UMC - Grandes Marques et Maisons de Champagne

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The First World War

The 1914-18 war again turned Champagne into a battlefield, and again many of its people suffered physical and financial hardship. The war threatened the continued existence of champagne by endangering not only its sources but also its markets.
On 3 September 1914, one month after the beginning of hostilities, the German army entered Rheims. On the 4 September it was in Epernay, moving towards Paris.
The mayor of Epernay was Maurice Pol-Roger. With great determination, like Jean-Rémy Moët during the wars of the Empire, he took the destiny of his fellow citizens in hand, when most of the other officials, including the police, had abandoned them and withdrawn in the face of the enemy. He unhesitatingly acted as a mint, committing his own fortune on bills on which were written: Ville d’Épernay - Un Franc - 5 septembre 1914 - Le maire Maurice Pol-Roger. He was rewarded with the gratitude of the inhabitants of Epernay, and by being made a chevalier and then officier of the Légion d’honneur, and also by a wound that he received in a duel with the Préfet of the Marne, whom he had reproached for having abandoned his post.

During the night of the 4 September, from his headquarters in Bar-sur-Aube, General Joffre, the commander in chief of the French army, gave his famous order : The hour has come to advance whatever the cost and to die where we stand rather than retreat. The victorious counter-offensive of the battle of the Marne saved Epernay on the 11 September and Rheims on the 13th. It was then that the war in the trenches began, of which the appalling monotony was interrupted, in Champagne, by two costly French offensives, the first in September 1915, to the east of Rheims, and the second in the spring of 1917, which seized from the enemy the dominant positions of the Chemin des Dames and the Monts de Champagne.

On the 27 May 1918 it was the Germans who took the offensive. Ludendorf failed to the east of Rheims before the high ground of the Tahure, but to the west his armies crossed the Marne, from Dormans to Château-Thierry, before finally being pushed back in July, during the second battle of the Marne, by the French, British, Canadian, New Zealand, American and Italian troops, under the command of Foch, the general-in-chief of the allied forces21. The Rheims area was evacuated by the Germans at the end of September and Champagne was liberated at the beginning of October, liberated but ravaged.

During the three and a half years of trench warfare the German lines had camped 1,500 metres north-east of Rheims, which was subjected to 1051 days of bombing. The cathedral was hit almost immediately on 19 September 1914 and then terribly damaged on several more occasions. At the end of the war the city was 90% destroyed and during the winter of 1918-1919, weakened by almost four years of shelling, the vault of the Saint-Rémi Basilica collapsed in the middle of the night.

What happened during this sad period to the vines and champagne production? The vines in the region of Rheims were in the war zone. Criss-crossed with German and French trenches and riddled with craters from shells, cultivation had either stopped when the war began or been continued in the worst possible conditions. cultivation carried on in Champagne’s other wine producing areas despite innumerable difficulties. Since all the men were in the army the population was made up of women, children, invalids, and the elderly; all displayed splendid courage in the face of adversity. There was not enough fertilizer or anti-parasite products, the horses had been requisitioned, the harvest houses were occupied by the troops, and artillery and aeroplane fire made the vines a dangerous place to work, but in spite of all, and very admirably, production was maintained. The quality was even very good and 1914 was one of the best vintages of the twentieth century, 1915 and 1917 were also excellent years .

While most of the wines of 1914 were remarkable this was not true of all of them because the harvests took place just after the Victory of the Marne, and some grapes were picked prematurely in the fear that the Germans would renew their offensive. These produced wines with such exaggerated acidity that when they were young they were not very pleasant to drink, but the acidity helped them to keep, so well, that sixty years later they were drunk with great pleasure in the rare large houses who had by chance saved them. Other grapes were, on the other hand, picked very late, as was the case in Rheims for the Clos Pommery harvest which was brought in under a hail of bombs (532) on the 20 October 1914.

The precarious situation in the vineyards became more difficult than ever in the spring of 1918 when the German offensive necessitated the evacuation of some areas, and fighting was taking place in the middle of the vines in the Ardre and Marne Valleys downstream from Dormans; while the merchants could generally get grapes their means of production were dramatically reduced.

In Rheims most of the buildings used for champagne production were very quickly demolished, but when the above ground installations were not completely destroyed, production continued, and the process by which the wines were made sparkling sometimes took place very close to the German lines. Work was carried out in the cellars which, providing shelter from bombs and shells, were a blessing for the merchants and the inhabitants of Rheims. The city’s administrative services were set up underground, as were schools and hospitals. The cellars were used to accommodate the population and also provided quarters for soldiers.

A subterranean way of life gradually developed that included work, rest and play, and which attracted much attention in the press. Concerts were given and there was even an opera performed in the Roederer cellars. The couturier Paul Poiret recounts in his book, En habillant l’Epoque (Dressing the Epoque) that whilst on a mission to Rheims there was an air raid, I rushed into a hole, he wrote, which led to a tunnel, which led to a corridor, and finally to some vaults that were part of the Veuve Clicquot cellars. There I found forty people seated at tables set with candelabras, hams and bottles of champagne. M. Werlé made a place for me at his table. At five o’clock in the evening we were told that the bombing had stopped. Coming back up to the earth’s surface I realized that I was completely drunk. In my pockets I found sixteen champagne corks, had I drunk them all?

In Epernay the situation was better. They had only to contend with sporadic air raids that caused some damage and created a general atmosphere of insecurity, but which did not stop work. Some of the merchants from Rheims even came and set up temporary operations in Epernay in order to be able to continue production more easily. Furthermore, the order was given on 25 March 1918 to evacuate Rheims, the champagne houses were authorized to leave a guard that was maintained by the army.

There were problems with the supply of some of the materials required for the production of champagne, particularly bottles; deliveries were reduced and so bottles were kept and used again, unlike the carefree habits of peacetime when they were discarded. The offices of the Syndicat du Commerce, which had been relocated in Paris, had to request that the authorities facilitate deliveries of sugar and cork from Spain, and also of iron for making the cages for the corks and staples. There was a lack of men to carry out such tasks and, as in the vineyards, the women did everything. Madame Jacques Krug assembled the house’s blends, and women rotated the bottles and carried out the various operations of the sparkling process. Despite all these difficulties the tenacity of the merchants and the devotion of their workforce triumphed and production during the war was maintained at roughly half the normal level, i.e. an average of about 14 million bottles per year.

In these difficult times it was enough just to make champagne, it had to be sold as well. There were of course priorities when it came to the transport of produce during the war, and champagne was far from the top of the list. Orders that were sent from Rheims had to pass by dangerous routes with limited traffic, taking either the local train to Dormans or the road to Rilly-la-Montagne and then the train to Epernay. The Nancy-Paris line served the Marne Valley, but was sometimes bombed from the air. It was also cut off in 1918 as it had of course been in 1914. For export there was a shortage of boats and submarine warfare destabilized maritime transport.

Selling champagne in France, where there was a strong demand, was comparatively easy22, but selling it abroad was more difficult. Commercial relations had, of course, had been broken off with enemy countries. Russia was having a revolution, sales in the United States were deteriorating due to the temperance leagues, and all the countries at war were saving their cash for buying the bare necessities. The merchants were concerned. Charles E. Heidsieck wrote in a letter on 30 July 1916, I am not without worries, we have to sell the 1917 in England and carry on living. Should we buy at the next harvests or not? What will tomorrow bring? (290). Audacity and commercial judgement were required to find sales opportunities, which were often challenged by significant increases in retail prices due to the prices of raw materials.

Did champagne help the Allies win the war? It is true that Louis Madelin wrote in the Revue des Deux Mondes of the 15 September 1916, concerning the first battle of the Marne: They picked up clusters of drunk soldiers from the Garde and neighbouring corps, victims of champagne. And there is no doubt that there were a lot of empty bottles in the ditches by the sides of the roads in Champagne. But to attribute a real role to the region’s wine in the outcome of the military operations would be going a lot further than would be wise. All that can be confirmed is that the Germans requisitioned, or pilfered, to use a term of military origin, champagne at every opportunity that the war presented and that... the French and allied soldiers did the same. P. Ginisty and A. Alexandre recount in Le Livre du Souvenir, written in 1916, that on the 3 September 1914 Von Kluck, dining in La Ferté-sous-Jouarre, had himself driven to the Hotel de l’Épée, where he was served some of the finest brands of champagne, requisitioned from the best stocked cellars. A postcard of the period shows a pavilion under fire in the grounds of the Château de Mondement where on the 7 September the Crown Prince of Bavaria and his military staff were drinking champagne when the French artillery’s first shells arrived, the card’s caption specifies that when the Germans had fled their glasses were found to be half full.

In any event the numbers of bottles that disappeared during the battles of the Marne were insignificant relative to stocks held. Manceau wrote on this subject in the Vigneron Champenois of the 21 October 1914, The champagne missing from our cellars can be found on the battle fields of the Marne. We have enough for ten thousand battles.
The role that champagne played in keeping up the nation and the army’s morale was no doubt more important. We find in the Vie Parisienne of the 5 August 1916 that Aristide Briand, president of the Council, had an invariable menu: two fried eggs and a little champagne; for champagne is the only wine with which our premier has kept up a friendship. Maurice Constantin-Weyer wrote that in 1918, during the German stampede, they left a colonial division in Rheims, to whom were promised two bottles of champagne per man per day, so long as they protected the city... They held on until the end! (126) Throughout the war the aeroplane pilots were known for their fidelity to champagne, with which every successful mission would be celebrated. René Fonck, the commander of the famous Cigognes squadron, an ace with 75 official victories, would drink his fill and then set off again to shoot down another enemy plane. And it was the tradition in the mess to replace war trophies with a display of champagne corks.
The injured and the disabled were not forgotten. We read in the Vigneron Champenois of the 21 October 1914 that in the British Army, in the campaign medicine chest there were, for 1000 men, 150 tins of condensed milk, 10 bottles of champagne, etc. Maurice de Waleffe recounts that he was present at a lunch for disabled ex-servicemen offered by the couturier Worth. Those who still had their legs danced, he wrote. The champagne helped even those who were terribly disfigured to laugh, their spirits rekindled and happy (660). The merchants gave free supplies of champagne to the army hospitals, with a special label, Offert pour les blessés et malades militaires (For sick and wounded servicemen). But as canny businessmen they did not miss an opportunity to benefit from the situation and released several patriotic labels such as N’oublions jamais (We will never Forget), Un As (An Ace), Champagne anti-boche (Anti-Boche Champagne), Gloire française (French Glory), La Gloire des Alliés (The Glory of the Allies) and, undeterred by its length, Alliance Creaming Tommy’s Special Dry Reserve.
As for the soldiers on leave, what could be more appropriate than champagne to celebrate their return and provide a delightful means of relaxing with their female pen friends? The cover of the 1 April 1916 issue of the Vie Parisienne shows the wartime friend and her two comrades opening some champagne, and in the 26 August 1916 issue we see two young women bombarding a lieutenant with champagne corks.
Naturally, champagne as the national wine par excellence was used throughout the war by cartoonists whenever they wished to strike a patriotic chord.
The German eagle and the Kaiser’s nose took turns in being the target of champagne corks in the French and Allied magazines. In an issue of Indiscret at the end of 1914, under the heading His Consolation, Juan Gris depicts the Kaiser drinking a toast the day after his first defeat in the Marne, and saying, Friends, let us celebrate our great victories with this excellent champagne harvested in the Marne. In the Petit Journal of the 30 June 1918, at the time of the second battle of the Marne, Luc-Cyl shows the Kronprinz, this time trying in vain to open a bottle of champagne, exclaiming, I am thirsty, thirsty for glory... but I am not having much luck! Forain, in the 6 August 1918 issue of the magazine Oui, shows a French soldier pursuing a German soldier, who is carrying all the champagne that he can, calling after him, Wait a minute now, were you planning on helping with the harvest?