Thursday, 17 July 2014

Wine and Warfare Part 11 : The Germans

By Rupert Millar

“Preparations for the Kaiser’s birthday on the front.
Eagerly awaited beer from the homeland is unloaded.”
As every schoolboy knows, Germans subsist entirely on beer and sausages and its army in ages past was no exception.

Straightforward stereotype it may have been but it wasn’t entirely untrue – the French had a wine ration and the Germans had beer – and wine too of course - but the Prussian, Bavarian, Saxon, Westphalian and Hanoverian ländser who were so crucial to the German army were largely beer drinkers.

Recipes for beer soup and wine soup from 19th century German army field manuals still survive and may be of interest for curious cooks. As the lead image shows, the Germans were as diligent in supplying their troops with alcohol (such as for the Kaiser’s birthday) as the French and British and regiments would have their own decorative steins listing battle honours and past uniforms - they are highly collectable today.

The Germans generally received their drink ration when not in the line – unlike the French and British – but as the war progressed and particularly as the Germans adopted a more sedentary, defensive posture for most of the time, it is likely that some alcohol would have worked its way into the front trenches (almost certainly given soldiers’ innate scrounging abilities) – Ernst Jünger, the German officer who wrote “In Stahlgewittern” (Storm of Steel) couldn’t remember if the stains on his original diary were red wine or blood.

Allied propaganda quite liked to portray the Germans as drunken layabouts crossed with obedient automatons, keener on indulgence than soldiering. In reality though, when given the  opportunity they only drank as much as their opponents and during both world wars they often proved themselves far superior soldiers as a rule; motivated and dogged they were expert in defence, masters of the counter attack and quick to take the initiative.

Nonetheless, the Germans were not immune to nerves either and there is plenty of evidence that before an attack they too indulged in alcohol. One might argue in fact that towards the end of the First War, the Germans were undone by drink.

At the end of 1917, after years of bloody Allied assaults the initiative passed to the Germans. The French had mutinied following failure in Champagne and the British had ground to a halt in the mud of Passchendaele.

One in your eye. The French and Americans hit back

at the Germans in the Champagne counter offensive

in July 1918. Foch was the French commander-in-chief

of the Allied armies.
With the Germans victors by default in the east after the Russian Revolution and Bolshevik seizure of power, it was only a matter of time before they shipped enough men to the Western Front and launched an offensive which they did on 21 March 1918 in “Operation Michael” masterminded by general Erich Ludendorff the victor of Tannenberg in 1914. The attack captured huge chunks of territory (far more than the allies had ever gained in one offensive).

However, thanks to the Royal Navy’s blockade the Germans were getting hungry. Beer rations had dried up long ago as grain and yeast was too important for bread and even that was more often made with acorns.

When the advance troops reached Allied supply depots they stopped, gazed in wonder – and gorged themselves on rum and bacon. Some officers and NCOs tried to gather together the drunk and disordered troops but it was no use; others simply let their men take their fill.

They were starting to unravel.

* Please note: this article first appeared on on 9th 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...

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