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British WWI spirits bottles found in Israel

Israeli archaeologists have been surprised to uncover a refuse pit filled with “hundreds” of empty bottles of wine, beer and spirits consumed by the British army when it was campaigning in the area against the Ottomans 100 years ago.

This undated photo provided by the Israel Antiquities Authority this week, shows century-old liquor bottles that belonged to British soldiers in World War I. The Israel Antiquities Authority said it was excavating 250,000-year-old flint tools when the archaeologists stumbled upon hundreds of liquor bottles near a building where British soldiers were garrisoned in 1917. Three bottles of Gordon’s Gin are particularly prominent in the middle foreground. (Clara Amit, Israel Antiquities Authority)

More used to uncovering sites associated with Canaanites, Judeans, Romans and other ancient peoples, the team from the Israeli Antiquities Authority (IAA) was excavating a site on what will be the new Highway 200 at Ramla between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv when they came across numerous British artifacts.

In fact, the archaeologists had been digging up flint tools from the Middle Palaeolithic period over 200,000 years ago when they stumbled upon the rather more recent finds.

Bottles of Scotch, gin, beer, wine glasses, cutlery, crockery, buttons and other military equipment were all found in and around rubbish tips beside an older Ottoman structure that was used by British troops on their advance north through Palestine during the latter stages of the First World War. It is the first such find to be uncovered in Israel.

The detritus includes bottles of Gordon’s Gin and Dewar’s Whisky, as well as broken wine glasses, beer and liqueur bottles and bottles of soda.

Excavation director, Ron Toureg of the IAA, said: “The discovery of this site and the finds in it provide us with an opportunity for a glimpse of the unwritten part of history, and reconstruct for the first time the everyday life and leisure of the soldiers. We exposed a building whose upper part was not preserved, which was apparently the foundations of a barracks.

“This structure was used for agricultural purposes in the Ottoman period, and during World War I the British converted it for military use and soldiers were housed in it. Inside the building we discovered dozens of uniform buttons, belt buckles, parts of riding equipment, and other artifacts that were the property of the British soldiers.

“The building caught fire and collapsed for a reason which at this point is unclear. The place where the soldiers discarded debris was revealed just a few meters from the building. We were surprised to discover that, along with broken crockery and cutlery, there was an enormous number of soft drink and liquor bottles. In fact, about 70% of the waste that was discarded in the refuse pit were liquor bottles. It seems that the soldiers took advantage of the respite given them to release the tension by frequently drinking alcohol”.

Although described as a ‘barracks’, the large number of bottles as well as other items, apparently including shaving kits and Italian porcelain, strongly suggests the building was used an officers’ mess. It is also possible that other bottles were deposited in the rubbish tip from other establishments such as a sergeants’ mess and canteen for enlisted men which may only ever have existed as tents rather than solid structures.

The discovery of riding equipment is interesting. Although horses and mules were integral to all branches of the army for hauling guns and other transport duties, evidence of horse tack may also have something to do with the British and Imperial units that operated in that area. As Sherri Mark, an architect and researcher of the British army in Palestine, noted: “On 15 November, 1917 the Egyptian Expeditionary Force under the command of General Allenby conquered the area around the towns of Lod and Ramla.

“Before occupying Jerusalem the army encamped in the area where the archaeological excavation took place: the headquarters at Bir Salam – Ramla Camp and Sarafand Camp. The army was based there for about nine months until a decision was made to continue the conquest of the country further north.”

As a British military map from 16 November 1917 (right) shows, the area around Ramla (‘El Ramle’) was occupied by the Yeomanry Mounted Division, principally by two of that formation’s brigades, the 6th and 8th – the former made up of soldiers from Buckinghamshire, Berkshire and Dorset and the latter from London. It in turn was part of the Desert Mounted Corps (D.M.C) that also included the famous Australian Light Horse.

By late November the British had pushed on a little further while Ramla, sitting as it was on a major railway line, was an important camp and depot behind the lines. The D.M.C held off a number of Ottoman counterattacks at the end of November before Allenby captured Jerusalem on 9 December.

The British pushed further north to Jaffa in the following months as they established their hold on Jerusalem but otherwise advances were limited until September 1918 when the final offensive aimed at capturing Damascus began.

As well as the various bottles, the archaeologists also uncovered the silver tip of an officer’s cane. Stamped with the insignia of the Royal Flying Corps, it too is the first of its kind discovered in Israel.

Tales and memoirs detailing the alcohol intake of soldiers during the First World War are legion, even if physical evidence is often less so. A brief introduction to the subject has been looked at previously by the drinks business in the ‘Wine and Warfare’ series.

Read more: Rum and blood – drink in the trenches of the First World War

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