Last Orders at the Bar

Soldiers Drinking

Welcome to #WWWednesday! Conflict archaeologists and DV guest columnist Sarah Ashbridge takes a closer look at the role of alcohol in the trenches of WWI. It’s a rum lot!

It is safe to say that in times of war, soldiers in the field make the most of whatever home comforts might be available. And what was the comfort that seems to have received the most attention from participants of the Great War? Alcohol.

In the post-Victorian era, fuelled by the temperance movement, opinions of alcohol were divided. Whilst church-goers sought to ban alcohol, Winston Churchill would later acknowledge the role of alcohol in saving “more Englishmen’s lives, and minds, than all the doctors in the Empire”.

In war conditions, alcohol was seen to fortify the morale of soldiers, giving them extra bravado to stay motivated in the face of combat, helping them to bond with their comrades, assisting them in sleep, suppressing their fears, and providing comfort and warmth when sleeping fearfully in cold, wet trenches. It also helped enforce the hierarchial structure of the army: alcohol was issued by senior ranks, and could be withheld as punishment.

In January 1915, Lloyd George declared that Britain was “fighting Germans, Austrians and Drinks, and as far as I can see, the greatest of the foes is Drink”.  But each army had its own demons; so let’s look at some of the tipples of choice during the Great War.

Traditionally, the English took brandy to steady their nerves in the trenches of WW1. The harsh winter of 1914-1915 saw the reintroduction of the rum ration for UK troops. Men were given 71ml twice per week, or daily for those in the trenches. Rum was issued to those about to go over the top, with soldiers believing that it would feed and warm them, whilst acting as a stimulant. In a 1922 enquiry into shellshock, Lt Colonel J S Y Rodgers observed “had it not been for the rum-ration, I do not think we should have won the war”. Rum was quaffed by all nations serving under the British Empire, with one Canadian soldier saying “under the spell of this all-powerful stuff, one almost felt that he could eat a German dead or alive, steel helmet and all”.

The French government prohibited the production of absinthe and other highly intoxicating liquors in 1915., however they provided a daily allowance of 0.5l of vin ordinaire. Brandy or light beer was the poison of choice for the Germans soldiers.

In contrast, the Russian Tsar Nicholas II outlawed the sale of vodka in August 1914, preventing soldiers and factory-workers from consuming excessive amounts. This led to undercover home brewing, with the working class drinking vodka – well – like water. The clue to this is in the etymology of the word vodka which comes from voda, the Slavic word for water.

Primarily, alcohol was served as a combat motivator, to steady the nerves of soldiers. It also helped men deal with the transition between warfare and trench life and was used as an initial treatment for shellshock. 

 Tune in next week for another report from the trenches for #WWWednesday!

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Written by Sarah Ashbridge

Office monkey by day, forensic archaeologist by night, Sarah Ashbridge is a jack-of-all-trades and the master of one: the forensic identification the War Dead. She trained originally as an Egyptologist, but interests in the history of death and burial saw her make the step into archaeology, completing an MSc in Forensic Archaeology and Crime Scene Investigation at the University of Bradford. Armed with an ever-increasing library of books, a handful of illustration pens and a brand new trowel, Sarah writes our regular #WWWednesday column, working towards her PhD in Forensic Archaeology.

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