrols Liège, there are between four and seven deaths per year, most often caused by devastating health problems such as cardiac arrests, or accidents, one involving a locomotive and one the collapse of a watchtower, or finally suicide, which is in the minority.

In all, the Würzburg battalion will lose 29 men. Most of them are buried directly in the military cemetery in Belgium, while only two are returned to Würzburg. Illness is the cause of 14 deaths. The exact reasons are somewhat vague, we note 2 cases of blood poisoning, two heart attacks and one death for each of the illnesses of dysentery, tuberculosis, pleurisy and typhus. Finally, one man dies of stomach problems. Five men will lose their lives on the eve of the armistice as a result of the Spanish fever epidemic that rages in September and October 1918.

Accidental deaths in general do not result from gunfire. Of the eight accidental deaths, four result from drowning, two are caused by an impact from a moving train, one by electrocution during a round along the electrified barrier at the border, and only one will be shot by a comrade during the Christmas 1916 celebrations. Inversely, suicides are almost always carried out using the service weapon, sometimes hanging. However briefly, the sources mention a few elements relating to the suicide victim, i.e. the man's personality or the possible reasons for this action. There are four suicides over the years of the occupation. In an attempt to combat these actions, the German government circulates a memo in February 1916, in which it calls on the men not to remain alone with their doubts, but to turn to the officers for advice or assistance. In practice, the battalion commander keeps his door open every day from 11 AM to 12:30 PM. The legal officer is also available to the men to provide legal advice regarding the family or a business. Finally, the two physicians are ready to answer questions relative to the health of the men or their families.

Over 4 years, there is a fourfold increase in the number of prostitutes in Brussels

Venereal diseases and prostitution

Venereal diseases constitute a separate case. Indeed, fearing that such ills would weaken the German army, the authorities take radical measures in order to combat this scourge. The measures are partly preventive, and partly repressive.

Prevention targets the prostitute as the main vector for the illness within the battalions, but also the customer. All prostitutes are required to attend a regular medical check-up in order to obtain a working permit, which the customer must ask to see. The opening of bawdy houses is encouraged in order to improve control, and there is an attempt to quarantine the infected girls until the illness disappears. Brochures and manuals are distributed to the soldiers, with information posters in the urinals. Starting in 1917, sanitary cubicles are installed and the soldiers attend lectures on this subject. While there are no exact figures regarding prostitution in Belgium (supposedly in frightening proportions), we note that in 4 years, the number of prostitutes quadruples in Brussels. Nevertheless, it is true that Brussels is a gathering point for the troops before heading off to the front or on leave for the men coming from the front, more so than elsewhere in the country. Regarding the origins of these "new" prostitutes, it is noted that they include "a good number of married women and among the latter, quite a few wives of soldiers". The most common reason given is misery, due to the war and lack of work.

Treated separately from others, syphilis patients are not kept in the same hospital wings as other patients, but rather are treated along the same lines as the patients suffering from scabies, which is very contagious. When a battalion returns to the city after some time on the periphery, for example at the border, the physician gives a reminder of the dangers of venereal diseases and of the resulting penalties.

The repressive aspect applies both to the streetwalkers and to the Landsturm troops. Army patrols, but also by the vice service, performs rounds in the hotels, cafés, drinking holes and train stations near the quarters of the battalions in an effort to arrest unlicensed prostitutes who are not being inspected. The problem is not really the action itself, but the illness that can follow. As such, Governor von Bissing, considered too lax in this regard, answers "[...] the officers from the front very quickly get over the very burdensome physical and psychological experiences [...] by taking advantage of the amusements available in Brussels, a reduction of which would be harmful rather than positive".

The measures applicable to soldiers are explained in detail in an order distributed to all battalions on 5 December 1914. In the five previous days, 28 cases of illness were detected, all resulting from engaging prostitutes. None of the patients could give the location or name of the "Mädchen" ("young lady"). Faced with the risk of propagation of such illnesses, the men visiting prostitutes are required to report the name and residence of the latter so that they can be attended by a physician. Refusal and hesitation are seriously punished. Also, the cafés in which prostitutes can be found are closed and every soldier therein is imprisoned. Despite it all, a minority cannot or chooses not to, out of embarrassment or for personal reasons, provide the physicians with the required information.

The measures applicable to soldiers are explained in detail in an order distributed to all battalions on 5 December 1914. In the five previous days, 28 cases of illness were detected, all resulting from engaging prostitutes. None of the patients could give the location or name of the "Mädchen" ("young lady"). Faced with the risk of propagation of such illnesses, the men visiting prostitutes are required to report the name and residence of the latter so that they can be attended by a physician. Refusal and hesitation are seriously punished. Also, the cafés in which prostitutes can be found are closed and every soldier therein is imprisoned. Despite it all, a minority cannot or chooses not to, out of embarrassment or for personal reasons, provide the physicians with the required information.

In the Landsturm battalions, the number of venereal disease patients remains quite low. In the Erlangen battalion, for example, there were only 13 cases in 1917, representing only 1.4% of the personnel (eight cases of gonorrhoea, four of syphilis and one of chancroid). The officer explains that the reason is doubtlessly that most of the men have long been married. He also mentions the dissuasive effects of the repression.

This percentage changes according to the battalion's quarters. The Würzburg battalion, for example, stationed for a large part of 1916 along the Dutch border in a region that has been emptied of its inhabitants, only has eight cases of venereal diseases in the entire year. Once posted closer to a large city, this figure climbs to 24 in 1917, with 15 cases in the last four months (with nine cases just in November), and 29 in 1918 including 80% in the last five months of the war.

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