5 November 2018
Yesterday, Sunday 4 November, was the poet Wilfred Owen’s centenary; next Sunday (11th) will be Armistice Day and the 100th anniversary of the end of World War One. Hopefully this will be an end to the glorification of sacrifice and militarism which has been going on for the last four years. The commemorations have been a classic example of heterosexual dictatorship, because the whole presentation has been built on brave Tommy at the front, supportive family ‐ wife, kiddies ‐ at home.
There’s been Little mention of the huge increase in promiscuity ‐ the first job of the new Women Police Constables was to police military wives to ensure they were being faithful, and if they were caught with another man, they lost their army allowances. There was no mention of the strikes, the starvation, the desertion, the shooting of soldiers by their comrades, to put them out of their suffering when badly injured. It is all desperately sanitised and airbrushed, from all the horrors of the front which are portrayed.
No mention either of the Queer element. Of the lesbians who drove the ambulances in France, celebrated in Radclyffe Hall’s semi‐autobiographical ‘The Well of Loneliness’; of the relationships between soldiers, which often crossed the ranks, as people clung to each other in hell for comfort, consolation, and a little fun. The army would not have held together without those bonds, homosocial at the least, and quite often homosexual.
It’s quite clear from Siegfried Sassoon’s and Wilfred Owen’s letters that this emotion was what kept them together, and what made Sassoon return to the front even after he’d twice been wounded; he could have pointed to his MC decoration and excused himself. (See Front)
Robert Graves, the third great chronicler of the War from the British side, was bisexual, at least as a young man, as was Rupert Brook that paradigm of gilded youth and lost hopes.
Magnus Herschfeld on the German side collected experiences from members of the German gay rights organisation, the Scientific Humanitarian Committee, and visitors to/clients of his Institute of Sexual Research. In ‘The Sexual History of the Great War’ he chronicles both the heterosexual breaking of moral constraints and the LGBT experience:
The women who went off to the front disguised as men in armies on all sides. England records only one, Flora Sandes, but I’m sure there were more who passed unidentified as such. See Elizabeth Skipton’s great book, Female Tommies.
In Serbia and post‐Tsarist Russia there were women’s battalions which struck fear into the hearts of the men.
The relationships which formed across the ranks, which I included in Somebody’s Bin Usin' That Thing, the anthology show of LGBT life 1870 to 1930, using diaries, newspapers, songs and autobiography from the UK, US, France and Germany.
Despite my very respectable size, I was known as Baby. One day there came an ensign from the cadet corps, Count Lubeck, with whom I immediately fell in love. He returned my love entirely, for he was also an urning.
Soon we became inseparable friends, and the major and other older officers rejoiced at the splendid friendship which had grown up between superior and subordinate, for Karl had been more or less entrusted to my hands.
So Karl and I lived together, and went into service together. When we didn’t go out of an evening, we sat for a long time arm in arm, in close embrace, saying many tender and lovely things to each other. We also engaged in sexual activity, but only rarely and in a thoroughly fine, aesthetic and never punishable form.
The drag balls held at the front behind both British and German lines, which provided a respite from the awful relentless macho militarism all around. Prussian officers went over the top in women’s underwear, the feel of the silk compensating for the heavy, itchy khaki wool of battledress.
Doubtless the homosocial, homoerotic and explicitly homosexual bonds were what held armies together under the appalling stress, as they had held armies together since the Greeks.
Wilfred Owen, icon of the War Experience, died a week before the War ended (on 4 November). He has been largely de‐gayed in the cause of the war industry. There are Owen scholars who still dispute his homosexuality, despite ever‐growing evidence and obvious references in his poetry.
I joined Andrew Lumsden and Stuart Feather, both founding fathers of the Gay Liberation Front in 1970, in a tribute to Wilfred Owen at Shadwell Stairs, the cruising locale of one of his poems. 'Ghosts’ in the poem was a slang term for cruisers at the time.
We read Shadwell Stairs, and Anthem for Doomed Youth. It was dark, and the wind was blowing through the microphone, but here is the commemoration, for what it is worth.
In the first clip Andrew Lumsden explains why what we were doing was important.
Then I read, and Stuart read in the third clip. I was surprised to be so moved by it, with the noise coming out of the Prospect of Whitby pub above us.
But we had a little island of quiet respect in the light of Dan Glass’s i‐phone torch. Dan did the filming.