Thursday, 22 May 2014

Wine and Warfare Part 7 : The Vivandières

By Rupert Millar

A vivandière serves French troops a drink
in the thick of the action at the Battle of Barrosa.
Women have often accompanied men to war and military camps through the centuries could be a bawdy mix of wives and harlots not far removed from a quasi nomadic rabble or perhaps a travelling circus.

One French officer complained that during the Peninsular War while the British had an army, the French had “a brothel” - Wellington disliked having women on campaign and only a very few were granted permission to join their lovers on the march; though many more came over anyway.

There were some practical reasons for not having women on the road. They were a burden on supplies and the presence of women could also lead to
arguments; the swashbuckling hussar Antoine Lasalle fought a duel with an officer in Spain... The latter caught the general in bed with his wife. There was also the fear that women in the camp of a defeated army would become “spoils of war” to be raped/killed/carried off into captivity etc as the victor saw fit.

The place of women in battle is debated to this day. Some societies had no problem with women fighting, others were less keen on women bearing arms but that didn’t mean they couldn’t serve in some way. Some women actively sought to become soldiers while some became warriors by accident, whichever way round it was the likes of the Amazons, Joan of Arc, Augustina of Zaragoza and Molly Pitcher ring down through military history and legend. However, not all women could or did rise to such prominence and there were a much greater number of unnamed heroines who served in their own way alongside the men. Foremost among these were the vivandières or cantinères who became one of the defining icons of the French military.

Although the focus tends towards heroism and derring-do the key to a successful campaign is the task of supplies and logistics. As recently as the Second World War, armies relied on long, winding supply trains that stretched for miles while others lived off the land and local populace.

A card showing the outfit tailored
especially for the women
Following the armies would also be small businesses or officially licensed “sutlers” or “vivandiers” from which soldiers could buy tobacco, food and drink in camp and on the march - whenever they had money. Out of this enterprising idea came the vivandières, usually the daughters or wives of the sutlers, who became the most well-known faces of women on campaign.

They famously carried a small barrel (the tonnelet) at their hip full of brandy and were often seen serving soldiers in the thick of the fight itself. They acted as fore-runners of the later nursing corps by giving wounded men a shot of liquor or taking them to the nearest aid station - some of these women were more than capable of slinging a wounded man on their back and carrying them to safety and then heading back into the fray to repeat the feat.

Later popular imaginings always portray vivandières as fresh-faced beauties and while many were true roses among thorns, the great majority were more likely to be every bit as scarred, hoary, weather-beaten and foul-mouthed as the men. Life on campaign was hard, you were outdoor in all weathers, often without basic comforts or indeed supplies and one walked the entire distance. At a (very) conservative estimate, a soldier who served in and survived Napoleon’s campaigns between 1805 and 1815 would have marched between 8,000-10,000 miles.

Many women were killed in action which often caused great distress to the troops who looked on their vivandières as cherished members of the regiment, loved for their bravery, selflessness and generosity.

They served in every campaign of the Napoleonic Wars, in the conquest of Algeria, the Crimean War, Franco-Austrian War, the French intervention in Mexico, the colonisation of Cochinchina (Vietnam) and the Franco-Prussian War.

Vivandières weren’t unique to the French armies either, the US army in particular took much of its inspiration from the French Second Empire and vivandières were a common sight in both Union and Confederate camps during the Civil War. The same was true of the Spanish, Swiss, Italian, some German and South American armies, where they gained a similar reputation for heroism.

Vivandières captured the public imagination during the 19th century, especially in France - and they were the subject of postcards, plays, musicals and operas - the most well known of which is probably Donizetti’s highly romanticised 'La Fille du Régiment', while a chorus of them turn up in Verdi’s 'La Forza del Destino'.

On seeing a wounded vivandière soldiers were known
to refuse treatment until she had been seen to first;
the death of one could be a severe blow to morale
The French began to phase vivandières out of front line units during the late 1870s but that did not mean that women stopped serving wine to the troops.

When out of the front line during the First World War, French soldiers would descend on the nearest tavern where they could get a glass of wine and catch sight of a pretty face. The waitresses of these taverns took on the role of the vivandières and looked on the soldiers who passed through as their “boys”.

The relationship between them and the soldiers is best summed up by one of the most famous French marching songs “Quand Madelon”.

When Madelon comes to us to serve a drinkwe tug at her skirt and each one of us tells her a story.”

With the subject being troops flirting with a pretty waitress, the song’s lyrics are actually very clean for one meant to be sung by grizzled troops... no doubt ruder versions existed.

The bond formed between men in warfare a soldier’s desire for female company can go beyond purely sexual desire. The need for simple affection and thinking of life beyond the war is extremely prevalent among soldiers. Madelon also proves quite capable of looking out for herself, deftly brushing aside the amorous advances of smitten soldiery.

Even though a love-struck corporal does beg her for her hand in marriage, Madelon quickly reminds him of more important matters. Laughing she asks him for it back as, “your friends are coming and I need it to serve their wine!”

“Un caporal en képi de fantaisie
S’en fut trouver Madelon un beau matin
Et, fou d’amour, lui dit qu’elle était jolie
Et qu’il venait pour lui demander sa main
La Madelon, pas bête, en somme,
Lui répondit en souriant :
‘Et pourquoi prendrais-je un seul homme
Quand j’aime tout un régiment?
Tes amis vont venir. Tu n’auras pas ma main
J’en ai bien trop besoin pour leur verser du vin!’”

Loosely translated...

“A corporal in a fancy cap
Went to find Madelon on a beautiful morning
And madly in love, told her she was pretty
And he came to ask for her hand
Madelon, not stupid, in fact,
Replied smiling at him:
‘And why should I take one man
When I like a whole regiment?
Your friends will come. You will not have my hand
I too need to pour their wine!’”

* Please note: this article first appeared on on 3rd January 2014 and is reproduced with the permission of the author. There has been some minor editing of the original by Alex Crawford.

The series so far...
Part One : The Romans
Part Two : Gin and 'Dutch Courage'
Part Three : The Legend of Pedro Ximénez
Part Four : The Gay Hussars and the Art of Sabrage

Part Five : Warre's War Heroics and How The Barossa Got Its Name

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