At War on the Rocks, Jake Hall talks about the pervasive inflence of intoxication during the First World War:
The assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand is often regarded as the proverbial match in the tinderbox where World War I is concerned. The imperial-nationalist tensions surrounding Austria-Hungary’s waning empire, tensions which inspired the assassination and ensuing conflict, were frankly unwarranted, considering the swill these regions were, and still are, trying to pass off as potable spirits. Then again, what’s a tragic war of global scope without tragically misguided motivations at the start? One contributing factor to the war-primed Europe of 1914 sounds oddly familiar. Disenfranchised youth of marginalized states resorting to suicidal violence. It’s easy to see how the seven agents of Ferdinand’s assassination could be lining up to enlist in ISIS today. Youthful, “angsty,” and driven by an unhinged sense of importance and righteousness, it was a 19 year old, Gavrilo Princip, who carried out the clumsy assassination on the streets of Sarajevo. After a failed bombing attempt, failed suicide attempt, and a major security lapse by Ferdinand’s guards, the conspirators succeeded in gunning down the Archduke and Duchess almost by chance. With that act the Serbian nationalists, on a quest for south Slavic unification, killed a couple that were by many accounts lovely people, and started the July Crisis that led to the Great War.
The conflict that followed became the then-largest mobilization of military force ever, until the rematch 21 years later. HG Wells was the first to declare WWI the “war to end war,” and though that designation had contemporary critics, it quickly became a motto for the hostilities. A war to end war seems like an occasion for a drink, no? If it doesn’t, you’ve either never had a drink or you’ve never had a soul. In any case, what follows is an account of which powers were most benevolent during the war, measured chiefly by the alcohol rations secured and distributed to their soldiers. It presumes that the men fighting in the trenches on all sides had drawn short straws in life, and the side most willing to allow a little buzz on the front line exhibited a little humanity.
So how does all this play out in the end? France occupied the role of major supplier to all sides drinking needs. The Germans made large gains at the start of the war, and enabled rear-echelon troops to frequent taverns in their newly conquered territories. Couple that privilege with their substantial liquor rations, and the German rank-and-file were well situated for some time. Ultimately, the British naval blockade started affecting German supplies, which directly cut into their drinking. When the Allies reversed Germany’s advances and ended the war, they virtually ensured the Germans would only be drinking regret and resentment for nearly two decades. The French military was also generous with its rations where allies were concerned, attempting in a small way to soften the hard line the British and American citizens and leadership held with regard to their troops’ drinking. Russia incurred the mother of all hangovers when it finally stopped drowning itself in vodka for a minute, and basically played the role of your friend who passes out at the bar. Final outcome? À votre santé, France.