Thursday, 19 June 2014

Wine and Warfare Part 9 : France’s Armies in the First World War

By Rupert Millar

Le Dieu Pinard – sculpted from chalk by Max Blondat
and now in the Musées des Années 30 in Boulogne
If any army in the world was going to follow the Roman example and have a wine ration effectively enshrined in law it would be the French. Wine has been a staple of French soldiers for hundreds of years and the First World War was no exception.

At the beginning of the First World War the daily allowance of wine per man was a quarter of a litre a day, by 1915 it was half a litre and by 1916, almost three quarters of a litre with the opportunity to buy more. The army was supplying its troops with 12 million hectolitres a year by 1916 - French vineyard owners from the Languedoc donated 20m litres for army use and France’s North African colonies provided a great deal of wine by the end.

This act of generosity on the part of the Languedoc was not without a less benevolent edge however. Just before the war the Languedoc-Roussillon was facing an
enormous surplus of wine thanks to continuing abundant harvests from 1905 onwards, the war was the perfect excuse to drain the wine lake... The wine was, however, pretty rough - French soldiers did not march to the front knapsacks bulging with bottles of Pauillac or Gevrey showered on them by an adoring public.

The troops called their wine ration by many names including; bleu, bluchet, brutal, gingin, ginglard, ginglet, jaja, picton and rouquin but the most common and most famous is “pinard”.

As wine rations before the war were more often white than red, the name may come from the grape variety most pinard was originally made from, Pineau d’Aunis, or possibly from a grape called Pinard which was a crossing from Alsace.

French troops and their supplies -including pinard - 
move up to the front on a narrow gauge railway
Loftier theories also point out that the ancient Greek verb for “to drink”, “pino” may be responsible but this perhaps to delve a little too far and too academically into the issue. As the term was used and probably coined by soldiers, conjugating irregular Ancient Greek verbs to find the answer is unlikely to be the correct course.

In non-military circles, in Bordeaux “pinarder” means “to get drunk” and in the Franche-Comté “piner” is patois for “siffler” or “to whistle” which when used in the context of drinking can mean “to neck it”It is in the many half-forgotten dialects of France and along simpler lines of reasoning that one should look.

That one name for the ration, “brutal”, stands out in particular. Most pinard was made using wines from Beaujolais and the Charentes topped up with more from the Languedoc or North Africa. It was not more than 9% alcohol though as it was often diluted with water too.

A verse from a marching song about pinard leaves no doubt as to the quality of the wine.
Salut! Pinard de l’intendance, Qu’as d’trop peu ou goût de rien, sauf les jours où t’aurais tendance A puer l’phénol ou bien l’purin. Y’a même des fois qu’tu sens l’pétrole, T’es trouble, t’es louche et t’es vaseux, Tu vaux pas mieux qu’ta sœur la gnole. C’est sûr comme un et un font deux, Qu’les riz-pain-sel y vous mélangent Avec l’eau d’une mare à canards; Mais qu’y faire? la soif vous démange.”
“Salut! Pinard of the commissariat (military supplies),
Which has little to no taste,
Except for the days when you tend,
To stink of phenols and manure.
And there are even times you smell of petrol,
You’re trouble, you’re questionable and you’re muddy,
You’re not much better than your sister booze.
It’s sure as one and one makes two,
That rice, bread and salt have been added to you
Along with the water from a duckpond,
But what to do? I’m itching for a drink.”
(Max Leclerc’s “Ode du Pinard”, 1915)

Even though the Ode du Pinard decries the drink’s dubious origins, a following verse describes how drinking it reminds the men of their “pat’lin” (hamlets), “p’tit maison” (homesteads), as well as how, “C’est tout l’pays qui vit en toi“, in other words pinard encapsulated the reason for fighting.
The wine was terrible but it was the only thing going. Many poilus – the “hairy ones” as French troops were known – would have bolstered (or masked the taste of) their wine ration by adding brandy or possibly the liqueur “pineau” (which offers another potential etymological root).

This apparent roughness did not stop writers and poets ascribing a loftier and nobler purpose to pinard. Wine was taken on as a symbol of national unity during the war with beer described in one poem as “the drink from the other side of the Rhine”. Wine by contrast was a product of the soil of France, a sacred soil that was occupied by “barbarian” Germans. See Guillaume Apollinaire - La Vigneron Champenois and Henri Margot - Le Pinard.

More prosaically, while one should not be too dismissive of the high ideals espoused by the scribblers (many of whom were soldiers after all), pinard was popular because it was booze.

With canteens full of pinard, the troops kept their bellies full with “singe”. This translates as “monkey” and refers to what the soldiers called their tinned meat ration as assorted simians were rumoured to be the animal used in its production. This combination of terrible food and wine made life in the trenches terrible for French troops. 

On the road many soldiers emptied their water bottles and filled them with wine instead or found a supplementary canteen for the purpose – in the fetid world of the trenches, alcohol had, once again, became the safest thing to drink.

It is little surprise that the wine ration was essential to the morale of the ordinary poilu, as was cynical black humour and also a keen sense of the ridiculous. One example of this absurdist comedy can be seen above, with a supply NCO among the wreck of a wagon and dead horses following a direct hit, informing an officer that, “everything’s alright, lieutenant – the pinard is safe!”

“Everything’s alright, lieutenant - the pinard is safe!”

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