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Moral indignation is jealousy with a halo.
. – H.G. Wells
Ettie Rout was born in Launceston, Tasmania on February 24, 1877, but was raised in Wellington, New Zealand, from the age of seven. She was a New Zealand social reformer and writer.
In July 1915, during the Gallipoli campaign of the First World War, she set up the New Zealand Volunteer Sisterhood, and invited women between the ages of 30 and 50 to go to Egypt to care for New Zealand soldiers. In spite of government opposition, she sent the first batch of 12 volunteers to Cairo that October. The women worked in the New Zealand YMCA temporary canteen in Cairo’s Esbekia gardens and in hospitals.
She arrived in Egypt early in 1916. When the bulk of the New Zealand Expeditionary Force left for France in April, she remained to care for the men fighting the desert campaign in Sinai and Palestine.
When she discovered the prevalence of sexually transmitted diseases among the soldiers, she approached the spread of venereal disease as a medical problem, not a moral one. She went to London to push the Imperial War Cabinet to provide free and compulsory prophylactic kits for soldiers going on leave. In this era before antibiotics, she insisted on kits containing what were then considered the most effective means of prevention: calomel ointment (containing mercury) or vaseline to be applied before sex, Condy’s crystals (potassium permanganate) an antiseptic solution for bathing or irrigation after sex, and condoms. At that time condoms were either made of thick vulcanised rubber or thin animal membrane.
The army’s strategy up to this point had been trying to impose a drastic treatment within 12-24 hours after having sex – exhorting soldiers to go to a ‘blue light’ centre to be treated with disinfectant forced up the urethra.
The Australians and Canadians introduced the kits first. The New Zealand army followed, in spite of opposition at home, supplying kits by the end of 1917. Before that Ettie sold them at the New Zealand Medical Soldiers Club, which she set up at Hornchurch near the New Zealand Convalescent Hospital, about 20 miles from London. Though she received no official credit for the kit’s development, in the British House of Lords a bishop called her ‘the wickedest woman in Britain.’
In 1918, she went to Paris, and launched a prevention campaign which included inspecting French brothels and rating them for newly-arriving soldiers. Ettie would meet the trains bringing in the troops and hand them kits and cards, advising them of the safe brothel she set up, with daily medical examinations for the working women. She was greatly helped with the brothel project by French venereologist Dr Jean Tissot, who dubbed her “a real guardian angel of the ANZACs.” For her work inspecting brothels in Paris and in the Somme, she was decorated by the French. In 1917 she and several other New Zealand nurses were Mentioned in Despatches by General Sir Archibald Murray.
Ettie Rout with Soldiers in Paris, 1918
Ironically, this made her persona non grata in New Zealand, where she was regarded as such a scandalous figure that publishing her name became subject to a ₤100 fine.
The Women’s Christian Temperance Union issued a press release, published in Ashburton Guardian on March 19, 1918:
The W.C.T.U. Convention passed the following resolution to-day: –
“This Convention of representative women of the W.C.T.U. of the Dominion of New Zealand, expresses its utter abhorrence at the effrontery of Miss Ettie Rout, in implying that the New Zealand boys must be supplied with remedies to make wrong-doing safe, and sin easy. We contend that we send our sons to fight for purity and righteousness, and we utterly discountenance everything that slackens moral fibre and self-control. We place on record our emphatic repudiation of the use of prophylactics and of the woman who advocates them.”
But a New Zealand soldier who had met Rout in Paris told biographer Jane Tolterton: “The Christchurch women wanted her hung, drawn and quartered. All I could think of was the number of New Zealanders she might have saved from trouble.”
She married Fred Hornibrook on May 3, 1920. They had no children, and later separated.
Even after the war was over, her 1922 book, Safe Marriage:A Return to Sanity, a manual of contraception and prophylactics for women, was banned in New Zealand. It was published in Australia, and in Britain, where it became a best-seller. The British Medical Journal tepidly recommended the book for medical men and women, warning that “many readers will disagree with the author’s point of view, and some will feel grave misgivings about the effect of her teaching; but none can doubt the sincerity of her purpose.”
Ettie Rout at her Remington typewriter
Ettie Rout was aware that she was ahead of her time. She knew author H.G. Wells, and they exchanged letters. She wrote to him in 1922 that “It’s a mixed blessing to be born too soon.”
Following her only postwar return to New Zealand in 1936, Ettie Rout, suffering from malaria, died at age 59 from a self-administered overdose of quinine at Rarotonga in the Cook Islands.
From Forgotten Voices of the Somme by historian Joshua Levine:
- Corporal George Ashurst of the 1st Battalion, Lancashire Fusiliers, recalled visiting a French brothel which serviced soldiers behind the front line. ‘We were drinking vin blanc in the estaminet [small café], and it was absolutely crowded,’ he said. ‘There were five women in there, and it was five francs to go up the stairs and into the bedrooms with them. The stairs leading up to bedrooms were full; there was a man on every step, waiting his turn to go in with a woman. I was sat at a table with my friend, Tom, when the padre came in. He dressed us all down. “Have none of you any mothers? Have none of you any sisters?”
- At least one brothel offered an early equivalent of Viagra. Private Fred Dixon of the 10th Battalion, Royal West Surrey Regiment, said: ‘In one estaminet a very kind old French lady was dispensing coffee from a jug and two girls in their late teens were dispensing pills which they assured us would give us additional power in our amorous exploits. Colonel Hayley-Bell was our colonel at the time. . . he was greedy. He took two.’
By WWII, prophylactic kits were issued freely to men going on leave by the New Zealand army, but Ettie Rout’s contribution was largely forgotten until Jane Tolterton’s book, Ettie: A Life of Ettie Rout, was published in 1992.
WWII New Zealand Army Prophylactic Packet
by Robert Graves
And have we done with War at last?
Well, we’ve been lucky devils both,
And there’s no need of pledge or oath
To bind our lovely friendship fast,
By firmer stuff
Close bound enough.
By wire and wood and stake we’re bound,
By Fricourt and by Festubert,
By whipping rain, by the sun’s glare,
By all the misery and loud sound,
By a Spring day,
By Picard clay.
Show me the two so closely bound
As we, by the wet bond of blood,
By friendship, blossoming from mud,
By Death: we faced him, and we found
Beauty in Death,
In dead men breath.
“Two Fusiliers” from Fairies and Fusiliers, by Robert Graves – originally published in 1918 – reissued in 2012
Robert Graves was born in 1895. He was a famous British novelist, poet, critic and classicist. In WWI, he fought at the Battle of the Somme and was so badly wounded he was reported to have died (he lived until 1985). Graves was friends with poet Siegfried Sassoon, who had become a decorated war hero for his bravery on the Western Front. While recovering from a sniper bullet wound, Sassoon wrote an open letter to the war department, published in The Times in 1917, denouncing the conduct of the war: “. . . I believe the war is being deliberately prolonged by those who have the power to end it.” Sassoon expected to be court-martialed, but Graves persuaded the military authorities that his friend was suffering from shell shock.
Hundreds of soldiers came home from World War I without venereal disease because of the crusade of Ettie Rout. The New Zealand wives and mothers were not grateful, expecting their men to maintain a standard of behavior that was unrealistic for many even in peacetime, without understanding the horrors the men faced in that blood-drenched and wasteful war, which settled nothing, and led to the even greater horrors of the Second World War.