Booze in WWI
Words by Theodora Sutcliffe
After the First World War, the medical officer of Scotland's Fourth Black Watch told a hearing on shell shock, "Had it not been for the rum ration, I do not think we should have won the war."
When war broke out, the future Prime-Minister, David Lloyd George, who favoured Temperance, if not outright Prohibition, was grappling to reduce British alcohol consumption through taxation and licensing laws. War provided a great excuse for regulating everything from booze to heroin and cocaine, which were then available over the counter, and Lloyd George took it. In his own words? "We are fighting Germany, Austria and drink; and as far as I can see, the greatest of these deadly foes is drink."
Yet on the Front, only a few months after the war had started, British soldiers were being treated to - as well as treated with - rum. Even though medical research had proved that rum reduced shooting accuracy, it was administered as a treatment for everything from shellshock to wounds to exhaustion, hypothermia and even the deadly flu, and handed out in extra doses to men about to embark on unusually dangerous activities.
One Tommy recalls a medical officer saying, "Fill him up with rum and let him take his chance. He's got Spanish flu." The treatment knocked him out for three days, but he survived. A shot of the hard stuff was also the initial treatment for shell shock, in the hope that it might sedate a man enough to sleep.
There were, of course, Temperance Societies within the army, but they gained little traction. General Pinney, of the 33rd Division, was a devout Christian, a teetotaller and a non-smoker. He became vastly unpopular after banning the routine rum ration for his troops - yet even he would allow his officers to give out rum when the situation merited it.
Not a Sipping Rum
Army rum was potent stuff. The official ration was 2.5 fluid ounces (about 70ml) per man: twice weekly for soldiers who were serving behind the frontlines or resting, daily for those in the trenches. In theory, men were supposed to spend no more than a week in trench combat before being rested: In practice however, they would often get stuck at the front for weeks on end.
Most commanders issued a double rum ration when men were going "over the top" - charging into barbed wire and machine guns - typically drowned in heavily sweetened coffee, tea or cocoa (rum massively improved the petrolly, chemical taste of the water with which these drinks were made). One officer gave a terrified young soldier so much rum that he could barely walk, and was shot in the face almost instantly.
By most accounts, army rum was extremely strong, perhaps even as much as 80%abv - a dark, tarry substance which made men's eyes water when swallowed neat, although it may have got weaker during the war. It served not only for Dutch courage - the term, of course, originally referred to gin - but to help traumatised men sleep, to warm them up in chilly winters, to give them the courage to go into battle and to calm them down after it.
Effective officers used rum as a motivational tool, a reward and a cure. Men who had been out on the dangerous and upsetting task of retrieving their comrades' mutilated and (often) rotting bodies from No Man's Land, usually under fire, would receive an extra ration.
"They don't have to prime me with rum before I can handle a man altho' I have and do certainly drink it sometimes on those jobs but usually afterwards, to take the taste of dead men out of my mouth," one veteran recalled.
One survivor of a failed attack spent more than 36 hours surrounded by the dead and dying, drinking drops of water infused with rotting corpses, and scavenging food from the packs of his dead comrades. When he finally made it back to the trenches, his quartermaster took one look at him and gave him a mess-tin three-quarters full of rum - the equivalent of at least a bottle. (After disasters there was usually plenty of rum to support survivors, as they received the dead men's rations.)
In theory, the rum ration was supposed to be consumed all in one go - at least one officer insisted on pouring the tots into his men's mouths one by one, using the ritual as an opportunity to catch up on their wellbeing. In practice, some hoarded it: one horribly wounded soldier on the battlefield attempted suicide by rum, guzzling a sauce bottle full of the stuff. After the resultant nap, he woke up, decided he wanted to live, and crawled back to his trench.
The rum ration's arrival - brought up communications trenches, sometimes under fire - in 1-2 gallon jars marked "SPD" was a huge highlight of any day. Unsurprisingly, rations did occasionally go missing - a popular soldiers' song complained about thieving NCOs, while it wasn't entirely unheard of for men detailed to collect the rum just to drink it.
In theory, drunkenness in the trenches was punishable by death. In practice, officers up to the rank of general turned a blind eye to it, although one group of soldiers who insisted on pleading guilty were in front of a firing squad by the time their sentences were commuted. When soldiers returned from the trenches to rest behind the lines, drunkenness was part and parcel of R&R for most.
The Officers' Choice
The class divide between officers - even poorer officers, who lived only on their salaries and had families to support - and ordinary men or Non-Commissioned Officers was massive. The writer Siegfried Sassoon and his NCO both missed out on scavenging fruit from an abandoned garden as etiquette forbade an officer and a non-officer eating in front of each other.
In theory, only officers were allowed to buy, own or consume spirits outside the rum ration - although at least one private soldier received a bottle of whisky smuggled inside a cake from an admirer. Officers tended to make the most of this, although there were, of course, teetotal officers.
Alcoholism was rife. A young officer's survival rate was even lower than an ordinary soldier's. Furthermore, they had to lead from the front; they had to write the letters to the families of the men they lost; they had to counsel and discipline their traumatised troops.
The writer Robert Graves observed that, after two or more years, many officers became fully-fledged alcoholics. "I knew three or four who had worked up to the point of two bottles of whisky a day before being lucky enough to get wounded or sent home in some other way," he wrote in his memoirs. "A two-bottle company commander of one of our line battalions is still alive who, in three shows running, got his company needlessly destroyed because he was no longer capable of taking clear decisions."
Graves himself, who had never touched whisky before the war and rarely touched it after the war, was on a bottle of whisky a day "to keep himself awake" within months of reaching the trenches. In theory, officers found drunk would be court-martialled. In practise, this very rarely happened.
Wartime whiskies, ropy brands with names like 9th Hole, were also known as "barbed wire whiskies": the arrival of a brand like Johnnie Walker, or discovery of a buried Cognac, was cause for celebration. Old Orkney, also known as "Officers Only" got more and more expensive as the war progressed, while Bushmills and Black & White were also popular.
Well-to-do officers wrote home for good bottles of whisky, or fine brandy, which would arrive labelled as something inconspicuous like "sauce" or "Temperance Society". They would also pick up bottles of good brands on leave at home or in France: Officers had access to a better class of shop than men did.
In wealthy regiments, officers would pay money into a kitty to ensure fine wines, liqueurs and spirits for their officers' messes behind the lines. Some officers wined and dined in considerable style, up to and including vintage Veuve and liqueurs from Kümmel to Bénédictine. In the early stages of the war, some were lucky enough to be billeted in mansions, where their hosts would share the contents of their cellars. One Belgian aristocrat brought a tray of liqueurs up to his guests each morning(!).
Of course, not all officers were privately wealthy aristocrats. Some ordinary officers, with no private income and a family to support from their soldiers' pay, ate and drank only a little better than their men.
Flying High and Sailing Tough
World War I flying aces, known to many infantry as "the suicide club", were famously heavy drinkers. They flew without parachutes in highly flammable planes, usually after only a couple of hours' training. Most lasted a bare three weeks before dying or succumbing to "nerves".
"Strong drink and lots of it was a boon and salvation to the aviators," one recalled. "Show me a good, stout-hearted, cool, dependable air fighter, and I'll show you, nine times out of ten, a hard drinker... It let them relax, it enabled them to forget and it made them sleep."
Many considered that a stiff drink, usually brandy, in between runs helped both with the process of getting up in the air and with aiming guns and bombs. Given that they would often lose friends and comrades to a horrible, fiery death, then have to go back up in the air immediately afterwards, it probably did.
Pilots were well paid, because of their dangerous jobs - and the ones who lasted tended to be daredevil types who enjoyed the high life in every sense. One aviator recalls flying to London for a weekend rendezvous, while the fliers' canteens were awash in brandy, whisky and rum.
The Royal Navy, of course, maintained its daily rum ration, first instituted centuries before, a midday tradition that would not end until Black Tot Day, on July 31, 1970. The tot was served neat to officers and watered-down for the men in an attempt to prevent hoarding.
Besides the rum, British navy ships were typically well-supplied with booze of all kinds, from champagne and whisky through to beer. At sea as on land, booze was used as a tool to boost morale and for a myriad of medicinal purposes.
Even the hospital trains which transported the wounded from the front were stocked with whisky and beer for recreational consumption, while hospitals stocked stout, port and, of course, rum. Rum was a treatment not only for flu but for toothache, abscesses and, in emergencies, an anaesthetic.
Watered Beer and Vin Blong
A bewildering number of establishments serving food and drink sprang up behind British lines - from formal forces canteens, some with booze, some without, to ordinary folk dishing out hot tea and coffee from a one-man stand, to elaborate cafés set up by grand ladies. One bereaved father came all the way to France to serve hot drinks to soldiers; there was even a canteen set up in a tunnel that was being dug under enemy lines.
Ordinary men and many officers, among them the poet Wilfred Owen, longed for a pint of English beer. The French lager style struck them as weak, tasteless and pale compared to Britain's warm, dark beers - yet in July 1915 a small Bass cost an entire day's pay for a humble soldier at the front.
French breweries ramped up production in an attempt to meet the demand of the British Expeditionary Force, which numbered over two million thirsty soldiers and support staff at its peak. Many also watered their beer, an act of which some officers approved as it reduced drunkenness - less scrupulous vendors would often water the beer a second time.
Beer, watered-down or otherwise, was a prize in many morale-boosting competitions, from football matches to horse races. Beer-drinking competitions are recorded and, during the famous Christmas Truce of 1914, some German and British regiments exchanged gifts of beer.
Folk who were lucky enough to be stationed in Belgium often appreciated the more flavoursome beers, particularly monastery ones, although the abbot at Saint Sixtus refused to make any more after soldiers pumped his pond dry for water. Those who came across farmhouses with their wine supply left intact made the most of the occasion, even if, like normal working class Britons, they had never tasted wine before.
Drunkenness in formal forces canteens was frowned upon - although it did happen. Behind the frontlines, ordinary soldiers looking for a break from army food and drink would head to establishments called estaminets, usually run by ordinary folk seeking to make a living during the war.
Some estaminets ran to cabaret and prostitution; others knocked out egg and chips; most served weak beer and an unfamiliar substance they called "vin blong" - acidic, weak white wine. Some soldiers mixed beer or cider with white wine; thin red wine was sometimes mixed with army rum to add body; rough brandies and marcs could be chucked into wine to make it stronger; and "champagne" was sold with a range of adulterants.
Hard liquor, though technically banned, sometimes made its way into the coffee sold in estaminets - military policemen conducting spot-checks would sniff men's coffee for traces of hooch. More elite spots were predictably reserved for officers.
The Buck's Club
When Captain Herbert Buckmaster, a famously dapper aristocrat-about-town, arrived at the Front, he was amused to find soldiers brandishing postcards of his wife, the actress Gladys Cooper (amazingly, a packet of Cooper postcards stopped a bullet once, saving a soldier's life).
Like other well-to-do officers, it's likely Buck made the most of the entertainments France still had to offer those with connections and cash to burn. Many restaurants, cafes and (for that matter) brothels were designated as "for officers only", enabling the ruling class to let their hair down out of sight of their men.
The Globe in Bethune was a popular destination for cocktails. Robert Graves wrote: "Every officer's charger in at least eight divisions knows the way to its doors: from early dawn to the curfew toll they are lined up in the sunny square outside, chestnut, black, roan, bay, sorrel and mouse-coloured, waiting for their masters that are drinking inside."
In Poperinge, a rest town, La Poupée served champagne and cocktails, as did Cyril's; Le Boeuf in St Omer was a famous restaurant. The historian Guy Chapman stopped for cocktails at The Angleterre in Rouen on his way back to the front, praised the champagne at Hotel Duvaux in Boulogne and rated a small hotel in Saint-Sylvestre.
And officers could drink. In one session, Sassoon consumed: two John Collins, one sherry and bitter, one Bénédictine, one oyster cocktail, one Japanese cocktail, as well as wine.
Like Sassoon, Buckmaster - or "Buck" - made it through the war alive, only to find that he and his wife had grown apart. He and friends had plotted in the trenches to set up a new type of members' club, where men could drink cocktails and recapture the camaraderie of war when the war was finally over.
And, in June 1919, that is exactly what he did. Buck's Club was to become the home of one famous cocktail, the Buck's Fizz. Buck claimed he had invented it: inspired by a cocktail he had consumed in France, he suggested that his bartender Malachy MacGarry create something similar by mixing orange juice and champagne.
MacGarry would also be credited by his British bartending contemporaries with the Sidecar cocktail, a drink which no other authority but David Embury claims was created by a friend of his at a bar in Paris during World War I.
Is it possible that Buck tried the Sidecar in Paris over the war and imported it to his own place back in London, where Malachy MaGarry simplified that drink from its original "six or seven" ingredients down to what we now consider the Sidecar? Possible - but absent a copy of Buck's 1933 memoirs, now long out of print -- it's impossible to confirm.
Whatever the truth, these are infinitely more palatable cocktails than the rum, tea, sugar and condensed milk mixes ordinary soldiers drank, many on their way to death, or the rough spirit mixes in the estaminets that helped provide a bright spark and welcome oblivion in the midst of a spectacularly awful war.
Join the Discussion
... comment(s) for Booze in WWI
You must log in to your account to make a comment.