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Wine and Warfare part 11: Beer and madness

As every schoolboy knows, Germans subsist entirely on beer and sausages and its army in ages past was no exception.

“Preparations for the Kaiser’s birthday on the front,” reads the inscription. “Eagerly awaited beer from the homeland is unloaded.”

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.

Jünger writes about drinking many times in his memoirs – not least a spectacularly boozy session on the Kaiser’s birthday – and he was clearly prone to drinking to excess on a regular basis despite his apparent disdain for such displays of moral “decadence”.

In fact Jünger almost certainly wrote a great many episodes of drunken disorder out of Storm of Steel as this interesting thesis examines (p165 onwards), as well as sexual experiences with prostitutes and the more violent observations and remembrances of his diary in order to a) make it more bearable to read and b) “By removing the search for stability through the irruptive power of nature, he attempts to make the war a sufficient source of sense in itself,” (p165) designed as it was to, “resolve Jünger’s personal sense of post-war crisis,” (p170) and going by his desire to see war, “als Innere Erlebnis” – an inner experience.

Wounded at Bapaume 1916 – Otto Dix’s 1924 work from his “Der Krieg” series. The terrifying, wild-eyed stare seems to indicate greater mental damage than physical has been inflicted.

Although Jünger was an exceptionally complex individual, there is no reason to believe his true experiences were atypical and certainly German soldiers and officers were subjected to the same trials, tribulations and resulting mental strain as their enemies and would be just as driven to drink.

Arguably more so, as German soldiers throughout the war on the Western Front were subjected to terrifying bombardments lasting for days at a stretch during which they would be cooped up underground waiting for it to stop, their waking moments invaded by the dull booming of artillery, constant and rhythmic and in danger of their subterranean den being so covered in earth they would be entombed.

With no way of retaliating tension would mount to nearly unbearable levels and episodes of men losing their minds and becoming nothing but shrieking imbeciles such as in Erich Remarques’ All Quiet on the Western Front did happen. Madness and mental fragmentation are key themes in the works of post-war German writers and artists such as Otto Dix (above).

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 scratch 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. Jünger remembered: “In a mixture of feelings brought on by excitement, bloodthirstiness, anger and alcohol consumption we advanced in step towards the enemy lines.”

One might argue in fact that towards the end of the First War, the Germans were undone by drink.

Classic study of a young German soldier at Verdun in 1916. The youth and haggard appearance of this soldier were typical as the war went on – though one should not underestimate their fighting prowess. Photo: Bundesarchiv, Berlin

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.

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.

Stosstruppen (storm troopers) using infiltration tactics, surprise bombardments and helped by thick fog which hid them from British machine guns and artillery, the attack captured huge chunks of territory (far more than the allies had ever gained in one offensive) and inflicted more casualties on the British alone between March and July than that country suffered during the entire Second World War.

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.

The offensive ran out of steam, not for want of German spirit as one veteran, Stephen Westman of the 113th battalion, noted but rather “on account of the abundance of English drinking spirit!”

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. Clearly not all units were affected but even Ludendorff – perhaps trying to shift some of the blame for his own strategic lack of focus – noted in his memoirs that this collapse of discipline, “impaired our chances of success.”

It was unfair and even contemptible to cast blame onto the long-suffering German soldier who had withstood so much time and time again throughout the war and suffered horrible privations with such patience and bravery. Taking their fill of long-dreamed of fresh food and drink is entirely understandable but it was also a sign of a greater malaise; they were tired, their patience and discipline was wearing thin and their actions doomed the German war effort.

Another part of the problem was that, as in 1914, the Germans advanced so far, so fast they outran their supply lines and, crucially, their artillery. They also began to abandon their previously successful tactics – most of the original storm troopers having been killed in the opening attacks.

Stosstruppen in training

The fog lifted too and German soldiers, advancing in waves as the French and British had done in earlier battles, ran into prepared defences and took casualties equivalent to those of the Allies at the Artois or Passchendaele. There was another surprise offensive against the French in Champagne which captured a lot of ground though it failed to pinch out the French salient around Reims and fell foul of a French counter offensive which checked further progress.

Shifting men and artillery between fronts as fast as possible to continue delivering what general Ludendorff described as “sledgehammer” blows, the Germans were beginning to run themselves ragged.

Between the beginning of the offensive in March and the final advances in July, the Germans suffered over 600,000 casualties, the British over 400,000 as did the French. Furthermore, despite the enormous gains in territory, the Germans had not captured anything of strategic importance nor completely ruptured the allied line.

Amiens and Albert and the crucial railway junctions remained in British hands. The British armies had not been split and they were still in contact with the French. Worse still for the Germans, now thoroughly exhausted by their efforts, the Americans were able to take their place in the line and it was the Allies’ turn to counter attack.

The first blow fell in Champagne in the so-called Champagne counter-offensive where the American Expeditionary Force (AEF) went into action for the first time. Fighting in Belleau Wood the Marine Corps earned their nickname “Devil Dogs” (Teufel Hunde) from the Germans and the AEF went on to capture Château Thierry.

The British then struck at Amiens on 8 August and sealed a decisive victory. Tired and dispirited the Germans retreated and open warfare resumed for the first time in four years.

In what became known as the Hundred Days Offensive between August and the Armistice on 11 November, the Allies pushed the Germans all the way back to the borders of France and Belgium.

In cruel irony, the last British soldier to be killed in the war died on 11 November in roughly the same area around Mons where the first had lost his life in 1914 and an hour and a half before the armistice too. The last Commonwealth soldier, a Canadian, was killed two minutes before 11am the same day.

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.

The Germans were broken by their spring offensive. A true sign of dispiritedness, soldiers began to surrender in huge numbers. The French took 139,000 prisoners in 1918, the British 188,000 and the Americans 43,000.

Casualties in killed, wounded and captured amounted to over 1 million on both sides. And then the war ended.

So swiftly did hostilities cease that it took the combatants by surprise. The bloodiest war in human history to date simply stopped.

Let us break now, for passing amusement, into the realm of conjecture. At a recent evening to name the Riesling Fellows it was said that though Germany was recovering its reputation from the days of Liebfraumilch, it had yet to recover from the stigma of the two wars.

Unfortunately this is all too likely true. The shadow of the Second War rests heavily on Germany’s image but the second was but a product of the first and one might argue it was in fact merely a continuation with the 1920s and ‘30s an extended rest between bouts.

The German army had after all been beaten and its government sued for peace but it had not been broken as a military machine, a point that would later be picked up on by Adolf Hitler.

Pinpointing a single link in the causal chain of history as the ultimate cause of something is an imperfect and largely pointless effort – still, one might speculate, after all, for want of a nail and all that.

While it is likely the Michael Offensive of 1918 came just too late to really win the war and it lacked strategic clarity it was an extremely close call for the Allies – if only the German attack had been able to keep up the pace of its advance the end might have been very different.

Instead, weary and hungry (and thirsty?) order and cohesion collapsed as the needs of the individual over-rode those of the wider operation.

Was that moment on a road in northern France, when starving German soldiers first stumbled upon the supply dumps and the offensive petered out, was that the fatal instance?

Was that the instant when the initiative, the war, passed irrevocably to the Allies? When it could no longer be won and the chain of events leading to the Second began? The war from which German Riesling is still trying to recover? Maybe. It is, after all, only speculation.

Next time: The trials and tribulations of French vineyards in wartime from the Hundred Years War to World War Two.

Previously: Rum and blood

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