This French poster from 1916 tells us a lot about some of the social and health issues facing the French army, as well as French society’s attitude about what constituted an honourable and worthy death.
The vignette shows a young and healthy French soldier at the top. But he is seduced by a woman of the streets (left side of poster), contracts a venereal disease and ends up sitting outside a hospital (right side). The treatment fails and he is dead (skull and crossbones on the bottom). Silly French peasant soldier. He could not resist the temptation of this young diseased hussy and so his country has been denied the ability to send him to serve as cannon fodder, because the disease killed him before he could sacrifice himself in a futile but gallant charge against the German trenches!
The text in the middle of the poster reads as follows:
Soldier, the motherland is counting on you. Keep all you strength for her. Resist the seduction of the street, where you can catch a disease that is just as dangerous as the war, and which leads its victims to decline and a death without purpose, without happiness.
While the poster is certainly melodramatic, sexually transmitted diseases such as syphilis were certainly a health problem for the soldiers, since medicine had not yet come up with an effective treatment for the disease.
What is interesting about this poster is the implied message. It is telling the soldier to stay healthy for the sake of the motherland and to avoid street walkers because this will lead to a dishonourable death. But what is the alternative? If the soldier does as he is told and keeps himself pure and healthy, is he promised to come home to his pre-war life? Although it is not expressly stated, I think the poster is implicitly stating that if you stay healthy you will avoid an unhappy death without purpose, but you will not avoid death; just that you will have the honour of dying for a worthy cause and so you will die happy.
Millions of men certainly died in this useless conflict. I hope that they did not heed this warning and at least had a little bit of human companionship before they were slaughtered in the trenches.