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Alcohol and the First World War

Alcohol and the First World War

The British government became concerned about the consumption of alcohol during the First World War. They feared that war production was being hampered by drunkenness. Other governments involved in the conflict were also worried about this problem. In August 1914 Tsar Nicholas II outlawed the production and sale of vodka. This involved the closing down of Russia's 400 state distilleries and 28,000 spirit shops. The measure was a complete failure, as people, unable to buy vodka, produced their own. The Russian government also suffered a 30% reduction in its tax revenue.

Attempts to reduce alcohol consumption were also made in Germany, Austria-Hungary, France and Italy. In Britain, David Lloyd George, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, led the campaign against alcohol. He had been told by shipbuilders and heads of war factories, that men's wages had gone up so much that they could earn in two or three days what would keep them in drink for a week. A Newcastle shipbuilder complained that double overtime on Sunday meant no attendance on Monday." In January 1915, Lloyd George told the Shipbuilding Employers Federation that Britain was "fighting German's, Austrians and Drink, and as far as I can see the greatest of these foes is Drink."

Lloyd George started a campaign to persuade national figures to make a pledge that they would not drink alcohol during the war. In April 1915 King George V supported the campaign when he promised that no alcohol would be consumed in the Royal household until the war was over. Lord Kitchener, the Secretary of State for War and Richard Haldane, the Lord Chancellor, followed the king's example, but Herbert Asquith, who was a heavy drinker, refused to take the pledge. The National Review commented: "The failure of the Prime Minister to take the King's Pledge has naturally aroused comment." Asquith retorted angrily that Lloyd George had "completely lost his head on drink."

The government was particularly concerned about the amount of alcohol being consumed by female munition workers. A survey of four pubs in London revealed that in one hour on a Saturday night alcohol was consumed by 1,483 men and 1,946 women. Newspapers claimed that soldiers' wives were "drinking away their over-generous allowances". The Times reported that "we do not all realise the increase in drinking there has been among the mothers of the coming race, though we may yet find it a a circumstance darkly menacing to our civilisation".

In October 1915 the British government announced several measures they believed would reduce alcohol consumption. A "No Treating Order" laid down that any drink ordered was to be paid for by the person supplied. The maximum penalty for defying the Government order was six months' imprisonment. The Spectator gave its support to the legislation. It argued that it was the custom of the working-classes to buy drinks for "chance-met acquaintances, each of whom then had to stand a drink to everyone else" and believed that this measure would "free hundreds of thousands of men from an expensive and senseless social tyranny".

It was reported in The Morning Post on 14th March, 1916: "At Southampton yesterday Robert Andrew Smith was fined for treating his wife to a glass of wine in a local public-house. He said his wife gave him sixpence to pay for her drink. Mrs Smith was also fined £1 for consuming and Dorothy Brown, the barmaid, £5 for selling the intoxicant, contrary to the regulations of the Liquor Control Board."

Ernest Sackville Turner, in his book, Dear Old Blighty (1980) has pointed out: "In Newcastle police reported a licensee who, with his manager, had sought to evade punishment by causing a customer who had ordered eight drinks to consume all of them. As time passed the Order began to be flouted, to the relief of bar-room scroungers who had been having a thin time, but the police fought back. In Middlesbrough fines on innkeepers went as high as £40. The licensing authorities had powers to close public-houses which allowed treating and occasionally exercised them."

Public House opening times in cities and industrial areas were also reduced to 12.00 noon to 2.30 pm and 6.30 to 9.30 pm. Before the law was changed, public houses could open from 5 am in the morning to 12.30 pm at night. However, in most rural areas, people could continue to buy alcoholic drinks throughout the day.

The government also became concerned about the increase in alcohol consumption in certain areas. An enormous cordite munitions factory built to supply ammunition to British forces had been established in the small town of Gretna. Over 15,000 people, many of them from Ireland, had moved to the area to provide the work-force for the factory. They lived in neighbouring villages and spent much of their leisure time in the public-houses of Carlisle. Most of the workers were well-behaved but the drunkenness convictions quadrupled. Complaints were also received about "inappropriate sexual behaviour" in "snug" rooms in public-houses.

The government attempted to solve the problem by buying up the local breweries and 320 licensed premises. In Carlisle 48 out of 119 public-houses were shut down. The advertising of alcohol in the area was banned. So also was the selling of spirits on Saturdays. Salaried civil servants were brought in as managers of the public-houses with no inducement to push sales and ordered to install eating-rooms and to abolish "snugs". It was also prohibited to serve alcohol to people under the age of eighteen in the town.

The government also increased the level of tax on alcohol. In 1918 a bottle of whisky cost £1, five times what he had cost before the outbreak of war. This helped to reduce alcoholic consumption. Whereas Britain consumed 89 million gallons in 1914, this had fallen to 37 million in 1918. Convictions for drunkenness also fell dramatically during the war. In London in 1914, 67,103 people were found guilty of being drunk. In 1917 this had fallen to 16,567.

At Southampton yesterday Robert Andrew Smith was fined for treating his wife to a glass of wine in a local public-house. Mrs Smith was also fined £1 for consuming and Dorothy Brown, the barmaid, £5 for selling the intoxicant, contrary to the regulations of the Liquor Control Board.

In Newcastle police reported a licensee who, with his manager, had sought to evade punishment by causing a customer who had ordered eight drinks to consume all of them. The licensing authorities had powers to close public-houses which allowed treating and occasionally exercised them.

I had not long previously been forced to call the attention of a brigade commander of a formation with which I had cause to be remotely connected, from time to time, to a most extraordinary sight I had witnessed. To my amazement I saw a colonel sitting at the entrance to a communication trench, personally issuing unauthorised tots of rum to his men as they passed him in single file at 3 p.m., on a fine clear Spring-like afternoon, on their way to hold a line for the very first time. The brigadier did not seem to realise the gravity of the case. He did not appreciate the danger. The mentality of this colonel was all wrong. Badly based on brandy, he thought everybody else felt as he did - dejected and desolate. Despondent and at all times difficile, he was a victim of drugs and drink, and ultimately died. But, and here is the important point, because he had local pull, he had been entrusted with the care of youth for eighteen months. This was bad enough. The safety of the line was another matter. Seeing what I had seen, knowing what I knew and visualising the future, as his brigadier took no notice of my protest, even going so far as to say the matter was no business of mine, I determined on having the wretchedly miserable man removed, for the good of us all. I saw a very senior medical officer about the matter and persuaded him to take action, with the result that the drink-drug addict was removed to England, there to degenerate and eventually die. The safety of the line outweighed all other considerations. Drink control was imperative.

Why we should remember the first world war’s female munitions workers

T he official commemoration of the first world war focused mainly on men. The national leaders and the multitude of troops who fought were men. Some attention has been drawn to the women whose husbands were in the forces with many being widowed and to the nurses who cared for wounded and dying soldiers. A minority worked close to the frontline in France and Belgium, often putting their own lives in danger. Many more looked after casualties once they were brought back to Britain. Birmingham University became a huge military hospital, where hundreds of nurses treated 64,000 patients.

It is usually overlooked that working class women played an important role ensuring that the soldiers had adequate ammunition. It was clear from the outset that British troops did not have enough shells, bombs and bullets. Private owners expanded their output in 1914, and following the appointment of David Lloyd George as munitions minister in 2015 the process accelerated with two major pieces of legislation, including the Munitions of War Act.

The government was empowered both to control private factories and set up its own, and women were summoned to enlist on a register for work. Strikes were prohibited. Promises were made, but never fully kept, that the women would receive decent pay with skilled workers on the same wage as men. By the end of the war, 4,285 controlled establishments and 103 state ones were in operation. The factories were spread all over Britain, particularly in east London and Glasgow.

By far the largest was HM Factory Gretna in southern Scotland, which produced cordite – a complex system involving nitric and sulphuric acids, nitroglycerine, gun cotton, mineral jelly, alcohol and ether. The final product went into gun cartridges which, when fired, released the gases that propelled bullets and shells. The process was so dangerous that the various stages were undertaken in different buildings.

In 1915, the government built not only factories but also facilities for a new community at Gretna and Eastriggs. Houses and flats were constructed for staff and married couples, which were of such a high standard that they are still in use, and nearer the factories 85 barrack-type huts housed the female workers. A cookhouse, bakery, public halls, churches and railway lines were also built in a development that stretched for nine miles. Thirty thousand labourers, many of them Irish, were brought in to work on the construction sites. Remarkably, it was completed by mid-1916 at a cost of £5m.

By 1917, HM Factory Gretna was producing 800 tonnes of cordite a week – more than from all the other plants combined.

Women workers preparing nitre to be taken to the Gretna munitions factory. Photograph: Science & Society Picture Librar/SSPL via Getty Images

The 9,000 female factory workers included many former domestic staff and shop assistants. In his account of the facility’s development, Gordon Routledge highlights the visit of Arthur Conan Doyle, who wrote a glowing report on “perhaps the most remarkable place in the world.” Not only did it provide the army with essential equipment, it was also a community with good living conditions, a cinema and dance hall. Conan Doyle was particularly impressed by the “smiling khaki-clad girls who … stir the devil’s porridge”.

The women’s lives, however, were not as easy as sometimes portrayed. The suffragette and novelist Rebecca West admired the “pretty young girls” but also noted that they were contained on a site “ringed with barbed war entanglements and patrolled by sentries”. Their enjoyment of community facilities was limited by long working hours, sometimes stretching into the night. Their only free day was Sunday, and public transport was limited with trains to Carlisle cancelled because alcohol was on sale there. Even trips to see their families must have been a problem.

The women lived in huts consisting of a large living room with only wooden forms to sit on and small bedrooms with curtains but no doors. Residents complained of intense cold, particularly in the bitter winter of 1917.

Their earnings of between 30 shillings and £2 a week were almost certainly higher than their previous wages, but a substantial deduction was made for lodgings and meals.

They were also subject to a police service that stopped strangers getting in and the women getting out. They also searched every woman before work to ensure they were not carrying any item likely to cause an explosion if dropped into the porridge, particularly hairgrips and buttons. The discovery of any such item meant a fine of sixpence.

The women faced daily danger, and not just from explosions. Toxic fumes made many of them ill and sapped their energy. At times, workers were found asleep on the factory floor and deaths were not unknown.

The number of female workers in munitions factories nationwide is estimated at up to a million. They were often known as canary girls because their skin would turn yellow if it came into contact with sulphur. Routledge puts the number of deaths from poisoning and explosions at around 300, excluding those who died subsequently of illnesses caught at the factories.

Conan Doyle records that seeing the workers turned him into an advocate for votes for women, but the legislation of 1918 set the voting age at 31. Given that many of the munitions workers were young, their reward was delayed. The factories were closed soon after the war ended and unemployed women took second place to men seeking work after being demobbed. The female munitions workers showed courage and a readiness to toil that was overlooked during the war, and posters never portrayed the vital contribution they made to Britain’s victory. Neither was much written about their efforts after the war. A new museum exploring the history of HM Factory Gretna has been opened in Eastriggs near some of the remains of the factories and women’s accommodation. On the centenary of the opening of the factory, a public event should be held there to recreate the stirring of the devil’s porridge.

Greece and the First World War

Richard Hughes on the country's complex involvement in the conflict.

The raw facts of Greek involvement in the First World War belie the complexities and intrigue that went with it. It was not until July 1917 that Greece openly declared its hand and came out on the side of the Entente (Britain, France and Russia). In September 1918 it played a crucial part in the successful Macedonian campaign, which led to the collapse of Bulgaria, a fact that accelerated German surrender two months later. A period of prolonged neutrality meant that, in terms of manpower, Greece avoided the total calamity that befell other participants. But, nevertheless, the war led to political breakdown and to a bitterness and resentment, both internal and external, which has never been totally eradicated.

It was Greece’s misfortune that, whether willingly or otherwise, it was going to become involved in the First World War. This was the consequence of geography. To the north was Serbia, in theory the cause of the hostilities. To the east, across the Aegean, was the old enemy, Turkey, wounded and humiliated as a consequence of the recent Balkan Wars. Between Serbia and Turkey was the crucial state of Bulgaria, which the Entente initially courted in the hope of preventing it siding with Germany and Austria. Once this diplomatic initiative failed, northern Greece became an important outpost in the supply lines to beleaguered Serbia.

To make matters more complicated, the Greece of 1914 was twice the size it had been just a few years earlier. As a consequence of the two Balkan Wars of 1912-13 it had emerged territorially triumphant, annexing swathes of land, mainly from Turkey. Territorial expansion on this scale might appeal to national pride but it was potentially perilous. Within its expanded boundaries there now existed many groups that were not Greek the massively enlarged country would be difficult to administer unless there were substantial reforms to government, while beyond Greek borders there were resentful states keen to exact revenge.

Further strife was created by the political divisions within Greece. These centred on two broad factions. One supported the leadership of Eleutherios Venizelos, a charismatic and influential nationalist, who had grandiose notions of Greek expansion and looked to the parliamentary democracies of France and Britain as role models for good governance. His admiration was largely reciprocated. The other faction was based on support for the monarchy and was altogether more cautious in its dealings with the Entente. At best, the monarchists sought a neutral role for Greece but many were seen as pro-German (King Constantine was married to the kaiser’s sister).

This huge chasm existed throughout the war and always meant Greece was a difficult state with which to do business. Venizelos, as prime minister, had wanted to provide support for the Entente during the Dardanelles campaign of 1915 but the king was able to prevent it. He was also keen to support French and British aid to Serbia, with the development of Salonika in northern Greece as a military base. The king was hostile and, while Salonika did serve as a vital base for Entente forces, many obstacles were put in the way of providing supplies and communication.

At the war’s conclusion it was Venizelos who represented Greece at the Paris Peace Conference and he did so to great effect. The historian Margaret Macmillan wrote: ‘He was one of the stars of the Peace Conference.’ The expanded lands of Greece remained secure and it was allowed to occupy still more Turkish territory. But the Greek people by now were weary of war and foreign adventures. Venizelos was heavily defeated in the 1920 elections, which witnessed the revival of royalist fortunes. More ominously for Greece, in Turkey a new and vibrant nationalist leader, easily matching Venizelos in charisma, came to power. His name was Kemal Ataturk and he was keen to settle a few scores.

Richard Hughes is a former Head of History at St John’s School, Leatherhead and an A Level history examiner.

History of Alcohol in the United States

In the United States, alcoholic beverages were produced by the Spaniards before the 17th century. The first beer was produced from maize. Despite the presence of this drink, Native Americans did not have any fermented beverage before the first Europeans appeared on the continent. Following the settlement of different Europeans in America, alcohol became an everyday beverage. In Massachusetts, distilling and brewing became common to produce different settlers with enough alcohol.

In Virginia, the colonists produced and consumed alcoholic drinks because they believed they were good for their health. Studies have indicated that brewing became a common industrial process in America during this colonial period. Winemaking also emerged in New Mexico. From 1774, a new era emerged following the infamous War of Independence in America. This conflict influenced and transformed the drinking habits of many citizens. Whiskey was consumed by different people as more settlers began to grow grapevines and maize. The officers in the Colonial Army had to be supplied with whiskey or rum during the war.

Thomas Jefferson indicated that there was a need for the country to abolish duty on whiskey and alcoholic beverages in 1801. Cocktails would later be invented in 1803 after the new regulation. The formation of the Massachusetts Society for the Suppression of Intemperance (MSSI) was established in 1813. This associated remained opposed to the use of rum and alcohol. However, grapevines would be planted in different regions such as Hawaii. These changes and emerging taxation policies led to the establishment of new breweries in different parts of the country.

By the 1830s, new organizations aimed at discouraging people from alcohol use emerged. According to them, the application of laws would deliver positive results. However, the period would be characterized by the introduction of vineyards in different regions, including Missouri and Alabama. Despite such measures, many citizens were observed to drink around seven gallons of alcohol every year. The emergence of many religious movements and institutions resulted in a situation whereby individuals were encouraged to use alcohol in moderation. Some also advised them to rub the compound on their stomachs or abdomens.

From 1920, the government introduced strict laws to prohibit the use of alcohol in the country. However, the American Bar Association (ABA) would go further to call for repeal in the year 1928. The government introduced the “three tier system” that was aimed at monitoring the business practices of different alcohol producers and marketers in the county. Retailers and wholesalers had to be licensed before engaging in the business. Although many states had strict laws to govern the brewing and use of alcohol, the number of drunkards continued to rise significantly during this period. The introduction of cans created a scenario whereby beer could be marketed much easily. The approach would also make it easier for many American soldiers to be supplied with beer especially during the Second World War. Over the years, the country was grappling with the problem of increased alcoholic consumption. The number of rum bottles sold in North America continued to increase significantly. In 1984, the National Minimum Drinking Act was enacted and passed to ensure that alcoholic substances were unavailable to underage individuals.

A brief history of alcohol consumption in Australia

Rob Moodie received funding from the Department of Health and Ageing for work on the National Preventative Health Taskforce. He is deputy chair of the ANPHA Advisory Council.


University of Melbourne provides funding as a founding partner of The Conversation AU.

The Conversation UK receives funding from these organisations

Although most Australians would probably say we’ve always been a heavy-drinking nation, the consumption of alcohol has followed a roller coaster curve since European invasion.

Alcohol consumption in Australia began at an annual high point of 13.6 litres of pure alcohol per head in the 1830s. It declined to 5.8 litres a year during the economic downturn in the 1890s, then to a nadir of 2.5 litres during the Great Depression.

After World War II, there was a long rise in per capita consumption to another high point of 13.1 litres in 1974-75. It then dropped again and rose slowly to the 2008-09 levels of ten litres.

There’s little doubt that alcohol is an important part of Australian culture. According to the author of The Rum State, Milton Lewis, heavy drinking was an established cultural norm transported to Australia at the time of colonisation.

Annual alcohol consumption has decreased from around 13 litres per person in the mid-1970s to ten litres in the late 2000s. Alesa Dam

It was the norm in Britain to drink heavily and gin epidemics were devastating entire communities at the time. Lewis says that alcohol in Europe had long served as a food and source of nutrition as the diets of the time were very restricted and there wasn’t a lot else to choose from.

Two drinking practices were established that still exist today. One is “shouting” in which each person in turn buys a round of drinks for the whole group and the other, “work and bust”, is a prolonged drunken spree following a long period of hard work in the bush. This is basically an earlier term for the contemporary notion of binge drinking, and can be seen in the “Mad Monday” celebrations at the end of a football season.

But other factors were also at play. For a time, spirits were used in barter and convicts were part-paid in rum. In this way, rum became a currency of the colony - hence the term “a rum state”. The control of alcohol gave enormous political power. And alcohol was reportedly involved in the only military coup in Australia - the Rum rebellion in 1808.

Over the years, there have been many different social meanings of alcohol. In Australia and elsewhere, wine, brandy, beer and stout have been seen as good dietary supplements for invalids. Alcohol was once seen as a good, healthy food Lewis notes that it has been consumed as a sacrament, a toast, a fortifier, a sedative, a thirst-quencher, and a symbol of sophistication.

Wine is not a health drink. Alex Ranaldi

Temperance organisations sprang up in the early 19th century, and became active in Australian colonies from 1830s. They initially advocated moderation and would eventually demand prohibition. They were affiliated with Christian churches, and seen as a middle-class reaction to an upsurge in lower-class drinking of spirits, which was due to more industrialised production of distilled spirits, and the fear of the working class being more dangerous when drunk.

The highpoint of the temperance movement came during World War I and the Depression, when consumption went down dramatically across the English-speaking world. But after World War II, there was a backlash against the anti-alcohol movement. Drinking rates began to climb again along with growing prosperity and cultural shifts such as the changing role of women, and European immigration shaped the way we drank.

“Civilised” drinking – drinking with food and in moderation – became the norm. Wine became a much more popular drink by the 1960s and Australia invented the wine cask. A significant change occurred in Victoria in the 1980s with the Niewenhausen report, which promoted the liberalisation of licencing in Victoria. This was taken so keenly by successive Victorian governments that, on average, two new liquor licences were granted every day from 20 years from 1986.

Binge drinking has become fashionable again. Image from shutterstock.com

But as large alcohol manufacturers increased their range of products, ramped up the amount they were producing, upped the sophistication and diversification of their advertising and allied themselves with major sports and the major media outlets, civilised drinking has not remained the norm for a sizeable proportion of the population. In the last two decades, binge drinking has again become fashionable.

And the harm these drinkers inflict on themselves and on a large proportion of the community is preventable.

It doesn’t have to be this way. History shows us that overall average rates of alcohol consumption in Australia can change quite dramatically over time, and that drinking practices are highly modifiable.

This is the first part of our series looking at alcohol and the drinking culture in Australia. Click on the links below to read the other articles:

Loss of life in Britain

While the great majority of casualties in World War One were from the working class, the social and political elite were hit disproportionately hard by the war. There is a persistent myth that while many more working class men perished, the British upper classes got off lightly in World War One.

In fact, the elite suffered as much as the working classes. The sons of the elite were often junior officers, whose role was to set an example to their men, and in doing so were often forced to put themselves in the greatest danger, for instance, leading charges into No Man’s Land.

The British Army lost 12% of its ordinary soldiers during the war, compared with 17% of its officers. Eton alone lost more than 1,000 of its former pupils, which was over 20% of those who served. UK Prime Minister Herbert Asquith lost a son, and future Prime Minister Andrew Bonar Law lost two sons.

Anthony Eden, another future Prime Minister, lost two brothers, saw another badly wounded and an uncle taken prisoner.

Over 1,000,000 Poles are believed to have died in the war in the armies of Russia, Austria and Germany. This represents one of the largest bodies of casualties among nations which at the time were not recognised as such.

Serbia was probably the worst hit country. Depending on the sources you accept, Serbia’s death rate during the war could have been as high as 27.78% of the population, or up to 1.25 million people.

A simple look at the numbers tends to blind us to the sheer scale of the loss of life. So many men died in the battlefields of World War One that the postwar media spoke of a ‘lost generation’ and showed an active concern for women who would apparently not be able to marry.

A German prisoner helps British wounded make their way to a dressing station near Bernafay Wood following fighting on Bazentin Ridge, 19 July 1916, during the Battle of the Somme. Credit: Ernest Brooks / Commons.

Particularly grievous to many countries during the war was outbreak of the Spanish flu. This began to cause widespread deaths in 1918, and lasted for several years after the war.

It is so named because censorship laws preventing reporting on the flu in most countries that were at war. Spain remained neutral and consequently had no ban on reporting the spread of the virus, making it seem as though it was particularly badly affected.

This was a particularly virulent strain of influenza which resulted in the deaths of between 50 and 100 million people, or around 5% of the world’s population at the time.

Why Turkey hasn't forgotten about the First World War

Ottoman Imperial Archives, licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 and adapted from the original (link no longer available).

Turkey would be a different entity today, had it not been for the First World War. Co-author of the British Council report, Remember the World as well as the War, Anne Bostanci, highlights the effects of the war on Turkey and why especially the younger generation 'remembers'.

Remembering a world war, by definition, must be about remembering the whole world's involvement and losses – not just how it affected our own country or part of the world. Understanding the First World War also involves learning how it still affects our own country and other countries, and relations between countries.

'Turkey' was 'European'

Today, many people tend to think of 'Europe' as more or less synonymous with the EU, plus a few non-EU countries such as Switzerland and Norway. But there is an argument that this wasn't always how people understood 'Europe'. In the Age of Empire, the argument goes, none of the other ‘great’ European powers – e.g., the British, French, Russian or Austro-Hungarian empires – would have taken issue with counting the Ottoman Empire as one among them, both in positive and negative terms regarding alliances and rivalries.

The Ottoman Empire’s entry into the First World War, as a result of a complex web of secret alliances between the European powers, can be characterised as part of the European origins of the war. But, just like the involvement of all other European empires, it meant that parts of the world well beyond Europe were drawn into the conflict.

Turkey suffered heavy losses during the First World War

While the extent of the Ottoman Empire was, by 1914, reduced (in the past it had included large parts of North Africa, South Eastern and Eastern Europe, the Middle East and the Arabian peninsula), its territory still spanned large parts of the Middle East and Arabia, which came to be heavily affected by the First World War.

The Ottoman army (just under three million conscripts of Turkish, Arab, Kurdish and other backgrounds) fought the British in Egypt, Palestine, Arabia, Mesopotamia (modern-day Iraq) and Persia (today’s Iran). Of all these encounters, the defeat against Ottoman forces at Gallipoli in particular has made a lasting impression on Britain, as well as Australia and New Zealand due to the heavy losses they incurred. It is also remembered as one of the most significant battles of the conflict in Turkey.

Overall, the total number of combatant casualties in the Ottoman forces amounts to just under half of all those mobilised to fight. Of these, more than 800,000 were killed. However, four out of every five Ottoman citizens who died were non-combatants. Many succumbed to famine and disease, but others died as a result of population transfers and massacres, including at least one million Ottoman Armenians, whose deaths are still subject to significant debate in Turkey and internationally today.

'After' the First World War, the Ottoman Empire was broken up

When the war ended for some countries in 1918-19, it did not for Turkey: the First World War led straight into the Turkish War of Independence (1919-1923). This, together with the secret wartime agreements between the British and the French to divide up the Ottoman territory amongst themselves, sealed the fall of this formerly formidable empire, and led to the creation of the Turkish republic – reduced primarily to the former empire’s Anatolian heartland – under Mustafa Kemal Atatürk.

Turkish collective memory of this period is coloured by these events. It lost its status amongst the great empires and, with it to some extent, its role in Europe. And it felt betrayed by the British who had, during the war, formed secret alliances with Ottoman Arabs to stir up revolts against their Turkish imperial rulers and entered into the secret Sykes-Picot Agreement in 1916 with the French, to take control of much of the empire’s former territory.

Perceptions of the First World War and the UK in Turkey today

It is therefore no surprise that British individuals and organisations operating in Turkey, such as the British Council, sometimes encounter a degree of mistrust or resentment. In the British Council’s seven-country survey on knowledge and perceptions of the First World War, the figure of Turkish respondents stating that Britain’s role in the First World War influenced their opinion of the UK in a negative way was high compared to other countries (34 per cent compared to, for instance, six per cent in France).

Young people in Turkey are very aware of the consequences of the First World War

On the surface, the findings from this survey look like the UK and Turkey put similar weight on the importance of the First World War. Just over half of British respondents (52 per cent) said it was one of the three most important international events of the past 100 years, compared to just under half of Turkish respondents (49 per cent).

However, in the UK, a higher proportion of the middle and older age groups (35+) selected it, while in Turkey more young people (especially in the 15-34 age bracket) placed the First World War in the top three international events of the past century.

Many young Turks feel their country's role in World War One is misunderstood

The survey also reveals that 90 per cent of Turkish respondents felt that their country is still affected by the consequences of the First World War. What's more, at 30 per cent, more than twice the proportion of Turkish compared to UK respondents felt that their country’s role in the First World War is often misrepresented and misunderstood in global history. Again, it was the youngest age group (15-24) who were the most likely to feel that their country had been misrepresented and misunderstood, at seven percentage points above the figure averaged across all age groups (i.e., 37 per cent).

Finally, less than ten per cent of UK respondents are aware of the Sykes-Picot Agreement mentioned above, whereas the figure for Turkish respondents is higher than 40 per cent. Knowledge of this agreement, too, is most widespread in the youngest age group – where almost half of respondents knew about it (49 per cent).

It's in the UK's interest to understand that Turkey is not likely to forget

Discussions in the UK rarely touch on these facts about the First World War, but in view of these findings, it would be naïve to hope that collective memory in Turkey will conveniently move away from them. They still have the power to colour Turkish people's perceptions of the UK in a negative way, and they are likely to continue to do so.

However, it is important to remember that Turkey, with its comparatively young citizens who hold these memories, has been identified by the UK government as strategically important in a number of sectors: education, energy, trade, and security, to name just a few.

Only if we develop an understanding of countries like Turkey and their perspective of the First World War, can we understand the conflict’s true contemporary relevance for the UK. It is not only right to learn about the world’s experiences and perceptions of a world war. It is also in the UK’s interest to do this.

The First World War : an illustrated history

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Did conkers help win the First World War?

When Britain's war effort was threatened by a shortage of shells, the government exhorted schoolchildren across the country to go on the hunt for horse chestnuts. Historian and broadcaster Saul David explains why.

This competition is now closed

Published: November 23, 2020 at 1:36 pm

In the autumn of 1917, a notice appeared on the walls of classrooms and scout huts across Britain: “Groups of scholars and boy scouts are being organised to collect conkers… This collection is invaluable war work and is very urgent. Please encourage it.”

It was never explained to schoolchildren exactly how conkers could help the war effort. Nor did they care. They were more interested in the War Office’s bounty of 7s 6d (37.5p) for every hundred weight they handed in, and for weeks they scoured woods and lanes for the shiny brown objects they usually destroyed in the playground game.

The children’s efforts were so successful that they collected more conkers than there were trains to transport them, and piles were seen rotting at railway stations. But a total of 3,000 tonnes of conkers did reach their destination – the Synthetic Products Company at King’s Lynn – where they were used to make acetone, a vital component of the smokeless propellant for shells and bullets known as cordite.

Cordite had been used by the British military since 1889, when it first replaced black gunpowder. It consisted chiefly of the high-explosives nitroglycerine and nitrocellulose (gun-cotton), with acetone playing the key role of solvent in the manufacturing process.

Prior to the First World War, the acetone used in British munitions was made almost entirely from the dry distillation (pyrolysis) of wood. As it required almost a hundred tonnes of birch, beech or maple to produce a tonne of acetone, the great timber-growing countries were the biggest producers of this vital commodity, and Britain was forced to import the vast majority of its acetone from the United States.

An attempt to produce our own acetone was made in 1913 when a modern factory was built in the Forest of Dean. But by the outbreak of war in 1914, the stocks for military use were just 3,200 tonnes, and it was soon obvious that an alternative domestic supply would be needed. This became even more pressing during the spring of 1915 when an acute shortage of shells – the so-called ‘shell crisis’ – reduced some British guns to firing just four times a day.

The British government’s response was to create a dedicated Ministry of Munitions, run by the future prime minister David Lloyd George. One of Lloyd George’s first initiatives was to ask the brilliant chemist Chaim Weizmann of Manchester University if there was an alternative way of making acetone in large quantities. Weizmann said yes.

Developing the work of Louis Pasteur and others, Weizmann had perfected an anaerobic fermentation process that used a highly vigorous bacterium known as Clostridium acetobutylicum (also known as the Weizmann organism) to produce large quantities of acetone from a variety of starchy foodstuffs such as grain, maize and rice. He at once agreed to place his process at the disposal of the government.

In May 1915, after Weizmann had demonstrated to the Admiralty that he could convert 100 tonnes of grain to 12 tonnes of acetone, the government commandeered brewing and distillery equipment, and built factories to utilise the new process at Holton Heath in Dorset and King’s Lynn in Norfolk. Together they produced more than 90,000 gallons of acetone a year, enough to feed the war’s seemingly insatiable demand for cordite. (The British army and Royal Navy, alone, fired 248 million shells from 1914 to 1918.)

But by 1917, as grain and potatoes were needed to feed the British population, and German U-boat activity in the Atlantic was threatening to cut off the import of maize from the United States, Weizmann was tasked to find another supply of starch for his process that would not interfere with the already limited food supplies.

He began experimenting with conkers, aware that they grew in abundance across the country, and found that the yield of acetone was sufficiently high to begin production. This, in turn, prompted the nationwide appeal for schoolchildren to collect the conkers and hand them in.

The government was determined not to reveal the real reason for the great chestnut hunt of 1917 in case the blockaded Germans copied their methods. The only official statement was printed in The Times on 26 July 1917. It read: “Chestnut seeds, not the green husks, are required by the Government for the Ministry of Munitions. The nuts will replace cereals which have been necessary for the production of an article of great importance in the prosecution of the War.”

When questions were asked in the House of Commons, the veiled response was that the conkers were needed for “certain purposes”. So suspicious did some members of the public become that they accused the government of using voluntary labour for private profit.

The actual production of acetone from conkers was, despite Weizmann’s assurances, never that successful. Teething problems meant the manufacturing process did not begin in the King’s Lynn factory until April 1918, and it was soon discovered that horse chestnuts did not provide the yields the government had hoped for. Production ended after just three months.

So did conkers really help to win the war? They played their part, certainly, even if their role was more walk-on than centre stage. The real star of the show was Chaim Weizmann, whose brilliant solution to the acetone shortage – using a variety of natural products from maize to conkers – helped to solve the shell crisis and get Britain’s guns firing again.

A leading Zionist, Weizmann was rewarded for his vital contribution to Britain’s war effort when the cabinet – prompted by Lloyd George, prime minister since late 1916 – approved the signing of the Balfour Declaration on 2 November 1917. Taking the form of a letter from Arthur Balfour, the foreign secretary, to Lord Rothschild, a leading British Jew, it promised government support “for the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people”, and was the first step on the long road to Israeli statehood.

When the state of Israel was finally established in 1948, Weizmann became its first president. For good or ill, conkers were partly responsible.

Saul David is a historian, broadcaster and author, whose books include War: From Ancient Egypt to Iraq (Dorling Kindersley, 2009).

The Italian Army and the First World War

In the introduction to his illuminating monograph The Italian Army and the First World War, John Gooch laments the state of the current historiography that has marginalised – and continues to marginalise – the so-called ‘minor’ theatres and ‘lesser’ armies of the Great War. Whilst not falling into the latter, Italy’s war has certainly been reduced to the former despite her participation on the Allied side proving to be a ‘factor of cardinal importance’ (p. 2). A combination of Great Power syndrome – which in the case of Britain, France and Germany at least, has seen a disproportionate focus on their respective experiences on the Western Front – coupled with a dearth of historians willing to cross the metaphorical and geographical borders of international research, has led to an intellectual void in key areas. In the case of the Italian army, only a few Anglophone scholars such as Gooch, John Whittam and Vanda Wilcox (whose work is curiously absent from the bibliography) have attempted to step into the breach.(1) Nevertheless, it remains an area of study in need of a seminal text that adds significantly to our understanding of the First World War, and in Gooch’s most recent work, we find an extensively researched and particularly apt candidate.

With the centenary of the First World War now well and truly upon us, it is unsurprising to see a plethora of works relating to the subject’s seemingly innumerable facets hit one’s ever-expanding bookshelves. Already, Jay Winter’s edited volumes of The Cambridge History of the First World War (2) have sought to bring a more transnational dimension to this field of study, drawing out commonalities between participants’ experiences of a shared war. Whilst such novelty is naturally to be applauded, it should not (and has not) spell the end of national narratives, which as Gooch’s example proves, retain significant value in their ability to contribute to this new wave of historiographical focus on the Great War. Indeed, it is for this very reason that Cambridge University Press have commissioned six such studies of belligerent forces (in the Armies of the Great War series) in the coming months, of which John Gooch’s The Italian Army and the First World War is among the first to hit the press at an accessibly priced £55 (Hardback) and £19.99 (Softcover).

The central aim of this work is to assess the combat capability and performance of the Italian army during the war, with reference to a variety of contextual factors that shaped this narrative. Gooch’s approach is by and large chronological with thematic sub-sections covering, in the first instance, the period from unification in 1861 until the armistice and the immediate years beyond, whilst simultaneously broaching issues of economic and social mobilisation, discipline and morale and civil-military relations that, at times, draw striking resemblances to other belligerent forces. Whilst drawing out the importance of such themes to the progress of Italy’s war itself, Gooch rightly attracts the reader’s attention to the fact that it was not an isolated or ‘minor’ theatre – far from it. The complexities of coalition warfare, so often neglected outside studies of the main protagonists, form a centrality to this study that succeeds in framing the Italian front within the wider context of First World War strategy and operations. Having established Italy’s place within the conflict, Gooch naturally reserves enough attention for the essential links that bind army and society, which informed much of his previous work. As stated in the introduction, Italy fought the first two and a half years of the war ‘not as a people united but as a nation divided’ (p. 3), setting her apart from the nationalistic fervour and jingoism often associated with other belligerents. The implication, and subsequent demonstration over the course of the work, is that Italy discovered a unity through the course of the war that had been sorely lacking previously. Perhaps only in the case of Belgium could a similar claim be made. In a conflict that saw the demise of four empires and their royal dynasties such a revelation, that drills down to the very core of nationality and identity, stands out as a point of interest and adds even further relevance to the study of an army that has traditionally been overlooked.

In the opening chapter of his chronological study that focuses on the years 1861 to 1914, Gooch establishes the foundations of Liberal Italy’s social and military culture that would come to characterise the army’s wartime conduct and performance from its entry in May 1915 onwards. It appears to draw heavily on his previous research into the pre-war Italian army and at times is perhaps over-developed for a study of the First World War. Nevertheless, such a contextual synthesis of the country’s evident socio-economic divide between North and South, is clearly necessary when later exploring related themes in a wartime context. Indeed, an example of the relevance of this social schism, which translated broadly into conflicting socialist and Catholic convictions, can be seen in Gooch’s analysis of destabilising and unifying factors of Italy’s wartime forces. It established the basis for both the army’s failures and subsequent impetus towards success. As noted throughout the study of the first 11 battles of the Isonzo and Caporetto (the 12th), the Italian Comando supremo, Luigi Cadorna, feared the destabilising effect of socialism in his fragile citizen army a threat that he felt could only be dealt with by extreme repressive measures (p. 13). Yet, rather surprisingly, Italian culture afforded its own cure to this by providing soldiers with a means to find the will to carry on the fight. Whilst hard-line union members may have carried with them ‘a hatred of the “arbitrary and paternalistic systems of individual reward and punishment”’ which opposed the Catholic peasantry’s overt deference to authority, both groups found in their junior officers the familiarity of a paternalistic figure to whom they could relate (p. 163). It was this sort of approach, encouraged by Cadorna’s successor, Armando Diaz, which Gooch argues provided the foundations of a unity that allowed the army to recover after the defeat of Caporetto and launch successful offensives in the closing stages of the war.

Similarly, the shadow cast over Italy’s poor showing in her pre-war colonial ventures weighed heavily on the army. The spectre of Adua was never far below the surface. Although possibly over detailed in the narrative description of these campaigns, particularly in Libya (1911–12), such context again provides the reader with a necessary understanding of the military, economic and diplomatic aspects of Italy’s participation in the First World War. The incompetence of command in Africa was a portent of things to come, albeit possibly worsened by the fact that Cadorna, along with many other officers, had not even seen active service out there. It proved to be a lesson in the difficulties of maintaining healthy civil-military relations and showed above all that the army was in no fit state, in terms of organisation or equipment, to successfully contest a modern war. More than anything, however, the examination of Italy’s colonial trials and tribulations informs the reader of the underpinnings of her diplomatic wants and needs from her eventual participation in the Great War. Africa, the Balkans, and expansion into the dissolving Turkish Empire were all targets for an economically weak Italy intent on reaffirming her place at the top-table of European affairs.

The decision to forego her alliance with Germany in favour of co-operation with the allied powers, which in the case of France had been a long-standing enemy, is an interesting examination of diplomacy that forms the basis of chapter two. Neutrality afforded Italy the time to pick her side wisely, and in promises of renewed influence in the Balkans at the expense of Austria-Hungary, Italian politicians decided to throw in their lot with the Allies. Gooch’s appreciation of the importance of civil military relations once again shines through as he begins to develop a theme that played a significant role in Italy’s experience of war. The decision was taken by the politicians without proper consultation with the army who had been preparing for a war with the Central Powers – not against them (p. 88). This proved to be a turning point in civil-military relations as Cadorna, unhappy at being kept in the dark, began a process of seizing control of the army and its commitments from the politicians who were unable to rest it back until his dismissal in 1917. In keeping them at arms length, Gooch outlines the similarities between his rise as generalissimo to that of Joffre in the French army and latterly Haig in the British, albeit more forcefully in the introduction than during his analysis (p. 3). The increasing dislocation of civil-military relations provides Gooch with the opportunity to examine the power of individuals and the value there is in attempting to understand their personal complexities for the benefit of the wider story.

Undeniably Cadorna’s influence was greater on Italy’s war than anyone else. The ensuing chapters, which focus successively on the years 1915 to 1918, offer a broad analysis of the army’s operational undertakings, principally under his command. Gooch progressively comes to complete a full characterisation of the Comando supremo through an examination of his tactical, operational and strategic outlook, his draconian disciplinary methods, as well as his relationship with politicians and coalition partners to ultimately conclude that his inflexibility and single-mindedness were significant contributing factors to the army’s poor battlefield performances. Observing the opening salvos of the war from afar, Gooch demonstrates the curious reluctance to learn and implement tactical and operational lessons that had emerged prior to – and subsequently after – Italy’s entry into the war. Hopes of a war of manoeuvre were quickly shattered and the first battle of the Isonzo proved that the army had a lot to learn in terms of artillery doctrine and infantry tactics (p. 109). It was a ‘slow and uneven education’ that saw mistakes such as densely packed front lines, for example, remain a feature on the Italian front through 1917 and beyond (p. 199). Failures to achieve success, despite claiming a somewhat dubious victory at the sixth battle of the Isonzo, led to questions being raised over the conduct of Allied strategy, which Cadorna felt was not relieving enough pressure off the Italian front. The first signs of discontent in Russia, coupled with French and home political pressure to open up a second front in Albania and Salonika only served to increase pressure on the Italian front and alienate Cadorna even further from the Government (p. 172). An obvious parallel would have been the British division of opinion between ‘Easterners’ and ‘Westerners’ and to the difficulties of coalition warfare experienced on the Western Front that have recently been brought to the fore.(3) Nevertheless, Gooch manages to display such issues in the Italian context well and gives further evidence of the difficulties preventing Cadorna from achieving his desired breakthrough.

Naturally, Gooch is quick to acknowledge that for all the tactical, operational and strategic stalling, the Italian army was fighting an uphill battle with equipment and supplies that proved to be perhaps the most limiting factor of them all. Italy ‘awoke late and slowly to the industrial dimensions of the conflict she had entered. Not only was she unprepared when the moment came, but she had relatively little with which to prepare’ (p. 122). The equipment deficiencies experienced in her colonial campaigns before the war were exposed to even greater levels, particularly in the case of medium and heavy artillery. On the few occasions that a sufficient concentration of artillery could be amassed, i.e. the sixth battle of the Isonzo and Vittorio Veneto, Gooch shows that the Italian army was equal to the task (p. 297). Not only was the lack of guns restrictive, but also much like Britain’s shell crisis, the army appeared to be constantly facing as great a struggle with its factories’ production output as with the Austrians themselves. The transition to a wartime economy, as in many countries, proved problematic, with Italy’s lack of raw materials and geographical position not helping matters at all. The mobilisation of labour on the home front added to the complexities of Italy’s urban/rural divide as rising costs of living (above and beyond that of Britain, France and Germany) only exacerbated the social gulf, leading to a number of serious workers’ strikes in the months preceding the disaster of Caporetto (pp. 216–21).

Following the appointment of Diaz, termed by Gooch as effectively being a ‘revolution in military affairs’ that ended a 29-month tenure of command by a Piedmontese general in favour of a southerner, widespread changes were instituted that brought the army back from the pits of despair ready to retake the offensive within a few months. (p. 247). The most striking difference between Diaz and his predecessor was his approach to discipline and morale, a theme returned to on a number of occasions by Gooch. Although at times truncated, due to its spread over three chapters to fit with the chronology of operations, the progression of Cadorna’s draconian methods are catalogued and help contextualise both the conditions of service faced by the rank and file and the lack of faith – borne out by poor performance – of the Comando Supremo in the forces under his command. Summary executions and decimation of troublesome units would come to characterise his time in command, possibly sustaining a certain degree of discipline but certainly not morale. Indeed, Gooch demonstrates that the average number of executions per month actually increased slightly under Diaz’s command, but his removal of arbitrary discipline and sackings, a paternalistic tone to command, and a promulgation of propaganda designed to stir up emotions of la patria that was in danger, helped raise morale and unity to unprecedented levels (pp. 248–61).

Success at the battles of the Solstice and Vittorio Veneto were a culmination of many things finally coming to fruition. Materiél parity, civil-military and strategic co-operation, tactical improvements, and a new-found unity and morale were all elements that allowed Italy to capitalise on the one fundamental factor out of her control. Italy had proven a certain degree of staying power in adverse circumstances, but Gooch perceptively notes that it was Austria-Hungary’s rapid decline as the war drew to a close that allowed the Italians to go on the offensive (p. 288). Nevertheless, it was a hard-fought battle and victory was only assured after the Austrian frontline was finally cracked, leaving the remnants of what had been resolute defenders fleeing the battlefield in an attempt to reach home as their leaders sued for peace. After the armistice Italy’s diplomats failed to obtain what ‘they had gone on record as determined to get her, largely as a consequence of their having played a weak hand badly’ (p. 310). The ramifications of this, Gooch briefly outlines, were not a given precursor to the rise of Facism but certainly a contributing factor to the circumstances that eventually helped Mussolini to power.

Overall, Gooch succeeds admirably in not only bringing to light an interesting narrative of one of the war’s least well-known theatres and armies, but in tackling a wide range of underlying themes that resonate with studies of other belligerent forces, he has managed to place the Italian army firmly within the necessary wider context of the First World War. Through an impressive array of primary and secondary sources, the Italian army’s participation has been brought to the fore of Anglophone historiography and will almost certainly remain a seminal text for scholars of the period and anyone else interested in European military history and the First World War at large.

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