No 47 Drink helped some soliders to cope with war while claiming the lives of others

On November 3 1918, returned soldier Reuben Baldwin, 41, died suddenly in his sister's Hawera bed. Love of the odd drink had turned into a full-blown addiction. Private Baldwin drank himself to death just eight days before the war ended.

His death wasn't exploited by the prohibition movement as an example of an epidemic of alcoholism among returned soldiers, though it might have been. While most working-age men were away, a debate raged through the country: should alcohol be banned?

A few months after Baldwin's death, a 1919 vote nearly instituted prohibition. The temperance movement had begun in the 1820s and resurged in 1893. Referendums were held in 1911 and 1919 which both narrowly failed to install prohibition.

Some opponents argued prohibition would "drive people to cocaine and other evils" - which would not be impossible since, at the time, cocaine was available here as an anaesthetic for anything from fishhook wounds to dentistry.


While temperance activists bombarded soldiers with pamphlets about the evils of alcohol, the votes of 30-40,000 New Zealand troops overseas prevented prohibition succeeding in 1919. While many warned that use of illicit drugs would replace alcohol if prohibition was enacted, soldiers always had access to a range of intoxicants. German soldiers were stimulated by "Pills to induce bravery"; the Anzacs were given cigarettes and coffee - both stimulants - and drank a rum and tea or coffee concoction called Gunfire Breakfast. Chewing tobacco was one of the drugs used by some returning soldiers in 1917 Christchurch to cheat their medical test so they wouldn't have to re-enlist.

Three weeks before they landed at Gallipoli, 2500 drunken Anzac soldiers rioted in Cairo. A 1918 Oamaru Mail letter writer complained of "recent drunken orgies at the Anzac dinner" following an aborted April 1918 gathering for 800 returned soldiers.

The letter writer said while German militarism must be fought, "the sooner we get rid of the enemy within our gates the sooner will victory be ours".

While Australia's Federal Government took action to treat widespread alcoholism among returned soldiers in 1919, New Zealand didn't follow suit. As Dunedin's Reverend R. E. Davis said in a debate of 1916, "there is an appetite for liquor in New Zealand that would defeat any law".

Private Reuben Baldwin had the appetite. An inquest attributed his death to chronic alcoholism.

He'd been laid off or expelled from the army in August 1918 following six months of constant trouble and punishment, including drunkenness, abuse and "offering violence".

Reuben Baldwin is buried at Hawera Cemetery and commemorated at Auckland War Memorial Museum.