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Wine and Warfare part 1: Rome

“War is long stretches of boredom punctuated by moments of sheer terror,” so the old adage goes.

US soldiers sample some captured enemy supplies in the Pacific Theatre. Soldiers on campaign often become proficient in finding home comforts and alcohol is chief among them.

Through the ages, soldiers on campaign, whoever they were, wherever they were, whenever they fought, have tended to alleviate the boring bits with the ubiquitous pastimes of: sleeping, sex, thinking of home and loved ones and drinking.

Just like their aquatic and even revolutionary counterparts, every army has its drinking traditions and due to their proximity to its source, alcohol plays a much more prominent role in army life than it does in the navy.

In the Middle Ages through to the 19th century, heavy drinking on an everyday basis was common place.

In an age when life could be nasty, brutish and short at the best of times, it is understandable why those who plied their trade very much in harm’s way reached so readily for the bottle.

In time, as standing armies became the norm, army commanders incorporated drink rations as an official part of their men’s diets. This was done for two key reasons. Firstly it kept the men happy, secondly, with a controlled drink ration it was hoped that discipline would be better maintained and therefore the worst excesses of undisciplined and mutinous soldiers would be curbed.

The presence of alcohol could of course spur on atrocities anyway. Many British soldiers in the Napoleonic wars were indolent drunkards, swept up from prisons and the work house. Recruiting sergeants were well known for getting potential recruits drunk before “enlisting” them.

Despite these dubious beginnings, the British Army of the period was renowned for its discipline, generally decent conduct, courage under fire and ability to beat the French.

But when the British took Badajoz in 1812 during the Peninsular War, the assault was so savage and bloody that the crazed troops gave into their darker natures and embarked on a two day binge of drinking, looting, rape and murder that was only stopped with a rash of summary hangings.

A Soviet tankist and British sapper enjoy a drink in 1945 as the two allied armies finally meet in northern Germany

It was one of the rare occasions that Britain’s soldiers really did merit their “scum of the earth” nickname that Wellington had given them.

In the Second World War too, Soviet soldiers in the invasion of Nazi Germany were renowned for their near uncontrollable drunkenness at times, which caused them to perpetrate atrocities every bit as vile and brutal as the Nazis had themselves committed in the east.

Drinking in the Red Army got so out of hand at times that there were recorded cases of soldiers drinking 100% proof industrial alcohol they found in factories which resulted in blindness and then death.

Yet, when not drunk to excess, alcohol could break down barriers between combatants too.

Wounded men often shared water, a pinch of tobacco, or a precious drop of liquor while prisoners looking particularly wretched might be given the same by their captors who, when death did not seem quite so close, recognised that the other was a fellow human after all and not the slavering beast of popular propaganda.

Today most modern armies do not allow booze “in theatre” but, officially or otherwise, alcohol has had a place in warfare for centuries.

It could dull physical pain, serve as an antiseptic, blot out the mental horrors of the battlefield and fortify men to actions that few might consider when sober – a little “Dutch courage”.

Accounts of warfare through the ages frequently contain whole passages or recurring mentions to drinking. British officers in the Great War for example were seemingly constantly in search of Scotch.

Alcohol became a coping mechanism for many, for others it became a crutch. War and booze was and is a heady mix. Piling a chemical stimulant on top of what is already a terrifying cocktail of emotional and hormonal overdrive can lead to self-destruction.

Sadly it is no coincidence that army veterans continue to make up a great majority of the homeless in this country and others – many due to hitting the bottle following a deployment or leaving the forces.

As for the soldiers who fought in Flanders, Portugal and Spain, India and Africa, North America and China, men who fought before the advent of psychological medicine and an understanding of what is now termed post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD); how many of them came home only to find destitution, homelessness and death at the bottom of a bottle?

German soldiers in the First World War behind the lines. The number of empty wine bottles in the picture is perhaps one reason they have decided to play cards while wearing their gas masks.

The drinks industry has taken a slightly greater role in supporting veterans in recent years.

It was recently reported that one brewery in Chicago was only employing ex-servicemen, while Glenfiddich is a major sponsor of the UK veterans’ charity Help for Heroes, sponsoring its fund-raising expeditions and even auctioning a bottle of its Janet Sheed Roberts Reserve in support.

Aside from the sad realities of addiction (ones that equally afflict non-servicemen too), drinking – as in “civvy street” – is a powerful bonding tool, especially for men from different backgrounds and communities who might be thrown together by war – see these German pilots in WW1.

It is often said that men who fight together become “brothers in arms” or a “band of brothers”, shared elation and misery plays its part here and commiserating or celebrating over a bottle or two is just human nature – Napoleon did say of Champagne: “In victory you deserve it, in defeat you need it.”

Vineyards too have been dramatic backdrops to the drama of European history and have suffered destruction as well as their accompanying cellars being looted for booty by whichever troops were in the vicinity. Regular vineyard visitors may be surprised at the sheer weight of history that has tramped through their favourite vineyards in hobnailed boots.

This new series will chart drinking’s progress in the military world from Roman wine-based energy drinks to French wine rations, how the cause of German Riesling is to this day undermined by war and one of the most infamous guerrilla weapons of all time.

Part 1 follows this introduction with the succeeding instalments to be published on alternate days over the coming weeks.

Any reader interested in why men fight, their inspirations, strengths, foibles – alcoholic or otherwise – is directed to Acts of War: the behaviour of men in battle by the great military historian Richard Holmes.

This work is a pale imitation but hopefully an entertaining ramble through the history of alcohol in warfare.

Everyman after all is but a mother’s son

veni, vidi, vinum – the Romans on campaign

Life as a Roman legionary was tough. You served for a minimum of 25 years on the outer edges of empire and against violent barbarians who wished you ill.

Discipline was harsh, life was cheap and the chances of surviving your full term far from guaranteed, so it’s a good thing there was wine to be had.

Everybody in the wine trade knows that it was the Roman legions that helped make European viticulture what it is today.

Sort of anyway. Viticulture was not at all alien to the Celtic tribes of Gaul, Iberia and Helvetia and wine drinking was well established before the arrival of the legions.

Sadly, the romantic stories of Roman soldiers carrying Syrah/Shiraz and Viognier vines into the Rhône following earlier conquests in Persia are unlikely to be true – charming though they may be.

More accurately, Roman conquest caused viticulture to flourish in its wake, soldiers on the campaign trail having little time to start cultivating crops.

Rather, it was the administrators and tradesmen who came behind the legions – there is evidence they were there beforehand – who helped develop viticulture in the conquered provinces not only because it was a valuable trade resource but also because it was an essential part of a Roman soldiers’ diet.

As is always pointed out, alcohol was much safer to drink than most water in the past but it was also seen as healthy in its own right. The Roman physician Galen is said to have used wine to disinfect the wounds of gladiators.

Being forward thinking, the Romans introduced wine into the soldier’s rations quite early on; during the Republican era in fact.

The historian Appian apparently recorded both wine and a drink called “posca” being among the supplies of the general Lucullus during the conquest of Spain in 153BC.

The better wine was kept for the generals and the soldiers made do with posca. Posca was a peasant drink using wine or sometimes vinegar mixed with water and herbs.

The name is thought to derive from either the Latin, “to drink”, “poter” or the Greek, “very sharp”, “epoxos” or possibly just “oxos”, “sharp”.

As most Roman wine was probably a little closer to what we call “natural wine” today, low in sulphites and so on, it is likely to have quickly oxidised anyway and the majority of posca was probably made with spoiled wine.

Nonetheless, it was actually a fantastically useful liquid and filled the role of a sort of proto-energy drink or gel which modern soldiers are given today too – though without the alcohol.

On the march or in camp it provided liquid, calories, vitamin C which prevented scurvy and the alcohol helped kill bacteria from whichever local water supply the soldiers were using.

When the Roman soldiers passed the crucified Christ a soaked sponge on a hyssop stick it was highly likely that it was posca in which the sponge had been dipped.

By 360AD, soldiers drank wine and posca on alternate days and it was highly prized for its remedial effects by the emperor Hadrian for one.

Alongside their physical fitness and discipline, Renaissance historians also attributed the Roman’s conquering abilities to their diet of pork, cheese…and posca.

Next time: the military origins of gin and the term “Dutch courage”.

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