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How the First World War took its toll on a generation of whisky makers who flocked to fight

From the boardroom to the still room, the Scotch industry suffered greatly from its contribution to the Great War, finds Joseph Trotter

Published: November 7, 2018
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At the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month of 1918, the hostilities of the First World War finally reached their conclusion. The agreement between Germany and the entente signed that morning brought to an end a conflict that had waged across Europe and beyond for four years, and had directly caused more than  38 million military and civilian ­casualties.

While the war officially ended with the Treaty of Versailles in June 1919, a young generation of men, the countries they returned to, and the industries they had departed, would feel its devastating effects for ­decades to come.

According to the War Memorial White Paper of 1920, of the total British deceased, 72 per cent were under-30, while an estimated 100,000 men from Scottish ­regiments (not necessarily all Scots) died in the conflict – approximately 13 per cent of the total British casualties.

The devastation of these figures is amplified when put into a ­Scottish context – more than a quarter of the population in Scotland lived in settlements of under 1,000 people and rural settlements and industries suffered particularly from loss of their young, with generations of inherited knowledge and experience obliterated on the Western Front.

Scotch whisky was one of those industries badly hit by a loss of so many talented, industrious individuals. After the British declaration of war on 4 August 1914, Scotch businesses had reacted enthusiastically, with many offering incentives for early enlisters to the armed forces.

Directors of The Distillers Company Limited (now Diageo) passed a resolution offering payment of full salaries to salaried officials and half-pay to workmen if they joined the colours – on top of their forces pay.

Arthur Bell & Sons gifted a bottle of whisky to its many departing workers; their famous ‘Afore Ye Go’ slogan stems from this moment of compassion.
Men from all positions within the whisky industry joined up, from director to distiller, cooper to clerk, along with many more from auxiliary industries, such as farm-hands, rail-workers and carters. Many more were compelled to fight after the introduction of various levels of conscription from 1916.

That same year, a survey in ­Scotland’s capital found that 90.8 per cent of all eligible employees working for Edinburgh & Leith wine and spirit firms were serving in the armed forces, while four directors of John Haig & Co enlisted.

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A member of the Haig distilling dynasty, Field Marshall Earl Haig, led campaigns at the Somme, ­Passchendaele and the 100 Days offensive as commander of the ­British Expeditionary Force.

First World War whisky

Field Marshall Earl Haig. Picture: Rex

It is easier to name men of ­position, however, than to reel off the many ordinary distillery ­workers dead or maimed in the trenches.

Those fortunate enough to survive were to suffer most upon returning to a broken country. Most of these workers had been promised a return to their previous positions, but the economic reality was such that many were left to deal with unemployment along with their physical and mental scars.

The unfulfilled promise of good jobs and improved lifestyles post-war left many demobilised soldiers restless and embittered once they returned. It is little wonder that many saw no future for themselves in Britain and emigrated.

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Once again, it was the rural Highlands that suffered disproportionately, with more than 10 per cent of its population leaving over the next decade. Some headed to the industrial cities of the Lowlands, or to England; many sought a new start in the United States, Canada, ­Australia or New Zealand.
These are as much a lost generation of whisky makers as those who died, leaving a craft generations of their family had help to build.

It wasn’t just the men – it was ­estimated that in 1917 a third of working women were substituting in a mobilised man’s work, with many taking up roles in the distilling industry. Suddenly, women were producers of whisky once again, with roles in all parts of the process. Upon conclusion of hostilities, however, they were cast out of these positions. These skilled women who had kept the industry running during the hard years of war soon joined the ranks of this lost generation of whisky makers.

During the war, heirs to great firms and the most talented laymen were slaughtered indiscriminately on the battlefields, leaving irrecoverable gaps within the industry. Many early enlisters to the armed forces in Scotland were middle-class, so second-generation ­merchants were hit particularly hard by the brutal early years of the war.

Major James Grey, sole partner of Leecham & Grey, owners of Glenkinchie Distillery, was killed in the Dardanelles Campaign (Gallipoli) on 28 June 1915. Highly influential, Grey had been a key figure in the amalgamation of lowland distilleries into Scottish Malt Distillers Ltd in 1914 and was their managing director.

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John Gordon Cheetham Hill Smith, eldest son of Colonel George Smith Grant of Glenlivet Distillery was killed in an air raid on a ­military hospital in France in May 1918. His younger brother instead inherited the distillery.

Captain James Logan Mackie, only son of uncompromising ­whisky legend Peter Mackie, ­pioneer of the famed White Horse blend and owner of Lagavulin and Craigellachie distilleries, was killed outside Jerusalem in 1917. After the death of his son, Peter ­Mackie appears to have lost his drive for the business, investing in ­various erratic attempts at diversification and flirting with the prospect of amalgamation – something the fiercely independent man would never before have considered. After Mackie’s death in 1924, the business was soon absorbed into Buchanan-Dewars, and a great whisky ­counter-force was lost.

Just as the youngest generation of whisky makers were killed, so the pioneering generation of whisky giants that had guided the ­industry for half a century began to pass away.

That the Scotch whisky industry survived at all – the threat of prohibition had lingered for nearly half a century – despite these blows is a credit to those who persevered through the wartime conditions and survived to pick up the pieces.

A different beast emerged from the ruins of the war, cynical and resolving to save itself through ruthless amalgamations and the closure of centuries-old businesses. How different might Scotch whisky have been had this lost generation of whisky makers survived?

READ MORE: The Scotsman's guide to Scotch whisky pronunciation

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