Archives: The Problem Of VD WW1

Innocent men in trenches cold and wet fighting for freedom, women working in factories manufacturing to protect their innocent boys, these images of the First World War leave little room in the British popular memory for sex and the serious problem of venereal disease (VD) during 1914-1918. However it was a serious problem by 1918, some 60,000 British and colonial troops were receiving treatment for VD. [1] It is no wonder then that tucked in the archive is a reference to VD, during an Education Committee meeting at Woolwich Polytechnic on 15th March 1916 the following was noted in the minutes:

 ‘A Letter dated 14th March 1916, was read from the medical Office of Health (Dr Sidney Davies) asking for the use of a room for a course of four lectures on behalf of the National Council for the combating of venereal disease.’

Every solider heading off to war left with Kitchener’s message in his pocket, stating that they would find ‘temptation in both wine and women’ and that they needed to ‘entirely resist both’[2]. This however was not enough to prevent the spread of VD. It was however not the men who were thought to spread the disease but ‘illicit’ women who lured ‘innocent’ young men with their ‘loose’ ways. Cleaning campaigns were started and in 1916 there was a Royal Commission on Venereal Disease, along with lectures like that held requested to be held at Woolwich Polytechnic, however this was not enough and finally the Defence of the Realm Act was passed to tackle the problem of these women and VD.

Despite these government policies and public awareness of the problem, the committee’s response to the request is not surprising:

 ‘That the use of a room in the polytechnic be granted, providing that no other accommodation can be obtained, and on condition there be no public announcement of the lectures’

The matter of VD was a controversial one which many did not want to discuss, from the above statement it is clear that the polytechnic wished to prevent its reputation as an upstanding institution from being tarnished.

There were many successive amendments to the Defence of the Realm act, however the problem of VD was never really solved. This is obvious with the start of the Second World War, when once again the problem arose. The difference being this time a more public propaganda campaign was started to target VD.

[1] George Robb, British Culture and the First World War, (Palgrave Macmillan, 2002), p.54

[2] Susan R. Grayzel, Women and the First World War, (Pearson Education Ltd, 2002), p.70

Explore Your Archive

Join us in celebrating National Archives Week from 8th to 14th November with a bespoke ‘Explore Your Archives’ poster for your office or notice board.

Available in all sizes from A5 to AO with an historic image remembering your location or department from the past 124 years. Example below:

explore-your-archives- east galleryContact for a poster or more information.

What will you say ARCHI’VE EXPLORED?