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Rum In The Trenches

by Tim Cook


More than 230,000 Canadians were killed or wounded in the slaughter and inhuman living conditions of World War I. Despite the constant hemorrhage of casualties, which peaked during the big battles of Ypres, the Somme, Passchendaele and Last 100 Days, the perseverance and spirit of young Canadians showed that bravery was not just found in how many medals were collected, but also in how the soldiers kept their nerve in the face of disaster and deprivation.

Accepting Britain’s declaration of war in August 1914 as its own, Canada greeted the conflict’s arrival with enthusiasm and celebration. Notions of imperialism, glory and adventure were enough to enthrall many young men. Once overseas, however, soldiers found that the type of conflict they had envisioned was far different from the reality of the Western Front. With death lurking constantly, with men wallowing in mud and sharing their shallow trenches with rats, lice and corpses, few notions of glory and adventure survived long. Instead, such heroic sentiments were replaced by the grim need to ‘stick it out.’ Surviving in the trenches, both physically and psychologically, required that morale at the individual and group level be continually strengthened.

There were many tools to bolster morale, the most notable of which was the support and friendship of one’s mates, who shared in the misery and ordeals. But it was not simply their peers that kept soldiers fighting. Discipline, pride in the regiment, fear of punishment, faith in a cause, and revenge were all factors underpinning the will to continue fighting in conditions that made hell look welcome. Another, more down to earth morale-booster was the daily rum ration.

Canadian infantryman Ralph Bell wrote that, “when the days shorten, and the rain never ceases; when the sky is ever grey, the nights chill, and trenches thigh deep in mud and water; when the front is altogether a beastly place, in fact, we have one consolation. It comes in gallon jars, marked simply SRD.” That SRD was army-issued Services Rum Diluted or Special Red Demerara (there is some difference of opinion on what the letters stood for), and it became an institutionalized part of the ritual of enduring the war.

Rum and other spirits had long formed part of the daily issue of the British soldier and sailor on campaign. During the South African War, where Canadian troops fought under British command, they received a rum ration consisting of 1/2 gill (less than half a pint), three times per week. When the 1st Canadian Infantry Division arrived in France in February 1915, its units were apprenticed to British veterans already in the line. In the process of learning how to survive on the Western Front, they were again introduced to the rum ration.

Rum was used as a combat motivator, a medicine, and as part of the reward system. An examination of the multiple uses of rum in battle provides insight into the collective lives of these soldiers. As a nuanced tool in supporting morale, it produced results to the point that it was perhaps not surprising that more than one soldier remarked: “If we hadn’t had our rum, we would have lost the war.”

Life in the trenches was nasty and often short. Summer months were spent in sweltering heat, with rotting corpses and flies. Winter carried its own trials, with mud and freezing water saturating the trenches. The squalor broke men down. It was as unnatural a way to live as having people you have never met attempt to kill you each day. With their apocalyptic landscapes, battlefields like the Somme in 1916 and Passchendaele in 1917 were veritable wastelands.

M.A. Searle of the 18th Cdn. Battalion was one of the infantrymen ordered to hold the dissolving ground at Passchendaele and he frankly recounted: “Most of us carried on…because of not limitless but more than ordinary issues of rum.”

Fighting in the same mud, Private G. Boyd of the 8th Bn. remembered that “if we had not had the rum we would have died.”

Rum was initially given to men at the dawn stand-to and stand-down at dusk. As these were the expected times for an enemy attack, the whole forward unit was called out to wait with rifles at the ready. If no attack came, sergeants doled out two ounces of the over-proof rum to each man. The practice of stand-to faded out in the second year of the war when both sides were aware that the other was on high alert, but the rum ration remained.

Regulations ordered that it was to be drunk in the presence of an officer or non-commissioned officer so no hoarding could be done, with any extra rum to be poured out into the mud. In reality though, not a lot of rum went into the dirt, with friends of the NCOs and old hands generally benefitting. As one official memorandum noted, “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.”

If the soldiers found the rum invaluable, so too did the officers. The issue of rum to soldiers reinforced the hierarchal nature of the armies that was so integral to their success. A few lead, many follow. In the unparalleled slaughter of World War I, discipline and hierarchy were essential. Soldiers rarely questioned orders, even seemingly suicidal ones. Punishment and discipline were the main deterrents for potential troublemakers, but rum also played a role in reinforcing this hierarchy. The clay rum jars were issued to the battalions, with each quartermaster dividing it out to the companies. Men who were under punishment were excluded. Those who were in the good books lined up and the more senior ranking men moved down the line doling out the precious liquid.

Each soldier waited for his share, all the while aware that it was the higher-ranking soldier who divided up the portions, giving a little more or less depending on his whim. Indeed, the politics of power were essential in all armies and the rum issue helped to support them.

Rum was also useful as a depressant. While in the trenches, soldiers were chronically sleep-deprived. One American who served in the Canadian Corps recounted in a postwar novel: “Sleep, sleep–if only we could sleep. Our faces become gray. Each face is a different shade of gray. Some are chalk-colored, some with a greenish tint, some yellow. But all of us are pallid with fear and fatigue.”

The rum ration helped as a sedative, a “warming elixir” as one trench soldier described it, and its potency could knock men out for hours, notwithstanding the cold or heat, the lice or rats, and the constant pounding of the big guns.

There was a need to continually shore up defences at night or to protect the front lines by patrolling and raiding. As a result, extra rum was one of the few rewards for men who went beyond the call of duty. Patrolling and raiding in no man’s land were dangerous assignments. These raids, normally carried out by parties of anywhere between a handful and several hundred, were designed to win control of the battlefield, gather intelligence, provide battle craft experience, and, obviously, to kill the enemy. Upon carrying out their raids, survivors were rewarded with a mug of rum.

Other strenuous tasks like carrying wounded men through miles of mud or repairing crumbling trenches also made a soldier a candidate for a late-night liquid issue. Particularly ghastly work like grave digging was among the worst of the soldier’s fatigues. Private Ernest Spillett of the 46th Bn. wrote in a 1917 letter about having to clear up the corpses from the battalion’s last tour: “I am used to these sights they don’t have to prime me with rum before I can handle a man; altho’ I have and do certainly drink it sometimes on those jobs but usually afterwards, to take the taste of dead men out of my mouth.”

After the disastrous campaigns of 1915, the British concluded that the infantry could only pass through the killing ground of no man’s land by advancing behind massive artillery barrages. Still, the barrages never annihilated all the defenders, and one machine-gunner was enough to wreak murderous havoc.

With hours and even days of artillery bombardments “softening” the enemy defences, the worst time on the front was waiting for zero hour. As minutes ticked down on synchronized watches, men fiddled with final adjustments, prayed, and gripped their rifle stocks with sweating hands.

Sergeant Archie Mackinnon of the 58th Bn., wrote to his sister that “after a three-hour artillery bombardment, when you finally get the word ‘Over top in one minute,’ your heart comes clean out of your mouth.” Many must have felt as if they were waiting for their own executions.

“We were all scared…but there was a job to do and you had to do it. The thing to do was to try and hide it from the others and not let fellows know you’re scared, ” recounted Sergeant James Page of the 42nd Bn. That was not always easy, but George Bell of the 1st Bn. recorded that “a good stiff ‘tot’ of rum served to buck up the spirits of those wavering.”

Officers and NCOs went up and down the forward firing line to calm men with a greeting and a ladle of rum, beyond the normal ration. Even the generals far from the front realized the importance of giving artificial stimulants to their warriors. Operational orders for the Canadian Corps’ attack on Vimy Ridge, for instance, declared that “the comfort, efficiency and fighting value of the troops are greatly increased by the issue of fortified alcohol….”

Some operations succeeded while others failed, but all had terrible casualties. The ebb and flow of battle meant that soldiers attacked and were, in turn, counter-attacked. The wounded were left behind as flotsam. During and after battle, those wounded men who could walk struggled to the rear; but those who could not, called out in pain or waited as stretcher-bearers braved enemy fire, administering to them in turn.

When soldiers were found, wounds were bound and a shot of rum poured down throats to lessen the pain. Those who survived the agonizing hours until they made it back to a casualty clearing station or a field ambulance were once again given painkillers like rum, port or morphine before a hasty medical operation.

Yet rum had medicinal uses other than for treating casualties and it was frequently used in a preventive role. If one is to believe the soldiers, rum helped to quell the rampant flu and colds that circulated. In addition, rum was valuable in cases of emotional trauma. One soldier declared in his postwar memoirs: “There are not one, but numberless occasions, on which a tot of rum has saved a man from sickness, possibly from a serious illness. Many a life-long teetotaler has conformed to SRD and taken the first drink of his life on the battlefields of France, not because he wanted to, but because he had to.”

Fortifying men with alcohol was not always the best policy, however. Soldiers high on rum could lose their head on the battlefield and get themselves unnecessarily wounded or killed. “Under the spell of this all-powerful stuff,” wrote one Canadian, “one almost felt that he could eat a German, dead or alive, steel helmet and all.” For that very reason, rum was sometimes withheld before battle. Once again, it depended on the officers and units. That policy did not always sit well with the expectant soldiers and one draft of rough lumbermen from northern British Columbia threatened a 54th Bn. officer when he tried to withhold their rum before battle. They got their rum, and he, as recounted years later in an interview, learned not to meddle with their ration.

As the issue of rum was left to the prerogative of commanding officers and medical officers, it placed an important agent in their hands. If the CO was a teetotaler, then the men might get lime juice and pea soup instead of rum.

One of the Canadian Corps’ most attack-oriented commanders, or a ‘fire-eater’ in the parlance of the time, was Victor Odlum, commanding officer of the 7th Bn. and then the 11th Brigade. With a missionary background, Odlum refused to issue rum to his troops. Nicknamed “Old Lime Juice” by his men, in the words of E.L.M. Burns, then a junior officer, but a general in the next war, his temperance stance “got minus zero in the front-line opinion polls.” Mutinous feelings became so strong that Odlum’s superior officer, General David Watson, had to overrule him and institute the rum ration in February 1917. In an organization where soldiers had little power, the withholding of rum was important enough for them to raise their disenfranchised voices.

The importance of rum in the trenches was reinforced by its prominence in the cultural expression of the soldiers. Replete in song and poem, the rum ration was an essential component of the unique culture that developed in the trenches. Some of the choice anecdotes in their memoirs and letters revolve around rum. An examination of their writings, rather than those of the senior officers or official historians, shows how references to rum slip into so many of their poems, trench newspapers and memoirs. Even the short-form name of the rum itself–SRD–was toyed with by the men. They jokingly referred to it as Seldom Reaches Destination, Sergeants Rarely Deliver, Soldiers’ Real Delight or Soon Runs Dry. Along with the shared language of soldiers, rum was a component of their more joyous occasions like singing. One of the few opportunities that soldiers had to express themselves, their songs consisted of racy lyrics where women, wine and humour were intermingled.

A favourite, The Old Barbed Wire, has a stanza that revolves around the sometimes justified suspicion of the sergeant-major hoarding and cheating the soldiers out of their rum:

If you want to find the sergeant-major,
I know where he is, I know where he is.
If you want to find the sergeant-major,
I know where he is,
He’s boozing up the privates’ rum.
I’ve seen him, I’ve seen him,
Boozing up the privates’ rum,
I’ve seen him,
Boozing up the privates’ rum.

Although all but ignored in the official military records, rum, as well as the beer canteens, estaminets, cigarettes, letters and trench newspapers, were essential items in supporting morale for the overseas soldier. It was these small comforts that were of prime concern to the individual in the firing line; grand operational plans mattered far less. As we have seen, rum was a complex and multi-layered tool. Equally important, rum was the soldiers’ tool and without it, the civilians who made up the soldier’s profession–the bankers, clerks and farmers, who put down their pens and plows for rifles–might well have collapsed more frequently under the terrible strain of trench warfare.

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