We usually associate rum with the Navy, but soldiers in the trenches also received a rum ration. Each man was given a ‘tot’ which was about a tablespoon, though Navy rum was stronger than rum sold in pubs now, so probably the equivalent of a small glass.

Rum gave the men a little warmth and cheer in the terrible cold and damp of the trenches and was also used as a reward for difficult and dangerous work. Contemporary accounts also suggest it was given to survivors after an attack and in some cases to give a little Dutch courage.

Photograph of Private Thomas Edward Townsend. 1917.

Photograph of Private Thomas Edward Townsend. Shropshire Archives MI8946/4

Private Thomas Edward Townsend of English Frankton was in the 6th KSLI and fought on the Somme in 1917. His pocket diary which he wrote between 24 September and 18 November paints a picture of constant tiredness, cold and dull routine, interspersed with occasional frights:

5th Nov: “Got a rude awakening as Fritz dropped a trench mortar just in front on the line. Covers me with soil and puts the wind up me for a minute or two”

Despite the hardships, meals seem to have been pretty regular. Thomas describes his breakfasts of bacon and tea with rum. Then he discovers porridge and it becomes his breakfast of choice and sometimes his supper too, with the rum ration added:

8th Nov: “Have porridge and put the rum in it for supper”

One suspects that the rum brought more comfort than the visit of Sir Douglas Haig who came to view tanks and wish the troops the best of luck on 14th Nov 1917.

Memorial card for Private Thomas Edward Townsend. Dec 1917.

Memorial card for Private Thomas Edward Townsend. Dec 1917.

Sadly, a few days later, Thomas was injured in battle at Cambrai. He was returned to England but died of his wounds on Dec 4th aged 21. He is buried in Cockshutt Churchyard.

Private Townsend’s diary has been deposited at Shropshire Archives. Ref. MI8946/1

Maggie Hudson