The Tank Museum | Smoking in the World Wars

Smoking in the World Wars

During the First and Second World Wars smoking was an integral part of life on the front lines.

19th March 2014

Today smoking is known to be a killer and has become increasingly seen as socially unacceptable because of it. However, during the First and Second World Wars smoking was an integral part of life on the front lines.

Tobacco first reached Britain around 1565 and by the 1600s it was already a concern to James I, which led him to write ‘A Counterblaste to Tobacco’, which dismissed smoking as ‘loathsome to the eye, hateful to the nose, harmful to the brain [and] dangerous to the lungs’. However, despite the high taxes he imposed upon tobacco demand continued to grow. This was particularly the case during the Great Plague in 1665, which boasted the medical properties of tobacco. By the 1850s (after the Crimean War) officers had brought the habit of cigarette smoking back with them, causing smoking to gain further popularity - among the wealthy at first.

bovtm_smoking_piece.jpgThe First and Second World Wars saw tobacco become the most requested ‘comfort’ for soldiers on the front. They were given cigarettes as part of their rations and due to the development of mass production of cigarettes in the 1880s, cigarette companies sent thousands of free boxes to the front to generate publicity for their brands.

Smoking was by no means limited to the Allies; the Germans also had a need for cigarettes. Cigarettes during the First World War were highly valued comforts for both sides. With the use of propaganda, smoking became a symbol of comradeship and patriotism.

By the 1920s, smoking became a social norm practiced by both men and women. After the Second World War, due to the increasing acceptability of smoking, it was estimated that by 1949 81% of men and 39% of women smoked. Cigarettes were no longer a luxury item and were now a part of everyday life.

The glamorous connotations which had been prevalent throughout the 20th Century took a blow in 1956. Sir Richard Doll and Sir Austin Bradford Hill proved the fact that the death rate of lung cancer was 20 times higher among heavy smokers than non-smokers. With modern anti-smoking campaigns the popularity that smoking once enjoyed, with both civilians and soldiers alike, has been disappearing under the weight of medical research.