Wine, Cognac and Football: The Christmas Truce of 1914

Wine and the Christmas Truce of 1914

A visitor to north-eastern France on Christmas Day 1914 would have walked through a bizarre landscape. All around him or her would have been observed vast trenches dug into the earth, with huge holes of charred mud everywhere from artillery shells exploding. Razor wire and machine gun posts were ubiquitous and most signs of normal civilization and economic activity had been destroyed. The last thing they would have thought about was wine and peaceful gatherings.

Yet across this Golgotha there was the sight of British, French and German soldiers mixing in groups. Some were playing football or swapping gifts. In one curious incident reported on by the British humourist and cartoonist, Bruce Bairnsfeather, a British soldier who was a barber back home was offering the Germans haircuts. Others still sat smoking cigarettes and swigging from wine bottles with individuals they had been trying to kill just a few days earlier.

British and German soldiers play soccer together during the WWI Christmas Truce of 1914.

British and German soldiers play soccer together during the WWI Christmas Truce of 1914.
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)

This was the famed Christmas Truce of 1914, during which approximately 100,000 British, French and German soldiers left their trenches and began socialising for two days, briefly leaving behind the grim reality of life on the Western Front. Curiously enough, it all seems to have started in a least one location with a bottle of wine.[1]

The First World War

The Christmas Truce of 1914 occurred less than five months into the conflict.

The First World War had been a long time in the making as relations between the great powers of Europe had been deteriorating for decades. A major contributory cause was the unification of the German states into the German Empire in 1871 and the danger which the creation of this new industrial, economic and military behemoth in Central Europe posed to Britain’s position as the world’s pre-eminent superpower in the late nineteenth century.

This was added to by increasing colonial rivalry in the Scramble for Africa and Asia, while there were also regional tensions between individual nations. For instance, the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the Russian Empire were vying to replace the declining Ottoman Empire as the major power in the Balkans.

As a result of these tensions, two military alliances, one called the Entente and consisting of Britain, France and Russia, and the other called the Triple Alliance made up of Germany, Austria-Hungary and Italy, had come into existence in the 1900s. The stage was set for a major war. It just needed a spark to ignite it.

The spark came on the 28th of June 1914 when Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the heir to the Austro-Hungarian Empire, was killed by a Serb nationalist, Gavrilo Princip, in Sarajevo.

A diplomatic crisis between Austria-Hungary and Serbia, one in which Russia had a stake, escalated during July, eventually leading all of the major powers to declare war on one another. Consequently, by early August Europe was at war and given the extent of the great powers’ colonial empires this would be a global conflict.

Germany’s aim was to defeat France in a quick campaign, but its troops soon became bogged down in trench warfare on the Western Front in north-eastern France against the French and British. It was here that the Christmas Truce of 1914 would occur.[2]

Wine in the Trenches

There was no shortage of alcohol floating around in the trenches of the Western Front during the war. Wine made up a significant proportion of it, especially and somewhat unsurprisingly amongst the French rank and file.

Just a month into the war the French military high command began issuing a daily ration of what was termed pinard, a low-quality red wine, to the troops. It was no doubt welcome, but still criticised, with many a French soldier comparing it fondly with petrol and a marching song even being developed in its honour entitled ‘Ode to Pinard’.

Image of French wine supplies behind front lines during the Great War

French supply lines behind the trenches of the Western Front during the First World War. Wine was not in short supply.

In total the average soldier would receive 500mls of red wine every day, though the amount varied depending on where one was stationed, with solders at the front line generally receiving a smaller supply owing to supply logistics and the common sense desire to have soldiers at the coalface of the combat reasonably sombre, while those back from the front on leave from active duty had a significantly higher than average ration.

The link between wine and cheese was also reinforced as a result. Generally French soldiers were issued Camembert with every 25 centilitres of red wine.[3]

The war is even credited today with having influenced France’s modern drinking culture.

While the Gallicans have always been synonymous with viticulture, the Belle Époque of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries had seen a level of excess in France and Paris in particular which had seen many a French man and woman switching to harder absinthe or cognac as their drink of choice. This was compounded by the devastation wrought by the phylloxera epidemic of the 1870s and 1880s, which had seen wine supplies decrease and prices increase.

As such, the war is generally credited with reversing this shift towards spirits in the late nineteenth century back towards drinking wine.[4]

Wine and the Start of the Truce

Given the volume of wine and other alcohol which was being sent to the troops in the north-east of the country in the winter of 1914, it is perhaps unsurprising to learn that the Christmas Truce seems to have been triggered by a bottle of it along one part of the front.

In the Douve-St Yves-Le Gheer sector of the Western Front, the 4th Division of the British Expeditionary Force was stationed on one side of ‘No Man’s Land’ across from a German division. Reports from the time, which were printed in some British newspaper early in 1915, stated that about 7.30 pm on Christmas Eve the Germans began lighting candles and singing Christmas carols.

After a time one of them shouted out to the British troops daring anyone to come across to their trenches to receive a bottle of German wine:

“The Germans started singing and lighting candles about 7.30 on Christmas Eve, and one of them challenged any one of us to go across for a bottle of wine. One of our fellows accepted the challenge, and took a big cake to exchange. That started the ball rolling. We went half way to shake hands and exchange greetings. There were ten dead Germans on the ditch in front of the trenches, and we helped bury these. They were trapped one night trying to get at our outpost trench. The Germans seem very nice chaps, and said they were awfully sick of the war.”[5]

The Christmas Truce

The incident involving the 4th Division was not isolated. In many locations all across the Western Front as night descended on Christmas Eve candles and carol singing gave way to individuals leaving their trenches and fraternising with the enemy. Without gifts of any other kind to exchange, soldiers gave each other cognac, schnapps, rum, beer and, of course, wine. Cartons of cigarettes and food rations were also passed around.

While the recollections of troops from the 4th Division of helping the Germans they met in ‘No Man’s Land’ to bury their dead were somewhat sombre, in other locations cards were played and football matches held as daylight arrived on Christmas Day itself.

In total, it is believed that in excess of 100,000 troops across the Western Front engaged in the Christmas Truce of 1914.

British and German soldiers fraternizing at Ploegsteert, Belgium, on Christmas Day 1914.

British and German soldiers fraternizing at Ploegsteert, Belgium, on Christmas Day 1914.

On the 26th of December they re-entered their trenches and the war would resume all too soon, but the event has been long regarded as a triumph of fraternity over madness in a conflict in which nation states fought over several hundred kilometres of churned-up mud and desolate terrain in north-eastern France for four years.[6]

Subsequent Festive Truces during the First World War

The 1914 Christmas truce was not the only time when the soldiers came out of the trenches of the First World War during festive seasons. Just a few short months’ later truces broke out on the Eastern Front to celebrate Easter amongst troops from Russia, Bulgaria, Greece and other Greek Orthodox nations. This was repeated at Easter 1916 and involved forces of the Austro-Hungarian Empire as well on this later occasion.

Then in Christmas 1915, despite the best efforts of the French, British and German high commands to prohibit their troops from repeating the events of late December 1914, truces broke out along the Western Front once again on the 24th of December, particularly in the region along the Vosges Mountains.

There French and German troops visited each other using disused trenches and exchanged wine, cognac and cigarettes. Many of those who first came to know each other during this truce contacted each other again after the war, leading to the foundation, in one instance, of the German Youth Hotel Association.[7]

Conclusion

Unfortunately, the truces of Christmas 1914 and 1915 were not repeated in 1916 or 1917. By then the war had entered a new gruelling face, the unprecedented devastation of the First Battle of the Somme in 1916 having hardened attitudes on all sides.

The fighting would continue down to the early winter of 1918, with the collapse of Germany and its allies internally from lack of supplies and political upheaval eventually bringing the war to an end, rather than a decisive victory in France.

While many soldiers returned home to live difficult lives, shattered psychologically by their experiences in France, the Christmas Truce has remained a notable interlude in the popular conception of the First World War.

Also read: How the World War influenced Burgundy Wine Production

A Deeper Exploration: Booze in the Trenches in Modern Warfare

Alcohol and other narcotics have generally walked hand in hand with modern warfare. Nation states generally find it easier to uproot men from their normal lives as farmers or office-workers, hand them guns and tell them to head in a particular direction killing any other farmers they find wearing a particular colour uniform if those same conscripts have their senses dulled by booze or other narcotics.

Recent research, for instance, has highlighted exactly how extensive the use of amphetamines and other stimulants were amongst the rank and file of the German Wehrmacht during the Second World War. In the first rendition of global war, alcohol was the primary drug employed and the members of the British, French and German armies on the Western Front in north-eastern France all received significant rations of alcohol. Beer was provided to a certain extent, but given the logistics of transporting it, it was often easier to provide spirits: brandy for the French, whiskey and rum for the British and schnapps for the Germans. The French also received extensive supplies of wine.

Faced with the gruelling weather and the unsanitary conditions of the trenches, alcohol inevitably became a coping-mechanism. As one British medical officer later stated, ‘had it not been for the rum ration, I do not think that we would have won the war’. Yet there could also be major supply problems. British rum was delivered to the front in gallon drums which bore the initials ‘SRD’, for ‘Service Rations Depot, but colloquially it became known as ‘Service Rum Diluted’, an indication of how extensive the practice of draining off much of the rum and topping it up with water became as it moved from the supply convoys in the rear forward to the front lines.[8]

Further Reading:

Virginia Berridge, ‘Drugs, alcohol and the First World War’, The Lancet, 22 November 2014.

Terri Blom Crocker, The Christmas Truce: Myth, Memory and the First World War (Lexington, Kentucky, 2015).

‘Lucky Us’, in Andrew Jefford, Drinking with the Valkyries: Writings on Wine (Shrewsbury, 2022).

Benoît Lecat, Claude Chapuis and Marianne McGarry Wolf, ‘Wine and war: Burgundy wine production and consumption during World War I’, in Journal of Wine Research, Vol. 32, No. 1 (2021), pp. 11–37.

On this Day

24 December 1914 – On this day in 1914 the Christmas Truce began in the trenches of the Western Front in north-eastern France. This came after nearly five months of fighting in the region, primarily between French and British troops, with their German adversaries, though many allied troops from Britain and France’s overseas colonies were also involved. The truce occurred during a lull in the fighting as the German army’s efforts to gain a quick victory over France had resulted in a stalemate following the end of the First Battle of Ypres in late November 1914. With few strategic manoeuvres planned by either side over Christmas 1914, many British, French and German troops began exiting the trenches on Christmas Eve 1914 and crossed ‘No Man’s Land’, the kill-zone between opposing camps’ trenches, to swap gifts with their adversaries, play football and socialise. Much wine was drunk and bottles of booze and cartons of cigarettes were swapped between these enemies who briefly became friends for a day or two. By the 26th of December men began returning to their trenches and the fighting recommenced, though further Christmas and Easter truces were observed on various fronts of the war in 1915 and 1916.[9]

9 November 1918 – On in this day in 1918 the French poet, art critic and author Guillaume Apollinaire died in Paris of the Spanish Flu, just two days before the end of the First World War. Apollinaire was a major figure in the literary world of early twentieth-century France, one who is generally credited as inventing the term ‘Surrealism’ and being a major advocate of the nascent Cubism of the period. By the time the First World War broke out in 1914, although he was only 33 years of age, Apollinaire was regarded as one of the great writers of his time. Drafted into the French army he was badly wounded in 1916 from a shrapnel blast to the head, from which he never fully recovered. Apollinaire was one of the few poets of the war who used the imagery of wine in his poems concerning the conflict. In ‘The Wine Grower of Champagne’, he referred to the French soldiers of the region as ‘You bottles of wine in which the blood ferments’. It was not his only time using the imagery of wine and alcohol in his poems. In Vendémiaire, a poem he published in 1913 shortly before the war broke out he wrote extensively about this time of year which was named after the grape harvest.[10]

Want to read more? Try these books!

Cognac- A Liquid History Cognac (Mitchell Beazley Classic Wine Library)

References

[1] Malcolm Brown and Shirley Seaton, Christmas Truce: The Western Front, 1914 (New York, 1984); Geoffrey Regan, Military Anecdotes (London, 1992), p. 139. 

[2] Margaret MacMillan, The War that Ended Peace: The Road to 1914 (London, 2013).

[3] https://sjmc.gov.au/wine-in-war-the-origins-of-plonk/ [accessed 29/1/23]; https://pointshistory.com/2014/05/22/world-war-i-part-1-the-french-army-and-wine/ [accessed 29/1/23].

[4] Benoît Lecat, Claude Chapuis and Marianne McGarry Wolf, ‘Wine and war: Burgundy wine production and consumption during World War I’, in Journal of Wine Research, Vol. 32, No. 1 (2021), pp. 11–37; https://theculturetrip.com/europe/france/articles/world-war-turned-france-nation-wine-lovers/ [accessed 29/1/23].

[5] https://www.longlongtrail.co.uk/battles/battles-of-the-western-front-in-france-and-flanders/winter-operations-1914-15-western-front/legends-myths-and-realities-the-christmas-truce-1914/ [accessed 29/1/23].

[6] Terri Blom Crocker, The Christmas Truce: Myth, Memory and the First World War (Lexington, Kentucky, 2015); ‘Lucky Us’, in Andrew Jefford, Drinking with the Valkyries: Writings on Wine (Shrewsbury, 2022).

[7] Stanley Weintraub, Silent Night: The Story of the First World War Christmas Truce (London, 2001), pp. 194–195; https://greatwar-1914.tumblr.com/post/142580205711/april-10-1916-easter-truce-between-austrians [accessed 28/1/23]. 

[8] https://www.westernfrontassociation.com/world-war-i-articles/alcohol-in-the-trenches-the-rum-ration/ [accessed 28/1/23]; https://pointshistory.com/2014/05/29/world-war-i-part-2-the-british-rum-ration/ [accessed 29/1/23]; Virginia Berridge, ‘Drugs, alcohol and the First World War’, The Lancet, 22 November 2014; Norman Ohler, Blitzed: Drugs in Nazi Germany (London, 2016).

[9] Terri Blom Crocker, The Christmas Truce: Myth, Memory and the First World War (Lexington, Kentucky, 2015); Malcolm Brown and Shirley Seaton, Christmas Truce: The Western Front, 1914 (New York, 1984).

[10] Birgit van Puymbroeck and Cedric van Dijck, ‘Apollinaire’s Trench Journalism and the Affective Public Sphere’, in Texas Studies in Literature and Language, Vol. 60, No. 3 (Fall, 2018), pp. 269–292; Tony Hoagland, ‘“I seem to be a great feast”: The war poems of Guillaume Apollinaire’, in The American Poetry Review, Vol. 43, No. 4 (July – August, 2014), pp. 15–17.

Categories: This Day in Wine History | Articles, Wine and WarTags: , , By Published On: February 18, 2023Last Updated: February 28, 2024

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