Seldom Reaches Destination – the problem of na’poo rum
British troops celebrate Christmas Day on the Somme 1916. Rum was a key part of the celebrations and issued specially.
If the French army had wine, the British, like their navy, had rum. Rum had largely replaced beer as the drink ration for the troops since the 18th century and it was as integral to the narrative of the army as the famous “shilling a day” which constituted a man’s pay.
The role of rum reached new heights during the bloody battles of the First World War in northern France and Flanders as Britain’s first conscript army came face to face with modern warfare.
Too many perceptions concerning the First World War are built upon simplistic interpretations of famous poems the conflict produced (wonderful and powerful as their body of work remains) or the now much dismissed Alan Clark book The Donkeys. The popular view is that it began raining in 1914, didn’t stop until the armistice and in between everybody wrote anti-war poetry in the mud and died.
In this analysis there is no room for comedy but, like the French poliu, the British “Tommy” has always thrived on black humour and much of it in the First World War revolved around the quest to get hold of more rum.
Rum (indeed alcohol generally) served three main purposes in the war: firstly as a morale booster; secondly as coping mechanism and thirdly as what is known as a “combat motivator” and all three merged quite seamlessly into the other, their purposes over-lapping, as time progressed.
New Zealanders in their distinctive “lemon squeezer” hats receive their rum ration.
The famous “gunfire” ration was reintroduced by the British as a warmer during the first winter in the trenches of 1914/1915 and was quickly adopted by the “Dominion” forces (Canadian, Australian, South African and New Zealand) too.
As it came in at an eye-watering 54% abv, just a tot was meant to be added to tea or coffee in cold weather but it eventually became a daily ritual for troops on the frontline.
A memorandum to the Canadian overseas minister, Sir Albert Kemp, noted: “It is left to the discretion of the commanding officer as to whether oxo, soup or rum is required. As a general proposition, preference is expressed for the latter.
“The individual man is in all cases free to refuse the issue of rum if he so desires, but this option is only exercised in a few instances.”
The rum ration came in a large stoneware jar holding one full gallon of the spirit – enough for 64 men – stamped with the letters, S.R.D for Service Rations Depot.
It was dished out by an NCO sometimes under the watchful eye of an officer, sometimes not, twice a day at the dawn and dusk stand-tos (the times the enemy was most likely to attack).
If the enemy made no appearance then the NCOs would serve the rum.
Common rumour had it that most NCOs operated a “one for you, one for me” policy, whereby the jar would be finished (and the NCO either reeling drunk or fast asleep) before it had got round to every man.
SRD quickly came to be known as, “Seldom Reaches Destination”, “Sergeants Rarely Deliver” and “Soon Runs Dry” among other names.
A popular trench song (sung to the tune of “If You’re Happy and You Know It”) put the phenomenon to verse.
“If the sergeant drinks your rum, never mind
And your face may lose its smile, never mind
Though he’s just a bloody sot, he’s entitled to the lot
If the sergeant drinks your rum, never mind.”
The pursuit of rum (and the lack of it) was dealt with in the famous trench newspaper The Wipers Times.
It ran a serial in late 1916 into early 1917 entitled Narpoo Rum (“narpoo” or “na’poo” being an Anglicisation of “Il n’y a plus”, “there’s no more”, which featured highly in army slang at the time and was up there with, “Wipers” (Ypres) and “San Fairy Ann” (“ça ne fait rien”) in the Franglais lexicon of most Tommies).
Featuring the thinly disguised detective, “Herlock Shomes” and his assistant “Hotsam”, the series spanned five instalments, with Shomes searching for the brigade’s stolen rum ration around Ypres.
Amusingly the veil sometimes slips and the characters are referred to outright as Holmes and Watson – the story may be considered non-canonical however by true fans of Conan Doyle’s sleuth.
The paper also frequently printed poems and fake letters complaining about the lack of rum, as well as prevailing rumours that a whisky “drought” is on the cards – Scotch being the officer’s preferred tipple.
As with the French, although humour could alleviate some of the madness and suffering, drink was important to morale when the going got tough.
Once the thin façade of war’s “glory” had been roughly disabused and the troops were exposed to the grinding life of the trenches, with random shelling, sniper fire, gas attacks and rats a fact of daily life, then rum was part of a coping mechanism that many found essential.
David Jones in In Parenthesis writes of the rum ration being issued in rather desperately pathetic terms:
“O have a care – don’t spill the precious
O don’t jog his hand – ministering;
Do take care.
O please – give the bugger elbow room”
“The spirit of our troops is excellent”, the legendary wartime cartoonist Bruce Bairnsfather on the soldiers’ appreciation of rum. Private soldiers did not have access to the rum ration which was normally under lock and key.
The First World War was really the first conflict where armies were in near constant contact with the other and the British suffered 7,000 men a day in the trenches killed, wounded or down with some kind of sickness or disease, the everyday “wastage” of war.
These sorts of losses were not at all uncommon to warfare but were magnified by the intensity and scale of the fighting.
The constant threat of death or mutilation, the smells and sights of dead flesh and near constant noise of artillery caused men to fall sick, break down and suffer the infamous “shell shock” if exposed to it for too long.
For the most part though the dangers (while not exaggerated by any means) were not always so intense that men were unable to complete their week’s rotation without cracking.
Commanders made sure that units spent three days to a week in the very front line having rotated through secondary lines before and after and then enjoying a week’s rest behind the battle zone.
Nonetheless, month after month of rotation, seeing terrible things, losing friends occasionally, living in a dirty hole and always aware of the danger posed by the enemy was enough to wear men down both mentally and physically.
Rum was a bright spot in an otherwise dull and dangerous life.
Matters were made even more severe when members of the temperance movement at home, and sometimes in the army itself, tried to ban the rum ration on numerous occasions as they claimed it promoted alcoholism and was immoral (as opposed to killing men you’ve never met).
Its interference was not well received. Captain Alexander Stewart of the 3rd Cameronians made a particularly strong point on the matter: “The finest thing that ever happened in the trenches was the rum ration, and never was it more needed than on the Somme. Yet some blasted, ignorant fool of a general – damned in this world and the next – wanted to stop it and, for a time, did.
“The man must be worse than the lowest type of criminal, have no knowledge of the conditions in which troops exist, and be entirely out of touch with the men who are unfortunate enough to have him as their commander. He should have been taken up to the line and frozen in the mud. I would have very willingly sat on his head, as he was a danger to the whole army. Curse him.
“Those who have not spent a night standing or sitting or lying in mud with an east wind blowing and the temperature below freezing may think that I am extravagant in my abuse of the man who denied the soldiers their rum rations. Those who have will know I am too temperate.”
Unlike the French who seem to have latched more persistently onto wine as a shining beacon of Gallic resistance and fortitude, for British and Dominion soldiers drink was tied up in much more melancholy terms.
Alcohol dependency, particularly among officers, was a real problem and many turned to the bottle as the stress of command pushed them to breaking point.
It was a problem that was tolerated, so long as it didn’t impair the individual’s capacity to perform his duty.
The Western Front as it is usually remembered. Australians at Passchendaele 1917
In RC Sherriff’s Journey’s End, the main character, captain Stanhope, is worn out and drinking heavily – something he hopes the new arrival, second lieutenant Raleigh, will not mention to his sister whom Stanhope is in love with.
When Stanhope’s company relieves another at the beginning of the play the departing company commander, Hardy, asks lieutenant Osborne: “How is the dear young boy? Drinking like a fish as usual?”
Osborne tells him how Stanhope has been in action since he was 18, “and because he’s stuck it till his nerves have got battered to bits, he’s called a drunkard.”
“Not a drunkard,” Hardy responds, “just a – just a hard drinker.”
After Osborne is killed in a trench raid Raleigh rounds on Stanhope for apparently sitting and enjoying himself with the other officers. Stanhope then admits he drinks to cope.
Raleigh: “And yet you can sit there and drink Champagne and smoke cigars –“
Stanhope: “To forget, you little fool – to forget! D’you understand? To forget! You think there’s no limit to what a man can bear?”
Suicide was not as common as might be supposed given the circumstances but the poet Siegfried Sassoon mentioned it and the lack of rum’s part in it, in his poem, Suicide in the Trenches:
“I knew a simple soldier boy
Who grinned at life in empty joy,
Slept soundly through the lonesome dark,
And whistled early with the lark.
“In winter trenches cowed and glum,
with crumps and lice and lack of rum,
He put a bullet through his brain.
No one spoke of him again.”
Like their forebears in the 17th century, British soldiers were given an extra tot of rum before going over the top for either a raid or larger offensive. When faced with the prospect of advancing under the sights of German machine gunners a little encouragement does not appear unreasonable.
One veteran recalled the air on the first day of the battle of the Somme smelling thickly of, “rum and blood”, while Maurice Searle of the 18th Battalion (Essex Scottish), a Canadian regiment, remembered that the only way the men kept going during the battle of Passchendaele in 1917 was, “more than ordinary issues of rum”.
Of course, over-proof alcohol and weaponry are not best bed fellows and coupled with a commander who may already be alcohol dependent the results could be disastrous.
Sometimes officers and NCOs would withhold the rum ration until the attack was completed as many had seen or heard of enough instances when drunk men had got themselves and others killed through reckless actions – though one Canadian corporal who tried to do this recalled being threatened at gunpoint by the waiting men so that he was forced to serve out the rum anyway.
Confronted with fear, desperation and the world’s first taste of unrelenting mechanised warfare, it is little surprise that, for better or worse, alcohol became a unifying and stabilising factor for “Tommy” as he struggled to survive and maintain a semblance of sanity.
The ration may have been irregular but both it and a sense of humour ensured the army, despite the occasional wobble, never cracked en masse.
“Without it,” one medical officer famously remarked, “I doubt we would have won the war.”
An enlightening and in-depth look at the use of rum in the Canadian Army during WW1 (and applicable to all British and Dominion forces) to which the author is indebted can be found here.
Next time: The German experience and how a moment of drunkenness may have had far reaching repercussions for Riesling today.
Previously: Pinard et Singe – the French wine ration