The Fair Sex
Extract from The London Gunners come to Town
It was not uncommon for The Gazette to mention that the troops had been entertained by some of the local ladies, but these were quite obviously very proper relationships, with the ladies playing the piano, singing songs, or serving refreshments. The more serious problems associated with having a large number of unattached young men in the town were not considered to be an appropriate subject for publication in a respectable paper.
Of course the soldiers themselves were well aware of what was happening, as the following reminiscence, relating to the Inns of Court Officer Training Corps camp at Berkhamsted, reveals:
Many and fair were the girls of Berkhamsted; but there were not enough to go round. One girl could have, if she desired it, a dozen courtiers; but as one of them expressed it "The Inns of Court Boys were not satisfactory; they were here today and gone tomorrow". She evidently had not the same longing for variety which the "Inns of Court Boys" possessed in such an unnatural degree. Phyllis was one of the prettiest and had the advantage or disadvantage of a London Education. ... She entered into the spirit of the thing and did her best to make as many chaps as possible forget the rigours of war. I myself had the honour and pleasure of her company to the cinema; on the following evening I observed her enter the same place to see the same picture with another fellow. I can well understand that he enjoyed himself without finding it necessary to concentrate all his attention on the movies. Phyllis, as was natural, knew all there was to know about the Corps, its officers, non-coms, and men, and it was terrible to hear the scornful tone in which she would call one of the fellows a "Wash-Out". Not a man of us but would have preferred to be called a War Baby or transferred any day, than be placed in Phyllis’ group of Wash-Outs.
The matter of such liaisons was of much concern to the local Churches. The troops had been in St Albans for little more than a week when Miss Edith S. Jacob, the sister of the Bishop of St Albans, held a rally in the Bishop’s garden at Veralum house. This was attended by 270 girls and young women, to hear about "the responsibilities that rest upon them at this special time to help, and not to hinder, what is good in the soldiers". Mrs Church "spoke in a very direct manner" and "reminded them that some of these men had left young wives at home when they set out on their country’s service. This was an especial reason why girls should be careful in regard to their attitude towards them."
The Berkhamsted Deanery, which stretched from Hemel Hempstead and Bovingdon to Tring and beyond, was also concerned. When the soldiers came to the area Miss Johnstone (the Church’s social worker) and other worried ladies only had to walk about the area in the evening to see the dangers for themselves. A resolution was sent to the Rescue Committee of the National Union of Women Workers supporting the idea of having special women constables to patrol in the neighbourhood of army camps. In Hemel Hempstead girls were encouraged to join a Legion (later League) of Honour, where they pledged "to keep the rules of chastity and purity".
Venereal disease was common, and Mrs Mitchell Innes arranged meetings of the Mothers Union, where information was given on the dangers and symptoms of the disease, as sometimes mothers appeared to be ignorant of their daughters’ condition. Hertfordshire County Council was approached, but they objected to the idea of duly qualified ladies giving short informal talks on the subject of personal health to girls about to leave school.
There was also an increasing number of illegitimate births and a resolution was sent to the Home Office urging that "the State should provide for the illegitimate children of soldiers and sailors, who are unprovided for". While the Home Office did nothing a more direct approach sometimes worked, and in one case a soldier was brought back from the front to marry a young woman, "in great distress and expecting his child", after Miss Johnstone had written to the army colonel of the appropriate regiment. On another occasion Miss Johnstone received a report that a local man was instructing soldiers as to how they could drug girls. The police were informed, and it was suggested that girls living near the camps should be kept under observation. The camps were not the only problem and it was noted that while some kind-hearted women and girls went to the West Herts Hospital to sit on the benches outside and chat to the wounded soldiers, many did not always behave well.