May 28, 2014

Enlisted for drink

Before the War of 1812, the British Army issued alcohol rations to troops serving at home and abroad, and throughout the British Empire, the men’s affinity for the drink was strong. 

The soldiers love of alcohol was not lost on the future Duke of Wellington as he wrote in 1811, “British soldiers are fellows who have all enlisted for drink – that is the plain fact - they have enlisted for drink.” In North America, there were challenges to soldiers getting their full rations. Both Upper and Lower Canada did not have many breweries in the early 1800s and this caused a shortage of alcohol rations at various times before the War of 1812, much to the chagrin of the common soldier.

One of the most popular alcohol rations issued in North America was rum. Shipped from the Caribbean, the rum rations were distributed throughout Upper and Lower Canada with soldiers performing the majority of the transport. Naturally, this system allowed for abuse by soldiers, as an account from Fort Erie in 1803 reports on an incident by a member of the 49th Regiment:

When they arrived here, Morgan and every man in the Boat were in liquor; one man … was so drunk that he could not stand.  On coming out of the boat he fell to the Ground, and lay there until some of the Men of this post lifted him up and carried him to the Barracks … I examined the barrels and found that some of them had been pierced, and were not near full; Captain Ormsby … immediately came and saw them and threatened to send the Lance Corporal [Morgan] to Niagara

British soldiers pause for a drink in 1810
Alcohol fuelled civilian establishments as well. In Newark (Niagara-on-the-Lake), several establishments were in operation serving the local garrison at Fort George in addition to the local townspeople. These establishments were also popular among American officers at Fort Niagara who often crossed the Niagara River before the war to visit these locations. Military commanders understood the draw of Newark’s houses of ill repute as Colonel Isaac Brock sought to construct a garden to keep “the men as much as possible from the town [of Newark], … the nest of all wickedness.” Naturally, Brock’s efforts were in vein.   

When the War of 1812 broke out, alcohol rations varied throughout the war. Early on commanders increased alcohol rations in some locations but at the war continued, rations were restricted due to supply problems. Although it was unpopular, the limiting of the rum rations improved health, as was noted by American Dr. James Mann serving in the Niagara who wrote,

Deserters from the British army, of whom some hundreds came to our posts, exhibited marks of high health; while those of our soldiers were pallid and emaciated. The difference was too obvious to have escaped the observation of the officers of the army. It led me to seek the cause. Upon enquiry it was learnt, that spirits were no part of the ration of the British soldier; that these liquors could not be procured in the upper province of Canada for money. While, in addition to their daily rations, our soldiers, when they had money in their pockets, had free access to spirits at the stores of the sutlers.

During the Niagara 1814 campaign, restrictions on the alcohol rations were loosened as more supplies came to the Niagara. During the Siege of Fort Erie, General Drummond increased the alcohol ration to the men working on the siege lines; an act that he believed improved the men’s health. Drummond wrote, “Hitherto they are uncommonly healthy – This I am confident must in a part measure be attributed to an extra allowance of half a Gill of Spirits, & which I propose to continue so long as I have means & the Troops continue in the field.”

Unfortunately for the men, the increased alcohol ration ended in March 1815 with the conclusion of the war meaning that only men on fatigue duty received the ration. However, regulations were often broken and the men managed to frequently get their hands on the drink. The issuing of rum continued in the British Army until the allowance was abolished in 1830, a truly sad day in the British Army.

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