In 1915 and again in 1917 the British government almost decided to buy out the whole of the licensed liquor trade in the United Kingdom. An examination of the circumstances in which this ambitious proposal was contemplated poses serious questions of interpretation for the historian of the first World War. The episode figures in the historiography of temperance as a missed opportunity to use the power of government to solve a longstanding social problem; this, however, was a minor part of the story. In 1915 state purchase was to have helped to reduce industrial absenteeism, and thus to increase munitions production. In 1917 it was to have conserved foodstuffs and saved shipping during the submarine crisis. It can thus be seen as yet another manifestation of ‘war socialism’: but it has two distinctive characteristics. First, the government had little understanding of the economic and social phenomena which it sought to control by assuming ownership of the liquor trade, though much political effort was put into the manoeuvre. Second, the private interests concerned were quite eager, partly because of pre-war conditions, to be expropriated for their own good as much as for the nation's benefit. It is an unexceptionable part of conventional wisdom that the first World War, like the second, was a major catalyst of change, and especially of state intervention in society. The history of state purchase shows how tenuous and haphazard the causal connexion between war and social change could be. The demands of war were (almost) translated into major state intervention, but the process was mediated by the political mythology of drink, by the operation in the political system of a powerful business pressure group, and by the shifting priorities of governments which subordinated all policy to the need to guide a war economy to victory.