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Wine and warfare part 4: Sabrage

The gay hussars

Vive l’Empereur!” – The charge of the 4th Hussars at the Battle of Friedland in 1807.

The issue of sabrage, that is to say using a sabre or sword to open a bottle of Champagne, is a little contentious. There are some who see it as brash exhibitionism, others as a waste of good wine, still more who think it just a bit of fun.

Those who do are usually aware that they are recreating the acts of Napoleon Bonaparte’s troops but do they know which soldiers in particular or why?

The Napoleonic Wars of the late 18th and early 19th centuries was the golden age of the military tailor and the best, the most outlandishly grandiose uniforms were those of the cavalry – and in particular the hussars.

They were the most dashing of what was generally thought to be a dashing corps and epitomised “la gloire” – the glory – of Napoleon’s campaigns.

Across the battlefields of Germany, Poland, Italy and Spain they cultivated a reputation for swagger, arrogance and hot headedness as well as their fabulous moustaches. And before you think them boorish they were equally renowned for charm, courage and a devil-may-care bravado.

No odds were too high, no situation too impossible, no battle too fierce, no lady too beautiful – or married – for these hard-riding, hard-drinking, hard-fighting, womanising gentlemen vagabonds and chief among them was General Lasalle.

Lasalle rides to his doom at the Battle of Wagram in 1809. Convinced of his impending death the general didn’t even draw his sword but rode full tilt at the Austrian guns flourishing his pipe.

The Alsatian born Antoine-Charles-Louis Comte de Lasalle fought with Napoleon’s armies across Europe into Egypt, where he adopted bright red Mameluke saroual trousers and then back into Europe, cutting a dash wherever he fought; the Spanish called him “el Picador“, the rogue.

Many stories about him, in true hussar fashion, are carefully cultivated half-truths or out and out fallacies but others were perfectly accurate.

In 1806 for example he and a small band of hussars forced the city of Stettin to capitulate simply by riding up to the gates and convincing the garrison that a far larger French force was just around the corner.

Similarly, in 1796 he conducted a love affair with an Italian marquise in Viacenza which required him to constantly cross Austrian lines. He never bothered to hide his French uniform, using his fluency in German to bluff his way through instead.

One dawn he and his bodyguard were ambushed by 100 Austrian hussars. Surrounded but unfazed he routed one group, found himself surrounded and so rode over the edge of a bridge to escape, swam the river Bacchiglione and trotted home with his surviving men on a captured Austrian horse.

He was the inspiration for Arthur Conan-Doyle’s rip-roaring Brigadier Gerard stories and once proclaimed: “Any hussar who isn’t dead by 30 is a blackguard!”

He actually outlived his proclamation by four years but he did die heroically and at the head of his beloved cavalry, killed in a charge against the Austrians at the Battle of Wagram in 1809 (above).

On the day of the battle he is said to have opened his luggage and found only a broken pipe, a smashed glass and a full bottle of wine. “I will not survive this day,” he told his aide-de-camp.

Having had a premonition of his own death he didn’t even draw his sword when he met the enemy, instead, brandishing his favourite long-stemmed German pipe which, like his red trousers, he was rarely seen without, he rode headlong at the Austrian line and went down in a volley of musketry and canister.

Do these seem like the kind of men who would open a bottle of Champagne with anything other than a sword?

When heading off on campaign Napoleon often stopped in Champagne (which was one of his favourite wines) and as his troops gained victory after victory there were no shortage of triumphs to celebrate and certainly no shortage of Champagne.

Spot the cork. Le déjeuner d’huîtres by de Troy. Young bucks have just cut the cord holding down the cork and sent it flying towards the ceiling.

It is well known that Champagne in the 18th and 19th centuries was sold without the sediment being disgorged, although it was known that turning the bottle upside down would cause the majority – though not all – of the depôt to collect in the neck.

In more civilised company the servants might open it with as little loss to liquid as possible but not so the hussars. Why pull the cork when lopping off the top with your sabre in an explosion of frothing Champagne was so much more dashing not to mention suggestive, especially when there were willing wenches about to impress?

For the hussars show was everything and sabrage quickly became the “done thing” for a young beau sabreur to do, a sort of soldierly party trick. It was not a new phenomenon to send a cork flying through the air in a fit of bravado, Jean-François de Troy had depicted the same thing in his Le Déjeuner d’huîtres in 1735 (pictured), it’s just that the hussars took it to its logical extreme.

In its way sabrage acted as a rudimentary form of dégorgement, the sudden force of the sword on the neck released the pressure in the bottle and ensured the deposit was expelled as well as any broken glass being blown clear. Whether this was intentional on the part of the hussars is uncertain, they may have noticed but faster and more showy access to wine was probably foremost in their minds.

The widow Clicquot was said to have been saluted by hussar officers sabring Champagne in her honour even as they rode around on their horses – perhaps it’s what inspired her to experiment with remuage?

At any rate the method of disgorgement was subsequently refined, first by hand and finally to the mechanical methods used today and it’s nice to think that it was inspired by such elegant scoundrels.

The cuirassiers of Nansouty’s division salute Napoleon before their charge at the Battle of Friedland.

Not to be outdone entirely by the light cavalry, their counterparts in the heavy cavalry, the cuirassiers (above), had their own initiation ceremony for hot-blooded young officers, one which also involved wine and women rather predictably.

The initiate was given two bottles of Champagne, two agreeably disposed women (of the night or otherwise), a fast horse and several leagues to travel.

In one night he had to drink the Champagne, bed the ladies and ride the required distance, the order in which he did so was up to him. All in all very French.

So look on sabrage as you will but if you ever feel the cavalier urge to emulate the hussars, then at least spare one glass for Napoleon’s cavalry and toast the memory of brave men.

Next time: The link between a battlefield in Spain and Australia’s famous wine region and a Port family goes to war.

Previously: The Legend of Pedro Ximénez

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