Going back into memory lane by over half a century by endeavouring to remember and write on an event for the paltan’s history about an attack exercise, ‘Khukri Charge’ on the feature popularly known as ‘One Less’ (Ht 19,999 feet), the Gurkhas attacked the objective having almost climbed 5000 feet during the cold wintery night and taking the exercise-enemy battalion by surprise! The trick for our achievement was done by our Quarter Master, who provided all a tot of rum (thulo 60 ml of ‘rakshi’) before the paltan commenced the uphill climb.
The odious practice of serving officers other forms of alcohol did not exist: it simply was not done! It was not surprising, therefore, that some of us developed a genuine liking for the ‘dark liquid’.
I recall that in 1975/76, the concept of brigade/station messes was being introduced and orders had been issued that rum will not be served in Officers Messes. Our CO told the brigade HQ that rum is the Gurkhas regimental drink and it being served in the mess cannot be stopped, so we continued with the custom of serving it in the mess, even during official parties, though other liquor too was available.
Earlier, in-unit ‘Bara Khanas,’ only rum used to be served. To start the drink in such ‘Bara Khanas’ instead of ‘Cheers,’ Regimental Salutations are used. So the drink is started with Regimental salutations such as Jai Dogra, Jai Hind, Jai Mata ki, Bole So Nihaal -Sat Sri Akaal, Ram Ram, Jai Badri Vishal, Jat Balwan Jai Bhagwan, Tagra Raho, Jai Gorkha… and so on.
The ‘Regimental Drink’
We, in the senior-most paltan in 11 GR, had thought of rum as a “Regimental Drink,” I wonder about other Regiments of the Indian Army. The Gorkha soldier enjoys his rakshi as indeed do many others. In most battalions, officers when ‘socialising’ with JCOs, and the men, irrespective of whether it is in the JCOs’ Mess, or at Bara Khanas, either drank rum or nothing at all. It is a matter of form, the prime reason being that it is easier on the pocket. The odious practice of serving officers other forms of alcohol did not exist: it simply was not done! It was not surprising, therefore, that some of us developed a genuine liking for the ‘dark liquid’.
Not having got any inputs from the known veterans, I finally had to use Google, to get some answers on how rum came to be issued to troops. It transpired that English sailors had tried every drink they could lay their hands on: Beer went stale during long voyages. Wine followed. French brandy was good for a while, but it turned anti-national once England fell out with France.
Gin was more Dutch, their arch-rival on the seas. So rum fitted into the role of the official drink of the British Royal Navy. The rum ration (also called tot) was a daily amount of rum given to sailors on Royal Navy ships (1850 to 1970). It was abolished in 1970 after concerns that regular intakes of alcohol could lead to unsteady hands when working machinery. Only during the American War of Independence (1775–1783), it is known that regular allowance of a gallon of rum per month prevailed.
The British Army had the custom wherein every officer and army man used to have a fixed amount of alcohol. The first and most genuine reason is the working conditions of soldiers, who perform their duty in some of the really hard conditions and circumstances. They have to protect our land and borders even in the coldest regions where it is very hard to survive let alone to stand on sentry duty.
Liquor helps them to stay warm and survive in these conditions; to that extent, we can say that it’s almost a basic necessity. Many doctors condemned the abuse of alcohol, but others thought it useful to preserve men’s health, in both cold and hot weather. Brandy is still considered a medical comfort in the Indian Army and is an issue item in addition to rum allowance in the field. However, the Indian Army at places has a counter view that; “liquor helps them to stay warm and survive in these conditions is simply not true as in Op MEGHDOOT (Siachen), consumption of alcohol is NOT permitted forward of Base Camp.
The ‘Proof’ test
Traditionally, the rum ration or ‘tot’ consisted of one-eighth of an imperial pint (71 ml) of rum, given out to every sailor at midday. Petty officers and above received their’s neat, whilst for junior ratings, it was diluted with two parts of water. The sailors would ‘prove’ its strength by checking that gunpowder doused with rum would still burn, thus verifying that rum was at least 100 Proof—57.15 % alcohol by volume (ABV) or more. This is how the term ‘Proof’ originated. The term ‘Proof’ now has been extended to other spirits like whiskey, brandy, vodka, gin, etc as well.
Sailors who opted not to drink were given three pence (3d) a day instead of the rum, though most preferred to drink. Rum rations are also given on special occasions: in recent years, for example, including the 100th anniversary of the Royal Canadian Navy in 2010 and after the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee celebrations in 2012. This tradition continues in the Indian Army even today.
Before the advent of rum, a gallon of beer was the daily drink ration. Due to the difficulty in storing large quantities of beer onboard ships, half a pint (around 300 ml) of rum was made equivalent to one gallon of beer (Now in CSD four bottles of beer equals a bottle of rum).
There is also a tradition in the Gurkhas, and maybe in some other regiments as well, of dipping the rank epaulettes of an officer or JCO when he is promoted to the next rank (known as pipping ceremony). The officer or JCO is then expected to finish that one glass of rum in one gulp.
My research on the subject has yielded the following results: Rum as a free issue (tot of rum-60 ml)started during the American War of Independence (1775-1783). The tradition was also prevalent on the Royal Navy ships (1850 to 1970). British Army (The British ‘Tommy’ in India often added it to his tea!) had the same custom, which continued in the British Indian Army and is maintained today in the Indian Army in terms of disbursing ‘rum allowance’. It came as a surprise to me that today, some of the Gurkha battalions do not serve rum in their ‘Officers Messes!’
Having said all that and written on the subject, a tot of rum, every now and then just gives you a good feeling, and before an attack certainly removes the fear of the unknown dangers to be encountered and acts as a morale booster. However, the question of “How and when rum became the Regimental drink of the Gurkhas remains unanswered”.