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.