For centuries alcohol has always played an important, and sometimes decisive, role in warfare. As it brought the troups moral and courage in many armies the intake of booze was allowed or even stimulated. Other commanders believed it was best to keep their troops as sober as possible, so they wouldn’t go out of control. But no matter if we’re talking wine for the Roman legions, gin and rum for the British soldiers in the colonies, whisky during the American Civil War or vodka for the Red Army during World War II, alcohol has always been an important issue in combat.
Ancient Greeks and Romans
Back in the days of Ancient Greece and later Ancient Rome it was quite normal to give soldiers a daily ration of alcohol. Most army leaders back in those days used free booze as a way to keep the troops motivated to keep fighting. Imagine that military campaigns in those times could easily take several years and alcohol turned out to be a great substitute for a warm household and a loving wife. It was also quite common to promise the soldiers ‘as much as they could drink’ when victorious in battle. The Macedonians of Alexander the Great for example were notorious drinkers. What better way to motivate them to conquor half the civilized world than promising them drunken orgies? When the Greek moral was down during the Trojan War, the cunning Odysseus used the same strategy to keep the troops from mutiny.
The Greeks also served wine (often mixed with water) to keep the troops in a healthy shape. The Romans did the same with a drink called posca. This was wine that was already turning sour, mixed with water. It became the drink of the normal soldiers and many of them swore of wine, since it was considered a decadent drink. Some high ranked officers, like Hadrian, also drank posca to show their solidarity with the troups. But in battle both the Greeks and the Romans were usually pretty sober, as in general they drank less than opponents like the Huns, the Visigoths or the Thracians.
In the early Medieval Times the Vikings scared the hell out of Europe. Up till today they have a reputation of fearless drunks, who killed everything in their way. But in fact the Vikings were a lot more disciplined than they often get credits for. Especially during military campaigns they arrived pretty sober. Although every victory was of course celebrated with a lot of beer, ale and mead. Interesting to mention is a tradition the Vikings and other Germanic tribes had. When they had to decide if they wanted to go to war or not, or any major decision for that matter, they would have a huge drinking session, till everyone was smashed and discuss the pros and cons of going to war.
The Roman writer Publius Cornelius Tacitus witnessed this and wrote in his book Germania: “For they think that at no time is the mind more open to simplicity of purpose or more warmed to noble aspirations. A race without either natural or acquired cunning, they disclose their hidden thoughts in the freedom of the festivity. Thus the sentiments of all having been discovered and laid bare, the discussion is renewed on the following day, and from each occasion its own peculiar advantage is derived.”
The Middle Ages
This era was also known as the Dark Ages. After the fall of the Western Roman Empire, Europe was set back in time hundreds of years. As clean water was hard to find, everyone drank beer or wine. And like in all times, nobody would drink more than the soldiers fighting the many pointless battles of those days. On the crusades, set out to liberate the Holy Land from the Muslims, the most notorious drinkers were the Knights Templars, or just Templars. This special unit of fighting monks was usually heavily intoxicated as they robbed, raped and murdered in the name of the Lord. No wonder in those days ‘to drink like a Templar’ became a popular expression, used when someone got really smashed.
The Japanese Samurai were a very disciplined military force, who valued their traditions. One of those was the Bushi-nin ritual, in which the warriors had a glass of the national drink sake together before battle. They promised each other to either be victorious or die an honorable death. Although the Samurai seized to exist in the late 1800’s, there was a revival of their old traditions during World War II. Japanese kamikaze pilots that crashed their planes into American ships, would have their own bushi-nin before doing so.
After a military campaign the alcohol intake of the Samurai was significantly higher. Getting smashed was pretty normal and in some cases it was atually considered quite rude not to get drunk. The Samurai in general ruled a tied ship when it came to good manners, but these drinking parties were the only times when they were often overlooked and normal soldiers could get away with not giving their superiors the required respect.
The Colonial Era and Dutch Courage
As Europe developed itself on a cultural level, the wars never stopped. But not just to gain territory. As more and more countries gained colonies in America or Asia, there were more and more battles at sea. Spain, Portugal, England and Holland were constantly trying to be the supreme force that could control the trade between the old continent and the new territories. The Dutch authorities had a strange but practical system to reach this goal; legal pirates. This basically meant that people could get a license to plunder all ships of Holland’s enemies, as long as they gave a percentage to the Dutch state. The sailors who went on these missions usually had little to lose and were most of the time far from sober. For the English reason to come up with the term ‘Dutch Courage’, an expression that’s still around when someone first needs a few drinks before doing something brave, like asking a girl out.
Another reason to drink was the large amount of diseases the Europeans could get in the colonies. The drink gin-tonic for example thanks its origin to the fact that many British soldiers caught malaria in India. The treatment quinine was rather bitter and to make it drinkable the British officers started adding gin to it. Winston Churchill later once said that these early gin-tonic cocktails saved more English lives than all the doctors in the Empire.
On the other side of the mighty British Empire rum was very popular among the troops. These distilleries, mostly located in Jamaica and Trinidad and Tobago, would soon enough provide the whole British army with their daily ration of Dutch Courage.
A famous quote by Napoleon is: “In war there is always time for champagne. In victory one deserves it, in defeat one needs it.” Well ironically the moments he needed his bubbles the most were caused by a bunch of huge drunks. During the Napoleonic Wars the British Army gained a reputation of being quite slewed, lushy or malty, as they would say in those days, when going to battle. The daily booze ration for British soldiers back in the days was a gallon (3.78 liters) of beer, a pint of wine or half a pint of spirits, usually rum. When the soldiers wanted to test the quality of the rum they would mix some gunpowder with it and tried to light it. In case of success they were sure there was at least 57% alcohol in their drink.
Another interesting fact is that in those days most of the soldiers who were fighting for the British were actually recruited with alcohol. After some hours of free boozing, people would sign anything. Many were surprised the next morning when they found out they agreed to fight for the British cause. Many other countries handled the same strategy to increase their armies.
American Civil War
Another war that might have taken a decisive turn because of alcohol is the American Civil War. And not just because the victorious general Ulysses S. Grant was a huge drunkard. More important was that the Southern States prohibited the distillation of whisky during the war, mostly because they were afraid there would not be enough food left. Plus they wanted to use the copper from stills to make more canons. The Northern States however kept on making bourbon and taxed the whisky. This extra source of income might well have been the decisive factor that won the war.
World War I
If there was one war that was so brutal and traumatizing for soldiers that it made them reach for the bottle, it must have been World War I, also known as The Great War. Many countries maintained a strong anti-alcohol campaign in a desperate attempt to keep their soldiers sober. Already in the first month (August 1914) of the war the Russian tsar Nicholas II prohibited the production and sale of vodka. A huge mistake as it turned out. The moral of the Russian army was extremely low and the total tax revenue of the state dropped by 30%. Military losses and growing poverty in the Russian Empire gave the Communists the chance to seize control over Russia and execute of the tsar and the imperial family.
In England the influential politician David Lloyd George in January 2015 spoke the historical words: “Britain fights Germans, Austrians and Drink. And as far as I can see the greatest of these foes is Drink.” Lloyd George even hinted on total prohibition for Britain during the war, but there was too much opposition to really make that happen.
Meanwhile the French chose another way to go and started serving more and more as the brutal war continued. In the early days the daily ration per soldier was a quarter of a liter of wine. Later this was raised to half a liter and by 1916, when a breakthrough seemed far away for any of the fighting parties, to a quarter of a liter with the opportunity to buy more wine. Something that many French soldiers did if they had any money.
The Red Army
If there was an award for biggest drunks during World War II there was no doubt that it had to go to the Russians, also known as the Red Army. For sure Soviet-leader Jozef Stalin had learned from Nicholas’ mistake during the First World War and he gave his soldiers a daily ration of vodka, amounts that increased as the war continued to keep the moral up. There are several reports on Russians attacking German forces, while drunk out of their mind. And then there were bonuses to be earned. The book Story of a Real Man by Boris Polevoi mentioned how a Russian pilot that would shoot down a German plane would get an extra deciliter of vodka with his dinner.
The Russian writer Viktor Erofeyev stated in 2002: “The daily ration of vodka given to Russian soldiers in World War II was as important as katyusha rocket launchers in the victory over Nazism.”