Drugs Used During War Historically

“When you hear about Biden buying $30 million in “safe smoking kits” to hand out maybe it is time that we talk about how drugs have been used historically to subdue the enemy during times of war. Seems that these recent wars that we have been enduring are more and more geared at destroying an enemy that is invisible, but the real victims are the people.”

Mind-altering substances in one form or another, used for one purpose or another, had accompanied armed conflicts over the centuries. The First World War, with its unprecedented scale, intensity, brutality, and psychological burden marked no departure from this long-standing and nearly universal historical practice.

Throughout history, intoxicants were an important part of the war experience. The First World War was by no means an exception in that respect: its main “war drugs” were alcohol (mostly beer, brandy, rum, schnapps, wine, and vodka), morphine, and cocaine. These were both “prescribed” by military authorities and “self-prescribed” by soldiers. As in the past, the reasons for using drugs varied: from purely medical (killing the pain, anesthetizing, and energizing) to performance enhancement, from raising the fighting spirit to alleviating combat trauma, from strengthening bonds between companions to mitigating the fear of battle. Simultaneously and paradoxically, in many states temperance ideas gained in popularity and prohibitionist regulations were adopted.

The French accused the Germans of smuggling cocaine into French cities and trenches to subvert their war effort. This Teutonic plot only added to a Germanophobic war psychosis. In 1916, the deputy Charles Bernard announced: “It seems that the Germans can’t beat us with their fire or their asphyxiating gas, so now … they’re using cocaine and morphine to wear us down”.

Overall, cocaine use was more prevalent in France than in Britain but it was the latter that experienced a nationwide drug scare, in large part generated by the media, politi­cians, and military establishment. The Times, for instance, hailed the cocaine menace as “more deadly than bullets”. The problem was grossly overblown, to say the least, and presented as a dire threat not only to the British troops but also to the society and even the whole Empire. The hysteria ensued due to the Canadian contingents temporarily stationed on the Isles while awaiting their deployment to the Western Front. In January 1916, a Canadian major based near Folkestone in Kent traced the source of cocaine supply to his units: a London prostitute Rose Edwards and her pimp Horace Dennis Kingsley. The two were arrested and sentenced to six months’ hard labor for “selling a powder to members of HM Forces, with intent to make them less capable of performing their duties.”[63] The trial revealed that some forty men in a local camp had developed an addiction. The incident, highly publicized, worked in favor of the proponents of introducing tight governmental control of habit-forming drugs. Other episodes involving the Canadians, such as robbery and a fatal beating, only confirmed the false media story that cocainism was imported to Britain by the Canadian troops.[64] Although in pre-war Canada the increasing consumption of cocaine had indeed been recognized as an issue, it was by no means the Canadian servicemen who created the cocaine problem in Britain, where the demand for the drug existed well before their arrival. Yet the case provided a convenient pretext for launching the anti-drug campaign, which found a fruitful soil in the nation’s wartime anxieties and suspicions.

In February 1916, London pharmacies were fined for failing to observe the restrictions of the 1908 Pharmacy Act when selling cocaine and morphine to military men. This law extended the scope of the earlier Pharmacy Act of 1868, which focused on opium, and also covered morphine, cocaine, and their derivates. It limited the sale of these substances to pharmacies and required the sellers to keep records of all purchasers. Among the punished were the famous store Harrods and a well-known pharmacy Savory & Moore. The former offered small sets of morphine and cocaine with syringe and needles, advertised in the Times as “a useful present for friends at the front”,[65] while Savory & Moore sold a mail-order medical kit containing cocaine and heroin. In the atmosphere of the Canadian plot, the press raised the alarm that supplying soldiers with intoxicants would compromise army efficiency. Yet the contrary was the case, as enlisted men self-medicated with cocaine not so much to deal with pain and gain relief – the purposes seemingly intended by the sellers – but to boost themselves in times of fatigue and to stay awake.[66] On 12 February 1916, the Times warned that: to the soldier subjected to nervous strain and hard work cocaine, once used, must become a terrible temptation. It will, for the hour, charm away his trouble, his fatigue and his anxiety; it will give him fictitious strength and vigor. But it will also, in the end, render him worthless as a soldier and a man.[67]

The Daily Chronicle, too, heated up the hysteria by reporting that cocaine-starving soldiers were literally crawling into pharmacies. The newspaper informed that the habit “is driving hundreds of women mad. What is worse, it will drive, unless the traffic in it is checked, hundreds of soldiers mad”.[68] Allegedly, the drug-crazed soldiers on the front turned aggressive and insubordi­nate. Moreover, early in 1916, the police confirmed the existence of an extensive under­ground market for cocaine in London. Dealers in the West End distributed it to military personnel through Soho prostitutes, known as “cocaine” or “dope girls”. Inexorably, in the public mind the drug was associated with sex, intemperance, and hostile subver­sion. The politicians, particularly Sir Malcolm Delevingne (1868-1950), the undersecretary of state at the Home Office, military commanders, and the media promoted and reinforced such views. As the drug, it was believed, got British soldiers addicted, it eroded their combat performance and undermined military dis­cipline. Sir Francis Lloyd (1853-1926), a general in command of the London district, accurately captured the essence of the cocaine panic that overwhelmed public opinion: I am told that this evil prac­tice is exceedingly rife at the present time. It is doing an immense amount of harm, I am told. They say that it is so ingrained that once you take it you will not give it up.[69]

The plague of addiction was therefore purportedly destroying the British Army. Public wartime disquiets, intensified by unverified and overblown fears of enemy conspiracy, were harnessed for political use. Because intoxicants were clichéd as a hostile foreign influence, a conspiracy theory portrayed their supply as a secret weapon deployed by Germany, after all a pioneer country in the production of cocaine and its marketing in the United Kingdom. Thus the false myth of German cocaine sabotage was born. Ironically, however, it was in fact the British who successfully tried to make use of intoxicants as tools of war. In August 1917, British General Edmund Allenby (1861-1936), who sought to induce the Arabs to desert the Ottoman army, authorized propaganda leaflets accompanied with packets of cigarettes to be dropped from aeroplanes on Turkish positions in Palestine. As the enemy quickly became accustomed to searching for scattered tobacco, in October–November 1917, prior to a British attack in the Third Battle of Gaza, Allenby ordered the airdrop of cigarettes laced with opium. This subversive tactical ploy was reported to “render the Turkish troops immobile”.[70]

The “Neutrality” Cocaine

By late 1915, however, Merck experienced a dramatic fall in the annual production of cocaine down to merely 447 kilograms, compared to nearly 9,000 kilograms in 1913.[71] The war seriously interrupted international trade and impeded the supply of European factories with Peruvian coca leaves. This turbulence, though, supported the rapid development of Nederlandsche Cocaïne Fabriek Ltd. (NCF).[72] Established in March 1900 in Amsterdam as a joint venture of the Koloniale Bank and coca-plan­tation owners in the Dutch East Indies, the company produced cocaine from the coca grown in the colony. And the plant, introduced to Java in 1878, thrived in the local soil and climate. Soon the Dutch East Indies outpaced Peru as the leading provider of leaves.[73]

The war was beneficial for NCF, which quickly evolved into an important cocaine factory capable of manufacturing up to 1,500 kilograms per year and with an estimated average annual production of 700 kilograms in 1914-1920.[74] As the main competitors suffered (German pharmaceutical companies were cut off from raw materials by the international blockade), the Dutch wartime neutrality favored the vast expansion of a once-small company now eagerly exporting its commodity, benefiting from considerably increased military demands for the drug.[75]

From Cocaine Scare to the Drug Control Regime in Britain

The claim that cocaine addic­tion was hitting the British forces hard was later unequivocally debunked. For example, the findings of the Select Committee on the Use of Cocaine in Dentistry revealed that: no evidence of any kind to show that there is any serious, or, perhaps, even noticeable preva­lence of the cocaine habit amongst the civilian or military population of Great Britain. There … is hardly any trace of the practice having spread to British troops.[76]

Nonetheless, with politicians and media drawing on the paranoid fears, the moral panic around cocaine turned into a mass hysteria over drugs in general. In such an explosive social climate and relentless public pressure, the military command could not stay idle. The time was ripe to take emergency action in defense of Britain’s fighting power. On 11 May 1916, the Army Council issued an order banning any unauthorized sale or supply of psychoactive substances (mostly cocaine, but also codeine, hemp, heroin, morphine, and opium) to any member of the armed forces, except for medical reasons and only by prescription.[77] Any violation would constitute an offense punishable by six months’ imprisonment. Further regulations were introduced under the Defence of the Realm Act (DORA). The law, passed four days after Britain entered the war in August 1914, served as the cover for various wartime regulatory schemes and social control mechanisms, including censorship and the aforementioned anti-alcohol measures. It allowed the executive to set up criminal offenses merely through regulation. So, under DORA’s regulation 40B, passed on 28 July 1916, the sale of cocaine and opium-based products to military personnel without a prescription became prohibited for anyone except for medical prac­titioners, pharmacists, and veterinary personnel.[78] Soldiers could face court-martial if accused of violating the ban. The historical importance of DORA 40B lay not so much in its scope (limited to cocaine and opium) but in the very essence of the prohibi­tive principle, i.e. putting particular substances under strict state control and criminalizing their sale and use. The subsequent Dangerous Drugs Act of 1920 retained most of the provisions of DORA 40B, thereby transforming the emergency wartime regulation into a permanent peacetime law now applying to all citizens. Also, the list of controlled substances was expanded to include cocaine, heroin, morphine, raw opium, and, to an extent, barbiturates. The act brought Britain in line with national drug control regimes introduced earlier by the United States (the Harrison Act of 1914) and the Netherlands (the Opium Act of 1919).

World War I not only facilitated greater consumption of cocaine and morphine but also gave rise to comprehensive national substance control regimes. Strained public moods merged with the temperance agenda unleashed a “prohibition wave” which swept over many belligerent states. At the same time, contrary to the goals pursued by the zealots of sobriety, governments (except for the American and Russian ones) supplied their forces with regular rations of liquid courage. Another notable exception worth mentioning was the Ottoman army, whose regiments were dry not only due to state prohibition on the consumption of alcohol (although the lucrative production, export, and local sale to non-Muslims were not banned) but largely because the morale of the ordinary Muslim soldier was grounded in Islam, which strictly prohibited alcoholic drinks. All in all, many combat­ants managed to survive the sheer brutality of this truly industrial warfare and remain sane owing to the depressant effect of alcohol and tobacco, the most popular intoxicating remedies of combat.

In the course of the First World War, mind-altering agents were used for both medical and non-therapeutic purposes, issued by the authorities as well as self-prescribed by soldiers. Sedative drugs such as alcohol, morphine, and opium helped to subdue the physical and emotional pain, relax, and alleviate the horrors of combat. Stimulants, such as cocaine and alcohol (but in small amounts), enabled men to keep going and get through everyday life at the front. In sum, psychoactive pharmacopeia turned into a nearly inherent part of the very experience of modern war and combat, the experience powerfully and not merely metaphorically depicted in Storm of Steel (1920) by Ernst Jünger, who as a soldier during the war used cocaine himself, as an overwhelmingly intoxicating rush (Rausch).

Łukasz Kamieński, Jagiellonian University

From: https://encyclopedia.1914-1918-online.net/article/drugs



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