Updated: Aug 29
Editor’s Note: This summer will mark the 100th anniversary of World War I’s outbreak. Today, contributing editor Nicholas K. Johnson brings us the third installment in a five-part series on alcohol, drugs, and the Great War. You can read Part One here and Part Two here.
The experience of American soldiers and Marines with alcohol on the Western Front was fundamentally different than that of their allies from France, Belgium, and the British Commonwealth. Unlike the French and British armies, the men of the American Expeditionary Forces were not issued alcohol in the trenches. This would have been anathema to the powerful temperance movement on the home front. The temperance movement issued anti-alcohol propaganda during and after the war and connected it with the American cause. Behind the lines, YMCA camps offered “wholesome” entertainment for American troops free from alcohol and other vices. However, the temperance movement and YMCA ultimately failed to prevent American troops from consuming alcohol during the war.
This image, published by the United Committee on War Temperance, emphasizes the “cleanliness” of temperance. Image courtesy The Ohio State University: https://prohibition.osu.edu/anti-saloon-league/dry-propaganda/world-war-i
The differing attitudes of American soldiers and French civilians towards alcohol were a culture shock in some instances. The journalist Heywood Broun’s 1918 The A.E.F.: With General Pershing and the American Forces recounts an incident involving American troops singing for a group of French civilians:
“Only one feature puzzled them profoundly. At the end of a particularly effective song the captain said, ‘Those men sang that very well. Bring ‘em each a glass of water.’ No villager could quite understand why a man who had committed no more palpable crime than tenor singing should be forced to partake of a drink which is cold, tasteless, and watery.”
Broun also discussed prohibition. For him, barring the sale of champagne and cognac to enlisted men was “all that the army needs.” This prohibition of stronger alcohols to enlisted men is identical to a British policy mentioned here, which prohibited the sale of champagne, cognac, and other spirits to enlisted men. He argued that beer, the most popular drink among the AEF, along with “light wines” were “not a menace to the health or behavior of our army.” He assuaged home front fears by saying that attempting intoxication from the low-alcohol wartime beers would cause a man to drown before becoming drunk.
Another United Committee on War Temperance image equating alcohol with the German enemy.
The temperance movement equated abstaining from alcohol with patriotism and morality. This is seen in the above postwar poster, which equates alcohol with the defeated Germany enemy. This is similar to a French poster discussed in this entry. The upright, moral American soldier was cast as a kind of crusader for both democracy and temperance, in contrast to undemocratic and, by extension, alcoholic European enemy powers. War prohibition was enacted by Congress in November 1918, ostensibly to save grain for bread production. However, the war did not cause the prohibition movement to succeed. Many states and locales had already prohibited alcohol. The Woman’s Christian Temperance Union and the Anti-Saloon League were powerful political forces before the war had even begun. They labeled beer “Kaiser brew” and tapped into anti-immigrant sentiment and patriotic feeling by castigating German-American brewers, one of the key groups opposing prohibition, as just as big of a threat to America as the German Empire.
This poster for the Minnesota Commission of Public Safety outlines the laws and penalties associated with providing alcohol to US Servicemen. Image Source: Hoover Institution Political Poster Database US 5561
The anti-alcohol campaign manifested itself on the Western Front most notably in YMCA camps frequented by American troops. These camps were forerunners to the USO and staffed by uniformed YMCA officials. These camps were meant to provide “wholesome” entertainment to troops and distract them from French cafes, brothels, and the like. They offered games, sold cigarettes, catered to religious and spiritual needs, and provided other forms of entertainment. In his anti-war novel Three Soldiers, John Dos Passos portrays a YMCA official, the “Y” Man, as a hypocritical, cowardly figure propping up the machine-like system of modern society and warfare. The “Y” Man is out to swindle the soldier out of his wage by overcharging for cigarettes and chocolate while dispensing saccharine sermons about the American cause and the barbarity of the German foe.
Dos Passos, himself an ambulance driver during the war, portrays American soldiers as thoroughly enjoying the comforts of wine, beer, and other drinks in French villages behind the lines in much the same way as French and British accounts portray their own soldiers. The character Fuselli develops an infatuation with a French girl, Yvonne, who works at one of the many cafes behind the lines that served alcohol to enlisted men. Intoxication and the desire to “live” is ever-present among the novel’s characters, whether they are behind the lines or exploring Paris in 1919. Three Soldiers is full of scenes in which American soldiers are drinking, becoming drunk, wandering the streets and looking for female companionship. Dos Passos presented a relatively unvarnished (for its time) depiction of Army life that made no effort to hide the reality of the American soldier’s experience in France, be it in the trenches or behind the lines.
In this passage from Three Soldiers, Dos Passos paints a scene of intoxication at a French estaminet that could have occurred with soldiers from any army:
“Oh, boy,” said Chrisfield. “That ole wine sure do go down fast…. Say, Antoinette, got any cognac?” “I’m going to have some more wine,” said Andrews. “Go ahead, Andy; have all ye want. Ah want some-thin’ to warm ma guts.” Antoinette brought a bottle of cognac and two small glasses and sat down in an empty chair with her red hands crossed on her apron. Her eyes moved from Chrisfield to the Frenchman and back again. Chrisfield turned a little round in his chair and looked at the Frenchman, feeling in his eyes for a moment a glance of the man’s yellowish-brown eyes. Andrews leaned back against the wall sipping his dark-colored wine, his eyes contracted dreamily, fixed on the shadow of the chandelier, which the cheap oil-lamp with its tin reflector cast on the peeling plaster of the wall opposite. Chrisfield punched him. “Wake up, Andy, are you asleep?” “No,” said Andy smiling. “Have a li’l mo’ cognac.”
This photograph shows American officers (left) and British officers (right) drinking beer with British nurses behind the lines in 1918. Because the American military did not issue alcohol to its troops, drinking behind the lines was the only option Doughboys had. Image Credit: National Library of Scotland Image (79) N.536
Drinking behind the lines was an issue that the American Army took seriously but could ultimately do nothing about. Heywood Broun’s account discusses the issue in detail. For him, full prohibition was impossible for an army stationed in France due to the sheer ubiquity of establishments that served alcohol. Although some French advocated the prohibition of strong liquors, Broun argued that even these French citizens would be puzzled by any attempt to limit access to wine and beer, which were seen more as foodstuffs than intoxicating drinks. His account mentions bouts of binge drinking when the AEF first arrived in France, but claims that this ended relatively quickly. For him, the best preventative measure against alcoholism was what he called the “French fashion of making drinking deliberate and social.” He argued that once American soldiers began to drink “deliberately” in cafes, they abstained from their previous binge-drinking due to French locals and poilus teaching them a proper method.
The main exception to the American military’s refusal to issue alcohol for its troops occurred when American troops came under French command. William March‘s Company K, perhaps the most unique autobiographical novel to come out of World War I, explores an incident where his company of Marines was issued rations by the French military:
“When the first food arrived, there was red wine and a small ration of cognac for each of us. We were hungry, cold, and very tired, and the cognac warmed our blood, and made the long nights bearable. But on the second day, when rations were delivered again, the wine and cognac were missing from the allowance of the American soldiers. The religious organizations in France had protested against rationing intoxicants to us: It was feared that the news would get back to the United States, and that the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union and the Methodist Board of Temperance and Public Morals would hear of it and not be pleased.”
Small incidents like these would have been the exception. Unlike the other Allied forces on the Western Front, the American soldier and Marine had to get through life in the trenches “clean”at all times. When American troops did go behind the lines, they did not abstain from alcohol as much as prohibitionists at home would have liked. However, the war experience would have little impact on prohibition. Although 2 million Americans served in France, the prohibition movement had already gained political power at home and would push through temperance legislation culminating in the ratification of the 18th Amendment in January 1919.
The next post of this series will focus on the German Army on the Western Front.