Editor’s Note: This summer will mark the 100th anniversary of World War I’s outbreak. Today, contributing editor Nicholas K. Johnson brings us the first installment in a five-part series on alcohol, drugs, and the Great War.
World War I has often been associated with intoxication in popular culture. Cocktails like the French 75, so named for the kick of a common artillery piece, became popular during the interwar period. During the “Spirit of 1914”– a burst of popular enthusiasm upon the war’s outbreak– European intellectuals likened war hysteria to mass intoxication After the war, Ernst Jünger depicted modern combat as an intoxicating rush (or Rausch) in his popular novelizations of his own experiences on the Western Front. More recently, HBO’s Boardwalk Empire explored drug abuse, alcoholism, and the rise of organized crime through the stories of traumatized World War I veterans Jimmy Darmody and Richard Harrow. This entry explores how alcoholic intoxicants like wine and absinthe were used and depicted during the war. Our guide for this exploration is the poilu , the typical French soldier, and his fondness for wine.
Wine was plentiful on the French front, and the image of the poilu and his wine is ubiquitous in French depictions of the war. Today, he forms a part of the French national myth. Members of the current French wine industry claim that the war experience turned poilus from diverse regions of France (especially those from regions with high beer consumption) into wine consumers. Wine supposedly contributed to France’s “national unity.” Vintners argue that the shared experience of the trenches–wine included– pushed aside regional differences. When I visited French World War I sites such as Verdun, I was struck by how often images of the poilu and wine were present.
The war’s outbreak also coincided with France’s ban on absinthe. Long the scapegoat of moral panics (and subject of countless depictions in the arts), absinthe was finally banned on August 16, 1914. In her book on the topic, Doris Lanier notes that many consumers circumvented the ban, and soldiers continued to enjoy absinthe during the war. The French government nevertheless justified the ban by claiming that absinthe was contributing to an epidemic of alcoholism, which was weakening France’s population. Although the language used by both government officials and the French press during this time is similar to language used by American Prohibition advocates, absinthe and alcoholism were also characterized as contributing to a general malaise and degeneration of the French population. This concern with societal degeneration was part of a generalized anxiety throughout Europe during this period. Social ills, so-called decadence, and racial mixing were often cited as contributing to the weakening of Western Civilization.Although these specters were used to justify absinthe’s 1914 ban, more recent work argues that the ban was part of an effort to promote France’s then-struggling wine industry. The issue of alcohol as a social ill would return in the interwar period, though not to the same degree as in the United States.
When France went to war in 1914, troops were only issued water, but the army quickly began issuing a daily wine ration as early as September 1914. This consisted of pinard (sometimes translated as “plonk”), which was a low-quality red wine. Generally, poilus were issued with ½ liter of pinard per day, but this could fluctuate depending on the logistical situation. Soldiers were sometimes issued beer, cider, or brandy in lieu of pinard, but it remained the most common alcoholic drink consumed at the front. On special occasions, other drinks like spiced wine or sparkling wine would be issued. (In Gabriel Chevallier’s novelization of his war experiences, a bottle of sparkling wine was issued to every four men on Bastille Day). Pinard was sometimes mixed with brandy; some reports mention it being mixed with ether. Better quality wine, cognac, and other brandies were also widely available behind the lines, particularly in cafes and brothels catering to soldiers. British and American accounts of the war describe going out and consuming vast amounts of vin blanc (white wine) as a matter of routine during furlough.
On the front, pinard became an essential part of France’s logistical operation. France imported wine in vast quantities and mounted a propaganda campaign to encourage civilians to conserve their wine for the war effort.
Alcohol features prominently in French war literature and poetry. Henri Barbusse’s apocalyptic novel Under Fire, which was published during the war, portrays the sheer ubiquity of wine at the front. In Barbusse’s account, soldiers get drunk from others’ wine rations. Civilians exploit soldiers on leave by illegally selling wine for prices higher than the military-imposed price controls. The soldiers’ billets reek of “pipes, wine, and stale coffee.” In the same way later war literature depicts soldiers pining for the culinary comforts of home, Barbusse’s poilus daydream about the wines from their respective regions. Barbusse himself mounts a partial defense of alcohol by arguing that the “poison” did not affect his squad’s performance (apparently, the problem was big enough to warrant a mention). Nevertheless, the French military often issued brandy just before an attack. This “liquid courage” did not always have the desired effect, as Gabriel Chevallier noted in this depiction of an attack he participated in at Chemin des Dames:
“We drink eau-de-vie that has the sickly taste of blood and burns the stomach like acid. A foul chloroform to numb our brains, as we endure the torture of apprehension while waiting for the torture of our bodies, the living autopsy, the jagged scalpels of steel.”
For the surrealist poet and poilu Guillaume Apollinaire, alcohol was both strategically useful and profoundly disturbing. In his poem “To Italy”, Apollinaire referred to pinard’s ability to unite the French and Italians against the Germans. In one of his more famous war poems, “The Grape Grower in Champagne,” Apollinaire depicts his fellow poilus as champagne bottles containing blood. The poem includes a haunting depiction of the eponymous grape grower:
“A grape-grower was singing bent over his vines
A grape-grower without a mouth on the far horizon
A grape-grower who himself was the living bottle
A grape-grower who knows all about war
A grape-grower in Champagne who’s an artilleryman”
Alcohol was a key part of the French war experience; it was part of daily life in the trenches. Alcohol remained ever-present in depictions of the poilu in popular culture, both during the war and in its aftermath. It formed part of the French national myth about the war through propaganda images and, later, specious claims about the war turning wine into France’s national beverage. It also contributed to the perception that social ills were exacerbated by the war. The war physically destroyed much of the wine-growing landscape, including areas in the Champagne region. Ultimately, as Max Leclerc’s “Ode to Pinard” indicates, wine was neither a source of national pride nor a threat to civilization. It was simply one of the few comforts available to poilus– one that helped them get through the day-to-day existence at the front.
Part 2 of this series will focus on the British Army, alcohol, and a shift in tobacco culture stemming from the trench experience.
 Literally translated as “hairy one,” poilu is the French equivalent of terms like the British Tommy and the American Doughboy.