Booze on the Battlefield

Alcohol has been consumed and produced by humans for at least 7,000 years and recent theories suggest it may have actually pre-dated modern humans. The fantastically named ‘drunken monkey theory’, suggests that early humans left the trees to find and eat fermenting fruits on the ground, and that those with a better nose for the ethanol inside them survived longer and mated more, and thus our love of alcohol was hardwired into our brain.

It should come as no surprise that war also appears to be preprogramed into us for the same reasons and so these two, booze and battle, have often gone hand in hand. There are dozens of accounts of soldiers drinking before and after battle, spread across the whole of history, and right up into the modern day.

Alexander the Great, like his father Phillip the 2nd before him, was a notorious drinker, as were his Macedonian brothers in arms. Allegedly each man was promised ‘as much as he could drink’ if victorious. Clearly, it was a fantastic motivator, as his men conquered much of the known world at the time.

But while the Macedonian King tried to keep his men sober during battle, the Celts and Vikings are thought to have been practically staggering sideways into the frontlines of the enemy. There are many who challenge these theories though. The two groups appear to have used the drinking hall as both a post battle bragging ground, to exaggerate their achievements and the loot they gained. It also appears to have played a valuable part in both societies when it came to recruiting men and chieftains to war. Alcohol has long been a social lubricant, and both societies threw great feasts, the perfect place for recruiting men for the next military adventure. The Vikings in particular appear to have placed great faith in drinking, supposedly getting roaring drunk before making many major decisions regarding whether or not they should go to war, believing that men were more honest after a fifth cup of mead.

In regard to the Celts, we should be wary of the sources, most of which are Roman, and hardly unbiased. They themselves enjoyed hard drinking, either drinking wine, which they would water down (to drink it unfiltered was considered barbarian — something the Celts would do), or a drink called posca — a vinegar or sour wine drink to which water and herbs were added.

The Samurai were also renowned drinkers, sharing a glass of sake together before battle, wishing each other a good death. The Samurai were such fans of a good drink that it’s responsible for the fall of one of their greatest clans and its leader — Imagawa Yoshimoto, in a legendary battle between the Imagawa and Oda clans. The Imagawa clan had won a string of blinding victories and Yoshimoto was set to become Shogun. As he made the journey, the Oda clan attacked him one night as he camped in the village of Dengakuhazama despite him supposedly having 40,000 men (this is actually expected to be false, the number closer to 25,000).

Allegedly his men were so drunk on sake that they didn’t even notice the approaching Oda, despite the invaders only having 2,500 men, a 12:1 advantage. Yoshimoto supposedly left his tent to complain about the noise and was cut down by the Oda, as were the rest of his men. The subsequent rout led to the fall of the Imagawa clan.

For a semi-mythical repeat of this trend, the Trojans celebrating the departure of the Greeks, drank and feasted until they passed out, leaving the Trojan Horse unguarded allowing the Greeks to sneak out and raid the entire city.

Likewise, there is Saint Olga, the Grand Princess of Kiev. After the death of her husband she went on a murderous rampage against his killers, the Drevlians. In a scene straight out of Game of Thrones, she held a funeral feast for her husband, inviting the Drevlians, encouraging them to drink as she wept for her beloved. Once they were drunk, she had her attendants slaughter everyone there.

Alcohol then has a dark history in war too. Moving into more modern times, it was used as a way to entice soldiers. While some armies paid part of man’s wage in booze, others like the British Navy preferred to make it part of recruitment. While some press gangs simply beat men unconscious, other preferred to get a man roaring drunk and have him agree to sign on. There are numerous tales of men waking up onboard a ship, hungover, with little to no memory of how they got there.

Around the same time, British sailors began using the phrase ‘Dutch Courage’. During the thirty years war, each man would be given genever, or Dutch Gin, and so we begin to see one of the few documented examples of drinking before battle. The French in the Napoleonic era had women deliver brandy to injured men to boost morale. Nelson and his men reportedly drank not just before but during battle, and ‘Nelson’s Blood’ became a term for rum after the Admirals death. Even Sir Francis Drake, one of the most famous sailors in history, enjoyed a drink while on the high seas, before and after their many battles, but, rather comically in my mind, these legends of the waves drank the precursors of the mojito and daiquiri.

In modern conflicts like WW1, many British soldiers were given a stiff drink of liquor before they went over the top, as if Dutch Courage would save them from German machine guns. The French were given around ½ a litre of wine as part of their daily ration, while the banning of vodka from the ranks of the Russian army by the Tsar is thought to have accelerated the collapse of the Russia war effort, reducing the income of the state by 30% and opening the flood gates to Communism.

Even as late as WW2 Stalin was encouraging his men with Vodka, an extra 100ml for every German plane shot down. There are even stories of a German Officer who would lose control of two vital bridges to the Allies because he was too drunk to give the order to detonate the explosives planted there. He would later drive past the frontline, straight into the enemy, when he and his driver were subsequently captured, the looming hangover now the least of his worries.

What’s clear from all this is that Alcohol and War have gone hand in hand since both were adopted on a large scale. Whether as a reward, a way of numbing the pain of war (both physical and mental) or as liquid courage, alcohol has been with us every bloody step of the way. While going into battle at least somewhat drunk appears to be a relatively modern invention, coinciding with the rise of Europe as a colonising power, our relationship with Alcohol is always evolving.

While few armies still give alcohol as a ration, soldiers and alcohol remain inextricably linked. Alcohol may be leaving our battlefields, but with 67,000 homeless veterans in the US as of 2019, many are turning to it to deal with the scars, both seen and unseen, that those battles have left on them.

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