Yes of course you know best a century later

British army officers wrongly believed alcohol made WW1 troops better fighters, claims addiction specialist


British army officers wrongly believed WW1 troops fought better if they were drunk in battle, an addiction specialist has claimed.

Senior commanders encouraged drinking among soldiers as they were following medical advice that claimed alcohol made them more effective fighters.

Go live in a trench, under battle conditions, then say booze isn’t a good idea.

Many colonels agreed that the recommended level was too low and would give nervous fighters extra helpings to improve their confidence before infiltrating enemy lines.

Lt Colonel J.S.Y. Rogers, a medical officer to the 4th Black Watch, said in the Report of Enquiry into Shell Shock in 1922: “Had it not been for the rum ration I do not think we should have won the war. Before the men went over the top they had a good meal and a double ration of rum and coffee.”

Quite so. Our modern man:

Speaking at the Chalke Valley History Festival near Salisbury, he said: “There are a lot of myths around. If you want people to charge into the enemy machine guns and you give them a bit of alcohol, it probably makes them a little more likely to do that but on the whole most of the research I have seen shows there is no real evidence that this really helped.

“It was the opinion of the Black watch medical officer that WW1 would not have been won if people had not been drinking. I think that on the whole the effect of these drugs on military effectiveness was negative.”

Dr Leighton added: “It is probable that it made them braver and more willing to take risks. Whether this always made for more effective operations is open to doubt.”

Which is to be an idiot. Well up into 1917, even into early ’18, the problem with the British Army was that it couldn’t conduct complex operations. The well trained Expeditionary Force was mostly gone and had been far too small for this sort of war anyway. The Pals Battalions Followed, then the conscription army from 1916 onwards. That last really only becoming capable of anything more than a “walk that way men!” after that year and a bit of both training and then experience of the real thing. This all being not so much about the private solder, that’s only a part of it, it’s about having the NCOs with experience.

The booze got them to move forward. The tactic required was to get them to move forward.

39 thoughts on “Yes of course you know best a century later”

  1. “In the front line, rum was issued twice a day – at dawn and at dusk. An unknown subaltern said the following, “There are men so devout they live for rum. I honestly believe some I know would commit suicide if the rum ration were withdrawn. And in truth the rum is good – fine, strong, warming stuff – the very concentrated essence of army-council wisdom.”

    IMHO the morale effect is paramount, the dutch courage secondary.

  2. Here’s another;

    “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. Those who have not spent a night standing or sitting or lying in mud with an east wind blowing and the temperature below freezing may think that I am extravagant in my abuse of the man who denied the soldiers their rum rations. Those who have will know I am too temperate. “

  3. What would have got the lads up and over the trench, and running in the opposite direction, was finding out their Prime Minister and government would be proudly announcing a century hence that men were really women if they really wanted to be, and that Plod would be knocking on your door if you disagreed.

  4. Yes, but think of the long term risks to health of a few tots of rum a day for such men in their late teens or early twenties. They didn’t know what our expert media and governing class now know – that even moderate alcohol consumption takes weeks off your life!

  5. Bloke in North Dorset

    Not wanting to be outdone in the crazy stakes it won’t be long before the anti smoking zealots join in and tell us how bad it was that they got free cigarettes, let alone being allowed to smoke.

  6. He’s an ‘addiction specialist’. When you have a hammer every problem is a nail, or however the saying goes.

  7. Just to put modern rules in perspective… the Royal Navy’s rum ration was originally half-a-pint of “proof strength” (i.e. at least 57° alcohol, tested by soaking gunpowder and igniting it) spirits per man per day. That’s sixteen units of alcohol a day, or a hundred and ten units a week.

    And far from collapsing and dying in puddles of cirrhosis, on that ration we ensured that Britannia ruled the waves, and achieved feats like the World’s Shortest War (1896, Queen Victoria, By the Grace of God, of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland Queen, Defender of the Faith, Empress of India; versus His Highness Sayyid Sheikh Khalid bin Barghash, Sultan of Zanzibar.) Thirty-six minutes from the ultimatum expiring to their surrender, and we allegedly even sent the Sultan the bill for the ammunition we used… we did imperialism properly in those days)

  8. “Senior commanders encouraged drinking among soldiers as they were following medical advice that claimed alcohol made them more effective fighters.”

    See, some things don’t change – medical advice was crap then, and is crap now!

  9. Its odd that the moral relativists who refuse to make moral judgements on anything in the here and now (except of course anyone of even slightly right wing views, who are of course unmitigated evil) are quite happy to impose their moral judgements on the past.

    After all the distant past could reasonably be described as male dominated, sexist, homophobic and racist. Attitudes that are exactly mirrored within a certain bloc of ‘diversity’ that we have amongst us now. Guess which gets excoriated and which gets lauded?

  10. I suspect that there is a big difference between the over-educated idiot’s idea of effective fighting and that of the soldier in a WW1 trench.
    Will alcohol help in precision aiming missiles from a drone? Probably not.
    Will it help you face hand-to-hand combat with a man determined to ram a bayonet into your guts? Within reason, probably yes.

  11. Before modern medicine, doctors prescribed alcohol for all manner of things… Quite rightly too!

    Now they’re more into proscribing it than prescribing it…

  12. Half a pint? Thought it was a gill, a quarter pint?

    Though there was that time (hmm, Anson’s time maybe?) when there were two rum rations a day and there was a certain amount of complaining that not much got done.

  13. The British Empire was built by people who nowadays would not be permitted to operate heavy machinery

  14. You may talk of gin and beer
    when you’re quartered safe out here
    and you’re sent to penny fights and Aldershot it,
    but when it comes to slaughter,
    you’ll do your work on water
    and you’ll lick the bloomin’ boots of them that’s got it.

    I looked up gunga din on somehow the first name search didn’t work so looked through the many many Dins.. and found several ganga dins.

  15. Fleming writes of Bond dosing himself up on Benzedrine before a particularly hazardous mission requiring heightened senses.

  16. Tim

    An eighth of a pint between 1850 and 1971, when the ration was abolished. From 1823 to 1850, the rationwas a quarter of a pint; prior to that, half a pint.

  17. Brig Sir Charles Farnsbarns KCVO MC (Retd)

    I used to issue my men a tot of crystal meth before going into battle.

    Made their teeth fall out, but they were damned good fighting unit – when pointed in the right direction.

  18. Sir Charles

    You jest, but my father was issued with jangling pocket loads of amphetamines in Burma during the war: if you absolutely need to stay awake, and they did, it helps to have a little boost.

    Slept like a zombie,though, when they came off the line.

  19. Steve,

    In the absence of any real point, the military has been taken over by bureaucrats and idiot politicians. They do things that meet political rather than military aims like women in the military. They spend money on glossy crap that idiot journalists puff up like new aircraft carriers and F-35s.

    If we had a real threat of war, we’d be building submarines, missiles and drones.Why put a human in a plane to drop a bomb when you can just launch missiles or drones? Sure, it’s less discriminate, but in a total war situation, no-one cares about the bad PR of slaughtering the population of Dresden.

  20. There’s ample evidence for the effects of alcohol on men’s aggression from Cinderella Rockerfeller’s nightclub in Northampton in the 1980s.

  21. BoM4

    There’s ample evidence for the effects of alcohol on men’s aggression from Cinderella Rockerfeller’s nightclub in Northampton in the 1980s.

    Now there’s a blast from the past. You could almost smell the testosterone and feel the aggression as you walked in. It was, amazingly, the cool place to be for a while.

  22. Did it still have the stainless steel dance floor where blokes would look down and see the reflections of what was, or wasn’t, there under the mini skirts of the dancing females? Not me, of course!!

  23. BoM4 – If we had a real threat of war

    We’ve been in several wars over the past few years (and are *still* in Iraq and Afghanistan, FFS) but I know what you mean.

    It’s one thing to bomb the wedding parties of semi-retarded goatherders or lob Tomahawks at tracksuit-wearing Serbs, quite another to send 8 stone girls* against a Russian or Chinee – or even Argentine – infantry regiment.

    The British Army will likely have to learn the hard way, because there will always be war.

    *The official story is they’ll have to meet fitness and proficiency standards, but as we know this just means the standards will be ignored or reduced to worthless

  24. WWI got a bit of a going over in the 60s by liberals and hasn’t really recovered. Most think Blackadder Goes Forth is true.

    Most of those that fought in it thought they’d fought in a just war and were well led. 100,000+ people filed past Haig’s coffin when he died in 1928. A higher percentage of officers died than men, those from top public schools and Oxbridge died in higher percentages than average, advances in technology were phenomenal and inevitably took time to learn how to handle.

    Overall around 8 out of every 9 soldiers came home.

  25. Andrew C, the late, mostly unlamented Alan Clark, with his book ‘The Donkeys’, was a firm pusher of the incompetent generals theme. No liberal, Clark. A charlatan and a chancer, perhaps.

  26. @EdwardLud

    I’d recommend Mud, Blood and poppycock by Gordon Corrigan.

    A little dry and fact filled but it’s the facts that counter the myths.

  27. “Overall around 8 out of every 9 soldiers came home.” My mother’s side of the family, there were 7 brothers of my Grandfather and 5 of my grandmother. My Grandfather and one other brother were regulars, 2 brothers were too young to sign up. 8 of my great uncles joined the Pals Battalions, not one of those survived the Somme. The remains of one are in one of those carefully maintained cemeteries along the old front line, the others were all MIA. The Regular soldiers served for the whole war on the Western Front and somehow made it through.

  28. The one constant in war is that academics will always tell you how badly military personnel adjust to change after the fact, as they say hindsight is 20/20

    Academics who of course were never anywhere near the fighting, along with the politicians who started it

    A lot easier to lay bodies on the line when they are not yours

    The fundamental issue with western militaries is they are hamstring by law and political policy that prevents them doing what needs to be done as effectively as possible. Their opponents are not

  29. With the daily rum ration, the royal navy did have a lot of its senior crew not survive. Between diet, medical support, disease and the alcohol the chances of living to old age, say 50, were low.

    Liver problems were common. Did leave openings for younger men to get promoted though, always good in peacetime.

  30. @ Starfish
    What you mean is *those academics who were nowhere near the fighting”. My headmaster in the 1950s read Classics at Cambridge before (maybe before and after) volunteeering; the hospital ship on which he was being transported home was torpedoed.

  31. Epitaphs of the War: A Dead Statesman

    I could not dig: I dared not rob:
    Therefore I lied to please the mob.
    Now all my lies are proved untrue
    And I must face the men I slew.
    What tale shall serve me here among
    Mine angry and defrauded young?

    Rudyard Kipling

  32. Jason Lynch: The Zanzibar war was partially part of the UK’s mission in stamping out the slave trade.

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