Monday, 11 March 2013

A laughing cow and other animals

Partly from esprit de corps and partly for the more prosaic reason of traffic management, many French transport units of the Great War adopted their own badge, which was displayed prominently on the vehicles. I wrote about them in my first Osprey title here.

Some badges are shown in the contemporary magazine illustration on the left - top row left to right TM431, SS141, SS625; second row TM55, TM516; third row SS64, SS8, TM716; fourth row SS92, SR709, TM48; fifth row TM557 and TM273. SS units were ambulances (sections sanitaires), SR units carried metalling for road maintenance (section routière), and TM units transported equipment (transport de matériel). Some units used a background colour for the badge that varied according to the sub-unit - white, blue, red or yellow. For more on transport units during the war, look at Les camions de la victoire by Paul Heuzé here, or the more modern book with the same title, by Jean-Michel Boniface and Jean-Gabriel Jeudy. Sadly, there is no work, contemporary or modern, that depicts all the badges.

Another unit with a badge was RVF B70, which specialised in the transportation of fresh meat for an infantry division, using 7-8 converted Paris buses (RVF = ravitaillement en viande fraiche). Perhaps because their vehicles swooped down, picked up meat and carried it off to distant parts, the men of the unit had toyed with adopted the nickname La Walkyrie, after the maidens of Norse mythology. But quickly this was transformed into La Wachkyrie - ie 'la vache qui rit' = 'the laughing cow'.

One of the unit's personnel was the comics illustrator and artist Benjamin Rabier, who drew a suitable badge.

Another men in the same unit was one Léon Bel. After the war, he set up a company at Lons-le-Saulnier in the Jura, to manufacture cheese. But what to use for a company logo? He then remembered his old unit's badge, which he thought would be ideal. He sought permission from the artist and from his former comrades in the unit, who all agreed, and so, with a few tweaks, a famous logo was born.

In January 1919, reproductions of many unit badges were shown in a Parisian art gallery, in aid of a benefit fund for former military drivers. A notice appeared in Le Figaro of 16 January p.3, col.6 (Gallica), while some (black and white) photographs of some of the exhibits also appear on Gallica, although the units are not identified.

As for the pelican of TM557 (on the bottom row of the picture at the top), a composer of popular music by the name of Clapson saw it at the exhibition, and was inspired to write a dance tune, The Pelican Fox-Trot (listen to it, played by Kaplan's Melodists, here). So popular was the tune, that a Lille brewery put a pelican on the label of its bottles to try and cash in on the craze. Then, taking the first letters of 'pelican', and adding the word for 'strong' - fort - plus a gratuitous final H to give the word an English look (it was a dark beer rather than a lager), they renamed the beer Pelforth. And another famous logo was born!