FIRST WORLD WAR FOUGHT WITH “LIQUID COURAGE”
RUM A COMBAT MOTIVATOR
BY RICHARD FOOT
It was a potent weapon of the First World War, and for Canadian soldiers entrenched on the Western Front it arrived each week in gallon jars marked with the letters S.R.D.-Special Red Demerara, 86-proof Jamaican rum.
According to a new study based on the words of troops writing home from the front, there was more than patriotism and professional discipline behind the fighting spirit of Canadian soldiers in Europe. Most importantly, there was rum.
“Rum was essential for providing some men with liquid courage, while for others, it helped to control nerves or simply to dull them,” writes historian Tim Cook in Canadian Military History, an academic journal published by the Centre for Milltary, Strategic and Disarmament Studies at Wilfred Laurier University in Waterloo, Ont.
“Rum was an institutionalized and regimented part of the ritual of enduring the war.”
Wrote one Canadian soldier in a letter home: “Under the spell of this all-powerful stuff, one almost felt that he could eat a German dead or alive, steel helmet and all.”
Historians have known for decades that alcohol fortified the morale of soldiers on both sides of the war. When the Canadian army arrived in Europe in 1915, it adopted the British practice of administering to troops the daily “rum ration”, a tradition started centuries ago in the Royal Navy.
Now Mr. Cook has produced the first scholarly study of rum’s importance in the daily lives of Canadian troops. His article “Demon Rum and the Canadian Trench Soldier of the First World War” says rum preserved in soldiers the will to fight and helped produce the victories at Passchendaele and Vimy Ridge that brought pride to Canada.
People tend to focus on the buddy system, that soldiers fought for their pals in the trenches,” said Mr. Cook in an interview. “Well, the thing I found while reading through their diaries and letters is this little three-letter word kept popping up-rum.”
Mr. Cook, a First World War author, says the drink was essential for the Canadian army in several ways: It boosted the morale of troops in the appalling trenches; it helped men sleep at night under the constant barrage of explosives; and because rum was issued by senior ranks and sometimes withheld as punishment, it helped enforce the hierarchical structure of the army.
But rum’s primary purpose was as a combat motivator. When drams were ladled out to soldiers minutes before an attack, it suppressed the fear of rational men, terrified of climbing out of their trenches into the teeth of enemy fire.
“If we had not had the rum we would have died,” wrote Private G. Boyd, who fought for Canada at Passchendaele.
Often rum was overused. At the Battle of Amiens in 1918, a Lieutenant Lunt of Canada’s 4th Battalion was passing out rum on the firing line taken he came across one soldier so scared his teeth were chattering. .
“Lunt plied him with four double rum shots before the shakings topped,” writes Mr. Cook. “when they finally attacked, Lunt remembered seeing the young lad stumbling forward in a drunken daze before he was shot in the face.”
The great irony is that back home, the temperance movement was in full swim By 1917, all provinces except Quebec had been convinced to enact prohibition. Abstainers then wanted to revoke alcohol privileges for the army overseas.
While some soldiers did refuse their rum rations, most greeted the movement with anger.
“Oh you psalm-singers, who raise your hands in horror at the thought of the perdition the boys are bound for, if they should happen to take a nip of rum to keep a little warmth in their poor battered bodies,” wrote Harold Baldwin, a Canadian infantryman.
“I wish you could all lie shivering in a hole full of icy liquid, with every nerve in your body quivering with pain, with the harrowing moans of the wounded forever ringing in your ears, with hell’s own dm raging all around.”
From: National Post, March 17, 2000.