Editor’s Note: This summer will mark the 100th anniversary of World War I’s outbreak. Today, contributing editor Nicholas K. Johnson brings us the second installment in a five-part series on alcohol, drugs, and the Great War. You can read Part One here.
“Why don’t we get a rum issue every night, or a bottle of beer with dinner? The French get their wine.” – Frederic Manning, Her Privates We.
The British Tommy had a somewhat different relationship with alcohol than his French ally and German counterpart. Although not as restrictive as American military regulations, British policy concerning alcohol in the trenches was more conservative than that of the French, who issued wine as a matter of routine to their frontline soldiers. However, soldiers of the British Commonwealth were given a daily rum ration. The rum ration, much like the wine ration issued to the French poilu, is a key part of British depictions of the war and formed one of the few pleasures of trench life.
The British Army in World War I also consisted of troops from throughout the British Empire. Troops from Canada, Ireland, India, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, and elsewhere all served on the Western Front. They would have been issued the rum ration and subject to the same regulations as their counterparts from the British Home Islands. Muslim soldiers from Britain’s imperial possessions would have been the main exception to the near-universal rum ration.
The rum ration was generally issued once per morning, although some sources mention it being doled out more frequently, especially when attacks were imminent or if heavy casualties increased the availability of rum. Soldier Charles William Nightingall recorded being issued “cheese and rum every night” during the Gallipoli Campaign. This was done at the daily “stand-to” (at stand-to, soldiers would man their forward positions in the trenches at dawn in case of an enemy attack) every morning and then continued throughout the war even when the practice of standing to fell out of practice. Writer Robert Graves noted that his soldiers “look[ed] forward to their tot of rum at dawn stand-to as the brightest moment of their twenty-four hours.” Rum was also routinely administered to the wounded and dying, as seen in Edmund Blunden’s “Pillbox“:
“The poor man lay at length and brief and mad
Flung out his cry of doom; soon ebbed and dumb
He yielded. Worley with a tot of rum
And shouting in his face could not restore him.
The ship of Charon over channel bore him.
All marvelled even on that most deathly day
To see this life so spirited away.”
The ration of thick, dark rum was 1/16th of a pint per man, or a quarter-gill, per day. Many men complained about the small size of the rum ration. In historian Richard Holmes’ masterful book Tommy, one soldier observes that the rum ration “is supposed to give us Dutch courage. It might fulfill its purpose if it were handed out in more liberal doses.” One of the myths about alcohol and World War I (one that appeared as a comment on last week’s post) is that soldiers stumbled across no-man’s land in intoxicated stupors as a matter of routine. In fact, most soldiers would find it difficult to get intoxicated from the standard issue rations alone: soldiers in the British army received 1/16 of a pint of rum per day, and the French army issued half a liter of wine per day. While alcohol abuse certainly occurred, it usually became a problem behind the lines due to the relatively poor discipline of rear-echelon troops, frontline troops on leave, and the availability of excess alcohol. Richard Holmes notes that he could not find a single contemporary source for widespread drunkenness at the front lines, but that troops stationed in the rear areas did indeed drink themselves “into oblivion.”
Other sources quoted by Holmes offer contradictory accounts of how the rum was doled out. One soldier claims that the “textbook” issuance of rum was strictly neat and under the supervision of an officer. However, most other accounts– including those of poets Siegfried Sassoon, Edmund Blunden, and Frederic Manning— describe the rum being doled out mixed with hot tea or coffee. This was either added to mugs of tea or mixed in with the entire pot, as seen in the above image. For Sassoon, this hot “rum and tea…made all the difference in our outlook.”
In addition to the rum ration’s small size, enlisted soldiers resented the British Army’s hypocritical attitude towards alcohol and the British media’s penchant for prohibitionist hysteria. Officers were permitted to purchase liquor behind the lines and keep it in the trenches, but enlisted men were only allowed the rum ration within the trenches. When on leave, enlisted men frequented French establishments known as estaminets, which served as cafes, bars, and sometimes brothels. These served poor-quality white wine (almost always referred to in British memoirs as vin blanc or vin blang) and beer to enlisted men, but some proprietors were known to circumvent regulations by “hiding” liquor in coffee. Other establishments were limited to officers only. (One character in Frederic Manning‘s Her Privates We scoffs, “half of [the officers] don’t know whether they are drinking champagne or cider.”) If caught violating regulations, soldiers risked Field Punishment No. 1, a twentieth-century update to past punitive measures such as the stocks.
The rum ration required the approval of division commanders as a “medical” necessity during hard campaigning. In the vast majority of cases, rum was issued to frontline troops. One notable exception was General Pinney of the 33rd Division, a teetotaling moralizer who succeeded in banning the rum ration and unsuccessfully attempted to ban cigarettes in his division. In his slightly-fictionalized Memoirs of an Infantry Officer, Siegfried Sassoon portrayed General Pinney as a general who
“made himself obnoxiously conspicuous by forbidding the Rum Ration. He was, of course, over anxious to demonstrate his elasticity of mind, but the ‘No Rum Division’ failed to appreciate their uniqueness in the Expeditionary Force. He also thought that smoking impaired the efficiency of the troops and would have liked to restrict their consumption of cigarettes. General [Pinney] had likewise demonstrated his independence of mind earlier in the War by forbidding the issue of steel helmets to his Division…[this]…was, of course, only a flash in the pan (or brain-pan) and [his] reputation as an innovator was mainly kept alive by his veto on the Rum Ration.”
The efforts of generals who forbid the rum ration were not appreciated, and in this case, Pinney appears as the stereotypical conservative and tone-deaf “Donkey” so vilified in popular culture in Blackadder Goes Forth and outdated histories like Alan Clark’s The Donkeys. Nevertheless, generals like Pinney remained exceptions to the norm. Most British generals allowed the rum ration to continue throughout the war.
Although widespread alcoholism was absent from the British front line, abuse did occur. Because officers could privately purchase liquor, it was easier for them to become intoxicated before attacks. Holmes recounts a story of one enlisted man becoming wildly drunk before an attack only to be bayoneted by his fellow soldiers because his shouting would alert the enemy.
The rum ration held a special place in the hearts of Commonwealth soldiers during and after the war. In 1922, a Black Watch medical officer claimed that “had it not been for the rum ration I do not think that we should have won the war.”
In Memoirs of an Infantry Officer, Siegfried Sassoon recalled a rum issue before an attack. For him, the passage of time and the fallibilty of memory blotted out the few moments of laughter during the war, but at least one remained. He and his men enjoyed hot rum and tea before the day’s attack:
“we’d got some rum inside us and could find something to laugh about. Our laughter leapt up, like the flames of camp fires in the dusk, soon to be stamped out…”
Part 3 of this series will focus on the American Expeditionary Force (AEF) and its experiences with both prohibition and alcohol behind the lines.