With the news today that health lobbyists are calling for a ban on smoking in hospital grounds, it seems timely to look back at an era when smoking was welcome, if not positively encouraged everywhere, including in hospitals.
Cigarettes, or 'smokes' were the lifeline of the British Army; a familiar and ubiquitous accessory hanging from the lips of the archetypal British Tommy. Decades before the discovery and wide acceptance of nicotine's life-threatening effects, cigarettes became one of the most frequently requested 'comforts' for men of all ranks at the Front. One quote from an officer, published in a volume of The Bystander we have here in the library maintained, ‘If the men can only get a ‘fag’ or a pipe they are content. They pay no heed to discomfort in the trenches, or on the march in the worst weather. Even if they are without their rations they won’t complain if ‘fags’ don’t fail. Some have been reduced to smoking their allowances of tea. Others have smoked brown paper or leaves of trees.’
The Queen magazine, repeatedly printed requests from soldiers for more cigarettes and parcels sent in by readers (for the magazine acted as a conduit for donations from charitable readers) invariably included cigarettes or tobacco.
Smoking in hospitals was considered perfectly acceptable. A writer in The Queen, who had spent some time nursing the wounded, described a man who had seen all his comrades killed and wrote, ‘A cigarette seemed to give new life to that man when he was desperately ill in hospital, and one could not help thinking how much more a smoke must have meant to him in the stress and strain of those awful weeks.’ In November 1916, members of the V.A.D. undertook the distribution of no less than 30,000 "Greys" cigarettes to soldiers taking part in the Lord Mayor's procession. The cigarettes were the gift of the manufacturers, Major, Drapkin and Co.
Just this week we came across a spread of sketches by Donald Macpherson in The Sphere magazine reporting on the work of the London Ambulance Column, which met the wounded off hospital trains arriving at London stations and transported them to hospitals and convalescent homes. Two of the pictures show a female volunteer, possibly a VAD nurse, travelling with the men and handing out cigarettes, even to the 'cot' cases lying prone inside an ambulance.
And it seems that the German and Austrian armies craved cigarettes as much as their British and French counterparts. Another photograph we have in the archive shows Austrian nurses flitting around wounded soldiers on stretchers distributing cigarettes.
The desire for a smoke often saw the twin emblems of romantic Great War illustration - the exchange of cigarettes and the figure of the wartime nurse - frequently pictured together in magazines, advertisements or on postcards. Maestro of glamour William Barribal drew this lovely picture (below left) for The Sketch magazine in December 1914, and the Kenilworth brand of cigarettes ran a series of adverts drawn by Fred Pegram showing scenes between an officer home on leave and his female companion who were wont to slip away from crowds in order to enjoy the intimate pleasure of a Kenilworth which was, according to the copy, 'the most soothing and seductive cigarettes imaginable.'
A whole accessories industry sprang up to support smokers at the Front. Match manufacturers, Bryant & May advertised their 'war specialities' including a "service" match-box cover and "service" match-tin to keep the striking surface dry in all weathers. Silver and Edgington of Eastcheap, London, suggested their watertight cigarette and tobacco box for keeping smokes dry at the front while Charles Packer of Regent Street sold a lighter with a wind shield. Even among the numerous knitting patterns for knitted 'comforts' published in The Queen was a Warleigh Smoking Helmet, though quite why convalescents needed a special woolly hat in which to smoke remains something of a mystery!
It is interesting too that smoking became an international language between the Allies, and even between enemies. Tobacco and cigarette advertisements often showed Allied soldiers enjoying the camaraderie of a shared cigarette and photographs taken at the Front show the ultimate display of compassion was to offer cigarettes to the enemy wounded or POWs.
Tobacco rations, thought to boost morale and calm nerves, were introduced in 1916, though pipes were also in demand due to their tendency to get dropped or break while on duty in the firing line. Cigarette companies advertised their postal service to France and many sought publicity by sending large quantities overseas free of charge. Mr Bernhard Barron, for instance, owner of the Carreras Tobacco Company had, by August 1915, already sent three million ‘Black Cat,’ cigarettes to soldiers at the front. It was no surprise that the contents of Princess Mary’s Christmas Gift Box, sent to the front in 1914, was a packet of cigarettes in a distinctive yellow packet. One of the most famous cartoons of the war, 'Arf a Mo' Kaiser' by seasoned chain-smoker Bert Thomas (1883-1966) of the Artists' Rifles was specially drawn (in about ten minutes) for the Weekly Dispatch Cigarette & Tobacco Fund to raise money for the supply of tobacco and cigarettes to front-line soldiers. It succeeded admirably, raising almost £250,000 and became one of the most recognisable images of the war. The message was clear. Even the Kaiser himself would not come between the cheeky British Tommy and his smokes.
Civilian smokers could do their bit towards the war effort too. In November 1918, the actress Lily Elsie, best known for her pre-war role in 'The Merry Widow,' appeared on the front cover of The Sketch with news of her latest crusade – to collect 10,000 gold and silver cigarette cases courtesy of ‘patriotic smokers’ for the Red Cross. Each donation would receive in return a letter of thanks, personally autographed by Ms Elsie.
Almost a century on, smoking is a known killer, and is increasingly seen as socially unacceptable, banned from all public places, and soon perhaps from many outdoor spaces. The comforting and glamorous connotations associated with smoking during the Great War have disappeared under a mountain of medical evidence but in 1914, cigarettes were essential fuel for almost every British soldier or sailor. Perhaps, considering the dangers faced on a daily basis by those at the Front, it is possible that if they knew then what we know now, it may not have made the slightest bit of difference.
For more WW1 smoking images, follow the link below:
Part of this blog is extracted from 'Great War Britain' by Lucinda Gosling, due to be published by The History Press, June 2014