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Another Round? Teetotal Pledges and World War One

Updated: Aug 30, 2023

Welcome to the first installment of guest blogger Henry Yeoman’s new series here on Points. Henry is a Lecturer in Criminology and Criminal Justice at the University of Leed’s School of Law, where he works on historical criminology and criminological theory, especially as it pertains to the regulation of alcohol.  In the first entry of series, Henry discusses temperance movements in Great War-era Britain.

The importance of teetotalism in the context of war was raised as an issue soon after the outbreak of hostilities in August 1914. In October of that year, a letter in the Manchester Guardian stated that “the greatest enemy to military efficiency has been insobriety, and its greatest support abstinence.” The letter, signed by Robert B. Batty, included an evocative quote from (the late) Field Marshall Lord Roberts which supported the central point: “Give me a teetotal army”, Roberts said, “and I will lead it anywhere.” Military discipline, it was believed, would be aided by abstinence and, to an extent, the Government acted on these premises in 1915 by banning the practice of ‘treating’ soldiers and sailors (buying drinks for them). To further the spread of sobriety, a letter in the Manchester Guardian in 1915 called upon military clubs, whose clientele were officers, to stop selling all alcoholic drinks. It was seen to be unfair to expect the rank-and-file to abstain from alcohol unless their superiors were prepared to observe the same form of conduct. The author explained that “an example set by a military club would go a great way towards making Tommy a teetotaller and would be an object lesson to Germany.” British teetotalism, therefore, was seen as a crucial weapon to be deployed against beer-drinking Germany.

Teetotalism was not, however, seen as a necessity for the military alone and the imperative of self-denial was soon applied to civilians also. In late 1914, a League of Honour was established to promote “prayer, purity and temperance” as a means to combat the “abnormal excitement” which had apparently gripped women. One of the League’s main instruments was a pledge which required the participant to abstain from all alcohol for the duration of the war. In November 1914, the Archbishop of Canterbury presided over a conference which endorsed this wartime pledge as a means through which the whole population, should they take the pledge, could contribute to the war effort. Many senior Anglican clergy quickly echoed this call and other prominent public figures threw their weight behind the pledge campaign. Wartime Chancellor and Prime Minister David Lloyd George as well as Minister of War Lord Kitchener were both supportive, and King George V signalled his approval by forbidding the consumption of alcohol in his royal households for as long as the war lasted. The King’s actions received mass press attention and the Church of England sought to maximise the impact of this good publicity by distributing pledge cards nationwide which featured the text: “I follow the King’s lead, and promise to abstain from all intoxicating liquors during the war.” While resisting pressure to close them down completely, Parliament did agree to limit the opening hours of its many private bars. The highest echelons of British society thus sought to lead by example and advance sobriety by engaging in very public displays of alcoholic self-denial.

H.H. Croydon's "Drunk German," the cultural archetype of the moment

But what was the motivation behind this fervent wartime pledge campaign? It is clear from contemporary commentaries that the pledge campaign was intended as a means to bolster the war effort and it is certainly feasible that discouraging drunkenness amongst the troops might improve discipline and combat effectiveness. But why was abstinence amongst civilians seen as so important? And why abstinence, rather than moderation, anyway? Understanding the wider moral landscape of the period is essential in answering these questions. Firstly, the Germans were often depicted as drunken savages; temperance activist, H.H. Croydon claimed that “in some measure, the horrors of the German atrocities have had their origin in intemperance.” The war was frequently seen as pitting sober civilisation against drunken depravity. So, secondly, the inculcation of voluntary teetotalism was believed to be a means through which the moral currency of the British could be boosted. The issue was bigger than just military effectiveness and, as a newspaper letter argued in 1915, it was widely believed that “the civilian should feel the sacrifice just as much as the soldier, the rich man just as the poor.” It was essential that civilians “make some definite sacrifice to show that the country is to some extent worthy of its defenders”. This preoccupation with parity in suffering and moral worthiness show that the wartime pledge campaign functioned as an instrument through which Britain could demonstrate to itself that it, not Germany, was deserving of the military victory to which both nations aspired. 

It must be stressed that this obsession with worthiness was not ethical navel-gazing as it was widely believed that military victory would follow from moral superiority. The Bishop of Durham argued that the widespread adoption of the wartime pledge will cause the military to feel “an indefinitely mighty force behind them” which will lift them “even higher than before in courage and in the moral goodness which is of the soul of the highest forms of valour.” Importantly, the positive effects could only be accrued from voluntary acts of teetotalism. The British rejection of prohibition in the nineteenth century had been partially fuelled by a belief that you cannot make people sober by Act of Parliament; The Times argued in 1872 that “no moral work was ever achieved without personal agencies” and “an appeal to the free will… of our race.” Although as Mark Schrad has noted, a number of countries introduced prohibition as a wartime measure, the British response was legally moderate. Opening hours were limited, the strength of liquor was restricted, the tax levied on alcohol was raised and ‘treating’ (buying drinks for other people) was banned. Despite new campaign groups such as the Strength of Britain calling for its implementation, prohibition was not compatible with the enduring British faith in the value of personal agency. Only self-denial, embodied in the wartime pledge and facilitated by the restrictive (rather than prohibitive) legal situation, could accumulate the sort of moral currency which was needed to spur the nation onwards towards victory.

An extended write-up of the research used to produce this blog can be found at the following address:


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