Another Round? Teetotal Pledges and World War One

Welcome to the first installment of guest blogger Henry Yeoman’s new series here on Points. Henry is a Lecturer in Criminology and Criminal Justice at the University of Leed’s School of Law, where he works on historical criminology and criminological theory, especially as it pertains to the regulation of alcohol.  In the first entry of series, Henry discusses temperance movements in Great War-era Britain.

From the turn of the twentieth century onwards, the contours of debates about alcohol in England and Wales shifted. Nineteenth century public discourse had been overwhelmingly shaped by the ideas and beliefs of the British temperance movement which, from the mid-1830s onwards, constructed alcohol as an inherently problematic substance responsible for most, if not all, of society’s problems. Total collective abstinence from alcohol thus became an imperative for temperance followers and they sought to achieve this through either the promotion of voluntary individual pledges or by pressuring Parliament into the enactment of legal prohibition. But these temperance campaigns and the fervent opposition they provoked were both diminished from the mid-1890s onwards. Memberships fell, influence diminished and, as James Kneale has argued, the downward trend in alcohol consumption tempered social anxieties about drink. But the calm after the Victorian storm was to be short-lived; the precipitation of war reawakened a fervent moral desire to reform the drinking habits of the population.

The importance of teetotalism in the context of war was raised as an issue soon after the outbreak of hostilities in August 1914. In October of that year, a letter in the Manchester Guardian stated that “the greatest enemy to military efficiency has been insobriety, and its greatest support abstinence.” The letter, signed by Robert B. Batty, included an evocative quote from (the late) Field Marshall Lord Roberts which supported the central point: “Give me a teetotal army”, Roberts said, “and I will lead it anywhere.”

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