Being sent away from the comforts of your civilian life and then placed in the extreme conditions of the battlefield is a drastic change and can take a toll on you. Most of the time, history talks about how the soldiers were nourished with nutrient-packed chocolates and biscuits in their rations, providing them with coffee or cigarettes or maybe booze. Or how they were prepared for the grueling conditions through training before they were deployed. However, the use of mind-altering drugs or substances in warfare to help increase the soldiers’ performance was a detail usually left out.

Viking’s Berserkers

The Viking berserker could be traced back as far as the ninth century. These fierce Norse Warriors would fight in a trance-like fury that made them seem indestructible from any weapon that their enemies would use against them. They would growl like beasts, froth at the mouth, and attack the enemies with their humanly impossible strength that could maim and kill anyone and anything in their path.

Viking Berserker. (KaOokamiCC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

As the Icelandic historian and poet Snorri Sturluson wrote in his Ynglinga saga,

His (Odin’s) men rushed forwards without armour, were as mad as dogs or wolves, bit their shields, and were strong as bears or wild oxen, and killed people at a blow, but neither fire nor iron told upon them.

According to the belief that time, before the Vikings engaged in combat, they would isolate themselves into the forest and wait for the animal spirits of wolves or bears to possess their bodies. Later on, researchers believed that the Berserkers were actually high either from the consumption of alcohol or the hallucinogenic mushrooms called big myrtle.

Civil War

During the American Civil War from 1861 to 1865, the soldiers were all exposed to different microbes, insects, and animals that resulted in outbreaks of measles, smallpox, typhoid fever, and other unfamiliar diseases. The men had to endure the chronic pain these illnesses caused, and the military doctors had to do what they could to mitigate the suffering. Most of the time, opiates were given to these soldiers, which were “important to the surgeon as gunpower to the ordinance.”

Most of the widely-used drugs used as medicine at that time were opium pills, morphine injections, and laudanum, or the mixture of alcohol and opium. These not only alleviate the pain but were also effective in treating symptoms like diarrhea and cough, as well as a daily “supplement” to prevent dysentery.

This resulted in the addiction of many Civil War veterans. It was reported that around 400,000 soldiers who returned home became dependent on morphine, thus the reason why the addiction was called then “Soldier’s Disease.”