Venereal disease was a major problem during the First World War. No official figures are available, but at the war’s end the New Zealand Medical Corps and the Health Department suggested 16,000 soldiers had contracted venereal disease during the war. Behind closed doors, higher figures were discussed. In 1917 General George Richardson told the defence minister that about 7,600 New Zealand soldiers were being infected annually. Decisions made during the war would reshape New Zealand’s official response to VD.
VD prevention, 1914–16
In the early years of the war, the army warned soldiers about venereal disease and held regular ‘dangle parades’ to check their genitals for symptoms. Safer-sex measures like the use of condoms were not mentioned, as this was seen as encouraging immorality. From 1916 there were some early-treatment facilities, to which men reported within several hours of intercourse for urethral irrigation with disinfectants.
Battle of the Wazza
The VD rate rose fast after the New Zealand Expeditionary Force arrived in Egypt in December 1914 and soldiers visited prostitutes in Cairo’s brothel district, the Wagh el Birket (known as the Wazza). Before leaving for Gallipoli in April 1915, Australian and New Zealand troops waged ‘the battle of the Wazza’, a riot believed to have been begun by New Zealanders, partly as payback for venereal infection.
VD prevention, 1917–19
The high rate of infection in New Zealand troops persuaded the New Zealand Expeditionary Force to change tack. From late 1917 prophylactic (preventative) kits, devised by Christchurch woman Ettie Rout, were given to men going on leave; they had to take one. New Zealand was the only Allied country to introduce compulsory safe sex kits for its troops. In 1918 Rout organised a brothel for New Zealanders and Australians in Paris, Madame Yvonne’s, where kit use was compulsory.
Social Hygiene Act 1917
The Social Hygiene Act 1917 made it an offence to perform an act likely to infect another person with venereal disease, and made it the responsibility of hospital boards to set up clinics if they were asked to by the minister of health.
Civilian venereal disease
Welfare groups and the Department of Health were increasingly concerned about venereal disease in the civilian population during the First World War. The great loss of life in the war, high rates of maternal mortality, a low birth rate, and the belief that young, single women coming to towns in search of work were at risk of contracting venereal disease provoked fears of racial decline (a falling Pākehā population and loss of European dominance).
A global pandemic of syphilis and gonorrhoea followed the return of troops to their own countries. Venereal disease clinics set up in Auckland, Wellington, Christchurch and Dunedin in 1919 were soon overcrowded.
The horror of a syphilis diagnosis when it was an incurable disease is hard to overestimate. In Robin Hyde’s realistic First World War novel Passport to hell, a soldier catches venereal disease during port leave on the return voyage, and leaps overboard before reaching New Zealand. Some soldiers with a venereal disease deliberately put themselves in the front line during battle.
Commission of enquiry
A 1923 government enquiry into venereal disease put the blame on ‘loose women’, not ex-soldiers. It did not favour publicising safer-sex methods such as condoms or disinfectants. But it led to the Social Hygiene Regulations 1925, which brought in ‘contacts tracing’ to find partners of infected people.
Sulpha drugs and antibiotics
In 1939 sulphapyridine, one of the first antibiotics that treated gonorrhoea, became available in New Zealand. Penicillin was discovered to be a cure for both syphilis and gonorrhoea in 1943, and became widely used after the Second World War.
Second World War
Venereal disease was also a problem in the Second World War. This time there was no moral dilemma for the armed services, which issued prophylactic kits from the start. Although a rise in venereal disease rates was expected, they were at times extraordinarily high. Despite the availability of condoms, New Zealand soldiers based in Italy in 1945 were infected at a rate of 116 men per 1,000.
British Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery complained about the high venereal disease rate in the Second New Zealand Expeditionary Force to General Bernard Freyberg, who commanded the New Zealand forces in the Middle East and Italy. Freyberg is said to have replied, ‘If they can’t fuck, they can’t fight.’1 He presumably meant that if the men did not have enough energy to want sex, they would be no use on the battlefield.
Venereal disease amongst women became a concern during the Second World War, in part because of the presence of tens of thousands of American servicemen in New Zealand. Civilian rates did rise: between 1939 and 1942 the number of women attending venereal disease clinics nearly doubled. Under 1941 regulations, the government employed the first official contact tracers, and people could be compulsorily tested and treated for venereal disease.