How Booze Helped Britain Conquer a Quarter of the World

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by Xan Holbrook

As a people, we Britons are stereotyped according to our drinking habits. This usually falls into the twee joshing about tea, as Americans love to remind us with teeth-grinding regularity.

However, it is no exaggeration to say that the British love of alcohol is fabric-of-the-nation stuff. But, hand-in-hand with getting smashed, as you might imagine, comes the urge to smash up someone else.

History seems to bear this out. From Pictish hooliganism to bollock-naked Celtic bloodletting to Roman decadence to Saxon insanity to Viking pillaging and on and on ever since, booze and blood have never been far from British hands.

Thomas Cromwell

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As Hilary Mantel’s Thomas Cromwell puts it:

“The English will never be forgiven for the talent for destruction they have always displayed whenever they get off their own island.”

I should point out, with unbearable smugitude, that my local Regiment, the Lancashire Fusiliers, were the ones who disembarked from the Potomac river to sack Washington and burn down the White House.

So more than being a culture that is fond of drink, I say that Britain’s historic effectiveness at warfare is intrinsically bound up with its drinking culture. Whoop-de-fuckin’-doo, I hear you drawl, most soldiers in most armies get drunk, so what? Doubtless true, but it seems no nation has officially codified drinking to the extent that Britain has, or allowed its military traditions to be influenced in such a massive way by the Devil’s swill.

For the purpose of brevity, I’m not going to talk much about what goes on in the barracks or the officer’s mess on special occasions, although the British Military does not suffer from a lack of these bizarre rituals. Rather, this is a look at the times in which booze, through symbiosis or (un)happy accident, influenced the British art of warfare.

On talking of British vs. French troop make-up during the Napoleonic Wars, the Duke of Wellington stated:

“The French system of conscription brings together a fair sample of all classes; Ours is composed of the scum of the earth – the mere scum of the earth. It is only wonderful that we should be able to make so much of them afterwards. The English soldiers are fellows who have all enlisted for drink – that is the plain fact – they have all enlisted for drink.”

Sir Arthur Wellesley’s naked contempt for the common soldier was not just old-fashioned class prejudice. On at least one occasion (the Battle of Vittoria), post-combat debauchery and looting led to a French Army’s escape.

A livid Wellington had to threaten the regiment involved with immediate disbandment. Queen Victoria was so appalled at the ill-discipline of her (frequently shit-faced) Household Guards that she ordered them to practice drill, at top speed, in full view of the public, for a hundred years.

Although the statute has long expired, the Guards continue this grueling practice, much to the delight of tourists from around the world. Even though there are no recent examples of such immense cock-ups (discounting the indulgences during Operation Market Garden), the latest surveys of British Military drinking culture show that 61% are at risk of alcohol-related harm. How did booze establish such a hold on the armed services?

The notion of Gin being the poison of choice for soldiers is poetic. Gin is indeed a staple of British pub life, and was favored by everyone from the lowliest guttersnipes to Imperial administrators. Time after time after time, the humble Gin and Tonic, and its quinine, gets to be the drink most synonymous with the Pax Britannia. But it was another spirit which made the widest impact on those at the business end of Empire-building…

Although soldiers received a ration of beer since at least the days of the English Civil War, expansionism, pragmatism and economics would change this. Although the ingenious methods of alcohol storage and preservation led to some of our most beloved drinks, there was room for improvement. During the 18th and 19th centuries, more and more of the Caribbean basin, and a small part of South America, fell under British influence. Here, the production of molasses and sugarcane meant the industrial production of Rum began in earnest. Its strength, ease of manufacture and longevity made it a natural fit for colonial armies. 

In the second half of the 19th century, during the most aggressive period of Empire, it was estimated an army of 36,000 men consumed over half a million gallons of Rum per year. Such a thirst left an impression on conquered lands, as Rum remains the weapon of choice in the Indian Punjab.

In time, this would be reduced, although not before the carnage of the First World War, and the grim logic of getting Tommies rat-arsed before sending them into No-Man’s Land.  One sliver of silver on this towering, anthracite cloud is the way in which the working-class, dirt-poor Lancashire millers and miners, posted en masse to Flanders, embraced the airy, ‘poofter’s drink of Benedictine. One unit that clung to the daily Rum ration to the bitter end was the Brigade of Gurkhas, specifically those stationed in Hong Kong. They justified this by the medicinal qualities the drink apparently offered. Yet, the army’s consumption does not bear a candle, does not measure up in the slightest, to the Navy’s.

All quips about sodomy and sadism aside, the Naval love of boozing is simply legend. Yo Ho Ho, my arse. Here’s why: the term ‘proof’, in regards to alcohol, comes from the way in which Rum was tested for its strength. If gunpowder, soaked in the drink, touched off, the alcohol content was deemed up to strength, or ‘proofed.’ In actual terms, at a throat-incinerating 57% ABV. Try drinking a half a pint of that tipple a day. It’s no surprise that many of our most colorful expressions for being three sheets to the wind have Naval origins. 

To say that such a horrendous drink had consequences is a bit like saying that a kick in the teeth is a slight inconvenience. Admiral Edward Vernon, hearing the horror stories of ship’s doctors and Captains, ordered the ration watered down. This drink, christened Grog after the Admiral’s favored grogram cloth coat, initially garnered hatred from sailors, but the drink stayed and became part of Navy culture and parlance. 

The Admiralty knew that the morale of sailors, often press-ganged into service and enduring cast-iron discipline on board, was all-important. Mutiny was not unheard of, and having sailors full of drink was a vital preventative measure.

The introduction of bitters, to combat scurvy, led to a great leap in the history of mixology. Services from both sides of the American Revolutionary War knew the vital importance that strong drink had on the morale of their troops, going so far as to blockade and seize supplies. The Royal Navy eventually discontinued the ration in the 1970s, much to the average rating’s chagrin. Of course, by that point, the Navy’s days of ruling the waves, being the force projection for the ruthless residents of a rainy bunch of islands in the North Sea, had ended.

As anyone who has read George MacDonald Fraser’s Flashman series knows, the British Empire was a catalogue of blustering bugger-ups, smiling cruelties and wholesale theft. The spread of drinking, and the insidious business of the India-China Opium Trade, leave us in absolutely no doubt as to the physical and mental condition of those involved.

As Frankie Boyle says, “Queen Victoria was on cocaine, and not the shit you take. You have never done a line and said… Let’s invade India!

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