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.”

World War I

Before cigarettes were banned in the military, the government used to include packs of smokes in the ration to help the soldiers with boredom and stress. By the end of the war, around 14 million cigarettes were distributed on a daily basis.

Forced March Tablets were issued to troops in the First World War, containing both coca leaf extract (cocaine) and kola nut (caffeine)
Forced March Tablets were issued to troops in the First World War, containing both coca leaf extract (cocaine) and kola nut (caffeine). (The Museum Of Drugs Facebook Account)

Not only that, but cocaine also became a drug used and abused in the trenches. It was used to boost the soldiers’ energy, fight off fatigue, and calm down their nerves from the anxiety that the war was giving them. The British Army created a drug known as “Forced March,” which was a combination of cocaine and cola nut extract that they would self-prescribe. Outside the warzone, the wives and girlfriends of the soldiers would also send packages of cocaine and heroin that they bought off London pharmacists, usually labeled with “useful presents for friends at the front” or “welcome presents for friends at the front.”

World War II

Amphetamines and methamphetamines were the drugs of the World War II era, with 1939 to 1945 being the largest number of soldiers users. It was the Nazis who started the trend with the development of Pervitin in 1938 by the Temmler pharmaceutical company, marketing it as a magic pill that improved alertness with an anti-depressing effect. Pervitin was sold as an over-the-counter drug. When a military doctor named Otto Ranke experimented on using the drug on 90 college students, he concluded that it could help Germany have an advantage in the war. The pills were sent to the battlefield and distributed to the soldiers who, in effect, would stay awake for up to 50 hours and march for miles and miles without feeling tired.

It was estimated that the Germans consumed around 200 million methamphetamine pills throughout the war period. Pervitin, just like other drugs, was not without adverse effects. The users would often suffer from dizziness, sweating, depression, hallucinations, and of course, addiction. Some extreme cases included death from heart failure or from shooting themselves while high.

On the other side of the war, the US, Japan, and Britain followed the lead and fed their troops with Benzedrine tablets, with the Pentagon issuing around 250 to 500 million tablets in the entirety of the war. Approximately, 15% of the GIs took the drug on a regular basis.

Philopon dependent patient in 1950s. (Unknown author, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

Japan had its brand Philopon, named after the Greek word “philoponus” which means “he who loves labor.”  These methamphetamine pills made their way into the civilians that addiction became epidemic, with 550,000 drug-dependents in the country during the 1950s.