I was researching a soldier today when I came across an odd bit of military history that I hadn’t known about before. I guess that’s not surprising, after all, a fact you didn’t know is just something you haven’t learned yet. Still, I’ve been researching the soldiers of the First World War for quite a while now, and it’s surprising this was the first time.
In the mid 19th century, the British Army was having problems with alcohol. Or, rather, the combination of the men and alcohol. While the army tried to dissuade the men from drinking by giving them alternatives, it wasn’t really working.
I assume this was just the ranks because I can’t really see all of the officers stopping and, when you get to the top rank, who was going to tell him?
The metaphorical call went out, and temperance societies started popping up. And, for some reason, while organised games of cricket with lemonade didn’t really work, the offer of a badge for remaining free of alcohol, did.
One of the leaders of this booze free movement was Sir Henry Havelock. He established the first regimental temperance society. Later, after his death, the Havelock Cross was created in his honour. It was awarded to men who had managed to remain sober for seven years.
Henry’s ideas quickly caught on and very soon there was around 50 regimental temperance societies formed in India by 1850.
As usual with these kinds of things, there were some people who had to take it a bit too far. In this case it was Reverend John Gregson who formed the Soldiers’ Total Abstinence Association in 1862. Their motto was ‘Watch and Be Sober’. Though, I think it was the wrong way round. Surely, for a soldier, it should have read ‘Be Sober and Watch’. Though I quite like ‘In Booze We Lose’.
The motto stuck, regardless of the message, and was adopted by subsequent societies through the years., but, more important, it was the Soldiers’ Total Abstinence Association that started awarding medals for periods of sobriety. This was in 1867 and is still around today having been adopted by Alcoholics Anonymous regularly giving out tokens.
Eventually, all of the little societies were gathered together and amalgamated into one big one. This, eventually, became the Army Temperance Association with branches anywhere there were army barracks. Eventually, in 1902, it was given a royal charter and became the Royal Army Temperance Association.
The societies also helped soldiers secure jobs outside the army. A reference from the army to a prospective employer which included the fact that he was a member of a temperance society was accepted by most people as a prized work skill.
Everything was chuntering along just fine, but then the First World War began. Of course the Association was still around, but it was very difficult to organise cricket matches when the men were sitting in water logged and narrow trenches, waiting for the inevitable.
In an amazing change of mind, the army started encouraging soldiers to take a drink between battles. Even the rum ration was reintroduced. The supply of alcohol (and cigarettes) provided the sort of psychological boost the men needed, or so the army claimed.
As it turned out, there were some enterprising soldiers who took the message a little too seriously. They knocked up a bit of lethal spirit in home-made stills. This ‘hooch’ was bad in two ways. Firstly, it tasted awful but, more important, because of the lead lined pipes used, it could save you from a hangover by killing you from lead poisoning.
Eventually, the Royal Army Temperance Association saw the writing on the wall, and it was finally disbanded in 1958.
This information comes from many sources but mainly from the National Army Museum, an excellent source for all things British Army.