Some queer goings-on in the trenches

The army was a happy hunting ground for gays during the Great War, writesA D Harvey

In John Buchan's thriller novel Greenmantle, published in 1916, his hero is surprised and a little disgusted by what he sees in the private quarters of his German antagonist, Colonel Stumm:

At first sight you would have said it was a woman's drawing room. But it wasn't. I soon saw the difference. There had never been a woman's hand in that place . . . I began to see the queer other side to my host, that evil side which gossip had spoken of as not unknown in the German army.

It was not exactly unknown in the British army, either. The sexual orientation of the first world war poets Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen, which has subsequently become celebrated, was not public knowledge at the time, but during the war at least 230 soldiers were court-martialled, convicted and sentenced to terms of imprisonment for homosexual offences.

During the same period a number of other military personnel, having been arrested by the ordinary police, were tried and convicted in civilian courts. Lieutenant Wilfrid Marsden of the Royal Flying Corps was sentenced at the Old Bailey to two years' hard labour for "gross indecency" in January 1916. Found among his papers was a letter from a 20-year-old second lieutenant in the King's Royal Rifle Corps, F R West, which was read out in court:

I had unusual luck after I left you. I strolled passed the Union Jack Club but saw only drunkards etc, so rushed with all possible speed to the old beat where I soon picked up a charming girl very fair with blue eyes and slightly wavy hair who was in the Red Cross show, uniform very becoming, stationed at Yarmouth of all places. He was up on four days leave and was perfectly charming and very affectionate. He gave me his photo. His legs my dear, were too wonderful and I am feeling very tired to-day.

This letter was handed over to the military authorities, and West was brought back from France, where he had been serving in the trenches for the previous three months. He was court-martialled and cashiered.

West seems to have wished to re-enlist as a common soldier: his file contains a letter from an officer in the Brigade of Guards to a lieutenant-colonel in the adjutant- general's department, asking: "Are any special steps to be taken in connection with the enlistment of late officers of the 'Dirty Brigade' and the selection of their future regiments?" Another second lieutenant, H C B Runnals, who was court-martialled on two counts of indecency at about the same time and sentenced to a year's hard labour, was by March 1917 serving as a private in the Army Service Corps.

One might have thought that in the middle of a world war the authorities would have had something more important on their minds than the sexual proclivities of the lads in khaki - and indeed, more officers were convicted of indecency with other men in the 18 months following the end of hostilities than during the 52 months of the war itself. (Or perhaps this is an indication that the opportunities for sexual escapades improved once the troops moved out of the trenches and training camps into properly organised cantonments.)

Of the 17 officers court-martialled for indecency between the outbreak of the first world war in August 1914 and 30 September 1918, ten were tried by courts martial held in the UK during the 12 months ending 30 September 1916 - the period in which Britain's volunteer army was undergoing its most rapid expansion.

A number of "temporary gentlemen" appointed to commissions in the New Army turned out to be not quite officer material: almost a fifth of officers court-martialled in the 12-month period in question were charged either with indecency or with scandalous conduct. (Scandalous conduct, when not referring to sexual misdemeanours, usually meant passing dud cheques.)

By no means all these errant officers were boys who had just escaped from their mothers and had misunderstood the standards of behaviour that were expected of those holding the King's commission. At least two of the gays sentenced to hard labour in the spring of 1915 had been regular army officers during the Boer war. Frederic Llewellyn, having served in South Africa in the Imperial Yeomanry, had been commissioned in the North Staffordshire Regiment in 1900, left the army in 1907 or 1908, rejoined in 1914 and by the time of his arrest was second in command of the 8th (Service) Battalion, the Oxford and Buckingham Light Infantry. S G O Rudderborg saw action against the Boers with Brabants Horse, before being commissioned in the King's Dragoon Guards. By 1914, having left the regular army, he was a lieutenant in the Territorials. Alfred C Boyd, who apparently had been too young to serve in the Boer war, became an officer in the Territorials in 1907. Boyd was tried on nine separate counts of indecency, Llewellyn on six; since their trials belong to a series held at the same venue (the Guildhall at Westminster), it seems not unlikely that they were members of an established coterie of officers who had a long experience of exploiting the army as a happy hunting ground.

It may even have occurred to people in the War Office that the cases of Llewellyn and Boyd might be the tip of the iceberg, but no one seems to have stuck his neck out by writing a memo on the subject. There was a war going on, after all - and in any case, it was whispered that the secretary of state for war, Field Marshal Lord Kitchener, was having a love affair with his good-looking military secretary, Lieutenant-Colonel Oswald Fitzgerald.

This article first appeared in the 15 January 1999 issue of the New Statesman, A slight and delicate minister?

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The New Times: Brexit, globalisation, the crisis in Labour and the future of the left

With essays by David Miliband, Paul Mason, John Harris, Lisa Nandy, Vince Cable and more.

Once again the “new times” are associated with the ascendancy of the right. The financial crash of 2007-2008 – and the Great Recession and sovereign debt crises that were a consequence of it – were meant to have marked the end of an era of runaway “turbocapitalism”. It never came close to happening. The crash was a crisis of capitalism but not the crisis of capitalism. As Lenin observed, there is “no such thing as an absolutely hopeless situation” for capitalism, and so we discovered again. Instead, the greatest burden of the period of fiscal retrenchment that followed the crash was carried by the poorest in society, those most directly affected by austerity, and this in turn has contributed to a deepening distrust of elites and a wider crisis of governance.

Where are we now and in which direction are we heading?

Some of the contributors to this special issue believe that we have reached the end of the “neoliberal” era. I am more sceptical. In any event, the end of neoliberalism, however you define it, will not lead to a social-democratic revival: it looks as if, in many Western countries, we are entering an age in which centre-left parties cannot form ruling majorities, having leaked support to nationalists, populists and more radical alternatives.

Certainly the British Labour Party, riven by a war between its parliamentary representatives and much of its membership, is in a critical condition. At the same time, Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership has inspired a remarkable re-engagement with left-wing politics, even as his party slumps in the polls. His own views may seem frozen in time, but hundreds of thousands of people, many of them young graduates, have responded to his anti-austerity rhetoric, his candour and his shambolic, unspun style.

The EU referendum, in which as much as one-third of Labour supporters voted for Brexit, exposed another chasm in Labour – this time between educated metropolitan liberals and the more socially conservative white working class on whose loyalty the party has long depended. This no longer looks like a viable election-winning coalition, especially after the collapse of Labour in Scotland and the concomitant rise of nationalism in England.

In Marxism Today’s “New Times” issue of October 1988, Stuart Hall wrote: “The left seems not just displaced by Thatcherism, but disabled, flattened, becalmed by the very prospect of change; afraid of rooting itself in ‘the new’ and unable to make the leap of imagination required to engage the future.” Something similar could be said of the left today as it confronts Brexit, the disunities within the United Kingdom, and, in Theresa May, a prime minister who has indicated that she might be prepared to break with the orthodoxies of the past three decades.

The Labour leadership contest between Corbyn and Owen Smith was largely an exercise in nostalgia, both candidates seeking to revive policies that defined an era of mass production and working-class solidarity when Labour was strong. On matters such as immigration, digital disruption, the new gig economy or the power of networks, they had little to say. They proposed a politics of opposition – against austerity, against grammar schools. But what were they for? Neither man seemed capable of embracing the “leading edge of change” or of making the imaginative leap necessary to engage the future.

So is there a politics of the left that will allow us to ride with the currents of these turbulent “new times” and thus shape rather than be flattened by them? Over the next 34 pages 18 writers, offering many perspectives, attempt to answer this and related questions as they analyse the forces shaping a world in which power is shifting to the East, wars rage unchecked in the Middle East, refugees drown en masse in the Mediterranean, technology is outstripping our capacity to understand it, and globalisation begins to fragment.

— Jason Cowley, Editor 

Tom Kibasi on what the left fails to see

Philip Collins on why it's time for Labour to end its crisis

John Harris on why Labour is losing its heartland

Lisa Nandy on how Labour has been halted and hollowed out

David Runciman on networks and the digital revolution

John Gray on why the right, not the left, has grasped the new times

Mariana Mazzucato on why it's time for progressives to rethink capitalism

Robert Ford on why the left must reckon with the anger of those left behind

Ros Wynne-Jones on the people who need a Labour government most

Gary Gerstle on Corbyn, Sanders and the populist surge

Nick Pearce on why the left is haunted by the ghosts of the 1930s

Paul Mason on why the left must be ready to cause a commotion

Neal Lawson on what the new, 21st-century left needs now

Charles Leadbeater explains why we are all existentialists now

John Bew mourns the lost left

Marc Stears on why democracy is a long, hard, slow business

Vince Cable on how a financial crisis empowered the right

David Miliband on why the left needs to move forward, not back

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times