Outbreak of the war
End of the war

Separation of husbands and wives and sexual mobility in the First World War

One of the products of the First World War was increased mobility. Millions of men were sent to the front and separated from their wives and families, something that had major consequences for partnerships and sexual behaviour.



Although estimates of the number of conscripted (married) men diverge, it is likely that by 1918 some 6.5 million men from Austria-Hungary and 11 million from the German Empire had been sent to war. More than a third were married and thus separated from their families.

This produced a gender imbalance at home, leading to a marked reduction in marriages and births. The separation meant that sexual relations between married couples were interrupted for months or even years. One women from the Allgäu describes in her memoirs how this separation became increasingly accepted as normal during the course of the war:

“We got used to the deprivation. We accepted that the men were away and that the women had to toil and look after the children. We could only write and send packages to our husbands.”

In spite of the separation, it may be assumed that sexual contacts during the war remained frequent, increasingly in extramarital relationships – between soldiers and the female population of the occupied countries, between troops and prostitutes in brothels behind the lines, and between the women at home and foreign workers and prisoners of war. The structural changes resulted in increased sexual mobility, new forms of sexual relations, and changing morality.

One consequence of this was that the state took an increased interest in the sexual behaviour of the troops and the civilian population. Sexuality was already being discussed increasingly in public at the start of the century. The war acted as a catalyst in this regard and led to a greater politicisation of sex. The rapid spread of venereal diseases was a threat to the combat capability of the troops, and methods of preventing them were thus in the national interest. Suggested solutions included the regulation of prostitution, encouragement of abstinence and the use of contraceptives and prophylactic aids. A further problem given the highest priority in all of the belligerent states was increasing the dwindling birth rate as a way of strengthening the nation.


Translation: Nick Somers 




Daniel, Ute: Arbeiterfrauen in der Kriegsgesellschaft. Beruf, Familie und Politik im Ersten Weltkrieg, Göttingen 1989

Daniel, Ute: Frauen, in: Hirschfeld, Gerhard/Krumeich, Gerd/Renz, Irina (Hrsg.): Enzyklopädie Erster Weltkrieg, Paderborn et al. 2009, 116-134

Herzog, Dagmar: Sexuality in Europe. A Twentieth-Century History, Cambridge et al. 2011

Sauerteig, Lutz: Sex, Medicine and Morality during the First World War, in: Cooter, Roger/Harrison, Mark/Sturdy, Steve (Hrsg.): War, Medicine and Modernity, Stroud 1998, 167-188



“We got used to the deprivation ...": Briefauszug vom März 1917: HStA/Kr. I. Bayerisches AK München 1979, quoted from: Daniel, Ute: Arbeiterfrauen in der Kriegsgesellschaft. Beruf, Familie und Politik im Ersten Weltkrieg, Göttingen 1989, 128 (Translation)

Contents related to this chapter


Persons, Objects & Events

  • Object

    Relationships during the war

    The subject of this propaganda postcard of a soldier setting off for war and swearing to be faithful to his loved ones recalls the separation brought about by war. Millions of men were sent to the front and separated from their families and wives. The war marked an important break in many partnerships, families and friendships. The soldiers serving far from home found themselves in a completely new social environment with new superiors and comrades. They made new friendships and entered into new relationships.


  • Development

    Daily life on the (home) front

    How was daily life at home and on the front between 1914 and 1918? Was the life of a middle-class woman similar to that of a worker? Did officers experience warfare in the same way as other ranks? Or were the experiences of the population at home and the soldiers at the front too individual and diverse for generalisations?