Thursday, 3 July 2014

Wine and Warfare Part 10 : Rum and Blood

By Rupert Millar

New Zealanders in their distinctive “lemon squeezer”
hats receive their rum ration
If the French army had wine, the British, like their navy, had rum. Rum had largely replaced beer as the drink ration for the troops since the 18th century and it was as integral to the narrative of the army as the famous “shilling a day” which constituted a man’s pay.

The role of rum reached new heights during the bloody battles of the First World War in northern France and Flanders as Britain’s first conscript army came face to face with modern warfare.

Rum (indeed alcohol generally) served three main purposes in the war: firstly as a morale booster; secondly as coping mechanism and thirdly as what is known as a “combat motivator” and all three merged quite seamlessly into the other, their purposes over-lapping, as time progressed.

The famous “gunfire” ration was reintroduced by the British as a warmer during the first winter in the trenches of 1914/1915 and was quickly adopted by the “Dominion” forces (Canadian, Australian, South African and New Zealand) too. As it came in at an eye-watering 54% abv, just a tot was meant to be added to tea or coffee in cold weather but it eventually became a daily ritual for troops on the frontline.

A memorandum to the Canadian overseas minister, Sir Albert Kemp, noted: “It is left to the discretion of the commanding officer as to whether oxo, soup or rum is required. As a general proposition, preference is expressed for the latter. The individual man is in all cases free to refuse the issue of rum if he so desires, but this option is only exercised in a few instances.”

The rum ration was dished out by an NCO sometimes under the watchful eye of an officer, sometimes not, twice a day at the dawn and dusk stand-tos (the times the enemy was most likely to attack). If the enemy made no appearance then the NCOs would serve the rum.

A popular trench song (sung to the tune of “If You’re Happy and You Know It”) put the phenomenon to verse:

If the sergeant drinks your rum, never mind
And your face may lose its smile, never mind
Though he’s just a bloody sot, he’s entitled to the lot
If the sergeant drinks your rum, never mind.”

A particularly insightful comic
The pursuit of rum (and the lack of it) was dealt with in the famous trench newspaper The Wipers Times. It ran a serial in late 1916 into early 1917 entitled Narpoo Rum. “Narpoo” or “na’poo” was an Anglicisation of “Il n’y a plus”, “there’s no more”, which featured highly in army slang at the time and was up there with, “Wipers” (Ypres) and “San Fairy Ann” (“ça ne fait rien”) in the Franglais lexicon of most Tommies.

Featuring the thinly disguised detective, “Herlock Shomes” and his assistant “Hotsam”, the series spanned five instalments, with Shomes searching for the brigade’s stolen rum ration around Ypres. Amusingly the veil sometimes slips and the characters are referred to outright as Holmes and Watson – the story may be considered non-canonical however by true fans of Conan Doyle’s sleuth.

The paper also frequently printed poems and fake letters complaining about the lack of rum, as well as prevailing rumours that a whisky “drought” is on the cards - Scotch being the officer’s preferred tipple.

As with the French, although humour could alleviate some of the madness and suffering, drink was important to morale when the going got tough. Once the thin façade of war’s “glory” had been roughly disabused and the troops were exposed to the grinding life of the trenches, with random shelling, sniper fire, gas attacks and rats a fact of daily life, then rum was part of a coping mechanism that many found essential.

David Jones in In Parenthesis writes of the rum ration being issued in rather desperately pathetic terms:

O have a care – don’t spill the precious
O don’t jog his hand – ministering;
Do take care.
O please – give the bugger elbow room

“The spirit of our troops is excellent”, 
the legendary wartime cartoonist Bruce Bairnsfather
 on the soldiers’ appreciation of rum
Commanders made sure that units spent three days to a week in the very front line having rotated through secondary lines before and after and then enjoying a week’s rest behind the battle zone. Nonetheless, month after month of rotation, seeing terrible things, losing friends occasionally, living in a dirty hole and always aware of the danger posed by the enemy was enough to wear men down both mentally and physically. Rum was a bright spot in an otherwise dull and dangerous life.

Matters were made even more severe when members of the temperance movement at home, and sometimes in the army itself, tried to ban the rum ration on numerous occasions as they claimed it promoted alcoholism and was immoral (as opposed to killing men you’ve never met).

Its interference was not well received. Captain Alexander Stewart of the 3rd Cameronians made a particularly strong point on the matter:

The finest thing that ever happened in the trenches was the rum ration, and never was it more needed than on the Somme. Yet some blasted, ignorant fool of a general – damned in this world and the next – wanted to stop it and, for a time, did.”

“The man must be worse than the lowest type of criminal, have no knowledge of the conditions in which troops exist, and be entirely out of touch with the men who are unfortunate enough to have him as their commander. He should have been taken up to the line and frozen in the mud. I would have very willingly sat on his head, as he was a danger to the whole army. Curse him.”

Unlike the French who seem to have latched more persistently onto wine as a shining beacon of Gallic resistance and fortitude, for British and Dominion soldiers drink was tied up in much more melancholy terms.

The Western Front as it is usually remembered.
Australians at Passchendaele 1917
Suicide was not as common as might be supposed given the circumstances but the poet Siegfried Sassoon mentioned it and the lack of rum’s part in it, in his poem, Suicide in the Trenches:

I knew a simple soldier boy
Who grinned at life in empty joy,
Slept soundly through the lonesome dark,
And whistled early with the lark.

In winter trenches cowed and glum,
with crumps and lice and lack of rum,
He put a bullet through his brain.
No one spoke of him again.

Like their forebears in the 17th century, British soldiers were given an extra tot of rum before going over the top for either a raid or larger offensive. When faced with the prospect of advancing under the sights of German machine gunners a little encouragement does not appear unreasonable.

One veteran recalled the air on the first day of the battle of the Somme smelling thickly of, “rum and blood”, while Maurice Searle of the 18th Battalion (Essex Scottish), a Canadian regiment, remembered that the only way the men kept going during the battle of Passchendaele in 1917 was, “more than ordinary issues of rum”.

Confronted with fear, desperation and the world’s first taste of unrelenting mechanised warfare, it is little surprise that, for better or worse, alcohol became a unifying and stabilising factor for “Tommy” as he struggled to survive and maintain a semblance of sanity.

The ration may have been irregular but both it and a sense of humour ensured the army, despite the occasional wobble, never cracked en masse.

“Without it,” one medical officer famously remarked, “I doubt we would have won the war.”

An enlightening and in-depth look at the use of rum in the Canadian Army during WW1 (and applicable to all British and Dominion forces) to which the author is indebted can be found here.

* Please note: this article first appeared on www.thedrinksbusiness.com on 8th January 2014 and is reproduced with the permission of the author. There has been some minor editing of the original by Alex Crawford.

The series so far...

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