Britain tackles ‘greatest wartime enemy’: the demon drink

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The Germans weren’t the only enemy in the First World War. A battle was waged against alcohol, too. Chris Bond reports.

IN August, 1915, Chancellor David Lloyd George, made a dramatic statement. “We are fighting Germany, Austria and drink,” he said.

“And as far as I can see, the greatest of these deadly foes is drink.”

This might sound draconian to us today, but a century ago alcohol and particularly beer, the working man’s drink, was seen as a threat to productivity and Britain’s war effort.

The Government was concerned that drunkenness would have a negative impact on workers in the vital munitions factories. There were fears, too, that men turning up to work with hangovers wouldn’t be able to work effectively.

Factories were dangerous places at the best of times and workers under the influence of booze were more likely to suffer injuries, hampering production. Worse still, politicians feared that some people wouldn’t even make it in to work in the morning after a heavy session.

There were clamours to nationalise the industry so that the Government could control it, while the Temperance Movement campaigned for a ban on the sale of alcohol all together.

In the end the government stopped short of quite such radical measures and in August 1914 it introduced the ‘Intoxicating Liquor (Temporary Restriction) Act’.

This gave licensing authorities the power to curb drinking hours if they wanted to.

The new Act allowed pubs to stay open for up to six hours a day with a compulsory afternoon break.

Prior to this, it wasn’t uncommon for pubs to open their doors at five in the morning and remain open until midnight.

A series of further measures were introduced by the Government in an effort to curtail alcoholism and drunkenness.

The duty on a barrel of beer increased sharply from 7 shillings and 9 pence (38.5p in today’s money) in 1914, to 70 shillings (£3.50) by 1919. This so-called “War Tax” also raised more cash for the Government that could be used to power the country’s war machine.

But it didn’t stop there. Beer production was cut by 50 per cent and its alcohol content was also halved.

There was even a bizarre rule introduced that made it illegal to buy a round of drinks in a pub.

It wasn’t properly enforced, although there were a couple of cases in Southampton and Carlisle where men were fined for buying their wives a drink.

“The government put a lot of restrictions on opening hours during the war, that’s when opening hours first came in for pubs, and there was also this demonisation of alcohol by some politicians,” says Dr Laura King, a research fellow at the University of Leeds.

Despite the crackdown its wasn’t all bad news. “A lot of factories saw profits go up but for breweries it was a double-edge sword because there were restrictions on the alcohol they could produce.

“But at the same time you saw more women going into pubs during the war.”

Another reason for taxing alcohol so heavily was the fact that the raw material, barley, was needed for other things, like food production.

The king himself decided to set an example by giving up alcohol until the end of the war, although it has to be said not many followed his lead.

However, Dr King notes a shift in attitude by the time the world went to war for a second time in 1939. “There’s an interesting comparison with the Second World War when there was much more of an acceptance that some consumption of alcohol is actually good for morale.”