The wartime image of troops smoking on the Western Front has become as synonymous with the Great War as No Man’s Land and the trenches.
At its height in 1918 tobacco consumption had reached a staggering 56.8 million lbs a year in Great Britain – with Nottingham’s John & Sons reporting a 54 per cent increase in cigarette sales from November 1 1914 to October 31 1918.
The idea that the nation had gone mad on tobacco was not an exaggeration, indeed despite the government’s reluctance to import goods due to tactical bombings from the Germans, tea and tobacco were deemed good for moral and as such a weapon against the enemy.
Former University of Nottingham lecturer Professor Christopher Wrigley has done in depth research on the subject having published an essay entitled Cigarettes, Soldiers and Sailors and the British Home Front in the First World War: the war and the tobacco industry. He also spoke at a lecture on the same topic earlier this month, at the university.
He said: “The First World War potentially threatened the tobacco industry as it caused major dislocation to shipping. Imports were increasingly controlled by the government in order to conserve both shipping space and Britain’s dwindling supply of dollars.
“Tobacco was a consumer good deemed important for morale among the Armed Forces and so continued to be imported.
In spite of the forebodings of the tobacco retailers, the quantity of pipe tobacco consumed during the war was at least fairly stable, dipping below the 1914 level of 55.7 million lbs only in 1916 while cigarette consumption rose steadily between 1914 and 1918.”
At the outbreak of the war many tobacco retailers made dire predictions as to what a major war would do to their trade but despite this the tobacco industry did very well out of the war.
Trade was boosted by the desire of families and friends to send cigarettes and tobacco to their husbands, sons and brothers overseas.
During the war some 5.7 million men went into the Armed Forces, which was around 45 per cent of UK males of working age.
This informed the need of a ‘war of production’ which resulted in the expansion of sectors such as engineering, shipbuilding and chemicals and the contraction of others, notably several consumer industries including tobacco.
Professor Wrigley said: “Cigarettes and tobacco were luxuries but were deemed highly important in maintaining the morale of men in the Armed Forces and those working long hours in war production.
“Even so, tobacco was constrained later in the war by shipping shortages caused first by devastating U-boat attacks and later by space being taken to bring US troops across the Atlantic.
“The retailers’ trade journal Tobacco in its October 1914 editorial section claimed that ‘it might almost be said that a man in the firing line first thinks of his cartridges and the very next thing he seems to worry about is ammunition for his pipe. The pipe itself is only less precious than the rifle’.
“While it could be argued that front-line troops were more concerned with lack of regular food or effective footwear to cope with the often waterlogged trenches, nevertheless tobacco and cigarettes were highly valued comforts.”
In December 1914 it was thought that man for man they were smoking more than in times of peace which was even more apparent through requests for tobacco in letters home.
“From early in the war the state provided soldiers at the front with tobacco. By September 1914 each soldier in France and Belgium was allocated two ounces a week, initially of Wills’ Capstan tobacco. The French had been swift to supply tobacco to their soldiers with apparently ‘about 50 tons a day for the frontier regiments alone’.
“France’s national tobacco factories were reported to be working night and day, with some of their output initially going to British troops. As the British soldiers preferred sweet Virginia tobacco – rather than Turkish or Egyptian – tons of Virginia leaf was shipped to them from England.”
In the First World War there were gifts for soldiers and sailors from several British tobacco companies including Godfrey Phillips Ltd who sent 2.5 million cigarettes to the British Expeditionary Force, 1600 packets of tobacco to Belgium and 50,000 cigarettes to the ambulance train at Southampton.
Nottingham was one of the cities whose tobacco retail trade was affected early on and in late August 1914 trade was said to have declined by over a third as six thousand men in the Reserves and Territorials, ‘who are all practically smokers’, left the city.
However, the campaign for ‘smokes for soldiers’ was by late September 1914 creating additional demand and only a month later retailers were doing brisk business – sending troops cigarettes was ‘the fashion of the hour’.
Shipping restrictions did lead to a temporary decline in the domestic trade, with longer lasting shortages in some areas and in March 1916 imports of both new and manufactured tobacco were banned briefly unless given special licences.
In trying to ensure fair dealing it could draw on powers under the Tobacco Restriction Orders under the Defence of the Realm Act of 1914.
By 1918 there were tobacco shortages in most cities and towns and in some places it was reported that ‘men refused to go on with their employment unless tobacco was found’.
With a shortage of cigarettes some males became even more critical than usual of women smoking
The state and the public approved tobacco for the Armed Forces and for those engaged in war production as cigarettes and pipes were deemed valuable for morale.
With state supplies and the large amounts sent by families and friends, huge quantities of tobacco went to the Armed Forces – in 1915 it was estimated that British soldiers and sailors smoked 1,000 tons of cigarettes and 700 tons of pipe tobacco.
An article in The Lancet said: “We may surely brush aside much prejudice against the use of tobacco when we consider what a source of comfort it is to the soldier and sailor engaged in a nerve-wracking campaign,” and “There can indeed be little doubt that tobacco fills an important place in the psycho-physiological affairs of the human race.”
Professor Wrigley said: “Later in the war the charitable gifts were made to the seemingly endless stream of wounded men, many arriving for the ambulance trains departing from Southampton.
“Tobacco manufacturers donated tobacco and cigarettes for these men. Tobacco retailers also collected from their customers for them.”
Cigarettes and tobacco were, as the trade always recognised, a luxury.
While they were not a top priority in the allocation of scarce resources such as shipping space, they were recognised by the government as highly desirable for soldiers at the Western and other Fronts – sailors and airmen as well as domestic war workers.
By the end of the war, as the author Christopher Snowdon has put it, the cigarette had become not just a popular item but almost a patriotic one.
The returning soldiers and sailors continued to smoke and so did many of the wartime new women smokers, although initially not often in public.
Lifting the wartime restrictions on tobacco supply resulted in sales jumping with expenditure on all tobacco products rising from £65.2 million in the last full year of the war to £115.2 million in 1919.
How times have changed..!