The French Military Recruited Colonial Sex Workers
Paris ran 'mobile field brothels' from World War I to the Vietnam War
The French army procured prostitutes for its troops in the field throughout the 20th century. And it was hardly alone in doing so.
During and prior to World War II, Japan and Germany were infamous for large-scale state-organized military brothels that often included unpaid or captive sex slaves. France’s own program involved less coercion but nonetheless was inextricably intertwined in its colonial exploitation of North Africa and East Asia.
In 1830, France invaded Ottoman-governed Algiers. French soldiers, civil servants, mercenaries and colonists subsequently poured into the North African nation and encountered the nailiyat—the women of the nomadic Ouled-Naïl Berber tribe.
Unlike women in other Muslim tribes, nailiyat were not obliged to shun the company of men outside of marriage, nor wear concealing clothing in public. Mothers would instruct daughters in Bou-Saada-style belly dancing. Starting in their teenage years, some nailiyat would travel to nearby cities, accompanied by female relatives, and perform as belly dancers and escorts.
Adorned with kohl and henna, nailiyat would string the coins they earned into elaborate jewelry.
Though nailiyat could and did engage in sexual relationships as courtesans and escorts, they weren’t obliged to do so and could choose their partners. After accumulating wealth for up to 15 years, the nailiyat would return to their village, purchase a house and considers suitors for a more conventional married life.
To the French colonial government, however, the nailiyat were prostitutes. Nailiyat were required to serve in licensed brothels or to travel to remote military outposts, while paying heavy taxes and license fees. French mercenaries also murdered nailiyat for the jewelry they carried.
Nearly a century later during World War I, France called upon its North African soldiers such as the Moroccan tirailleurs to spill their blood on European battlefields. Military authorities decided they should bring sex workers with them.
Soldiering and prostitution long have mixed. As militaries professionalized and grew more bureaucratic in the 18th and 19th centuries, officers had to devise policies regarding sex workers who historically had accompanied troops on the march. Though reviled as immoral and shameful by society, prostitute remained highly in demand in armies of young, male soldiers.
However, sex—commercial or otherwise—also spread diseases such as syphilis.
Though France didn’t have as strict a “color line” as the United States did, it reportedly did strive to prevent colonial soldiers from mingling with French women. Suppressing outbreaks of syphilis was a more pressing concern, as it put 400,000 French soldiers out of action during the war along with similar numbers in the British and U.S. armies.
The French organized nailiyat into 10-person companies of entertainers to sexually entertain the soldiers, who paid with their own money. Doctors attached to the units treated soldiers infected with sexually-transmitted diseases, then would endeavor to trace it back to specific prostitutes and treat them to prevent spread of infections.
After World War I, documents show the acronym-loving French military formally designated these units BMCs for Bordelles Militaires de Campagne. That is, Military Field Bordellos.
BMCs proliferated across the France’s colonial empire under the theory that they reduced incidence of disease, desertion and even rape of local women—a particular problem during the Italian campaign in World War II.
The French government sold bonds to construct model red-light districts such as the Bousbir in Casablanca and later Buffalo Park in the Chinese Cholon district of Saigon. The Association of Hoteliers in France and the Colonies played an instrumental in organizing the system.
At top — an Algerian dancer. National Geographic photo via Wikipedia. Above — Buffalo Park in Saigon. Jean Lorenzini photo
A French military document from 1939, translated by author, reveals how highly regulated the use of BMC was.
10th Regiment/10th Battalion
After having reached an agreement with the 10th Regiment of Moroccan Tirailleur, the brothel of [REDACTED] shall be at the disposal of [REDACTED] Battalion of the R.T. on Nov. 15 starting at 800 hours.
800 to 930 hours: 6th Company
930 to 1100 hours: 7th Company
1330 to 1500 hours: 5th Company
1500 to 1800 hours: CAB 2
Discipline—Discipline around and inside the brothel will be assured by a military police post the 6th Company will put in place from 745 hours to 1800 hours on Nov. 15. This post will be commanded by adjutant-chief, or an enthusiastic adjutant assisted by another non-commissioned officer, and will include 12 tirailleurs, 50 percent of whom must be European.
Equipment—Helmet, musette bag, water bottle, mask, personal weapon without munitions, coverlets, watch, billy club. Resupply of the post will be at the discretion of the company commander.
The tirailleurs will present themselves in formation. Each platoon will take its turn in a half-hour interval. To facilitate a smooth flow, each platoon will be composed of 30 tirailleurs.
This will be performed in the following fashion:
The first 10 will take their ticket, 12 francs, and begin the operation.
The second 10 will prepare themselves.
The last 10 will remain in reserve in the bar.
Equipment — fez, musette bag containing soap and a towel, mask
Battalion command post
After World War II, the Marthe Richard law banned organized prostitution in France, bringing an end to BMCs in metropolitan France—except for those serving colonial units. In French colonies, BMC activity actually increased as Paris doubled down combating independence wars in Algeria and Vietnam. In the latter conflict, BMCs included both by Algerian and locally recruited Vietnamese women.
Poverty frequently motivated both Algerian and Vietnamese women to seek employment in the BMCs, though some accounts claim Vietnamese women also effectively sold their daughters into servitude.
French authorities did their best to conceal the BMC from U.S. observers, whose support was critical to Paris’s war effort.
“You can just imagine the howl if some blabbermouth comes out with a statement to the effect that American funds are used to maintain bordellos for the French army,” an anonymous French colonel told journalist Bernard Fall.
Fall himself wrote fondly of the BMCs in Street Without Joy, his legendary post-mortem of the French war in Vietnam.
“In Indochina, the BMC’s functioned admirably well, and it made for a pleasant change in the monotony of an army convoy all of a sudden to spot a two-and-a-half-ton truck loaded with the Oulad-Naïl in their gaily colored Algerian garb, shouting jokes at the soldiers. The BMCs would travel with units in the combat zones.”
French troops at Dien Bein Phu. Photo via Wikipedia
An Austrian Jew who had fought the Nazis with the French resistance, Fall had appreciated the BMCs while serving in the Free French Amy’s Moroccan Division. Fall detailed an incident in which a BMC was air-lifted to a two-battalion strong French strongpoint at Lai-Chau, deep inside Viet Minh-controlled territory.
A detached platoon defended an even more remote approach at Tsin-ho, 30 miles away from the airstrip. Lt. Laurent, a Mauritian artillery officer, handpicked two nailiyat from several volunteers to entertain the isolated soldiers despite the likelihood of ambush by Viet Minh forces.
“They left with [a] commando force, equipped in jungle boots and fatigues but with their flowing robes in their knapsacks, and covered the 30 miles in a harrowing 48-hour march,” Fall wrote. “They did indeed fall into an ambush on the return trip-but behaved as coolly under fire as the seasoned troopers they were and returned to Lai-Chau to the cheers of the garrison.”
Laurent wrote citations of the Algerian women for the Croix de Guerre medals but was turned down by French officials in Hanoi, supposedly for political reasons.
Thérèse de Liancourt, another former Resistance fighter who later served as an army nurse, told an interviewer she had a different reaction when she first encountered a BMC.
“One day, I was rotating in the Plain of Jars [in Laos] to transport the wounded back to Saigon. I heard cries, and I saw two young Vietnamese women in a military truck literally screaming their lungs out. Around them, there were lots of men following the truck, laughing.
“A male nurse from the BMC went and took the girls in together, as we couldn’t separate them to give them a shot to calm them down.
“I asked the lads who the girls were. They responded that they were girls of the BMC that had gotten into a fight over clients. I asked why they were so hysterical. The nurse told me a little embarrassedly, ‘You know, there were two regiments that just returned from the field so the girls were very busy.’
“‘One did more than 50 guys and the other at least 60, so you can understand.'”
Scene from film Le Pistonne depicting a BMC in Algeria
During World War II, Nazis had captured de Liancourt, assigned her to a brothel unit of primarily Jewish women, repeatedly raped her and beat her for resisting. She felt that the BMCs were little different.
“I climbed up on a truck and I yelled, ‘You’re all bastards! Instead of laughing you should be ashamed of yourselves. You know very well who these women are. You picked them up in the villages or had them kidnapped, imprisoned, killed their husbands. Not only did you take away their families, but you make them to be your whores. Try to think of your girls, your wives, your sisters could have been treated this way by the Germans. It wasn’t that long ago that we were invaded. And you find it funny!'”
In fact, many former Wehrmacht soldiers served the French army as mercenaries in Indochina. Prior to BMC visits, these units held a schwanzparade — a “dick parade” — in which a doctor coated member’s genitals with disinfectant.
“When the men arrived, they’d be given anti-septic liquid and condoms,” de Liancourt wrote. “The girls were kept under very close surveillance. The moment one of them had a hot piss, they were suspended for 15 days. Maybe they may have had sex elsewhere, or had failed to be careful, so too bad for them.
“There were different hours for the soldiers, NCOs, the officers, so that the men didn’t bump into each other. But for senior officers, it was the women who went to them, after midnight.
“The unit’s doctors devoted himself entirely to them, along with two nurses. None of them were ethnically French … The French army paid [the prostitutes]; they had military status and received a payment for services from the unit.