Staring death in the face on a regular basis has long been reason enough for soldiers to turn to the devil drink. Here, MHM looks at which drinks were favoured when, by whom, and why.
An Empire of Gin
Gin and tonic was introduced by the army of the British East India Company. As with so many military drinks, it was born of medicinal experimentation.
In India and other tropical regions, malaria was a persistent problem. In the 1700s it was discovered that quinine could be used to treat the disease, although the bitter taste was unpleasant. British officers in India in the early 19th century took to adding a mixture of water, sugar, lime, and gin to the quinine in order to make the drink more palatable. Thus the cocktail of gin and tonic became the iconic drink of the British Empire.
With army officers downing the concoction inside club houses, the cocktail soon acquired a suave aura. Roughly 75 years later, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill would acknowledge its role in saving ‘more Englishmen’s lives, and minds, than all the doctors in the Empire’.
Since it is no longer used as anti-malarial, tonic water today contains much less quinine, is usually sweetened, and is consequently much less bitter than it would have been at the time of the Raj.
Battling booze in Blighty
As the men of Britain were taking the odd nip of brandy to steady their nerves in the trenches of the First World War, their wives back home were rolling out the barrel on far too regular a basis. The government was particularly concerned about the amount of alcohol being consumed by female munitions workers. A survey of four pubs in London revealed that in one hour on a Saturday night alcohol was consumed by 1,483 men and 1,946 women. The Times reported ‘we do not all realise the increase in drinking there has been among the mothers of the coming race, though we may yet find it a circumstance darkly menacing to our civilisation’.
In January 1915, Lloyd George claimed that Britain was ‘fighting Germans, Austrians, and Drink, and as far as I can see the greatest of these foes is Drink’. That same year, the British government decided that enough was enough. A ‘No Treating Order’ was passed to ensure that any drink ordered was to be paid for by the person the drink was intended for. The maximum penalty for defying the Government order was six months’ imprisonment.
The Spectator backed the legislation arguing that it was the custom of the working classes to buy drinks for ‘chance-met acquaintances, each of whom then had to stand a drink to everyone else’. They believed that this measure would ‘free hundreds of thousands of men from an expensive and senseless social tyranny’.
The order was rigidly enforced. On 14 March 1916, The Morning Post reported: ‘At Southampton yesterday Robert Andrew Smith was fined for treating his wife to a glass of wine in a local public-house. He said his wife gave him sixpence to pay for her drink. Mrs Smith was also fined one pound for consuming, and Dorothy Brown, the barmaid, five pounds for selling the intoxicant, contrary to the regulations of the Liquor Control Board.’
Disappearing whiskey in the ACW
Whiskey was used during the American Civil War as a stimulant for wounded soldiers, but as the war progressed and casualties increased, supplies ran dangerously low. After an examination at the nearest aid station, wounded soldiers were transported to a hospital away from the battlefield where they would be issued further stimulants and/or pain relief as needed. But as these stimulants began mysteriously to disappear, some surgeons and matrons were keen to investigate. Phoebe Yates Pember of Chimborazo Hospital Number Two, atop Chimborazo Hill on the western outskirts of Richmond,Virginia, was one such matron.
It was the spring of 1864 and the dwindling whiskey supplies caused Pember to confront a ward surgeon. Every day, each ward’s officer ordered a quart bottle of whiskey in case a patient needed a stimulant during the night. The following morning Pember would inquire why the bottles were empty when no patients had required the elixir (as the whiskey was referred to). The answer would regularly be that rats must have tipped the bottle over during the night. But when one injured soldier complained that the whiskey ration had not even reached his building, Pember marched over to the ward to question the other patients.
The men hinted that certain champagne bottles hidden behind a certain vacant bed might very well hold the answer to her questions. Sure enough, several bottles filled with the missing whiskey were located stowed behind the bed. The enraged matron challenged the ward master, who was promptly sent to the field for ‘looking the other way’. Pember later wrote of her experience during the war: ‘if it is necessary to have a hero for this matter-of-fact narrative, the whiskey barrel will have to step forward and make his bow’.
Posca and the Roman Army
Popular among the ancient Greeks and Romans, Posca was a vinegary drink made by mixing sour wine with water and flavouring herbs. Its original purpose was medicinal – considered a remedy for ailments of all sorts – but it became an everyday drink for the Roman Army and the lower classes from around the second century BC, continuing to be used throughout Roman history and into the Byzantine period.
Wine that had been spoiled by faulty storage was put to good use as an ingredient, and it was soon discovered that the concoction had important dietary advantages. As well as being a source of hydration, it was also an anti-scorbutic, helping to prevent scurvy by providing vitamin C. Its acidity killed harmful bacteria and the flavouring of the herbs helped mask the unpleasant taste of local water supplies.
It was drunk more and more during the Republican period, when it became a standard beverage for soldiers, among whom drinking quality wine came to be considered a sign of indiscipline. Posca and wine were among the provisions of the army of Lucullus in his Spanish campaign of 153 BC, and the former had evidently become part of the customary rations by the 1st century AD, as the Gospels describe Roman soldiers offering Jesus sour wine on a sponge (flavoured with hyssop, an aromatic flower, according to the Gospel of John) during the Crucifixion. The Historia Augusta records that by Hadrian’s time sour wine was a standard part of the normal cibus castrensis (camp fare).
Although it was primarily associated with soldiers and the lower classes, some higher-ranked Romans also drank Posca to express solidarity with their troops
How dependent on vodka was a regular Red Army soldier during WWII? Russian writer Victor Erofeyev describes the effect of vodka on the Russian people in a 2002 letter from Moscow: ‘It seems to punch a hole directly into the subconscious, setting off a range of odd gestures and facial expressions. Some people wring their hands; some grin idiotically or snap their fingers; others sink into sullen silence. But no one, high or low, is left indifferent. More than by any political system, we are all held hostage by vodka.’
He goes on to argue that the daily ration of vodka given to Russian soldiers during the Second World War was ‘as important as Katyusha rocket launchers in the victory over Nazism’. Were the fierce Red Army soldiers so fearless because they were tanked up on strong vodka?
In the Winter War, there were several reports of attacking Russians being drunk. The daily ration (100g) was not much, but if you were to save your daily rations for a special occasion you would certainly feel the effect. Not that one would have to resort to scrimping and saving later during the Second World War, when the ration was upped and the distribution of vodka – among Red Air Force pilots too – was liberal and largely encouraged.
A clue could have been found in the etymology of the word vodka, a diminutive form of the Slavic word voda for water.
But reckless, drunken courage is not always a characteristic to be desired in your men. As one Red Army officer pointed out: ‘If the men did not drink that much we would have been in Berlin two years earlier!’
18th century British soldiers were given very mixed messages when it came to boozing. Some officers condemned drink and drunkenness, insisting that rather than rum in their canteens, troops should carry only water or lemonade. But many other officers considered liquor to be healthful. General Wolfe wrote in a letter to Field-Marshal Amherst ‘The excess of rum is bad, but the liquor delivered out in small quantities – half a gill a man and mixed with water – is a most salutary drink.’
Almost all officers also believed in the protective properties of rum in certain climates – not only that it would be of use in inclement weather, but also that an increased ration of rum for soldiers in the tropics would protect them from disease. In 1761 Colonel Andrew Rollo reported from Dominica that ‘the excessive heat hath putt me under the Necessitie of giving a Gill of Rum per day to each private Man … the care of the Mens health is the grand object of my attention’. Who had given him such advice? Or was it perhaps the threat of mutiny that made him slightly more generous?
As noted army surgeon Robert Jackson claimed in 1791, the latter explanation was most likely to be true: ‘Our soldiers have been so long accustomed to this gratuitous allowance of rum as their right, that no man could answer for the consequences of with-holding it. The allowance of rum granted to soldiers has done much harm by ruining discipline and good behaviour. If it is with-held for one day, discontent begins to shew itself among the men. If with-held for any length of time, complaints sometimes rise to a state of mutiny, and desertions become notorious.’