Alcohol During War
Everything you need to know about alcohol and beer during war, including the Civil War, the First World War, and the Second World War.
By Emma Zhao on Aug. 08, 2022
All through the 19th century and onwards, alcohol consumption remained high, as people believed that alcohol was beneficial to one’s health. Of course, these high consumption rates would spark many temperance movements throughout the next few centuries. It even sparked national laws that banned the distribution, creation, and the trade of alcohol, also known as Prohibition.
Of course, alcohol was not always consumed out of enjoyment. During times of war, alcohol was typically used as a painkiller, when a patient suffered physical injuries.
Alcohol was used through many important events. It had an incredibly interesting and pivotal role throughout some of the world’s most important wars. Let’s take a look at the way alcohol has shaped and been shaped by these wars.
Wine and the Roman and Greek Armies
Posca was a vinegar wine that was especially popular amongst ancient Roman soldiers, who spent much of their time fighting wars against the ancient Greeks during the late Hellenistic period. The two powers fought 3 wars consecutively, all ranging from the years 217 to 168 BC.
Of course, the purpose of posca wine at the time was medicinal, as it was thought to cure ailments. Later on, Roman soldiers would drink it nearly everyday, in hopes to improve their strength and health.
During the Republican period, posca wine became a standard beverage for soldiers. It was used as rations for the army of Lucullus in his Spanish campaign of 153 BC, and was later mentioned in the Gospels, with the Roman soldiers offering Jesus sour wine.
While posca wine was primarily consumed by Roman soldiers and other lower class citizens, high-ranking generals also indulged in drinking in solidarity with their troops. Generally, it was around this time that soldiers who consumed alcohol were considered to be undisciplined.
The Greeks were also given wine. According to Homer, during the notorious Trojan War, when Greek morale was low, warriors were given wine diluted in water before battles. They believed this would keep them in shapes, and gave them some “liquid courage” during the war.
Alcohol During the Civil War
Alcohol was common during the Civil War, sometimes at the encouragement of surgeons and physicians. While instances were rare, surgeons and physicians also consumed alcohol during wartime. of the 662 disciplinary charges filed against doctors who served the Union soldiers, 83 of them were in relation to drunkenness.
Soldiers, on the other hand, would be sent to hospital wards to sober up if they were drunk. This was more common, as it’s recorded that of the 4,625 Union soldiers hospitalized for drunkenness, 98 died, and of the 3,284 soldiers hospitalized for delirium tremens (a severe form of ethanol withdrawal), 423 died.
It was also recorded that Confederate soldiers drank heavily as well, and engaged in the looting of alcohol. While most records about Confederate soldiers were lost, we can assume that they imbibed in alcohol just as much, if not more, than Union soldiers.
Overall, the Civil War actually initiated bigger movements towards temperance, as women who worked as nurses experienced firsthand the detriments of alcohol.
Alcohol During WW1
The First World War came during the intense temperance movements and calls for Prohibition. At the time, Prohibition was not a sweeping law in Canada or the US, but many communities within the countries had implemented their own prohibition policies. Then president, Woodrow Wilson instituted wartime prohibition, so that grains usually used to make alcoholic beverages could be used to avoid food shortages during the war.
However, beers, ciders, and brandy were still issued out as rations to the all soldiers on the front lines. Alcohol was important during the First World War as it quenched thirst, encouraged comradery, relaxed soldiers, served as painkillers for the injured, and was a good temporary distraction from war.
Unfortunately, due to the traumatic events of war, soldiers started to abuse alcohol. The Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC) recorded that at least 44 Canadian soldiers died due to alcohol-related issues during the war. This further pushed temperance groups to lobby for Prohibition, which, in America, became a federal law in 1920.
Alcohol During WW2
During and after the First World War, American proceeded to reject anything German. Restrictions were put in place to prevent people from speaking German in public. Those who consumed or German goods were belittled, and that included bars ran by German immigrant.
Temperance supporters protested against German bars, and went on to claim that the brewing industry was responsible for wasting large portion of goods needed for the war, such as grains, water, and energy.
The anti-German sentiment changed in the Second World War, where the beer brewing industry was viewed as an “essential wartime industry.” This was because brewers realized the potential in advertising to American GIs, and making them a large portion of beer consumers. An issue published by the Brewers Digest in 1941 suggested that the military “to cultivate a taste for beer in millions of young men who will eventually constitute the largest beer-consuming section of our population.”
Therefore, rations of beer were distributed out to men fighting in the war. Soldiers fighting in Europe had more access to beer rations and shipments, especially if they were stationed in and around populated cities and towns. Those stationed along the Pacific had a harder time receiving alcohol. Either way, the government made it a point to encourage drinking alcohol during war.
To learn more about beer in history, check out these articles:
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