A Farewell to Sobriety: Drinking During the Great War
Editor’s Note: This article is for Molotov Cocktail, our channel dedicated to drinks and drinking. We are, after all, War on the Rocks.
The assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand is often regarded as the proverbial match in the tinderbox where World War I is concerned. The imperial-nationalist tensions surrounding Austria-Hungary’s waning empire, tensions which inspired the assassination and ensuing conflict, were frankly unwarranted, considering the swill these regions were, and still are, trying to pass off as potable spirits. Then again, what’s a tragic war of global scope without tragically misguided motivations at the start? One contributing factor to the war-primed Europe of 1914 sounds oddly familiar. Disenfranchised youth of marginalized states resorting to suicidal violence. It’s easy to see how the seven agents of Ferdinand’s assassination could be lining up to enlist in ISIS today. Youthful, “angsty,” and driven by an unhinged sense of importance and righteousness, it was a 19 year old, Gavrilo Princip, who carried out the clumsy assassination on the streets of Sarajevo. After a failed bombing attempt, failed suicide attempt, and a major security lapse by Ferdinand’s guards, the conspirators succeeded in gunning down the Archduke and Duchess almost by chance. With that act the Serbian nationalists, on a quest for south Slavic unification, killed a couple that were by many accounts lovely people, and started the July Crisis that led to the Great War.
The conflict that followed became the then-largest mobilization of military force ever, until the rematch 21 years later. HG Wells was the first to declare WWI the “war to end war,” and though that designation had contemporary critics, it quickly became a motto for the hostilities. A war to end war seems like an occasion for a drink, no? If it doesn’t, you’ve either never had a drink or you’ve never had a soul. In any case, what follows is an account of which powers were most benevolent during the war, measured chiefly by the alcohol rations secured and distributed to their soldiers. It presumes that the men fighting in the trenches on all sides had drawn short straws in life, and the side most willing to allow a little buzz on the front line exhibited a little humanity.
Serbia and Austria-Hungary
Formally, Serbia was part of the Allies, while Austria-Hungary (along with its partner in crime, Germany) belonged to the Central Powers. Given the consequences of the grudge-match between these two, I prefer to give them special status as the two countries that ruined the first half of the 20th century. Principle among their offenses is the spirits they produce, which are, in my opinion, disgusting to drink and difficult to mix in cocktails. Palinka and slivovitz are fruit brandies made of damson plum, apricot, and pomace (and other assorted stonefruit). If that’s the kind of stuff that makes you salivate, please go start your wars in Antarctica so as to minimize the chances of ensnaring the rest of us.
An examination of the drama surrounding the European monarchy at the outset of the war makes World War I sound like a tiff between distant relations that played out with millions of other people’s lives and property. Unfortunately, historians can only speculate as to how much family tensions drove nationalist politics and subsequent support for war, so let me stand on firmer ground: If you were drinking non-rationed brandy or any kind of champagne in Europe between 1914 and 1918, you were probably a royal scumbag. Coincidently, most European royalty and military officers were scumbags. The soldiers were hardly so lucky.
The Tertiary Countries
As mentioned above, Austria-Hungary and Serbia have spirits that shall not be mentioned. Ditto for the decidedly dry regiments of the Ottoman Empire, due to Muslim religious doctrine. Unfortunately for Japan, cheering Britain on from afar does not mean you were a meaningful participant, and Italy was a shifty and inconsequential presence in the first World War. That leaves us with the usual suspects: Germany, France, Britain, Russia, and America.
Something resembling World War I may have been inevitable with Germany’s development of the Schlieffen Plan in 1905, a general staff doctrine for quickly prevailing in a two-front conflict against France and Russia, which Germany was already planning to execute in 1914. What started as a thought experiment was carried out in the early stages of Germany’s troop deployment, and its decidedly heavy-handed military policy in the two World Wars appears to have carried over to their alcohol rationing as well. In matters of war and matters of drink, the German’s already respectable capabilities were leveraged so well as to seriously challenge the coordinated efforts of their formidable adversaries. German alcohol rations were largely based on region – units from the different territories of the then-fractious German Empire would be issued beer, wine, brandy, or schnapps depending on their prominence in said unit’s home territory. Rhineland for example produces respectable light-skinned grapes for white wines (especially Riesling), and where there are grapes there is brandy. German beers are some of the best in the world, and to round out the triple threat, look no further than a schnapps kicker. As far as the global specter of temperance, Germany was fortuitously unburdened. Supply issues plagued them later on, leading to propaganda discouraging drinking, but drunkenness itself was never targeted among soldiers or citizenry during the war.
Against this daunting mob of Teutonic drunkards, the first to go drink-for-drink with the Germans was France. France is home to the highest regarded grape regions in the world, answering to names like Champagne, Bordeaux, and Burgundy. At the outbreak of the war, French troops were not issued alcohol at all, though in short order they started rationing soldiers a half-liter of pinard (low quality red wine) per day. This became an essential part of the war effort. Sipping wine in the trenches was mythologized in art and propaganda as a unifying experience for French soldiers, and the moment when wine became the national drink of France, but these claims are overblown. It was by many accounts a rare delight in a time of prolific hardship, but holding no larger significance. Contributing to the role of wine in the war was the recent ban on absinthe, which France passed amidst very timeless, temperance-tinged angst about the latter’s role in the moral degradation of society. C’est la vie, as the French say.
Second to act in this crisis were the British. Committing soldiers from all corners of their Empire, Britain’s troop deployments included soldiers from Canada, Australia, New Zealand, India, and South Africa, and they were all kept existentially fit for combat with rum. Due to the prominence of the sugar trade in the Empire’s many colonial possessions, Britain had ready access to rum in abundance, but you wouldn’t know it from the size of their rations. At a scant 1/16th of a pint per day (1 oz.), British rank-and-file received less alcohol than their French or German counterparts, and quite a bit less than their own officers. This reflects a somewhat hypocritical treatment of the troops by British leadership, who permitted officers to store their own alcohol in the trenches, but not the enlisted men. As with France, drinking in the trenches was a theme to the experience of the war. The difference was that British aristocracy, partaking in temperance hysteria at the time, felt that allowing soldiers to drink was a risk to the realm. An honorary mention for the British side: munitions workers, a.k.a. women working in factories. Their marked increase of alcohol consumption on the home front led to the passage of several laws making the sale of alcohol stricter, amidst delicate hand-wringing for the future of civilization.
Next up for the Allies is the Slavic heavyweight to the East. Russia, led by soon-to-be-deposed Nicolas II, had close ties to Britain at the time. Nicolas was part of the British monarchy’s extended family and was part of the Germany-focused Triple Entente. It was Russian support for Serbia, against Austria-Hungary, that caused Germany to move against Belgium, which really kicked WWI into high gear. By this point vodka was the most stable feature of Russian life, due more to its cost-effectiveness (the cheapest hangover rubles could buy) than any innate Russian preference for flavorless, barely-potable liquor. Concerned about a number of factors, including force mobility and public wellbeing, Russia prohibited the sale of liquor in 1914, cutting out a full third of the government’s budget. While the self-imposed potato-juice draught in Russia led to a stunning improvement in the quality of life for many, resentment by some often led to rioting. Meanwhile the black market for booze spun up, acquainting many in Russia (including many soldiers) with disobedience to the Tsar. I’d never attribute the Bolshevik Revolution to a decision to prohibit liquor three years earlier, but as a bartender I’m going to think twice if I ever have to cut off a large number of people who are already worked up about something. In any case, the unrest and consequent revolutions in Russia led to its early withdrawal from the conflict. An ignominious end to a conflict they helped start.
Which brings us to the shining shores of America. The home of corn. The home of bourbon. The great industrial power of the age – a force of progress. Surely this “city on a hill” would spread the gospel to Europe! Its missionary President, Woodrow Wilson, used a whiskey-marketing slogan (borrowed from the appropriately-named Hunter-Wilson Distillery) as his presidential campaign motto: “Wilson, that’s all!” The peace of oak-aged gold would wash across the world and leave warmth in the hearts of men, women, and children everywhere. How could it not? The short answer? Prohibitionists. The American Expeditionary Force, like their Russian partners, were not rationed any alcohol for the duration of the war. President Wilson, apparently a warm-hearted man, had vetoed the Volstead Act, delaying prohibition a moment longer, but the temperance movement was too strong to secure any of the good stuff for the boys “over there.” Our French allies, sympathetic to the plight of fighting on the front lines sober, tried to share some wine and brandy on the front line, but the religious organizations of France shut that down quickly, fearing backlash from American temperance groups. It’s sad to say that the best-organized fighting force at the time (the teetotalers) stayed home in America, struggling to stamp out joy in the world, and in the case of the Americans in the trench, they succeeded.
So how does all this play out in the end? France occupied the role of major supplier to all sides drinking needs. The Germans made large gains at the start of the war, and enabled rear-echelon troops to frequent taverns in their newly conquered territories. Couple that privilege with their substantial liquor rations, and the German rank-and-file were well situated for some time. Ultimately, the British naval blockade started affecting German supplies, which directly cut into their drinking. When the Allies reversed Germany’s advances and ended the war, they virtually ensured the Germans would only be drinking regret and resentment for nearly two decades. The French military was also generous with its rations where allies were concerned, attempting in a small way to soften the hard line the British and American citizens and leadership held with regard to their troops’ drinking. Russia incurred the mother of all hangovers when it finally stopped drowning itself in vodka for a minute, and basically played the role of your friend who passes out at the bar. Final outcome? À votre santé, France.
Jacob Hall is a bartender at the Gibson and the recent founder of a cocktail delivery startup. He lives in Washington, D.C., and endorses the Boulevardier as the best cocktail there is.