Tobacco and cigarettes in the First World War

Tobacco and cigarettes in the First World War

You may have noticed that this month we're marking the centenary of the end of World War One here at Bull Brand.

When looking through the grainy images that are now over a hundred years old, it's hard not to notice the sheer number of people smoking in the pictures. We live in a society where smoking is in decline, so it would be difficult for us to picture a campaign in a main national newspaper designed to fund soldiers and sailors with tobacco and cigarettes: "to provide our wounded…with tobacco and cigarettes in hospitals here and at the front…and is at the moment sending regular supplies to over 200 hospitals and convalescent homes." 

The classic pipe or a cigarette

At the start of the war, smoking a pipe was more popular across all the combatant nations. However, as the war staggered on cigarettes grew in popularity. A reason for this is the sheer practicality of a cigarette, if you consider the preparation required to smoke a pipe and the physical bulk, you can quickly see the ease at which a cigarette replaces the pipe. Pre-rolled cigarettes were small, handy and easy to light in damp and muddy trench conditions. 

With advances in the late 19th century in manufacturing techniques, mass production of cigarettes increased and with millions of men in uniform serving in unimaginable conditions, the demand increased dramatically. Supplied by the military to the troops, forming part of their rations, they were provided with 2oz of tobacco per day. Naturally, this allowance didn't meet everyone's requirements and cigarettes soon became a form of trench currency, swapped for items such as cake or souveniers swiped from the enemy. 

Tobacco - why the men smoked

The static nature of trench warfare resulted in much boredom and time to kill. With an ample supply of ration tobacco, parcels from home and from tobacco funds (charitable foundations designed to raise money to send troops cigarettes) soldiers smoked more or even started when previously they may not have. Men smoked for many reasons, it helped pass the time giving them something to do. It also created a focus which helped them escape from the endless stream of things that could momentarily kill them. Additionally, it was a good way to bond and break the ice, smoking tobacco crossed national and language barriers. There's many a picture of prisoners being offered a cigarette after capture, in fact during the famous Christmas truce of 1914, pictures show both British and German troops huddling together to light up.  

Our attitudes and understanding of tobacco smoking have changed, it seems strange to look at the colourful vintage adverts advertising cigarettes to soldiers, some even made radical health claims! However, it was a different age and certainly for those serving, an experience that we can only begin to comprehend. With life hanging in the balance, any small pleasure was surely one which was grasped and enjoyed, hence why the simple cigarette increased in popularity throughout the war.

To finish, next time you have a smoke with your friends, remember it's bad luck to take the third light of a cigarette. The first light draws attention, the second light provides an aiming point and the third light results in being shot.