Rumand its importance in the British and Dominion Naval and Military services

On The Grapevine-

April 2011

By Bro Mike , Wine Correspondent


Rumand its importance in the British and Dominion Naval and Military services

Rum, and its fraternal twin, cane spirit, are made by distilling fermented sugar and water. The sugar comes from the sugar cane and is fermented from cane juice, concentrated cane juice, or molasses. Molasses is the sweet, sticky residue that remains after sugar cane juice is boiled and the crystallized sugar is extracted. Most Rum is made from molasses. Molasses is over 50% sugar, but it also contains significant amounts of minerals and other trace elements, which can contribute to the final flavour. Rum is normally around 40 % alcohol by volume but overproof rum can get as high as 60-80%.

‘Grog’ in Naval history

From the earliest days of sail, men have had need of liquid during voyages. The most readily available were water and beer. As there was no method of distillation, water was taken on board and stored in casks, to be replaced at the end of the voyage or at ports of call. Beer was also stored in casks and the ration for seamen was a gallon a day. Water would quickly develop algae and turn slimy, and beer would turn sour. So the custom was to drink the beer before it soured and then turn to water. Stale water could be sweetened to make it more palatable, and was often sweetened with beer or wine. As the British Empire grew and longer voyages became more common, the problem of spoilage and shortages increased. So the maritime services needed a better solution – what to give sailors to drink?

England conquered Jamaica in 1655, and an enterprising local captain started issuing a daily ration of rum to his sailors, instead of the official Royal Navy beer ration of a gallon a day. The Royal Navy took over officially in 1740. From that date, each sailor in the Service was issued with half a pint of strong rum each day, half at noon, half at sunset. Before and after a battle, double rations were issued. It was issued neat for a few years, but (oddly enough) some sailors stored up their rations, and then got completely blotto on them. While the ration was originally given neat, or mixed with lime juice, the practice of watering down the rum began around the 1750’s. To help minimize the effect of the alcohol on his sailors, Admiral Edward Vernon had the rum ration watered down, a mixture that became known as grog. Many believe the term “grog “was coined in honour of the grogram cloak Admiral Vernon wore in rough weather.

So from 1756, the standard “grog” rum was issued – 2 parts water to 1 part rum, mixed with lime or lemon juice, and cinnamon. It’s thought that the nickname “limey” comes from this practice of adding citrus juice to the rum, a habit which combated scurvy.

Rum in World War 1 Trench warfare

During World War 1 a down to earth morale-booster was the daily rum ration. It came in gallon clay jars, marked simply SRD (see photo left). SRD was army-issued Services Rum Diluted or Service Ration Depot, and it became an institutionalized part of the ritual of enduring the war. Rum and other spirits had long formed part of the daily issue of the British and Dominion soldier and sailor on campaign. In the process of learning how to survive the trenches of the Western Front, warriors were again introduced to the rum ration. A rum measure or tot would have been used for official rum rations, usually no more than two ounces (see photo right below). Recent digs at Gallipoli have also found rum flagons throughout the battlefield and they were mainly on the Anzac side. A fragment of a British rum flagon was uncovered, bearing the letters SRD.

Rum was used as a combat motivator, a medicine, and as part of the reward system. An examination of the multiple uses of rum in battle provides insight into the collective lives of these soldiers. As a nuanced tool in supporting morale, it produced results to the point that it was perhaps not surprising that more than one soldier remarked: "If we hadn't had our rum, we would have lost the war."

Rum was initially given to men at the dawn stand-to and stand-down at dusk. As these were the expected times for an enemy attack, the whole forward unit was called out to wait with rifles at the ready. If no attack came, sergeants doled out two ounces of the over-proof rum to each man. The practice of stand-to faded out in the second year of the war when both sides were aware that the other was on high alert, but the rum ration remained.

Regulations ordered that it was to be drunk in the presence of an officer or non-commissioned officer (NCO) so no hoarding could be done, with any extra rum to be poured out into the mud. In reality though, not a lot of rum went into the dirt, with friends of the NCOs and old hands generally benefiting. If the soldiers found the rum invaluable, so too did the officers. The issue of rum to soldiers reinforced the hierarchal nature of the armies that was so integral to their success. A few lead, many follow. In the unparalleled slaughter of World War 1, discipline and hierarchy were essential. Soldiers rarely questioned orders, even seemingly suicidal ones. Punishment and discipline were the main deterrents for potential troublemakers, but rum also played a role in reinforcing this hierarchy. The clay rum jars were issued to the battalions, with each quartermaster dividing it out to the companies. Men who were under punishment were excluded. Those who were in the good books lined up and the more senior ranking men moved down the line doling out the precious liquid.

Each soldier waited for his share, all the while aware that it was the higher-ranking soldier who divided up the portions, giving a little more or less depending on his whim. Indeed, the politics of power were essential in all armies and the rum issue helped to support them.

Rum was also useful as a depressant. While in the trenches, soldiers were chronically sleep-deprived. The rum ration helped as a sedative or "warming elixir" and its potency could knock men out for hours, notwithstanding the cold or heat, the lice or rats, and the constant pounding of the big guns.

There was a need to continually shore up defences at night or to protect the front lines by patrolling and raiding. As a result, extra rum was one of the few rewards for men who went beyond the call of duty. Patrolling and raiding in no man's land were dangerous assignments. These raids, normally carried out by parties of anywhere between a handful and several hundred, were designed to win control of the battlefield, gather intelligence, provide battle craft experience, and, obviously, to kill the enemy. Upon carrying out their raids, survivors were rewarded with a mug of rum.

Other strenuous tasks like carrying wounded men through miles of mud or repairing crumbling trenches also made a soldier a candidate for a late-night liquid issue. Particularly ghastly work like grave digging was among the worst of the soldier's fatigues.

After the disastrous campaigns of 1915, the British concluded that the infantry could only pass through the killing ground of no man's land by advancing behind massive artillery barrages. Still, the barrages never annihilated all the defenders, and one machine-gunner was enough to wreak murderous havoc.

Officers and NCOs went up and down the forward firing line to calm men with a greeting and a ladle of rum, beyond the normal ration. Even the generals far from the front realized the importance of giving artificial stimulants to their warriors. Operational orders may for instance, declare that "the comfort, efficiency and fighting value of the troops are greatly increased by the issue of fortified alcohol."

Some operations succeeded while others failed, but all had terrible casualties. The ebb and flow of battle meant that soldiers attacked and were, in turn, counter-attacked. The wounded were left behind as flotsam. During and after battle, those wounded men who could walk struggled to the rear; but those who could not, called out in pain or waited as stretcher-bearers braved enemy fire, administering to them in turn.

When soldiers were found, wounds were bound and a shot of rum poured down throats to lessen the pain. Those who survived the agonizing hours until they made it back to a casualty clearing station or a field ambulance were once again given painkillers like rum, port or morphine before a hasty medical operation.

Yet rum had medicinal uses other than for treating casualties and it was frequently used in a preventive role. Many soldiers believed that rum helped to quell the rampant flu and colds that circulated. In addition, rum was also valuable in cases of emotional trauma.

Fortifying men with alcohol was not always the best policy, however. Soldiers high on rum could lose their head on the battlefield and get themselves unnecessarily wounded or killed. For that very reason, rum was sometimes withheld before battle.

The importance of rum in the trenches was reinforced by its prominence in the cultural expression of the soldiers. Replete in song and poem, the rum ration was an essential component of the unique culture that developed in the trenches. Some of the choice anecdotes in their memoirs and letters revolve around rum. An examination of soldiers writing shows how references to rum slip into so many of their poems, trench newspapers and memoirs. Even the short-form name of the rum itself--SRD--was toyed with by the men. They jokingly referred to it as Seldom Reaches Destination, Sergeants Rarely Deliver, Soldiers' Real Delight or Soon Runs Dry. Along with the shared language of soldiers, rum was a component of their more joyous occasions like singing. One of the few opportunities that soldiers had to express themselves, their songs consisted of racy lyrics where women, wine and humour were intermingled.

Although all but ignored in the official military records, rum, as well as the beer canteens, French cafes, cigarettes, letters and trench newspapers, were essential items in supporting morale for the overseas soldier. It was these small comforts that were of prime concern to the individual in the firing line; grand operational plans mattered far less. As we have seen, rum was a complex and multi-layered tool. Equally important, rum was the soldiers' tool and without it, the civilians who made up the soldier's profession--the bankers, clerks and farmers, who put down their pens and ploughs for rifles--might well have collapsed more frequently under the terrible strain of trench warfare.

Even given all that, though, it might come as a surprise to learn that the Royal Navy was still issuing daily rum rations to all enlisted men (even those in nuclear submarines) until 1970 and even Diggers on active service today are entitled to 2 cans of beer per man per day, to be consumed at a time of the CO's choosing so that it does not interfere with efficiency.