British troops resting lighting cigarette Somme Western Front France First World War 1917 SFW DR9G7Y Picture Chronicle Alamy Stock Photo.jpg
British troops in the trenches resting and lighting a cigarette during the First World War in 1917 (Picture: Chronicle / Alamy Stock Photo).

What is the background to smoking in the military?

British troops resting lighting cigarette Somme Western Front France First World War 1917 SFW DR9G7Y Picture Chronicle Alamy Stock Photo.jpg
British troops in the trenches resting and lighting a cigarette during the First World War in 1917 (Picture: Chronicle / Alamy Stock Photo).

The iconic image of a First World War Tommy with a lit cigarette in his mouth is synonymous with British pride but how did we get from sending troops on the frontline morale-boosting cigarettes to a complete ban on smoking in the Armed Forces by the end of 2022?

Tobacco as much as bullets

At the start of The Great War, the popularity of cigarettes had skyrocketed thanks to new machines capable of producing about 120,000 of the little white tobacco filled sticks a day.

Just a few years later, more smokers preferred inhaling tobacco via cigarettes over the previously favoured cigars or pipes which were bulky and took more preparation than a pre-rolled cigarette.  

General John Pershing, the commander of the American Expeditionary Forces on the Western Front, was once asked what was needed to win the war, to which he replied:  

"Tobacco as much as bullets."  

Soldiers in the trenches were often photographed huddled together to take a break from the relentless and brutal fighting, each smoking a cigarette. Tobacco was considered to be a very important part of keeping up the morale of troops in the trenches and so was included in ration packs alongside corned beef, tinned Maconochie's stew, hard biscuits, tea and sugar among other items.  

Her Royal Highness Princess Mary, Aunt of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, was keen for every "every sailor afloat and every soldier at the front" in the First World War to have a Christmas present, so an embossed brass box containing a packet of tobacco, a packet of cigarettes, a portrait photograph of HRH Princess Royal and Christmas cards from her parents, HM King George and Queen Mary, was sent to the frontline to boost morale.  

Brass tin gift Princess Mary Britain's Armed Forces Christmas 1914 Cigarettes Tobacco SFW E55114 Picture Simon Dack Alamy Stock Photo
Decorative brass tin sent by HRH Princess Mary to Britain's Armed Forces for Christmas 1914 (Picture: Simon Dack / Alamy Stock Photo).

To pull on the heartstrings of the British public and encourage them to donate to the "Sailors' And Soldiers' Tobacco Fund", a black and white poster was made showing soldiers and an officer lighting their pipes while a Ypres tower burned behind. It said:  

"Let us make every effort and see that they are never in want of either pipes or tobacco."  

Smoking gave the troops something pleasurable to focus on for a brief moment, a respite from the horrors of trench warfare. It was also a very sociable thing to do during that era.  

On Christmas Day 1914, there was an unofficial truce that saw troops from either side of the trenches singing hymns, playing impromptu games of football, burying the dead in peace and exchanging cigarettes as gifts.

Cancer and the changing attitude towards smoking  

Nicotine is found naturally in tobacco and is the main reason people become addicted to smoking and find it difficult to stop. The latest research by Public Health England shows that 43% of smokers surveyed believe that the strength of addiction they feel and/or craving is the biggest obstacle to quitting, followed by the stress of everyday life (42%). However, it is not the nicotine that causes cancer.  

Cancer Research UK says that breathing in cigarette smoke releases more than 5,000 chemicals into your lungs – at least 70 of which can cause cancer. These chemicals are then free to travel around your body and damage DNA which is found in every cell of every living thing. The charity explains further, saying:  

"Cigarette chemicals make it harder for cells to repair any DNA damage. They also damage the parts of DNA that protect us from cancer. 

"It’s the build-up of DNA damage in the same cell over time that leads to cancer."  

Stoptober smoking cessation poster 011021 CREDIT British Army
Stoptober poster (Picture: British Army).

According to the NHS, smoking causes about seven out of every 10 cases of lung cancer and can be responsible for other cancers in the body as well.  

A government campaign called Stoptober was launched in 2012 to encourage people to give up smoking in order to improve their health, decrease the pressure on the NHS and reduce the number of deaths. The campaign has since seen 2.3 million people attempting to stop smoking. The Ministry Of Defence (MOD) has also encouraged serving personnel to take part in Stoptober since its launch.  

In an NHS report released in 2019, it was revealed that the number of adult cigarette smokers in England had dropped from 19.8% in 2011 to 14.4% in 2018.  

The MOD reported in June 2020 that in 2011, 27% of all UK Armed Forces personnel smoked. That figure had dropped to 18% by April 2020.  

Those statistics show a steady decrease in smokers of tobacco both in the general population and in the Armed Forces.  

Watch: Why is the Army going smoke-free in 2022?

Nicotine and stress  

However, there are some who, even though they might have kicked the habit and given up, still crave nicotine in times of extreme stress.  

Tommies in the trenches were encouraged to smoke to boost their morale and distract them from what they and their fellow soldiers were facing every day.  

The same can be said for the modern-day soldier, sailor, pilot or marine.  

While deployed to the frontline, Armed forces personnel face the possibility of their own death every day. Stress not many civilians can say they have to deal with.  

In 2010, Gunner Carl Jordan, then of 7th Parachute Regiment Royal Horse Artillery, was on his third tour of Afghanistan when he earned the nickname "bullet magnet".  

He was shot twice in the line of duty and survived thanks to his body armour. He is quoted at the time as saying:  

"On returning to the patrol base I discovered the gunshot damage to the side plate of my body armour.  

"The situation on the ground meant that there was no time to think about what had happened.  

"I had a quick cigarette, even though I have actually given up, changed my side plates and deployed back out onto the ground again."

What do the branches of the Armed Forces say about smoking?  

While the negative side effects of smoking are now well known – graphic photos of the damage smoking can cause to the body can be found on packets of cigarettes - many in the armed forces still smoke, with some starting the habit in their teens.  

The British Army is an organisation that promotes health, wellbeing and fitness and believes that "smoking damages the ability of the heart, lungs, and muscles to perform at their best".

However, as explained by Lieutenant Colonel Richard Hall, Commanding Officer of the Army Foundation College, in a tweet in 2019, "most recruits don’t smoke on arrival, yet most do by graduation." 

Cropped Hand Of Person Putting Out Cigarette Against Black Background smoking 271219 CREDIT ALAMY
Stubbing out a cigarette (Picture: EyeEm / Alamy Stock Photo).

Lt Col Hall believed that all teenagers joining the British Army's principal training centre should be banned from smoking, saying: 

"We stand for health, fitness and developing potential and smoking isn’t compatible with this philosophy. We are banning it for recruits from next week and will be smoke free for all in 2020. 

"Recruits don’t join up to smoke because the majority don’t smoke on joining up. Smoking is an idea we give them while here. Removing it from basic training is a non-event to a non-smoker. Recruitment effect? Zero." 

He also pointed out that role modelling is an important factor in encouraging recruits to not start the habit so staff do not smoke in front of them. 

Seven-year-old Jacob Newson, also known as 'Jacob the Pilot' on Twitter, responded to Lt Col Hall's tweet at the time, saying: 

"Good effort. My daddy went to Kosovo smoking 10 a day and came back smoking close to 40. Thankfully he made a good lifestyle choice and [quit] within 6 months of coming home and hasn’t smoked since 2002."

Positive response 2 to smoking ban 090919 credit bfbs via twitter
(Picture: @Jacob_The_Pilot / Twitter)

The Royal Navy's official stance on smoking is that it causes harm to the body and that smokers in the military "tend to be less physically fit and are more likely to suffer from injuries and illness." They are keen to promote the benefits of giving up including saving money, increased energy, improved military fitness, a longer life, better fertility and healthier loves ones as they do not have to breathe in second-hand smoke which can be just as harmful.  

The RAF say smoking is "the most significant public health challenge in the UK as a whole and in the UK Armed Forces specifically". As well as the startling number of people who die as a consequence of smoking - 74,600 deaths in England were attributable to smoking between 2019 and 2020 - the RAF point out that those who smoke are more susceptible to injuries which are common factors for medical discharge.  

Now, a century after the First World War, during which time troops were encouraged to smoke, not being able to give up cigarettes could affect your military career.  

Stoptober promotes the idea that you can stop smoking for 28 days you are five times more likely to quit for good. They also say that a year after quitting, the risk of heart attack will have halved compared with a smoker's and that after ten years, the risk of death from lung cancer will have halved compared with that of a smoker. 

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