Fighting spirits (and beer, cider and wine)

During the darkest days of the First World War, the British Government feared a domestic enemy almost as much as the hated Hun. As men were slaughtered in the churning quagmires of the trenches, the demon drink stalked in the homes and factories of the home front. The restrictions and prohibitions that were put in place had a profound effect on domestic life which continues to be felt today.

It is a stark image designed to shame the indolent and contrast their easy lot with that of the trench-bound soldier. The ‘thirty-six-hours-a-week’ worker is shown leaning on a bar with a large tankard of beer. The ‘all-the-week’ worker, a soldier, rests against a trench wall taking a sip from a medicinal flask. Underneath the cartoon was an even starker editorial message:

“The drink question is becoming very serious amongst our workers at home. A minority of them are “holding up” necessary munitions or repairs by intemperate habits. Those who do this are simply fighting our brave men in the trenches as ruthlessly as the Germans are.”

Cartoon by W. K. Haselden in the Daily Mirror, 31 Mar 1915

This message echoed the official government line. In January 1915, Lloyd George told the Shipbuilding Employers Federation that Britain was: “fighting German’s, Austrians and Drink, and as far as I can see the greatest of these foes is Drink”. He hammered home the message, stating that: “drink is doing us more damage in the war than all the German submarines put together”.

At first, the government tried to use persuasion, propaganda and moral blackmail to reduce alcohol consumption. Drinkers were urged to abstain from alcohol on Mondays in support of the troops. Lloyd George took this one step further and urged prominent figures to make a pledge of abstinence, promising that they would not drink alcohol for the duration of the conflict.

George V was brought on board in April 1915, declaring that no alcohol would be served in the Royal Household until the end of the war. The Pledge Campaign soon became known as the King’s Pledge, and was followed by Lord Kitchener and the Lord Chancellor.

The Prime Minister, Herbert Asquith, was notoriously absent from the pledge roll which prompted negative press comments. In response, Asquith snapped that Lloyd George had: “completely lost his head on drink.”

Home front propaganda - are you helping the Germans By Unknown (artist), David Allen and Sons Ltd, 17 Leicester Street, London, W Belfast, Harrow, Liverpool, Glasgow, Dublin (printer), National War Savings Committee (publisher/sponsor) [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Voluntary measures were not enough and soon the government began to impose restrictions on the production, strength, sale and distribution of alcohol. These included a ‘no treating order’, which required drinks to be purchased only by the consumer.

More onerous restrictions were imposed on opening hours for Britain and Ireland’s Public Houses. In cities and other industrial areas, opening hours were reduced to 12.00 noon to 2.30 pm and then 6.30 pm to 9.30 pm. Government inspectors highlighted some positive results, with a Home Office report into “drinking condition among women and girls in Woolwich and district” noting that restrictive opening hours ensured drinking rarely got out of hand.

Even this was not enough for some areas. The small town of Gretna had become a centre of munition production with its population swollen with 15,000 extra workers. The government reacted by buying up local breweries and licensed premises. In Carlisle 48 out of 119 Public Houses were closed. Advertising of alcohol was banned and even more draconian opening hours were imposed.

Finally, the government used the strongest weapon at its disposal in the fight against drink – tax. Duties levied on alcohol were increased sharply. The results were telling: British consumption of alcohol fell from 89 million gallons in 1914 to 37 million in 1918.

Cartoon against drink by Arthur Johnson in German-language publication Kladderadatsche (1914)

Britain was not alone in imposing restrictions on alcohol. In Russia, Tsar Nicholas II outlawed the production and sale of vodka. Russia’s 400 state distilleries and 28,000 official spirit shops were closed and disgruntled Russians merely resorted to home distilling – thereby denying the Russian government some 30% of its usual tax revenues.

In France, the notorious fée verte had her wings clipped with the banning of absinthe in 1915. Temperance movements were given a boost in the United States, so much so that it lent to the success of the teetotal movement in bringing the complete prohibition of alcohol in the 1919 (a move that was shared in Finland, Norway and Russia). Whether it succeeded in creating a stronger home front and war time economy, war time restrictions on alcohol fuelled moral debates on drink for years to come.