Drinking to Forget: Wine and the Foreign Legion

As India was the jewel in the crown of Britain’s old empire so was Algeria to France. Its oldest overseas territory, the birthplace of the Foreign Legion and with a huge wine industry vital to France’s own. Yet as the de-colonialisation movement gathered pace in the post-Second World War world, the stage was set for a drama of shocking, bloody violence and worlds turned upside down.

France had granted autonomy to its other North African possessions, Tunisia and Morocco, in 1956 after sustained political pressure. Both had been protectorates rather than colonies but Algeria was considered, at least by the French, as much more integral to France.

Indeed, Algeria was thought of not just as a mere colony but as part of France itself – yet the rights of French men and women were not extended to Africans.

From a viticultural standpoint too Algeria was vitally important to metropolitan France and had been the country’s saving grace when Phylloxera and then powdery and downy mildew began to take hold in the 1870s.

Until that point, although there had been vineyards producing the rough local pinard for the French garrisons which became so emblematic of Foreign Legion life, viticulture was not widely practiced in the colony.

As France’s vineyards suffered however there came an explosion in plantings in Africa, its sandy soils largely impervious to the little louse – and when the pest did arrive in the early 20th century, the knowledge and expertise in countering it through grafting meant its impact was quickly nullified.

In 1872 the land under vine covered some 16,600 hectares. By 1881 this had almost doubled to 30,482ha and by 1890 it was up to 110,042ha and the growth continued into the 1930s and a peak of 400,000ha and a production of 18.9m hectolitres a year.[1]

Although a chunk of this land was always owned and managed by local Muslims, the vast majority of vineyards in Algeria were operated by the colons or ‘pieds noirs’, who as often as not were of Spanish, Maltese or Italian extraction as they were French.

Many of the French as it happens did not come from France’s own Mediterranean littoral, from Languedoc, Roussillon or the Rhône, places not too dissimilar to coastal Algeria, but from the rather colder north in Alsace.

The devastations of Phylloxera and disgust at German occupation as a result of the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71 were the chief reasons for this emigration.

Needless to say, whether Alsatian, Italian or Spanish, the European colons included a large number who came from wine producing areas and backgrounds which helped them turn Algeria into such an important wine producing region itself so quickly.

One of the more fanciful suggestions as to how they got their nickname pieds noirs in fact is that their feet were supposedly deeply stained from endless trudging in dark-skinned grapes each harvest. Another explanation is that they tended to wear black shoes, whereas most Africans wore sandals or nothing. The truth, as ever, being lost to time and whimsy.

As a result of this European viticultural dominance, the vast majority of Algerian wine production was naturally centered around the more European Oranais region in the west of the country.

What wasn’t consumed in Algeria itself was sold off in bulk and contributed hugely to the Algerian economy. Wine’s share of the agricultural income was as high as 49% (by 1959-60), it was responsible for 25% of gross investment in Algeria in 1955 (in 1880 the Bank of Algeria’s charter had been renewed solely on the condition that it increased its loans for agricultural – especially vineyard – investment)[1] and provided a fifth of the employment in the agricultural sector.

Morocco and Tunisia had also become major wine producers during their time under French control though not nearly to the same extent as Algeria because, as protectorates, French rule was not direct but went through the local royalty.

By the 1930s France was importing more than 10m hl of Algerian wine, largely for blending the more robust Carignan and Cinsault produced there with the more insipid Aramon being mass produced in the Languedoc at the time and which provided the petit rouge (small red) which was the civilian equivalent of pinard and the engine oil of France’s agricultural and industrial labourers.

In 1938 these imports peaked at 17.1m hl and even on the eve of independence in 1962 imports were as high as 14m hl and worth 1.1bn francs.

As Keith Sutton notes: “It could be argued that Algeria’s vineyards formed an indispensable complement to French viticulture in that many ordinary French wines required the addition through mixing of a <vin médecin>. Without such blending anything up to 23 million hectolitres of French annual wine production would be downgraded and potentially unsaleable.”[2]

Yet despite this link to the metropole greater political recognition and integration failed to materialise, the French being happy to maintain the status quo in a power dynamic that was to its liking and with the pieds noirs rabidly opposed to any measures that would grant the local Muslims anything like political and social equivalence.

Tired of this hypocrisy and French intransigence, the liberation movement in Algeria, headed by the Front de liberation nationale (FLN), developed along more violent lines than occurred in neighbouring Morocco and Tunisia.

In 1954 Algiers, Oran and Constantine with their sizeable European populations were rocked by bombing campaigns. Europeans and Muslims alike were butchered, disemboweled, mutilated on their farms or in the street, while many other Algerians were threatened and coerced into helping the FLN.

In return the European colons lynched and murdered Muslims in reprisal attacks, often with the police turning a blind eye. As so often in such conflicts atrocity fuelled atrocity until neither side could claim any claim to innocence, and all innocence was just blood on the hands of those holding the knife.

The FLN were eventually rooted out of Algiers by General Massu and his paratroopers in 1956-57, as so famously portrayed in the classic film The Battle of Algiers, and the bulk of the action moved into Algeria’s highlands, especially in Kabylia.

The Legion was at the forefront of the fighting and while it and other French troops proved themselves tough and resourceful in finding and destroying FLN cells, brutal treatment of civilians and the widespread use of torture cast a shadow that lingers to this day – not that the FLN were above such methods either, far from it as incidents such as the massacre at the village of Melouza make clear.

Yet although the FLN was beaten militarily, crushed almost, the war and the means employed in waging it were tearing France apart politically. The crisis was so acute that in 1958 it even brought down the Fourth Republic when a putsch orchestrated by the Algiers deputies and the military opposed the formation of a new government that was in favour of a negotiated solution in Algeria.

With many believing civil war was a possibility, the nation turned to Charles de Gaulle to save it.

De Gaulle was ushered into power under a new constitution, the basis of the Fifth Republic, and with it powers as sole executive of the country and the declaration of a state of emergency for the first six months of his premiership.

Je vous ai compris!‘ he boomed to wild adulation from the colons. But if the generals and pieds noirs hoped that de Gaulle would ensure the continuation of an ‘algérie française’, they were to be deeply disappointed.

Despite initially drawing up plans to integrate Algeria and its Muslim population closer to France, continued opposition to the war at home and a reluctance to extend citizenship to all Algerians led de Gaulle to prepare the way for independence. Shocked and betrayed, with the military’s usual decrying of a military victory turned into defeat by meddling politicos, just three years later the generals began planning another putsch.


The Centurions

French troops on operations in Kabylia

For the Legion itself, as much as France and Algeria, it was a desperately uncertain time.

Indochina was gone, so too Morocco and Tunisia, and now Algeria was almost certainly next. What was the Legion without Algeria? It was Algeria.

The old cavalry, the Chasseurs d’Afrique and Spahis had had their traditions farmed out, “for continuation” to other regiments. The French marine corps, known as ‘La Coloniale’ because of its use as the principal arm of French imperial expansion could revert to its proper title of infanterie de la marine. But what of the Legion?

Sidi-bel-Abbés and Saïda; the exploits that inspired Beau Geste; the bar room Cameróns; the clinking of absinthe glasses on zinc bar tops; the fortnightly cuites; the thousands of petty scams and wheezes, desertion attempts and doing ton truc that made up the cumulative experiences of generations of legionnaires – all worth not a damn to politicians.

Could the Legion survive? Not for the first time the spectre of disbandment raised its head over the corps.

And would the Legion want to survive anyway? How could it, of all units, become yet another of ‘la reguliere’, ‘la biffe’, rotting away in a garrison town in the Bouches-du-Rhône or Provence where nothing ever happened?

Only North Africa, writes the historian Donald Porch, provided the stage grand enough for the Legion ego. And yet, the very reasoning by which part of the Legion tried to save both itself and its North African ville mere was, in the end, very nearly its own destruction.

The great blemish on the Legion’s record was its role in the ‘General’s Putsch’ of 1961 when the seemingly indestructible 1er Regiment Etrangère Parachutiste (REP), destroyed and reconstituted twice during the Indochina War and part of the ‘praetorian guard’ of the French army, the 10thParachute Division, became embroiled in a desperate coup to try and seize Algeria and ensure the continuation of an algérie française.

But if parts of the army and most of all the Legion, were passionate advocates of the continuation of French colonial rule in Algeria, and saw their calling as soldiers and the cause in which they were engaged as a secular vocation, a ‘national priesthood’, then they were, by this time, little more than the priests of a dead god.

The coup was a miserable failure and for its part in it the 1er REP – thrice destroyed and reformed in Indochinese battles – was disbanded for the fourth and final time by political rather than military action. The hesitation of other Legion regiments to not get involved was the Legion’s saving grace when hard left politicians petitioned de Gaulle for the entire unit’s abolition over the 1er REP’s indiscretion.

A number of hardcore legionnaires, went into hiding and helped found the Organisation d’Armée Sécrets (OAS), later made famous by Frederick Forsythe’s novel and the subsequent film The Day of the Jackal.

A particularly nasty terrorist group made up of ex-soldiers and colons, the OAS killed thousands in both Algeria and metropolitan France before it was broken up by French security services with four of its ringleaders executed in 1962-63 by military firing squads.

But the cause and the violence waged in its name was hopeless. In 1962 Algeria achieved its independence and the Legion bid farewell to its old stamping grounds forever when the last detachment departed in 1968.

The effect of independence on the wine industry in Algeria was dramatic and instant. As previously mentioned, right up until the moment of independence Algerian exports to France remained extraordinarily high.

The first notable effect of independence and with it the departure of nine-tenths of the European population and hundreds of thousands of troops was an utter collapse of the domestic wine market from 1.4m hl to less than 500,000 hl.

The Evian Accords signed in 1962 had agreed in theory that France would continue to take some 8m hl of Algerian wine a year but on a gradually declining basis (of 500,000 hl less per year), which would allow the country to shift its export focus elsewhere.

Viticulture was one of the agricultural legacies of French colonialism and it was still of major importance to the economy of Algeria and one of the main employers.

The produce of the new Algeria: fruit and grains and while grapes are included they were increasingly likely to be table grapes than their vinous cousins

In practice, however, France completely failed to live up to its side of the bargain. In 1963 imports had already slumped to 6.8m hl, under half what they’d been the previous year. From 1964-66 they fell back in line with the accords but in 1967 they plummeted again to just 3.1m hl and the worth of Algerian exports which had stood at 1.1bn francs in 1962 was down to 234m francs in 1968.

Although West Germany and other European countries began taking as much as five times more wine from Algeria, this still amounted to under 1m hl of wine and was nowhere near enough to stop the enormous build-up of unsold wine in Algeria itself.

By the end of the accord agreement in 1968 France had taken 8.6m hl less than had been agreed. The reasons for this were varied. To begin with, starting in 1962, overproduction in France itself and the first influx of embittered pieds noirsconspired to reduce the amount of wine France imported from its colony.

France was also changing its attitudes to its own winemaking practices as well. In 1964 France reformed its ‘statut viticole français’ in order to increase the area under vine to produce wines of the type that had previously been imported from Algeria.

In 1967 the country passed another law which substantially reduced the amount of Algerian wine permitted for use in blending. Furthermore, started in the 1930s, by the 1960s the AOC system was increasingly widely adopted and with it ever stricter guidelines – chief among them the banning of blending wines from outside the region.

Although many of these measures arguably paved the way for the quality controls seen in France today and necessary as they may have been to ween the French industry off its reliance on cheap Algerian imports, they also tightened the noose on Algeria’s own wine industry. And given the nature of the conflict and the timing of many of these laws, one would be hard pressed to claim they were not a little retributive in spirit.

In 1968 the Soviet Union, quick to pounce on many decolonialised countries at this time, signed an agreement to purchase 1m hl of wine and then 5m hl a year from 1969-1975. This certainly drained much of the wine lake but at prices that made Algerian vineyards essentially unprofitable.

Whereas France, for all its inconsistencies and bad-tempered behaviour, had been buying wine at 72 francs per hectolitre and West Germany at 50, the USSR bullied the Algerians down to 32.5 francs/hl.

Although new deals were struck with the EEC (as it was then) the amounts taken were meagre. Algeria’s wine industry was in terminal decline.

From 355,000ha under vine in 1962, by 1984 this had fallen to 143,540ha and production from 12m hl to 1.3m hl, with yields down to 9.7hl/ha (from highs of 30-40hl/ha)

As a predominantly Muslim country, the new government had always been uncomfortable at its agricultural industry’s reliance on viticulture, and there was a move to repurpose as much vineyard land as possible with wheat, fruit and vegetables and date palms, instead. Not all vineyards proved suitable for replanting however and many thousands of hectares of vines, those not repurposed locally for rudimentary table grapes or raisins, were no doubt abandoned. Not profitable to run, not worth grubbing up.

Tourism, which might have provided an outlet for local wine, was a long way off being developed and alongside the switch in focus agriculturally, the final nail in Algerian wine’s coffin was the discovery and exploitation of oil.

There are still a few vineyards in Algeria today, a reminder of both the deep-rooted French legacy and older Roman one but in size and scale it is but a ghost of its former self but, in that respect, it is not the only phantom in Algeria.


New beginnings

l’Institution des Invalides de la Légion Étrangère at Poulybier. Image courtesy of the Foreign Legion

Having quit its African cradle, the Legion did indeed end up in southern France. The Legion’s new base, where it remains to this day, was Provence and the town of Aubagne near Marseille.

The loss of the old ville mere may have stung but the location of the new headquarters brought it close to a unique institution in the French military – the Legion’s own vineyard.

In 1953, having suffered thousands of casualties in Indochina, the Legion had invested in an estate in Puyloubier near Aix-en-Provence to serve as a care home for badly wounded ex-legionnaires with no one else to look after them and who might otherwise drift into destitution and alcoholism.

The estate is known as l’Institution des Invalides de la Légion Étrangère and today is home to perhaps 100 ex-legionnaires, some in the 80s and 90s and even one centenarian at the moment.

For all the blood-curdling mottos such as ‘March or Die!’ often associated with it, the Legion’s more modern ethos is once you are a legionnaire, “tu n’abandonnes jamai les tiens, ni au combat, ni dans la vie (‘you never abandon your own, neither in combat or in life”).

With the large châteaux came a sizeable chunk of land, over 200 hectares in total, and, being the south of France, a vineyard too. The winery is today known as Domaine de Capitaine Danjou – he of Mexico, Camerone and wooden-hand fame.

The initial production was fairly rough stuff by all accounts, proper pinard, dark and alcoholic, upon which generations of legionnaires had thrived. In the 1980s, realising their own winemaking skills were not good enough, the Legion sent its grapes for vinifying and bottling at the local co-operative.

In 2006, however, two Bordeaux winemakers who are also officers in the French reserves[3] (and one of whom was a friend of the Legion’s then commanding officer) were invited to start consulting at the estate. They now spend 30 days a year working at the estate as part of their service requirements and quality has improved noticeably.

Gradually expanded over the years, today the Legion has 40 hectares of vines and produces around 250,000 bottles a year, making it one of the largest producers in the AOC of Côtes de Provence Sainte-Victoire.

The wine produced there, red, white and rosé, is first and foremost for the Legion messes around the world. Any surplus – the base range appropriately named ‘Esprit du Corps’ and the top cuvée, ‘General’s Réserve’ – is sold commercially to support the upkeep of the institution – bookbinding and pottery are the other key activities for the residents and sources of income. A percentage of drinks sales in Legion messes are also then recycled back to fund the domaine.

The red is a classic southern French blend of Syrah, Grenache and Mourvedre, the white is made from Rolle (Vermentino) and the rosé uses Cinsault alongside some Grenache and Rolle.

Old comrades: a pensionnaire and serving legionnaire during the harvest at Domaine du Capitaine Danjou. Image courtesy of the Foreign Legion

The vineyards themselves are looked after by the pensionnaire at the care home and young legionnaires are sent to help out over the course of the season especially at harvest time.

To men inured to regimented life and working outdoors in all conditions, pruning and keeping the vines in neat, serried ranks is no doubt a therapeutic pastime, a peaceful one too yet also one with its own sense of camaraderie and shared endeavour akin to military life.

There is something particularly poetic in the fact that not only have such keen wine guzzlers become winemakers but also that it is the French army’s foreign corps that has adopted that most French of enterprises – viticulture.

Just as the Legion has long boasted that it is a home for those seeking a new life or redemption so it too has been shaped and formed by each successive influx of new recruits, each campaign and its accumulated traditions.

And one tradition that lasts to this day is the Legion toast to fallen comrades, harking back to those African glory days, “a nos amis sous les sables”, ‘to our friends beneath the sands’.

And perhaps it is this simple sentiment that gives lie to that hoary old joke that legionnaires drink to forget, when in fact they are as likely to drink to remember.






Footnotes to the text:

[1] Meloni, Giulia and Swinnen, Johan, ‘The Rise and Fall of the World’s Largest Wine Exporter’, American Association of Wine Economics, Working Paper No. 134, 2013, p7

[2] Sutton, Keith, ‘Algeria’s Vineyards. A problem of decolonialisation’, Méditeranée, 1988, p56

[3] Sutton, Keith, op cit., p58

[4] He declined to be named explicitly for this piece saying his involvement was not as important as the work done at the domaine and what it stands for, but it is widely publicised elsewhere that it is Philip Baly of Château Coutet in Sauternes. The other winemaker is Bertrand Léon of Les Trois Croix in Fronsac, who also works as technical director at Château d’Esclans in Provence.

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