Rum and blood: Masculinity, alcohol and the First World War

It is no exaggeration to state that the First World War changed warfare as we know it. Prior to 1914, war was traditionally fought between two opposing armies; it was organised and it was equal. The First World War changed all that, with the introduction of trench warfare, tanks and mustard gas. Soldiers, who had enlisted for want of ‘adventure’ and ‘camaraderie,’ quickly found themselves wanting to be anywhere but the front line. Conditions were harsh, and morale was plummeting.

It is no surprise, then, that nearly every army that fought in the war utilised alcohol in some capacity, from the French army, who drank in plentiful amounts, to the German and British Empires’ forces, who were allocated a daily ration of rum. Alcohol was abundant. This contrasted with the American forces, who had to fight the war without the aid of alcohol (at least officially speaking) due to influential temperance movements back home, and the Russian soldiers, who saw alcohol prohibited shortly before the outbreak of war. Whatever the individual nation’s stance on alcohol, it still became an iconic ritual of war.

Historically, warfare has also been seen as an expression of masculinity, as it “cultivates and expects aggressiveness, comradery and heroics”, and the First World War was no exception. During the conflict, alcohol and warfare became linked, as both became a way of defining and expressing masculinity. In fact, after the war was first declared, European intellectuals likened the resulting enthusiasm and hysteria to mass intoxication.

Away from the safety and security of their homeland, however, soldiers drank alcohol to cope with the realities of war, and to hide their feelings of fear and anxiety (typically seen as ‘non-masculine’ traits). This is perhaps best encapsulated by one Black Watch medical officer who, when discussing the British daily rum ration, said, “Had it not been for the rum ration, I do not think we should have won the war.”

The British Army and Dominion Armies

When war broke out across Europe, Britain responded with her British Army, consisting of units from England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales. As dominion forces of the British Empire, nations like Canada and Australia were also at war, and fielded similar armies: the Canadian Expeditionary Force and the Australia and New Zealand Army Corps, respectively.

These nations played an important part in the war, and all had similar attitudes when it came to alcohol use and masculinity. They were all issued a standard ‘rum ration,’ a daily allowance of rum for each soldier, that would generally be given before a battle (although there were exceptions). Soldiers were forbidden from hoarding the alcohol, and standard practice was for it to be drunk on the spot, in the presence of a commanding officer.

Generally, the rum ration consisted of about one sixteenth of a pint of thick, dark rum per man. Several reports indicate that this was given to the soldiers straight from the barrel, though others contend that it was usually mixed with their daily tea or coffee. As with most instances of this nature, it usually would fall to the individual preference of a unit’s commanding officer.

Robert Graves, a British writer, historian and veteran of the First World War, remembers that his soldiers “look forward to their tot of rum at dawn stand-to as the brightest moment of their twenty-four hours.” This attitude would have been commonplace, as the war was a horrendous exercise in death and destruction and, for the common soldiers, small commodities such as rum would provide a reprieve.

As a British dominion at the time, Canada was also drawn into the war in 1914. On 4 August 1914 (one week after the war began), Canada’s Governor General declared war between Canada and Germany, and the nation raised an independent Canadian Expeditionary Force to fight overseas.

Rum was utilised by the Canadians in the same way as the British, a daily rum ration for all the men serving on the front. Additionally, soldiers were given extra rations of rum for performing activities ‘beyond the call of duty,’ such as shoring up defences during the night, venturing out into No Man’s Land, or clearing the corpses of the fallen from the trenches after an attack. These activities were considered more ‘manly’ than regular soldiering and, as such, were rewarded with more alcohol.

Like other nations at the time, both war and alcohol were seen as ‘masculine’. As Canadian historian Tim Cook describes, while not everyone may have liked the taste of the rum ration, they endured it. This was because, like rough sports, drinking “proved that the drinker could measure up to expectations. Many saw the rum ration as a rite of passage and conforming to the norms of the group was an essential part of soldiering.” Despite the grim nature of the war, the hierarchy of command and the masculine expectation for men to persevere meant that soldiers were expected to just “stick it out,” despite any apprehensions they may have.

For the Australian soldiers who comprised part of the ANZAC forces, drinking was already an established part of their culture. For example, before 1860, the population of Victoria was predominantly young men, and drinking had been a fundamental part of life on the Victorian goldfields, a factor which then bled into the relationship between ‘hard yakka’ and drinking state- and nationwide.

The image of the strong, determined, ANZAC soldier fighting against all odds soon became a prominent image of the First World War, and this was the image the public saw when they heard the word ‘ANZAC.’ For the soldiers fighting in Turkey during the war, however, the reality was much different. Gallipoli was a study in contrasts: cold, wet, muddy and miserable days, as well as stinking hot, fetid days. Life in the trenches was an undesirable purgatory. Fortunately, this purgatory was broken up by the daily rum ration that many British dominion forces received.

John Patrick O’Donnell was an Irishman who came to Australia shortly before the war, fought as an ANZAC soldier, survived the Gallipoli landings, and lived to write and publish a selection of poetry, in which he reminisced about his wartime experience. One of his poems, written in a British hospital in 1918, is titled ‘Memories of Gallipoli.’ In it, O’Donnell recounts the memories he has of the Gallipoli landings, and the trench warfare that followed. One line discusses the end of a long day of battle on the beaches, reading: “Night, and the stars and the rum, which was never too healthy.”

O’Donnell, despite knowing of the debilitating nature of the rum, still engaged in it because he felt it was necessary for him to cope, and for him to rid himself of those ‘memories of Gallipoli.’ Alcohol features prominently in several of O’Donnell’s other poems, such as his ‘Estaminet Songs,’ which deals exclusively with the abundance of alcohol and entertainment found in French cafés and restaurants, and it serves to reinforce the image of the masculine ANZAC soldier, proudly fighting on the beaches of Gallipoli, and enjoying their daily rum ration.

For many soldiers, but particularly for ANZAC soldiers, both the First World War and consumption of alcohol became important cultural memories.

The French Army

An image created in 1917 by a French cartoonist jokingly shows a French soldier saluting a barrel of pinard. This image is, of course, exaggerated, created to humorously show the supposed loyalty that French soldiers had to wine during the war, but its humour has an ounce of truth.

Pinard, or ‘plonk’ as it was sometimes known, was the low-quality red wine that French soldiers were issued during the war. Although rather rough and somewhat foul-tasting, French soldiers had little else alcoholic to drink, and so they grew to love the stuff. Although the ration began in 1914 with the issuing of one quarter of a litre per day, it had reached almost three quarters of a litre in 1916, with the opportunity to buy more.

It’s not surprising to hear that the French Army drank that much during the war, considering what the average soldier was forced to endure. In the early days of the war, French generals idealised the idea of organised warfare, and they attempted to recapture the spirit of the old hussars. This was primarily done through the military idea of élan, a continuous dash headfirst into enemy territory. No doubt this was considered the ‘proper’ way to wage war, hailing back to a time when battles were fought honourably, and when men were ‘real men.’ Unfortunately for the French, the invention of the machine gun, not to mention trench warfare in general, was anathema to their plans.

By the end of 1914 alone, the French had already lost 300,000 men. As morale fell and the soldiers questioned the war, the daily ration of pinard became all the more important. Wine rations were typically issued shortly before an attack (standard practice with several other armies) as a form of ‘liquid courage.’ Gabriel Chevallier, a French soldier who served on the front, described the wine ration as a tool used to numb their brains as they waited for the inevitable élan push.

Masculinity, or preconceptions of it at least, played a large part in the French’s experiences during the First World War. Their desire to return to more honourable, Napoleonic types of warfare, and the perceptions of masculinity that entailed, caused hundreds of thousands of deaths. Many French soldiers no doubt gladly drank the pinard, despite its foul taste, in order to cope with the carnage and horror that they saw around them.

The Imperial German Army

The German Empire, like many empires of its time, was focused on proving its superiority over others. This was done by training soldiers to be efficient, ruthless and methodical; to suppress their feelings and focus on the task at hand. One man even remembered his parents saying to him that “A German boy knows no fear.” This doctrine, this idea of men suppressing their feelings and denouncing everything deemed ‘feminine,’ was well established in Germany by the time of the First World War, and German soldiers entered the war with this training in mind.

German soldiers, unlike the other armies discussed here, were issued a variety of alcoholic drinks, depending on their location. Bavarian units were more likely to be issued beer, whilst units from the Rhineland were commonly given wine. Typically, soldiers received half a litre of beer, a quarter of a litre of wine, or 125ml of brandy or schnapps (schnapps and wine appeared most frequently in German accounts, so they would have been the most commonly issued drinks).

Regardless of what drink the German soldiers drank, they all saw the value in it, and its use in fighting off the terrors of the war. Ernst Jünger, an author and German veteran of the First World War, claims in his book Storm of Steel that the experience of combat is similar to intoxication, once again reinforcing that link between alcohol and warfare. Arnold Zweig, another German author and soldier, claimed that it was possible for German men to fight the war “Without women, without ammunition, even without strongpoints, but not without tobacco and not at all without alcohol.”

As the months of conflict became years, German supplies became scarce. A British naval blockade created a food shortage amongst the German people, which also affected soldiers serving at the front. When German soldiers attacked Allied supply depots in 1918, they discovered food supplies and caches of wine, much to their delight. Soldiers celebrated, more so at the discovery of the wine than the food.

Despite their training – despite being taught to suppress all ‘feminine’ traits and focus solely on being masculine soldiers – the German soldiers were still human. And, as humans, they frequently relied on a variety of alcoholic beverages to assist them in maintaining morale and emotional stability during the end days of the First World War.

The Imperial Russian Army

During the First World War, Russian soldiers’ experience with alcohol was altogether different from the majority of the other nations. Shortly before the war, on 31 July 1914, Russia passed a prohibition law, effectively banning the sale and production of vodka in all Russian territories. Although this had the alleged benefit of ‘cleaning up the streets,’ so to speak, its main rationale was to make mobilisation for the war easier. The Grand Duke of Russia remembered Russia’s previous attempt at mobilisation, during the Russo-Japanese war of 1904, and the mass disorganisation amongst conscripts that had entailed, and he wished to prevent history from repeating itself.

This was an admirable goal, to be honest; Russia was often considered to be a sleeping giant who took a while to mobilise its full army, and anything that could ease the process of mobilisation could be considered beneficial, even prohibition. As the Russian government controlled the entire supply of vodka, and the means of producing it, their attempt at prohibition was largely successful and, within forty-eight hours, vodka consumption had practically ceased.

The issue was that this left Russian soldiers without any means of dulling the mental, physical and emotional trauma that came with serving on the front line. Whilst other nations, such as France and Germany, had a daily ration of liquor, Russian soldiers had none, and their soldiers suffered for it.

Combine this with the fact that by 1914 Russia had over six million soldiers but only about four million rifles, meaning that many soldiers fought in the war sober and unarmed. Countless soldiers reached breaking point, where they could no longer suppress their feelings of fear or anxiety, despite said suppression being the ‘masculine’ thing to do.

One Russian officer shows these fears in a letter, stating, “Heavy battles are taking place on all fronts daily. Many have fallen on the battlefield, and many more will fall. And who will return unscathed? All fields where there were battles are strewn with the killed and those dying from their wounds – our soldiers and the Germans. And how many more will fall? War … What a horror! Death and destruction all around.”

The American Expeditionary Forces

Similar to the Russian Army, the fighting men of the American Expeditionary Forces had to survive the First World War ‘clean and sober.’ Powerful temperance movements back home, such as the Women’s Christian Temperance Union and the Anti-Saloon League, had immense political power, and rallied for the prohibition of alcohol. They did this by attempting to ‘re-shape’ the ideal masculine American soldier as a tough, morally righteous man who abstained from immoral alcoholic drinks. Beer was described as ‘Kaiser brew,’ and a mixture of xenophobia and fear of being seen as ‘unmanly’ paved the way for war prohibition to be fully enacted by Congress in 1918.

In regards to the war itself, whilst other Allied units were given a daily ration of alcohol before going ‘over the top,’ as a way to calm their nerves and prepare them for the ultimate charge, American temperance movements actually emphasised against it, saying that American Expeditionary Forces should “go clean over the top CLEAN, and keep fit to fight in France for Freedom.”

Despite being powerful forces, these temperance movements could do little to prevent American men from drinking whilst abroad and, as such, many American soldiers drank wine and spirits whilst they were stationed in France. This was made easy by the sheer number of establishments that served alcohol in France, and the French army’s more open view on drinking alcohol. Ultimately, this helped American soldiers cope with the war, as drinking and bonding with their fellow soldiers (both considered masculine activities) allowed those serving on the front to feel more at ease with their situation.

The End of the War

On 11 November 1918, the First World War officially came to an end. For four years, much of Europe had been torn asunder, empires had crumbled and borders had been reshaped. All of the nations discussed here had changed, and been changed in turn, by the war: America enacted prohibition and demonstrated its power to the world; Russia experienced a revolution, and maintained its ban on vodka; and France’s national identity and love of wine had been reinforced, after its soldiers grew to love the foul-tasting pinard.

The supply of alcohol during the war allowed men – whose sense of masculinity often made them feel the need to hide their feelings or ‘stick it out’ – a brief reprieve from the horror of the war. A 1922 report on shellshock reinforced the conclusion that many military commanders reached during the war: once the initial euphoria of the war’s beginning had died off, morale began to plummet. They believed that morale “can be, and had to be created,” and this morale came in the form of a daily alcoholic ration. For military commanders who supported alcohol, this seemed like the perfect solution: a quick fix to an ongoing problem. For the soldiers on the front line, fighting in squalid trenches in unfamiliar lands for four years on end, alcohol became a necessary evil: a way to cope with the horrors of the war.

The socio-historical link between men and alcohol was not a new trend brought on by the war; the war merely served to reinforce it. And this acquired connection between alcohol, violence and masculinity follows us to this day. Many men feel as if they cannot express their fear, anxiety and other emotions, except through anger; they feel the need to numb and dull their minds and, as a means, they turn to alcohol. Just like the soldiers during the First World War, one hundred years ago.

Header image by Kai Henrich on Flickr

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