Friday, 24 September 2010

The Fragrant Weed

If you are interested in social history then you probably have got a few subjects that rings a bell every time you come across them., Especially if you come across a quote or a story out of context. One of mine is smoking: about which I would really like to write a social history. I was reminded of this while reading Roy & Lesley Adkin's excellent Jack Tar: life in Nelson's Navy (Little, Brown, 2008) as part of my background reading for a book of tracing Royal Naval ancestors I'm writing for Pen & Sword . They devote a few pages to tobacco, which was then generally chewed rather than smoked on board. But some seamen were devoted to their pipes, while others smoked rum-soaked tobacco in periques or pricks, basically a foot long cigar.
When I was doing my PhD on charities of the First World War, the tobacco habit had become ingrained among soldiers of all ranks. Despite some slight official concern that smoking affected the men's health, tobacco was encouraged for it calmed nerves and reduced the appetite. As a result it is rare to find a group photo of soldiers without the majority of men having a cigarette in their hands. By far the most popular comfort provided by war charities was cigarettes and tobacco: smokes as they were generally called.  The largest newspaper appeal was the Weekly Despatch Tobacco Fund which had collected £100,000 by the middle of 1916. Tens of millions of cigarettes were sent to the front.  The Comforts Fund of the 1st London Regiment alone sent 189,000 packets of cigarettes during the war.
Within days of the declaration of war letters were appearing in The Times appealing for smokes for the troops.  One reader Septimus Bright appealed "to private persons and firms for pouches and other smokers requisites, new and old, among them old pipes which every woman is anxious to clear out of the caches of her menfolk." But so far as I can, tell few people did.  
And perhaps ironically a proportion of the men who became addicted to smoking in the Great War developed lung cancer in the 1950s. These were the men whose wrecked lungs and breathing led scientists to realise how bad smoking actually was. They had survived the trenches but were now felled by something which had once given them strength and pleasure.

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