The pros and cons of alcohol

Going through some old emails, I discovered a link to the London Beer Flood of 1814. Why this was in my email collection, I’m not sure, but it’s provided a good reason to blog on alcohol and World War 1, not least in Africa.

Many a soldier has used alcohol to build stamina before ‘going over the top’ and into battle – rum rations being a feature of diary accounts especially when they’re in short supply. Other evidence (German) (French) of the importance of alcohol, rum in particular, can be found at British Pathe. The tradition of rum rations was finally ended in 1970 – initially it had been beer which was used, but rum took over because it took up less space, was cheaper and didn’t go off as quickly (economics always seems to play a role, although health and safety seems to be the justifiable reason given – at least for its ending).

In contrast, the Americans were not permitted alcohol and one of the inspirations behind Britain’s Defence of the Realm Act (DORA) was to control alcohol intake which it was believed was negatively impacting on productivity. To make the point, the King declared the palace alcohol-free (teetotal) and Kitchener supported it.

In East Africa, rum was rationed according to rank and role (search rum). Driscoll who led the 25th Royal Fusiliers (Legion of Frontiersmen) was teetotal, however, it was reported that his troops at Bukoba went on the rampage getting drunk in the process. Dolbey talks of the whole campaign being virtually teetotal for transport reasons.

It wasn’t just alcohol which played a part in the war: tobacco too was important. It even featured in ration quotas, although female nurses received cigarettes instead as noted in the Pike report into medical conditions in German East Africa, which also reported the following:

LINDI
2 November to 6 November 1917
Inspected No 1 African Stationary Hospital, Officer Commanding – Lieut-Col McGillivray, Indian Medical Service. Not on the whole a good unit. The Admission and Discharge Books are badly kept, Pack Store dirty (especially rifles). African and Indian troops receiving no Red Cross comforts, cigarettes, etc, as Matron (Miss Belcher, Queen Alexandra’s Imperial Military Nursing Service) states she has not enough to go round more (p44) than the Europeans. We think this a wrong attitude on her part. We wired for cigarettes to Red Cross to be sent direct to Officer Commanding for the African section.

Finally, I don’t know of a monument to alcohol during the First World War, but there is one for the 1899-1902 war in South Africa: specifically to the Whisky Train.

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