Conduct Prejudicial to Good Military Order

The first casualties of the Gallipoli campaign occurred several months before the landing at ANZAC Cove. The arrival of 20,000 Australian soldiers in Cairo in the weeks prior to Christmas 1914 attracted a swarm of those keen to exploit this as a money-making opportunity.

Historian Dr. Peter Stanley quotes a widely accepted figure of 3,000 licensed prostitutes in Cairo alone; with the certainty that there were many more unlicensed sex workers in and around the city, one estimate puts the number of women in Cairo involved in this trade at 30,000.

 A makeshift collection of bars, brothels and thieves’ markets proliferated near the Australian encampment at Mena. The district known as “Wazza” became ungovernable with both local authorities and military provosts unable to exercise any real control.

The Australians were a particular attraction. Dubbed “6 bob-a-day tourists” they were paid four times the amount received by the British Tommy. With little to spend their money on and unable to return home on leave, many spent their pay on sex and grog, much to the despair of their commanding officers. The presence of military police, particularly the British, only encouraged the Australians to greater ill-discipline, further frustrating the British and to a lesser extent their own MPs.

The spread of venereal disease amongst the Australian soldiers soon became such a serious problem that it threatened the efficiency of units and reduced the number of men available to carry out orders. The incidence of men being absent without leave also increased. The response of the Australian High Command was to send the men further into the desert and increase the level of physical training in the hope that this would make them too tired to cause trouble.

Educating the men as to the likely effects of syphilis on their health had little impact on the number of cases reported. Even knowledge of the gruesome methods then available to treat venereal disease did not dissuade some. Prior to the discovery of penicillin, mercury was injected into the urethra, while more severe cases required amputation.

VD Clinics were set up in the No. 2 Australian General Hospital in Cairo to treat men who presented with venereal disease. The Army regarded this as a self-inflicted injury and so deducted the number of days that the soldier was in the clinic from his overall pay. Since married men had a portion of their pay paid directly to their wives, a prolonged period in the clinic sometimes left their wives and children without money or an explanation as to why they were not paid.

Initially, those with venereal disease were sent back to Australia, deemed as unworthy of being ANZACS. The Australian community regarded VD as a moral failure, rather than a medical fact. Increasing cases and mounting casualties reversed this policy, although the stigma remained. Stanley quotes a Sydney doctor as explaining how he informs the wives of those infected: “If its gonorrhoea, I say it is an infectious disease. If it’s syphilis I say it’s blood poisoning.”

After the war, the ongoing treatment of servicemen infected with venereal disease continued. Inevitably it spread to their wives and partners as well as within the community at large. This meant there was a greater need for medical practitioners specialising in the treatment of venereal disease.

Amongst these was Dr Norman Maxwell Gibson, Registrar at the VD Clinic at the Australian General Hospital in Cairo. Dr Gibson’s service and devotion to duty was recognised with the award of a Distinguished Service Order an OBE and the honorary rank of Lieutenant Colonel. After returning to Australia in September 1919, he became a Macquarie Street specialist and a leading authority on the treatment of venereal diseases. Dr Gibson died in October 1964. He is commemorated on the Concord War Memorial.

– Andrew West


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