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Booze on The Battlefield

War. What is good for? Absolutely nothing.

Well, almost nothing. Warfare has, historically, encouraged the consumption of alcohol on an epic scale.

Booze has long been a powerful weapon on the battlefield. Prior to the invention of ether and, later, penicillin, the only way to clean wounds or render a soldier immune to pain and infection was alcohol.

More recently, in more modern warfare, booze has been used to boost morale, heighten camaraderie among troops and grow the balls of the average soldier to twice their normal size.

From the Romans to the Royal Marines, alcohol has shaped military history and indeed some of the earliest and most infamous conquerors were drenched in drink.

Atilla the Hunn for example, famously enjoyed a strange cocktail of ox blood, wine and chairs. This is true, we read it in a book. He stirred grated chairs into his drink to give him ‘testicular fortitude.”

Meanwhile, to give him courage, Genghis Khan rode into battle whilst drinking a fermented horse milk called Kumis while Alexander The Great, the greatest warrior the world has ever known, was (by modern standards) the first true functioning alcoholic.

Born into the barbaric bacchanalia of 4th century Macedonia, to a dipsomaniac Dad who invented the ‘Conga’ and a Mother mastered in the art of revelry, Alexander The Great was tutored in the ways of wine, amongst other things, by Aristotle–one of the founding fathers of philosophy.

Aristotle instructed his scholar to imbibe in moderation but Alexander, quite rightly,didn’t listen to a manwho believed buzzards had three testicles, claimed hedgehogs made love face-to-face (the lady hedgehog on her back);and licked his hands to go to sleep.

As a Macedonian, Alexander was an amazing drinker but an awful drunk-and when the wine flowed, bad things happened. After a goblet too many in 328, Alexander killed his childhood friend and his closest general Cleitus The Black–piercing his heart with a javelin.

Another of Alexander’s ill-fated and wine-fuelled acts occurred five years later when Alexander organised a drinking Olympics. Compared to the Macedonians–the hardest drinking people in the world, the Indians lacked a certain stamina. All the ‘athletes” died, making for a rather solemn closing ceremony. As Olympic legacies go, it was a disaster.

Alexander definitely drank too much. But while most of us can’t find our keys with a hangover, Alexander the Great went from being the Prince of an uncouth enclave to the educated ruler of the largest empire, spanning from Greece to India, the world has ever seen.

Not only that, the pocket-sized, epileptic bisexual also introduced a whole load of exotic things to Europe including cotton, crucifixion, bananas, ring-necked parakeets and, crucially, rum. After sampling the sugar-based alcohol in India, Alexander exported sugar cane to Europe, calling it the “grass that gives honey without bees.”

But for the most efficient and well-drilled military outfit in human history’s early throws of war, we look to the Romans.

What did the Romans do for booze in battle? Well, initially, not very much. The early Romans didn’t like alcohol, didn’t trust it and certainly didn’t think it a foundation on which to build a Roman Empire.

But as the Empire expanded, they realised that the only thing that was keeping their soldiers happy, healthy and strong was wine – and so they began to plant vineyards all over Europe and became the world’s greatest winemakers.

Ancient Rome planted vines all over Europe, became the world leader in viticulture and introduced a host of winemaking techniques that still exist today–vine-training, use of trellises to enhance growth, crop yields and vine pruning. Say what you like about the Romans, but those crazy guys sure knew how to kick loose and party.

While earlier civilisations made wine from sea water, vinegar and turpentine-a tradition carried on today by the good folk behind the (Snip–Thinking Drinkers’ Lawyers) brand, Roman wine actually tasted half decent and they consumed it for medicinal purposes and, of course, to kick ass on the battlefield.

When they faced the Celts, they met an angry bunch of beer drinkers, the Gauls too, both tribes loaded up on fermented drinks and stripped naked before chucking sharp implements at each other. When the British fought with the Dutch during the 30 years war, they shared a shot of genever, or Dutch gin, specifically to embolden themselves before battle. Alsho giving us the term “Dutch Courage”.

The French? Well, when they weren’t whacking their tanks in reverse etc…, they drank brandy in battle and, suave to their core, even recruited young ladies to dispense it. Vivandrieres were dedicated service women who carried canteens of the spirit onto the battlefield for injured soldiers during the Napoleonic Wars.

Napoleon, who wasn’t much of a drinker, was famously given a proper spanking by Lord Horatio Nelson in 1805.  Not content with boasting an impressive column, which birds still flock around even today, Admiral Lord Horatio Nelson  was a highly skilled commander who studied at naval college (where he’d also learned to belly-dance), and used cunning tactics to destroy 22 French ships.

Not one single British ship was sunk in return but, sadly, Nelson got killed by a French musketeer. His body was preserved in a barrel of rum which was drunk dry by his adoring crew on the voyage home.

Some claim it was brandy but, given the Navy’s dislike of the French, others reckon it’s rum – and “Nelson’s Blood” remains the naval term for rum.

Indeed, the Navy has long had an association with alcohol. Sir Francis Drake was one of the earliest adopters of a mix close to what we now know as a daiquiri, combining cane spirt with sugar and lime, and these early sailors also added mint when it was available, a forerunner to the mojito. Then there’s the rum ration, sailors given half a pint of rum a day in their pay, a tradition that continued right up until Black Tot Day in 1970.

In terms of conflict, beer has been both a catalyst and comfort. Something seldom mentioned by historians is that it was beer rather than tea that kickstarted the War of Independence.

Prior to the Boston Tea Party of 1773, Britain had flooded America with cheap English ale in an effort to undermine American brewing. Along with a hefty tax on rum, this was the final straw for the Yanks who, under the Stewardship of brewer George Washington, declared war on the limeys.

The only reason it was called the Boston Tea Party was because they weren’t willing to throw beer or rum into the sea. They’re not fckn animals.

During the War of Independence, George Washington insisted that he and his troops were rationed a daily quart of beer that, due to the lack of hops, was infused with twigs of spruce.

It worked – the colonial soldiers opened an almighty can of whupp-ass on the Brits and succeeded in their quest to secede the colonies from the Empire.

The first great war, World War One, was fought in the trenches where every British soldier was given a ration of rum. The French were given a ration of cheap white wine – and this is where the term plonk comes from. The British soldiers misheard the French talking about “Vin Blanc” and mispronounced it thus. The idiots.

Back on the home front, the tee-total Munitions Minister David Lloyd George, later to become Prime Minister, believed alcohol was the enemy. Concerned that the munitions factories were producing too many dud bombs after the workers‘ liquid lunches, he famously declared that “We are fighting Germans, Austrians and Drink: and, so far as I can see, the greatest of these three deadly foes is Drink.”

While a petition calling for total Prohibition, signed by 2m people, was rejected by Parliament in 1916, they banned the practice of treating – buying your mate a pint – brewing output was curtailed, taxes on beer were increased, doubling the price of a pint and, pub hours were reduced from 17.5 hours a day to 5.5 hours a day – which remained until 2005!

Breweries were forced to produce weaker beer, three-quarters of the strength of pre-war beer, and this was called “Government Ale” or “Lloyd George’s beer”.

It was mocked in Music Halls up and down the country. The most famous song about the weak beer was written and performed by Ernie Mayne, a 20-stone music hall artist whose other hits included You Can’t find Many Pimples on a Pound of Pickled Pork (“whether you come from China, Japan or Carolina, you can go to Pimlico and then go on to York but you can’t find many pimples on a pound of pickled pork”) and I Can’t Do My Bally Bottom Button Up (that would be all the pickled pork, Ernie).

“Lloyd George’s beer, Lloyd George’s beer,
at the brewery there’s nothing doing –
All the waterworks are brewing
Lloyd George’s beer.
Oh they say it’s a terrible war
And there never was a war like this before
But the worst thing that ever happened in this war
Was Lloyd George’s beer.”

In the Second World War, however, Winston Churchill was in charge and he believed beer should be at the forefront of Britain’s fight against Germany.: “Make sure that the beer – four pints a week – goes to the troops under fire before any of the parties in the rear get a drop.”

In May 1940, the minister of food set out the official position on wartime drinking, with regard to the national beverage; “It is the business of government not only to maintain the life but the morale of the country. If we are to keep up anything like approaching normal life, beer should continue to be in supply even though it may be beer of a rather weaker variety than the connoisseurs would like”.

British Brewers set up a “Beer For Troops” committee whose task was to ensure those fighting on the front line remained suitably refreshed – and they went to great lengths to do this.

No more so than after the D-Day landings when, having taken huge losses, the soldiers in Normandy were drinking cider but what they really wanted was British beer. And it arrived on the sly via British and American Pilots in the shape of “flying pubs”.

Unbeknown to their superiors, pilots of Spitfires and Typhoons emptied their drop tanks of petrol, gave them a clean, and filled them with beer.

While the beer tasted a little metallic, the altitude ensured it was chilled – but the American Typhoons  stopped delivering beer when they kept being shot down by inexperienced Thunderbolt American pilots who repeatedly mistook it for the German Fockers. not the last time they indulged in ‘friendly fire’.

But the RAF, flying Spitfires, kept delivering beer – attaching actual casks to the bomb racks. Pilots with the RAF’s fighter-bomber units came up with the idea of the “beer bomb”, sticking homemade nose cones onto casks of real ale – instead of a 500-pound bomb.

Elsewhere in World War Two, the Royal Navy commissioned a brewing boat, while the Americans even painted camouflage on their beer cans. It should also be remembered the winners were all massive drinkers – Churchill, Stalin and Roosevelt all enjoyed a martini, while the losers were tee total.

Mussolini might have once enjoyed wine, but he later restricted his intake to milk, and while the Kamikaze pilots drank a ritual sake before battle, Japanese leader Hideki Tojo was a teetotaling totalitarian. Then there’s Adolf Hitler, who never moistened his moustache with anything intoxicating until drinking Champagne shortly before shooting himself.

Meanwhile, it wasn’t Winston Churchill’s War Cabinet that won WWII, it was his copiously stocked drinks cabinet.
Churchill cherished champagne, his favourite being Pol Roger (who gave him his own personal stash in return for liberating France). He also kick-started every day with a glass of Johnnie Walker that would be topped up with water throughout the morning, and had an insatiable appetite for exquisite and exotic brandies, such as Hine Cognac and Armenian brandy sent to him by Stalin.

The Danes even brewed a brandy-toned beer in his honour. That beer is Carlsberg Special Brew.

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