Dying from “the Drink”: Soldier Deaths Due to Alcohol, 1914-1918

by | Nov 11, 2019 | LCSC, Military, Strategic & Disarmament Series, War and Society | 0 comments

by Georgia Gingrich

During the First World War, Canadians were divided over the consumption of alcohol, with prohibition efforts succeeding in many provinces between 1916 and 1918. I was introduced to this tension while meticulously combing through the mortality registers of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC), searching for soldier and veteran deaths due to suicide and accidents in Canada from 1914 to 1918.[i] Through this process, I was shocked to find that the consumption of alcohol played a role in a number of soldier deaths within the Canadian army on the home front.[ii] These alcohol related deaths raised many questions, including: how was alcohol used in the army? How did prohibition efforts on the home-front affect soldiers’ alcohol consumption? What were the dangers of alcohol consumption among soldiers at home? These are the questions I aim to answer in this post.

Soldiers of the British Commonwealth were given 1/16 of a pint of rum per day.[iii] Potent rum helped to bring positivity to training camps and the trenches, and Tim Cook argues it was a beloved reward for soldiers of the First World War. Popular songs like, “If the Sergeant Steals Your Rum,” attested to the importance of rum, humour, and perseverance, in the face of the horrors of trench warfare.[iv] Beer was also distributed within military camps, which military officials believed would keep crime under control, by virtue of their ability to control distribution and alcoholic content (See Figure 1. below). Military authorities concluded that providing alcohol was a way to ensure that soldiers remained disciplined.

Figure 1. Troops at a canteen that sells beer and stout in Zillebeke, Belgium, 24 September 1917. IWM (Q 6011)

At the same time, Canada was grappling with the idea of prohibition, and most provinces banned the consumption of alcohol by 1917. As Cook explains, there was a stark difference between beliefs of activist groups and civilians, who wanted to keep liquor from being consumed in the army, to those of soldiers overseas, who wanted to maintain the right to consume alcohol.[v] Furthermore, military authorities also found that alcohol consumption and discipline did not always go hand in hand; within the British Army, 33,063 drinking offences were court martialed among soldiers abroad between 1914 and 1920, and are noted in the official statistics.[vi] Even with prohibition tightening the controls over sale and distribution of alcohol in the Canadian context, it is evident that alcohol still posed a danger to many soldiers at home.

Figure 2. Deaths attributed to acute alcohol poisonings and accidents attributed to intoxication by alcohol in the Canadian Army on the Home-front. Sources: Canada, War Graves Registers (Circumstances of Casualty), 1914-1948 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2010. Original data: War Graves Registry: Circumstances of Death Records. Record Group 150, 1992–1993/314, Boxes 145–238. Library and Archives Canada. Ottawa, Ontario, Canada, & Commonwealth War Graves Commission, Find War Dead. https://www.cwgc.org/find/find-war-dead

The abuse of alcohol and the consumption of unsafe alcohol products proved to be a serious concern for Canada’s first armed forces. The CWGC burial and circumstance of casualty records document that at least 44 soldier deaths occurred due to acute alcohol-related causes in Canada between 1914 and 1918. These alcohol related deaths included poisonings, as well as accidents which occurred while under the influence of alcohol. Digging deeper into the circumstances of these alcohol related deaths through soldier’s personnel files at the Library and Archives Canada reveals the dangers of methylated alcohol or wood alcohol.

Methylated alcohol was introduced in the 1850’s for industrial and cleaning uses, making it unfit for human consumption. Despite the harmful effects of methylated alcohol, soldiers drank this toxic substance. As noted by Stella Moss, the dangerous effects of methylated alcohol included, “vomiting, delirium tremens, liver and organ damage, blindness, alcoholic insanity and death.”[vii] Eleven soldiers’ circumstance of casualty forms for soldier deaths in Canada indicated the use of methylated or wood alcohol in the “cause” section directly relating to death. Take, for instance, the case of Private Alan R., who died from drinking Bay-Rum. Bay Rum was typically used “for shaving purposes.” Private Alan R’s circumstance of casualty form reveals that he had purchased the Bay-Rum from a pharmacist before he was discharged from the C.E.F “on account of drunkenness.”[viii] However, in other soldier’s personnel files, methylated alcohol use appears even if it is not included in the immediate cause of death.  This can be seen in the case of Private William K., as his circumstance of casualty file reveals that he died of “Suspected Alcohol Poisoning” but his personnel file shows that the Board of Pension Commissioners ruled his death was due to “Methyl Alcohol Poisoning.”[ix]

In addition to the use of methylated alcohol, some of the files indicate that certain soldiers mixed alcohol with added stimulants for health purposes. In the death of Private James C., his circumstance of casualty form simply lists his death as “Alcoholic poisoning,” but after further research into his service file, his cause of death was not so simple a black and white affair. The inquest revealed that “the deceased died by causes not fully explained but that his death was accelerated by the drinking of an inferior intoxicant supposed to be a wine sold by druggists for the building up of people in poor health.”[x] The inquest concluded with a statement recommending that the Canadian government prohibit the sale of illicit alcohol  due to its greater risk of adulteration. It was difficult for military officials, just as it is now for historians, to retroactively discern how much of a role alcohol played in soldiers’ deaths. In six of the forty-four cases of death due to alcohol I discovered, alcohol use was listed in addition to a lethal accident, including an instance of “gunshot wounds, while delirious and drinking methylated spirits.”[xi]

To conclude, the consumption of unsafe alcohol products, and the abuse of alcohol had deadly consequences for soldiers on the home front, and was directly linked to at least 44 soldier deaths throughout the war. However, alcohol also served a number of other uses in the military, ranging from social to medical. Further research could be expanded to include the experiences of soldiers’ overseas, and explore the use of methylated alcohol and the consumption of alcohol with added stimulants, and what this meant for soldier’s health. Another topic of inquiry could be the use of alcohol and its effect on family relationships after the war, perhaps using soldiers’ digitized pension files at the LCMSDS as a starting point. Research in this area could help reveal the culture of alcohol consumption in the army during the First World War, how perceptions of alcohol and its use have changed over time, as well as the history of addiction, and advancements in the field of medicine. Ultimately, these discoveries continue to inform how we use and consume alcohol today.

Georgia Gingrich is a Master of Arts Student in the Department of History at Wilfrid Laurier University.

This research was supported by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada.[xii] I would also like to acknowledge Kyle Pritchard, Dr. Kandace Bogaert, Dr. Mark Humphries and Dr. Amy-Milne Smith for their assistance with this project.

[i] It is important to consider deaths attributed to suicide, as well as those labelled as accidents, since many deaths by suicide would be categorized as accidents – for instance, to avoid the stigma of suicide, or if the individual was deemed not mentally sound at the time of their death.

[ii] Probably even more, since I did not count nephritis, or other chronic causes of death including cancers of the liver, but rather the more acute “alcohol poisonings”.

[iii] Nicholas Johnson, “World War I, Part 2: The British Rum Ration” Points: The Blog of Alcohol & Drug History Society (blog), May 29, 2014, https://pointsadhsblog.wordpress.com/2014/05/29/world-war-i-part-2-the-british-rum-ration/

[iv] Tim Cook, The Secret History of Soldiers: How Canadians Survived the Great War (Canada: Allen Lane, 2018), 41, 129.

[v] Tim Cook, “Wet Canteens and Worrying Mothers,” Histoire Sociale/Social History 35:70 (2002): 316, 328.

[vi] The War Office, Statistics of the Military Effort of the British Empire During the Great War, 1914-1920 (London: His Majesty’s Stationary Office, 1922), 666.

[vii] Stella Moss, “An abnormal habit”: Alcohol policy and the control of methylated spirit drinking in England in the 1920’s and 1930’s,” Drugs; Education, Prevention, and Policy 22:2 (2015): 118-120.

[viii] Pte. Alan R, Ancestry.com. Canada, War Graves Registers (Circumstances of Casualty), 1914-1948 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2010. Original data: War Graves Registry: Circumstances of Death Records. Record Group 150, 1992–1993/314, Boxes 145–238. Library and Archives Canada. Ottawa, Ontario, Canada (hereafter Canada, War Graves Registers).

[ix] Pte. William K, Canada, War Graves Registers. and Library Archives Canada, Personnel Records of the First World War, Personnel File William K. RG 150, Accession 1992-93/166, Box 5242 – 22, pg., 57.

[x] Pte. James C. Canada, War Graves Registers. and Library and Archives Canada, Personnel Records of the First World War, Personnel File James C. RG 150, Accession 1992-93/166, Box 1788 – 17, pg. 18-19.

[xi] Pte. Clifford B., Canada, War Graves Registers.

[xii] As a research assistant with a SSHRC funded project in the Department of History at Wilfrid Laurier University.