Tuesday, 25 June 2013

Kings of the Air: Jules Védrines

Another in a series of posts on French aviation during the First World War, based on research for my forthcoming Pen & Sword book Kings of the Air.

Jules Védrines (1881-1919) was one of the most famous French aviator of the pre-war generation. He was working at the Gnôme engine works near Paris when he became the mechanic for the English aviator Robert Loraine. Védrines was bitten by the aviation bug, and became determined to become a pilot himself. He obtained his pilot's license in December 1910, and by March 1911 was taking part in what were at that time long distance flights, including one from Toulouse to Carcassonne, for which he won a prize of 500 francs (It was an event that didn't impress the council of the latter municipality, who thought aviation had no future. Oops!).

In May, he won the Paris-Madrid air race, flying a Morane monoplane, and followed this by taking part in another race from Paris to Pau. In January 1912, flying a Deperdussin, he achieved the record speed of 145 km/hr (ie abut 90mph). A short clip of him winning the Paris-Madrid race is here.

'Julot', as he was popularly known, quickly became a star. He would hold court in the Brasserie Malzéville, on the Boulevard Montmartre in Paris: 'Clad always in a black and white checked cap, worn back to front for flying, [and] a tight-fitting white woollen rollneck jumper, he set female hearts aflutter as he drove through the posh streets of Paris at the wheel of his fabulous, bright red Hispano sports car. He was a star, was Védrines.'

He tried to cash in on his popularity by standing as a candidate in the General Election of 1912 as an 'independent socialist' in the departement of the Aude, in the south-west of the country. His eloquence won him many supporters around Limoux, and local newspapers announced 'the liberator is here ... with a flick of its wings, the French bird has broken the chains imposed on her by despots'. Basing his campaign on increased government money for aviation, his rhetoric was too far to the right for much of the electorate in the Republican heartland, and he failed. He tried again in 1914, but aviation had faded in the popular imagination, and again he was unsuccessful. A song, Cançon de Vedrina, composed in support of Védrines during the campaign, is here, sung in Occitan by Claude Martí (and very catchy it is, too).

When the war broke out, Védrines was posted to DO22. His experience and skill ensured he received a different plane from the rest of the squadron. His was a Blériot 36bis monoplane, which had been fitted with armour, making it heavy and slow. Along the side, he painted its nickname La Vache - The Cow. He experimented fixing a machine gun on the machine, and on 2 September engaged a Taube over Suippes. His mechanic fired two trays of bullets at the German, which dived away smoking. Although it crashed on the French side of the lines, Védrines never got the kill confirmed, possibly because he had got on the wrong side of Captain Leclerc, his commanding officer.

'At a time when aircraft carried no insignia,' commented Védrine's observer / mechanic, Corporal René Vicaire, 'painting his nickname in big letters on the fuselage was guaranteed to provoke stuffed shirts like Captain Leclerc. By standing up to this captain, Private Védrines attracted the dislike of his superiors and they had him transferred to 2nd Reserves in Tours.'

Sent to the Air Gunnery School at Cazaux, he was given fifteen days' punishment, for saying 'he thought it useless to have sent him on a course at the School, since he was [already] very familiar with machine-guns.'

Eventually, an outlet was found for his piloting skills and individuality - he was employed on 'special missions', crossing the lines at night to land French agents on the German side, and then returning to a pre-arranged rendezvous to collect the agent. He took part in at least seven such missions.

After the war had ended, Védrines continued with exacting feats of airmanship. On 19 January 1919, he managed to land a Caudron G.3 on the roof of the Galeries Lafayette department store in Paris, even though the Prefect of Police had forbidden it (which probably only acted as a spur to Védrines). The feat prompted this bonkers idea in an issue of the magazine La Vie au Grand Air, in which cities were to be roofed over to facilitate air travel into city centres.

On 21 April, he was flying to Rome in a twin-engined Caudron C.23, to inaugurate the new airmail route from Paris. Trying to land at Saint-Rambert-d'Albon (Drôme), the aircraft crashed. Védrines and his mechanic Marcel Guillain were both killed. After a grandiose funeral, Védrine was buried in the Pantin cemetery in Paris.

Pictures: two of Védrines before the war; his plane, 'La Vache'; Védrines in the cockpit of a Morane fitted with deflectors on the propellor; Védrines with a later Nieuport, but still with a cow on the side; his feat on landing on the roof of Galeries Lafayette.

Wednesday, 19 June 2013

Wine - that 'extraordinary' drink

An essential part of every soldier's rations was his allowance of a red wine known as pinard. The origins of the word are not known with any certainty, but it was certainly in use in the 1880s.

Poor weather in 1902 and 1903 saw French wine production fall to 35-40 million hectolitres (nearly 770 million gallons); in turn, the price rose to 16, then to 24 francs per hectolitre. Yet in 1904 and 1905, much improved weather meant that production rose by 96% in France alone; between 1900 and 1906 Languedoc alone produced 16 to 21 million hectolitres. In the following years, production continued at the same levels; unsurprisingly, the price of wine slumped to 6 or 7 francs per hectolitre. But the quality of Languedoc wine was poor, and, despite the low price, did not sell.

The outbreak of war solved the wine growers' problem, and they offered 200,000 hectolitres (that's 440,000 gallons for you non-metric types) of unsold wine to the Army - an offer that was gratefully accepted. This 1917 film, shot in and around Béziers (Hérault) in the south-west of France, shows two contrasting aspects of supplying wine. The first depicts the industrial scale of wine production, as it is transported to the front in massive barrels on long railway trains - southern France had truly become a 'wine factory'. But the second part shows how the actual picking was still done by hand by small gangs.

Yet before the war, wine drinking was not common in the Army; water was the soldier's usual drink. And in civilian life, men from the north were more used to beer, those from Normandy and Brittany to cider, those from Champagne and the Loire to white wine. Ration red wine was a blend of wines from the Languedoc and from north Africa, to which was added smaller quantities of wine from the Maconnais, Beaujolais and the Charente, to achieve a strength of 9%. The ration consisted of 0.25 litres per man per day in 1914; this was raised to 0.5 litres in 1916, and to 0.75 litres in 1918. 

The wine may have been rough, but it was a genuine morale raiser, despite the constant suspicion it had been watered down by the company cooks to disguise their pilferage. And the canny soldier remembered to fire a blank round into his aluminium water bottle, since the gases from the discharge expanded the bottle's capacity beyond the standard two litres.

Every regiment had a small fund that could be used to buy food and drink to supplement the rations, and many units, and perhaps even more ordinary soldiers, looked for wine to purchase. But everyone was horrified by the prices they were asked to pay. On 13 August 1914, men of the 336th Infantry were being charged a reasonable 0F60 a litre in Rilly-sur-Aisne (Ardennes). But in Thilay (Ardennes) nine days later, one shopkeeper tried to charge 1F20 - the Colonel of the regiment had the shop closed, and confiscated the wine. At Etinehem (Somme) in September 1916, the CO of 72nd Infantry protested to his brigadier about being charged between 1F30 and 1F40 francs per litre. Surely, he wrote, a maximum price of 1F10-1F20 should be fixed and enforced? There was probably little the brigadier could do - price inflation drove up prices even in places distant from the front line. In the city of Lyon, for example, the wholesale price rose from 0F45 in 1914 to 1F57 in 1919.

Wine was celebrated in the song Vive le Pinard, written by Louis Bousquet (the writer of the more famous song Quand Madelon), with music by Georges Piquet. It was performed most notably by the artist known simply as Bach (real name Charles-Joseph Pasquier), a music-hall singer, called up into 140th Infantry. Listen to a modern version here

One anonymous soldier wrote, 'This champion wine, it makes us forget our cafard, it's our best friend; that may not be the done thing [to say], but that's the way it is; watch out for those unable to wean themselves off it after the war.'

For some it was wine that won the war, the warm sun of the south triumphing over the cold, misty, German north. As La Femme à Barbe (ie 'The Bearded Lady'), the trench newspaper of the 227th Infantry, put it, 'Water, the ordinary drink of the soldier; wine, the extraordinary drink of the soldier.'

Pictures: issuing the wine ration (my collection); 'The pinard crisis: the barrel's empty, but the cook's full' from an old postcard; the cover of issue 176 of the humorous magazine La Baionnette; the sheet music for Vive le Pinard.

Tuesday, 11 June 2013

Food, glorious food!

After recent blog entries above the Western Front, it's perhaps time to get my feet on the ground once more, with something close to the heart of every soldier.

The provision of good food for the troops was regarded as an essential. Unit commanders had to ensure that men received three meals a day. The morning meal was to consist of coffee and bread, and if possible a hot dish prepared the night before and kept warm. A second meal was to be served at midday. The main meal was that served in the evening, commanders were enjoined to try and ensure that this meal was well-prepared and nourishing. If it proved impossible to provide such a meal, because of circumstances or the late hour, then a cold collation or something rapidly prepared should be served instead.

At the start of the war, food was prepared by half-sections, one man doing the cooking for three more of his chums. The food would be supplied by the quartermaster, supplemented by whatever food, particularly vegetables, could be found locally. Every regiment had a small sum of money, the ordinaire, which could be used of this purpose. Later in the war, this system was replaced by appointing battalion cooks, who prepared the rations, supplemented by whatever was purchased through the ordinaire.

The daily ration per man was:
bread 700g
meat, fresh or cooked 700g
meat, canned 600g
dried vegetables or rice 60g
pasta 60g
potatoes 450g
fresh vegetables 60g
tinned vegetables 75g
salt 20g
sugar 32g
coffee 24g
bacon 30g
lard 25g
portable soup 50g

Where extra nutrition was required, because of the unit's duties, the carbohydrate and sugar rations were all increased: the dried vegetable / rice ration and the pasta ration to 100g each, the potato ration to 750g, the sugar ration to 48g, the coffee to 36g and the lard to 30g.

Trying to supplement his rations with local purchases in October 1915, Germain Cuzacq (234th Infantry) was horrified: 'Here [Bouxières (Meurthe-et-Moselle)] you're paying double the peacetime price for everything. They're all shopkeepers and they're all really greedy.' Raoul Battarel agreed: 'You talk about high prices ... it's an absolute disgrace. The farmers and shopkeepers are just a bunch of pigs. One egg, five sous; sausages, eight francs a kilo ...'

The book the cooks relied on was the Livre de cuisine militaire aux manoeuvres et en campagne, which has been digitised on Gallica. The May 1915 edition of this worthy tome includes fourteen recipes for 'soups' (this was a catch-all word that included stews as well as soups proper), six recipes for meat, six vegetable recipes (beans, potatoes and rice only), pancakes, dumplings, doughnuts ('even tastier with a dusting of sugar' - how true!), flatbread, coffee and (more unexpectedly) tea, as well as advice on keeping food warm for long periods.

Despite the best efforts of transport units like the Wachkyries of RVF B70, fresh meat was not always available, so 'rata', a vegetable stew, was often served instead, much to the soldiers' disgust. The Army's official newspaper, the Bulletin des Armées, provided further recipes during the course of the war, including, for example, fern shoots ('eat with a vinaigrette, like asparagus, or a white sauce, like chard or salsify; exquisite in an omelette'). In March 1916, the regimental newspaper of the 401st Infantry, Boum! Voila!, punctured such gastronomic pretence with a recipe for rat: simmer for three days, then serve over ice with finely chopped orange rind and strawberries. 'Better than "monkey" [tinned ration meat]', it claimed.

Readers of my book They shall not pass will know how much such instructions were a council of perfection, and how the reality was somewhat different. According to Jacques Mayer of the 329th Infantry, 'soup' consisted of 'poor quality meat, forming a rubbery magma with pasta or rice, or perhaps beans, more or less cooked, or potatoes, more or less peeled, [all] in a sort of thin gruel, so justifying its name, even though it was covered with a thick layer of solidified fat. There was no question then of vitamins or green vegetables.' At the Front the 'mid-day meal' became the 10am meal, but as André Pézard (46th Infantry) commented, 'we adopted the old habit of eating whenever we were able in case we couldn't eat when we wanted to.'

And, faced with the dubious cuisine sometimes served up by the battalion cooks, soldiers often demanded, and received, food from their home regions. One soldier from the Cévennes, serving with 81st Infantry, asked his wife to send him 5kg of the region's famous chestnuts. Maurice Faget (129th Infantry) received parcels from his home in Agen (Lot-et-Garonne) whose contents were 'a real inventory of Gascon cuisine, foie gras, confits, civets, rice and brains, poultry cooked in several different ways, gateaux pastis, crêpes, merveilles, etc.'

However, the smoke from fires or cookers always made the cooks a target. At Verdun, Jean Thaias and his chums from 64th Infantry had been complaining about not getting their rations: 'at the relief we understood why ... the shelters had collapsed, beneath them were bodies with limbs sticking out; mobile cookers, drivers, horses, wagons, carts were lying every which way.'

One unexpected effect of the war was the disappearance of emmental cheese from the nation's shops. This was not because it had a German-sounding name, but rather it was because it took 1,000 litres of milk to make a whole wheel of the cheese. In contrast, to make a whole camembert needed only one litre. So camembert, and camembert-alikes, spread out from its native Normandy to all over the country. Another cheese to benefit was cancoillotte, from the Jura. One clever manufacturer came up with a way of sealing the cheese in a tin to keep it fresh, and so it could be sent to homesick soldiers from the Franche Comté.

And just a nod towards French Aviation, in line with my current project, which infantryman wouldn't have been happy to eat like Marcel Brindejonc de Moulinais, a pilot with N23 in 1915: 'Yesterday I ate wild duck. Today it will be partridge for lunch and probably pheasant this evening. I got up at half past eight this morning and I've just breakfasted on a big bowl of milk, two fried eggs and a duck breast.'

But when you were truly hungry ... Arriving back in their billets, cold and wet, Leopold Noé and his chums (281st Infantry) were often disappointed in their meal: 'The soup or rata was often full of earth; we couldn't see it, but felt it between our teeth; nevertheless,' he admitted, 'we cleaned out the pot to the last drop.'

Pictures: cooks bringing up the rations, a novel cover and the field bakery, from Gallica; brewing coffee, from an old postcard; the cartoon by Pierre Danthoine from CRID1418.org

Tuesday, 4 June 2013

Kings of the Air: Albert Préjean

Mention of wartime pilot turned actor Albert Préjean in my last post inspired me to see what else I could find about his wartime career.

Préjean was born in 1894, and was called up in November 1914 as part of the Class of 1914. A sporty young man, his love of horses inspired him to join the 25th Dragoons, 'too young', as he later admitted, 'to understand the futility of wars.' He received the Médaille militaire for rescuing a man under fire, as well as the Croix de guerre. Subsequently, he transferred into the infantry, first with the 111th, and then on 21 June 1916 to the 245th, serving in the Vosges. There, he commanded one the regiment's trench raiding teams, and was wounded twice in three months.

He later recalled, 'Leaving military hospital, I asked to transfer to Aviation. This was granted. Flying my own crate, I'd become an ace, part of a little team. It was a magnificent squadron, the Storks with Guynemer ... that's all there is to say.'

He entered Aviation at his own request, transferring on 12 April 1917 as an observer. He began pilot training on 20 November 1917, and got his wings on 8 January 1918. He then passed to the Gunnery School at Cazaux on 3 April, and then to the Air Combat School at Perthes on 18 May.

Guynemer may have been his hero when Préjean transferred, but the former's death on 11 September 1917 meant that Préjean would never fly alongside him. Préjean did not join a front-line squadron, SPA73, until 16 July 1918, naming his SPAD Mistinguett, after the famous dancer/singer (with whom the young Préjean was smitten). He transferred to SPA85, another squadron of GC19, on 17 October. He was promoted to full lieutenant on 18 November. He was transferred to SPA 96 on 20 March 1919, and returned to the Aviation Depot at Dijon-Longvic for discharge on 9 November 1919.

But he seems to have been marked by his service because he rarely wore them; he later wrote, 'We valued them very little at the time, and [now] they make me look older than my years'. He was recalled to the colours in 1939, and was posted to the 610th Pioneers. Much of his time, however, was spent with the Army Theatre. 'I'd gone off to the first one to the sound of drums, wearing heavy boots, and a heart full of "go". This time the nailed boots were still there, but the heart was missing. One war added to another does a lot of things ... for instance, making an old soldier twice as unenthusiastic.'

There is more on his career at the Encinematheque site here or French Wikipedia here. His Internet Movie Date Base page is here. Préjean could hold a tune as well. There are several clips of his songs on YouTube, including his best-known hit, Sous les Toits de Paris, from the film of the same name.

Although Préjean never got to fly with Guynemer (and SPA73 was one of the Storks squadrons), his remarks do show the grip that Guynemer and men like him - such as Garros, Védrines, Navarre - had upon popular imagination, and how their example encouraged young men to enter aviation. Raymond Brohon, who would be a fighter pilot in 1940 recalled, 'as a kid I always tried to collect all the literature; they used to sell short books recounting the life of Navarre, Guynemer, etc: I had quite a collection.' A chance meeting with the ace Dieudonné Costes set Jean Jardin, a future Armée de l'Air general, on his career path, when the former ace took the young man up for a spin: 'it was a revelation; that very day I said, "this is what I want to do; I want to be a pilot."'

Pictures: Préjean and his SPAD; part of his official record; Mistinguett, whose legs were insured for 500,000 francs, long before Betty Grable was ever thought of

Sunday, 2 June 2013


This is a familiar picture - a French soldier, attacking with his comrades, is shot as he approaches the enemy trenches.

But is he?

Here is another photo that makes a regular appearance, depicting a French soldier being dragged from a muddy slough by sympathetic German soldiers.

But does it?

And here is a third, showing troops and vehicles moving along the Voie Sacrée towards Verdun.

But does it?

And the answer to all these questions is 'No'.

They are all stills from a feature film. Verdun: visions d'histoire was written and directed by Léon Poirier, and starred Albert Préjean, Jeanne Marie-Laurent and Suzanne Bianchetti. It was produced by the Compagnie Universelle Cinématographique, and released in 1928. It was one of three major films all released on or about the tenth anniversary of the Armistice - the others were Verdun tel que le poilu l’a vécu (Emile Buhot, 1927) and Le Film du Poilu (Henri Desfontaine, 1927).

Préjean portrays a soldier serving with the chasseurs à pied, who leaves for the front, and takes part in what one correspondent of the Internet Movie Data Base, phantom2-2, refers to as 'the now nearly-forgotten world war one trench battle of verdun' (Sigh. Dearohdearohdear. Has s/he been living under a bucket?). Préjean's unit is a dramatic device, of course, that allows him to be present at most of the battle's critical episodes. And in fact all the actors are mostly ciphers while the director concentrates on reconstructing the battle. The film is divided into three 'visions' - Force, which set the scene with the forces gathered at the front, Horror, which covers the German attack, and Destiny, which covers the French counter-attacks.

Poirier had made his name in the theatre before moving into cinema in 1926 with the documentary film La Croisière Noire. He retained a documentary style for his film on Verdun, using actors who were also ex-servicemen, and filming on the actual battlefield, including the forts of Vaux and Douaumont. He refused to apportion blame, either for the battle or the war, but by depicting the battle as accurately as he could, hoping in that way to demonstrate the futility of war. As one veteran-turned-actor later commented to the director, 'Your film will do much to promote peace by bringing together France and Germany because we both need to better understand the spectacle of our common suffering.' The film remains one of French cinema's greatest war films. An essay by François-Olivier Lefèvre, in French is here; a shorter anonymous essay in English, here. There's also a Region 2 DVD of the film available down the usual Brazilian river.

Such is the 'authentic' appearance of the film that stills and short clips are now frequently represented as 'real', as actual reportage - the frequent appearance of the first picture in books on the Great War is surely adequate testimony of that. But is it dishonest to use the photos in this way, without any mention that they are part of a reconstruction? Or just lazy? A recent documentary on the Great War, 14-18 le Bruit et la Fureur, was broadcast on the TV channel France2 (and is still available on a well known video sharing site). It makes extensive use of both contemporary newsreel footage as well as films, such as the one by Poirier, and by others such as D.W. Griffiths, Raoul Walsh and Lewis Milestone, as well as more recent works such as Oh what a Lovely War and Fragments d'Antonin. Apart from a single caption when the first clip from the film was shown, nothing besides the quality of the print differentiated between newsreel (which, even if some measure staged, has some grounding in reality) and film (in which all is artifice for the purposes of dramatic effect). Does this then result in our vision of the past being transformed into that of a film director? Does that matter, or should we just retreat into a Post-Modern World, where there are no facts, only interpretations?

Since my first post in February, this blog has now seen 2,000 page views. Thanks to everyone who has taken the time to check it out. 

Pictures: all stills from the film - a French soldier is killed; a French soldier is rescued from the mud by some Germans; troops on the Voie Sacrée; Albert Préjean in the uniform of the 59th Chasseurs - he had served as a fighter pilot during the war, and became one of French cinema's most enduring leading men; more stills from the film - French soldiers being shelled, a French attack, another bombardment; and a French and a German poster for the film.