Beer Over There

In recent posts I’ve shown that despite the widely held American view during and after WW II that British beer was unacceptably “warm”, there were exceptions. A Briton lately relocated to America in 1957 testified to the easy acceptance of British beer by U.S. service personnel in his London pub during the war. U.S. journalist Stan Delaplane wrote in 1962 that experience with British beer was required to obtain commensurate rewards. Michael Jackson stated the same thing 15 years later in his widely acclaimed The World Guide to Beer.

A Florida-born soldier in the war years not only liked British beer but thought it the best he had tried anywhere, which took in American lager, Belgian beer, and even German beer (1945).

Still, the general picture can’t be doubted, even though – so far – I’ve given no evidence of it. Now I’ll turn to that, and in a subsequent post will address a few prewar examples.

Rather than quote from the (many) general press reports that grouse about warm English beer, I thought this time I’d examine a different source, the army press. Yank is a good place to look here.

What was Yank? A deft essay in Wikipedia tells us:

The idea for the magazine came from Egbert White, who had worked on the newspaper Stars and Stripes during World War I. He proposed the idea to the Army in early 1942, and accepted a commission as lieutenant colonel. White was the overall commander, Major Franklin S. Forsberg was the business manager and Major Hartzell Spence was the first editor.[1] White was removed from the Yank staff because of disagreements about articles which had appeared.[2] Soon afterward, Spence was also assigned to other duties and Joe McCarthy became the editor.[3]

The first issue was published with the cover date of June 17 1942.[4] The magazine was written by enlisted rank (EM) soldiers with a few officers as managers, and initially was made available only to the US Army overseas.[5] By the fifth issue of July 15 1942, it was made available to serving members within the US, however it was never made available on the newsstands for public purchase.[6] YANK’s circulation exceeded 2.5 million in 41 countries with 21 editions.[7]

The last issue was published on December 28 1945.[8] Joe McCarthy remained the editor of Yank until the official closure of the office on New Year’s Eve 1945.[9]

Prior to scanning Yank for comments on British beer, I had never read anything from the magazine. Some prefatory comments in its regard. I was impressed with the quality of the writing, hence also the editing. Many pieces must have been authored by people involved in publishing before the war. A general literate quality is evident while often exhibiting the informal phrasing and humour associated in popular culture with Yank. The general tone, in fact, was echoed in dialogue of the TV show MASH in the 1970s.

One 1944 article is a foray into satire and even fantasy, positing an end to the war in mid-1944. The writer imagines commentary by well-known journalists in and outside the army such as Ernie Pyle and Walter Winchell, parodying their style to a “t”.  Winchell’s reaction was simply “Flash”, which is funny to anyone who knows his telegraphic yet impactful style.

Two articles show amply that the general attitude to British pub beer was, it’s warm, we don’t love it. One article attributes this view to – I was fascinated to see – our own Canadian army, in a sharp portrait of the Canadian soldiery by U.S. soldier-journalist Robert Neville. He toured a number of Canadian infantry regiments in England. One was the Black Watch, in which my father Bernard was a private in 1944-1945 albeit not overseas.*

The article portrayed the men as “Canadian Tommies” – Tommy was a general term for British soldiers up to 1945 – but Tommies with a difference. As Neville put it, the soldiers struck him as mid-way between British and American in character with an individuality all their own. Sounds about right, for the time.

Canadians’ evolving infantry tactics (post-Dieppe raid), saluting method, marching style, and other aspects of regimental practise were analyzed. While the article is clearly and intelligently written the writer can’t quite conceal his preference for his own nation’s traditions. Thus he is bemused by how the Canadians march, where the hand reaches the waist. To Neville those out of step look more “conspicuous”.

In the end though, he regards the Canadians as “brothers”. And they agreed essentially on British beer, with the interesting slant (if it is that) that Canadians were more reticent:

In his spare time the Canadian Tommy has had to make the same adjustments to British custom and climate that we’ve had to make. British accents are just as foreign to him and British money just as complicated. He accepts warm ale with better grace than we do, but still prefers Coca-Cola.

(From Yank, December 23, 1942).

Here you see an early instance of the “polite Canadian” meme, one that creditably originates outside Canada, as when the subjects perpetuate it, as so often happens today, the cultural point is rather lost, isn’t it. Or perhaps another factor was at work. Ale and porter had a much wider survival in eastern Canada in the Forties than in the United States. Perhaps Canadians were more accepting of beer, temperature regardless, that reminded them somewhat of home.

A fascinating gradation of penalties in the Canadian Army is described, and also a distinction between non-commissioned officers and ranks below, for drunkenness.

For a purely American example of wartime disenchantment with British beer, another piece in Yank is illustrative:

Within a week or two, however, Mrs. French had learned to deal with her new patrons. She could usually distinguish between a soldier well-versed in pub crawling and one who had just arrived. The veteran would order lager or pale ale; the rookie, beer. English beer, or  bitter, is served warm, and Mrs. French quickly learned that if she did not warn of this she would soon hear a grumble: “Hell, it ain’t cold.”

(From Yank, November 18, 1942).

Mrs. French ran with her husband Dirty Dick’s, Curzon Street, London. Formerly patronised largely by the “gentlemens’ gentlemen”, it become equally a haven for American soldiers. The article in general is interesting, and gives examples of beers more palatable to the Yanks. Pale ale was one, meaning bottled beer here, and Graham’s lager, another (makes sense).

We conclude on a humorous note, from the aforementioned issue of Yank:

According to Mr. French, who is very polite, Yanks are beyond criticism in the way they carry their liquor. One lad who gave him considerable amusement, however, had the habit of dropping in for a quick double shot, ducking out, and then ducking in again perhaps 10 minutes later for a repeat. One day Mr. French tabulated his visits; total 22. Only then was it discovered what he did in the 10-minute interval.

He visited another pub down the street.**


*He was 17 and told me that soldiers were not sent overseas until their 18th birthday. He reached 18 about four months after V-E Day.

**That the story was possibly invented, or at least embellished, does not detract from its charm.