As all non-essential activities grind to a halt in response to the COVID-19 Pandemic, one of the things carefully kept on the essential side of society has been liquor stores across the country. Officially, this limits alcoholism-related withdrawal and the resultant stresses that could cause to an already strained healthcare system. However, alcohol is also recognised as a method of de-stressing and has been for a long time. In the case of the First World War, many soldiers and officers considered daily rum rations crucial to the war effort.
The daily rum ration was delivered during stand-to at dawn, and again in the evening at stand-down. It was held in clay jars marked with S.R.D. and was delivered to the men, one at a time, by junior officers. The average ration was about two tablespoons, but it could vary according to location, time, and the discretion of the person serving. Officers appreciated the routine of dispensing rum for its ability to maintain cohesion. The ritual of an officer distributing the sought-after spirit to his men reinforced the military hierarchy. At the same time, distribution of extra rations for good deeds, and the withdrawal of the privilege as punishment, asserted the officer’s command. Some officers, known colloquially as teetotallers, rejected the use of rum on religious and moral grounds, but many valued its ability to boost morale and enforce discipline.
For the average soldier, rum was sought after because it warmed the body and numbed the senses. Alcohol was also used to shore up or substitute for courage to such an extent that soldiers often described battlefields as reeking of rum and blood. It aided group cohesion by loosening tongues and encouraging storytelling. In addition, it had the benefit of being sweet, making it a treat, compared to the other bland food rations. The viscous, pungent, burning spirit also served as a rite of passage, the men who could stomach the drink being separated from the boys who could not. Front-line soldiers often viewed their daily ration as the sole bright spot in their day.
Alcohol was also considered to have medicinal properties. Soldiers believed that it could prevent the flu and other illnesses. More seriously, it was a depressant and as such allowed the soldiers to find sleep even amongst the mud, water, and detonating shells of the Western Front. Stretcher-bearers and army doctors distributed rum—although port and morphine were also used—to serve as painkillers. At times, some officers also issued rum to their men as a means of staving off the effects of shellshock.
Rum was incredibly important to soldier culture and life on the front. Beyond simple consumption, alcohol made its way into the very culture of soldiering, being included in songs, jokes, stories, and trench newspaper comics. Whenever teetotalling officers attempted to end rum rations, mutinous mutterings tended to follow, forcing generals to override their subordinate’s orders to maintain discipline. However, soldier culture was at a remove from the rest of Canadian society. While alcohol was considered a necessity by most soldiers, the Canadian Homefront—encouraged by multiple temperance movements—was increasingly of the opinion that the world would be better without liquor. By 1917, every province except Quebec had signed prohibition into law. Attempts were made to make Canada a dry army but, as mentioned above, threatening the soldier’s rum often threatened discipline. When the CEF returned home in 1919, they brought their drinking habits with them. No politician could stand before the united front of veterans and so most prohibition laws were dropped during the 1920s.
For the Canadian men fighting and dying in the mud of Belgium and France, their daily shot of rum was often the only thing to look forward to. It brought the men together, warmed them, helped them forget, and put them to sleep. During times of peril and great uncertainty, alcohol could serve as artificial courage. While keeping liquor stores open during a pandemic may seem like a quirk of our modern times, it is worth noting the long precedent of considering access to a glass of wine, a bottle of beer, or a shot of rum as an essential service.
 Paul Fussell and J. M. Winter, The Great War and Modern Memory, New edition (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013), 50.
For a more detailed and in-depth look at the importance of alcohol in First World War soldier culture, check out the below sources:
Cook, Tim. “‘More a Medicine than a Beverage’: ‘Demon Rum’ and the Canadian Trench Soldier of the First World War.” Canadian Military History 9, no. 1 (January 20, 2012). https://scholars.wlu.ca/cmh/vol9/iss1/2.
———. The Secret History of Soldiers: How Canadians Survived the Great War. Toronto, Ontario, Canada: Allen Lane, an imprint of Penguin Canada Books, Inc, 2018.
Fussell, Paul, and J. M. Winter. The Great War and Modern Memory. New edition. New York: Oxford University Press, 2013.
Bairnsfather, Bruce. “The Spirit of our Troops is Excellent” in The Bystander’s Fragments from France. London: The Bystander, 1916, pg. 30.
Bairnsfather, Bruce. “The Thirst for Reprisals” in The Bystander’s Fragments from France. London: The Bystander, 1916, pg. 34.
[Rum Gallon] [1914-1918] Collections CCGW.
Cain Doerper is an honours history undergraduate student at Concordia University. His studies focus on European modern history