From his trench barrack on the front line at Avion near Vimy Ridge, Lieutenant-Colonel Herbert Molson ripped a piece of paper from his notebook and began writing his eldest son. “When this war is finished, when the battle has been won,” he resolutely stated on July 25, 1917, “I will return to Canada to fight an enemy which is as tyrannical as the Kaiser.” Herbert Molson would not be alone, however, in his fight against his Canadian enemy—the prohibitionists. As they had in the trenches during the First World War, his brothers in arms would stand beside him. Together, they proved a potent force.
At the end of the war, thousands of Canadians returned victoriously home. After four years they had succeeded in defeating the forces of authoritarianism, but having put their lives on the line, many of these same veterans were horrified to find that the country they had fought for was in the grips of prohibition. “Having resisted the tyranny of Wilhelm,” stated the Great War Veterans Association (GWVA)—the forerunner of The Royal Canadian Legion—“we do not propose to submit to the meanest of all tyrannies, the tyranny of petticoat government and its embrace of the dry regime.” In time, Canada’s First World War veterans and their supporters would win the right to drink beer and, in the process, create a culture of moderation that we now consider very much Canadian.
Before enlisting with the 5th Royal Highlanders of Canada in 1914, Herbert Molson was head of the storied brewery that bore his family name. On the eve of war, Molson’s was one of Canada’s largest breweries, producing 125,000 barrels of beer and employing over 350 workers. Many who worked there would serve overseas. But in their absence the brewery came under siege by the prohibitionists who sought to legislate the company and the rest of the “liquor traffic” out of business. And so for Herbert Molson there was the family business to protect as well as the need to fight on behalf of the men he served with.
With approximately 424,000 Canadians overseas, the prohibitionists seized a once-in-a-generation opportunity to end their long war with the “wets.” For decades they had claimed that booze was the root of all evil. It caused misery, poverty, health defects and crime, but they were unable to sway a majority of the population prior to 1914. During the war, they added another layer to their argument, associating their cause with the war effort and employing the rhetoric of “efficiency,” “duty,” and “self-sacrifice.” As one New Brunswick prohibitionist stated: “While our armies are fighting the German Kaiser of frightfulness, we are fighting the Alcohol Kaiser of life.” In Protestant churches a similar message was heard. “It is a fight with an enemy more mighty, more merciless, more beastly, more fiend-like, more diabolical than the Teuton,” declared Rev. C.A. Williams. “The fight is on with the waste and the ruin and the ravages of booze…that menaces our glory and our destiny as Germany never did.”
As a result of this propaganda campaign, the prohibitionists managed to pressure provincial legislatures to pass “dry” legislation. Saskatchewan was first in 1915. Then, in 1916, came Ontario, Alberta, Manitoba, Nova Scotia, followed in 1917 by New Brunswick and British Columbia. The Yukon Territory and Quebec climbed aboard the wagon in 1918. The temperance acts in each of these provinces closed drinking establishments and forbade the sale of booze. When, in March 1918, Robert Borden stopped the manufacture of “intoxicating drinks,” Canada had finally gone “dry.”
While prohibitionists celebrated, soldiers overseas commiserated with each other when they heard the news. Most did not get the opportunity to vote in the provincial referendums on prohibition. If they had, the majority would have voted against the measure, as evidenced by the fact that only one in 10 B.C. soldiers voted for prohibition. Perhaps the vote would have been more lopsided had the troops known that the “drys” wanted to extend prohibition to the trenches of Europe.
For better or worse, booze was a regular part of military life. On the voyage overseas, Molson treated the men of the 5th Royal Highlanders to kegloads of Molson’s Ale. The men were so grateful they recorded their feelings in song.
We are the Royal Highlanders,
we come from Montreal
We come from Verdun, Westmount,
some from Côte St. Paul
And when we get to Germany we’ll
show them we are the best.
We’re the boys to stop the bullets
with the Molson’s on our chest
So let’s away to Germany, will be
our battle cry
So let’s away to Germany, we’ll
drink before we die
And when we get to Germany we’ll
show them we are the best.
We’re the boys to stop the bullets
with the Molson’s on our chest
Soon after their arrival in Britain, Canadian troops began visiting local pubs in the little villages around Salisbury Plain. When the Canadian Expeditionary Force arrived in Europe in 1915, the drinking continued. Mess life revolved around the bar, where soldiers had a brief chance to relax together, talk about events and girlfriends, and exchange raunchy jokes. Soldiers in France spent their spare hours in estaminets, the tiny taverns that occupied the front rooms of countless farms.
In the trenches, alcohol helped get soldiers through tough times. As infantryman Ralph Bell wrote: “When the days shorten, and the rain never ceases; when the sky is ever grey, the nights chill, and the 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 S.R.D. (Special Red Demerara rum).” While rum therefore acted as a means of escape, it also acted as a form of liquid courage, fuelling soldiers before attacks. “Under the spell of this all-powerful stuff,” wrote one Canadian soldier, “one almost felt that he could eat a German dead or alive, steel helmet and all.” Alcohol thus spilled into the social spaces soldiers occupied during the war.
When news that Canada was going dry reached Europe, soldiers generally reacted with disgust. Harold Baldwin, who joined Western Canada’s 5th Battalion in 1914 and lost a leg in Flanders and then heroically re-enlisted in 1917, had harsh words for the teetotalling do-gooders who had no clue about the horrors of war: “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. 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 din raging all around. Any one of you would need a barrel of it to keep his miserable life in his body.”
When Baldwin and thousands of other veterans returned home after the war, their bitterness lingered. During the war soldiers had felt entitled to the rum ration, seeing it as owed to them for the hard life in the trenches. Once home, they felt just as entitled to have a beer, given the sacrifices they had made overseas. But prohibition made public drinking illegal and full-strength beer difficult to get. “What the ordinary man wants,” the GWVA stated, “is some place where he can lawfully get a glass of beer in decent surroundings.”
Many veterans viewed prohibition as an illegal measure enacted while they were away. What had the great sacrifice been for if not the right to have a glass of beer in one’s favourite drinking hole? The questions echoed across the land and caused many to reconsider the morality of prohibition.
The “wets” had lost the battle over prohibition in part because they had been unable to build a broad-based coalition capable of drowning out the “drys.” With the war over, they sought to cap the flow of recent history. Veterans and other “moderates”—brewers, labourers, civil libertarians—didn’t advocate a return to the unregulated saloon. Nor were they interested in having hard liquor distributed without government control. Veterans desired “the legal public sale of beer and light wines,” or as Rear-Admiral Sir Charles E. Kingsmill, who served as the first director of the Naval Service of Canada, put it: “a sane, moderate compromise.” These men wanted the return of the legal drinking establishments; a place where they could share a beer with their comrades—men who had experienced the horrors and excitement of war. They wanted a place to relax together, talk politics, gossip and generally reaffirm their identities as veterans and working men, and many eventually found what they were looking for as more and more Legion branches sprang up.
But most of all, veterans wanted the return of full-strength beer. “We thirsty souls are craving an old-time ‘schooner’ of beer of moderate strength,” stated Lieutenant-Colonel Kelly Evans in 1919. Under the terms of national prohibition, Canadian brewers were restricted to producing non-intoxicating beverages with less than 1.5 per cent alcohol. All the major breweries produced these “near beers.” Labatt’s Cremo, the label advised, was “best served cold.”
Nationally, the number of breweries fell from 112 in 1915 to 66 in 1930. In 1918, with Herbert Molson still overseas, Molson’s introduced its own temperance ale. Beer drinkers despised it. Veterans maintained these brews were “sickening and damaging to the constitution,” “indigestible and nauseating” and “not fit for a Teuton.” Evans agreed and blamed the prohibitionists for inflicting tortures upon Canadians, “worthy to be classed with the atrocities inflicted on the early Christians in Rome, or the Huguenots in France.”
So what could veterans like the brewer Molson do to end the “tyranny” of prohibition?
For starters, they could let their collective voice be heard. While they were gone the prohibitionists had appropriated their image and voice as well as that of their enemy. Now, returning soldiers spoke for themselves and their message was decidedly different.
The GWVA equated the prohibitionists with the Kaiser himself, and this tactic seemed to carry more weight. Why not use it? It was the veterans who had met the Germans face-to-face and knew what the Kaiser truly stood for. Thus they had more authority to invoke his image.
Veterans also took to the streets to spread the word, thereby being seen as well as heard. They marched on provincial capitals and demanded the return of the “real stuff.” In Toronto, a parade of some 5,000 working men and veterans fell into line behind a pipe band and a banner that read For Beer and Country. They marched through the streets to the provincial legislature. Their slogan was: “If you are going to make it (beer), make it fit to drink.” In Montreal, veterans were told to “fall in” for a torchlight parade “in favour of beer and wine.” In B.C., the premier met with veterans who presented him with a petition signed by 30,000 individuals calling for the return of full-strength beer and the end of prohibition. On the east coast, veterans stood on street corners and caught passersby with anti-prohibition arguments. In Manitoba, the Legion demanded a plebiscite on prohibition and, having secured a petition with over 128,000 signatures, marched to meet premier John Bracken.
Brewers had been slow to react when the prohibitionists first launched their attacks. They had been unwilling to distance themselves from distillers and equally unwilling to reach out to other moderates. This allowed prohibitionists to paint brewers and distillers as “merchants of death.” Perhaps the war had taught Herbert Molson and other brewers the value of having the right allies, because after the war they reached out to labourers and veterans and, noncommittally, distanced themselves from distillers. “It is essential to kill the prejudice that beer and wine are poisons the same as whisky,” a Molson spokesman stated at the time. Beer was said to be healthy and temperate. People were always going to drink, Molson maintained. Governments might try to stop it, but it won’t work because, when a demand exists someone is going to supply it. Bootlegging during prohibition proved this. Thus the best thing to do, Molson stated, was to promote a culture of moderation.
In part, because of Herbert Molson’s campaign, Quebec became the first province to move to undo prohibition. In 1919, a vast majority of Quebecers bought the veterans-brewers argument that beer should be available in taverns, corner stores and cafes. As a result, only spirits were cut off. B.C. moved along a similar path. In 1920, voters registered a clear preference for moderate consumption and state-regulated distribution of booze. Veterans and brewers, however, kept up the fight, and in 1925 licensed places for beer drinking in B.C re-emerged. The Yukon Territory also got government control in 1921, and beer by the glass in 1925. The three prairie governments were the next to act, and in late 1925 imbibers were again enjoying full-strength beer by the bottle or glass. Ontario followed in 1927.
The post-prohibition reality represented a “sane and moderate compromise” that would not have materialized without the actions of veterans and brewers.
In 2009, Canadians drank eight billion bottles of beer. For many, it is Canada’s drink. Produced domestically, some say it embodies the national character. It is moderate, like the people who drink it, often understated and full of subtleties. And it is thanks to the actions of veterans, many of whom, like Herbert Molson, had intimate ties to the brewing industry, that Canadian culture changed. In the immediate postwar period, veterans found something new to fight for. This time they organized to defeat forces of totalitarianism at home; this time they fought for the freedom to be able to consume a glass of beer in their favourite drinking hole with their closest friends.
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