Pinard et singe – sustaining France’s armies in the First World War
French troops and their supplies – including pinard – move up to the front on a narrow gauge railway
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.
The “singe” in the title by the way means “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.
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 at the outbreak of the war 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”.
The etymology behind this slang is unclear. There is evidence that the name was being used by some but not all garrisons around France for its wine ration in the 1880s and that it had gained more common currency by the early 1900s.
As wine rations before the war were more often white than red, the name may come from the grape variety most pinard was originally made from, Pineau d’Aunis, or possibly from a grape called Pinard which was a crossing from Alsace.
Le Dieu Pinard – sculpted from chalk by Max Blondat and now in the Musées des Années 30 in Boulogne.
Loftier theories also point out that the ancient Greek verb for “to drink”, “pino” may be a possible root 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, it is unlikely they would have conjugated irregular Ancient Greek verbs when thinking up a nickname for their booze ration. It is in the many half-forgotten dialects of France and along simpler lines of reasoning that one should look.
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”. All of which seem more likely (if less whimsical) origins.
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)
Which was the brutal truth in the end. 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.
One French soldier, Guillaume Apollinaire, wrote “La Vigneron Champenois” in which he compared French troops to grapes on the vine and bottles of Champagne to shells, while in the sonnet “Le Pinard“, Henri Margot insists on wine’s role as a symbol of national identity.
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.
Meanwhile, the figure of Père Pinard or Saint Pinard (above) a sort of Dionysus-esque personification of the drink and the soldier became a common motif.
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.
On monkey and pinard did the poilus depend. Life in the trenches was tough for French troops. Many French officers did not have the same care for the welfare of their men as the British and German ones did. Leave was irregular too and sometimes never given at all.
They also had to carry the heaviest packs of the allied armies, around 40 kilos (88lbs) and like their Napoleonic forefathers were expected to march everywhere, trucks being in short supply.
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.
A French postcard from 1914 showing troops attacking “a l’outrance” – they suffered appalling casualties
Still stinging from the humiliating defeat of 1870-71, the French in 1914 were determined to attack at all costs to regain the lost lands of Alsace-Lorraine.
French tactical doctrine at the beginning of the war was based on the idea of “élan” – dash, a conscious effort to recapture the spirit of the old hussars.
The officers wore white kid gloves, the men bright red trousers and képis and the cavalry burnished breastplates and Grecian helmets.
When encountering the enemy there was to be no pause, the generals were to immediately order the attack. Bayonets would be fixed, the flags would fly and bugles sound; “attaque a l’outrance” as it was known (see above).
Despite the advent of magazine rifles, machine guns and quick firing artillery (the French ’75 was the best light field piece of the war and the cocktail of the same name is reportedly named after it), the army was dressed and mentally equipped for the battlefields of Napoleon 100 years before.
When the attack jumped off in August 1914 with the Battle of the Frontiers, German machine gunners had little time for pretty uniforms and romantic ideals. The French suffered horrendous losses with over 300,000 dead out of a total of 1 million casualties by the end of 1914 alone.
There was to be no respite as the war went on, a sanguine 1915 with bloody failures in Champagne and Artois giving way to the hecatomb of 1916.
Every soldier in the French armies on the Western Front passed through the meat grinder of Verdun at some point in 1916 – a battle that left another half a million men casualties, 156,000 of them dead in the moonscape of shell-blasted hills around the ancient fort on the Meuse.
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’s safe!”
Sadly, the truth of such a situation was closer to this image left by a veteran of Verdun: “Among these motionless bodies, two things moving. One crawls, crying towards the ditch. A man with his legs shattered. A sole survivor. And in the other direction a small barrel of wine rolls slowly down the road, stopping against a dead body.”
Another favourite bugbear in all armies is how much better and easier the rear echelon troops have it compared to those on the front line.
“La crise du pinard,” went one poster, “le tonneau est vide…mais le cuistot est plein!” – “The pinard crisis. The barrel’s empty but the cook’s full!”
Although there was some truth to this, it was equally difficult for many troops to see the difficulties faced by the commissariat in supplying so many men in such trying conditions.
The shocking state of the roads from the supply area to the front often meant that not enough food arrived or it was cold or, more terribly, the ration party were either blown apart on the way up or stumbled into the mire and were sucked under, weighed down by the rations for their mates.
In 1917, with the wine ration decreasing due to supply issues, another horrific attack on the Chemin des Dames in Champagne, the Nivelle Offensive, having bogged down into a mass slaughter with 187,000 casualties and communist agitators whipping up quite legitimate grievances, the army mutinied.
For the most part regiments in the line simply refused to do anything – though added they would fight if the Germans attacked – while it was only in the rear areas that there were more serious breakdowns of discipline.
In total some 49 divisions or 43% of French units on the Western Front experienced some form of mutiny, though only nine divisions were seriously affected with part of one unit even marching on Paris – stopping to loot supplies en route.
Order was eventually restored with thousands of arrests and some arbitrary executions. The worst affected units were broken up and spread out into others with the ring leaders either shot (between 30 and 50 ‘officially’) or sentenced to hard labour.
Over-encumbered, footsore and weary, the reality for French troops in 1916-17 was a far cry from the perceived glamour of 1914
The situation was saved and the Germans, remarkably, never learned of the revolt but the politicians and generals knew that the army had been pushed too far. Even though the mutinies were largely driven by a sense of futility and frustration rather than a desire to see the war finished, things had to change.
General Nivelle, who had overseen the last failed attack, was replaced by General Pétain who decreed that the French army would undertake no more large scale offensives until the Americans and more tanks were fully deployed.
Conditions were improved with leave granted more frequently, units rotated through the line at more regular intervals and an effort made to improve rations.
France though was nearing its limit and while it continued to perform heroically until the war’s end, the army that emerged in 1918 was a very far cry from the splendid – if outdated – body that had begun the war. It would not have élan enough to hold on again in 1940.
Next time: crumps and lice and lack of rum, the trials of Britain’s soldiers in the mud of Flanders.
Previously: An arm and a leg – battlefield medicine