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.