Champagne, "champagne," and World War I by Marsha Dubrow
"On this land of Champagne where we drink the happiness, we lost so many families to war."
-- Pierre-Emmanuel Taittinger, President of Champagne Taittinger.
During the second year of World War I, the French National Assembly voted to send champagne, the bubbly, celebratory drink, as a morale booster to troops and military hospitals on a regular basis.
Meanwhile, Champagne, the French region and source of the world's most elegant wine symbolizing celebration and peace, was amassing severe wounds as a key geographical strategic point on the front lines of WWI's Western Front.
"Of all the terrible moments in Champagne's long history, none was more catastrophic than World War I. It was Champagne's darkest hour," wrote Don and Petie Kladstrup in Champagne: How the World's Most Glamorous Wine Triumphed over War and Hard Times.
During this centennial year of the United States’ 1917 entrance into the "Great War," I decided, as a writer and champagne lover, that a great way to learn more about this relatively forgotten war and about the surprising role of champagne in it, was to travel through the Western Front’s vast battlefields, majestic monuments, and deep champagne caves, all about an hour from Paris by TGV high-speed (about 200 mph) train.
Champagne WWI Poets
I had guides during my trip who showed me the sights, but I had other touring companions who opened another window on the region and the war: poets.
My timing was appropriate to let their voices resonate as I traveled, around Memorial Day.
"Ay, it is fitting on this holiday,/ Commemorative of our soldier dead,..." I heard American poet Alan Seeger (uncle of folksinger/songwriter Pete Seeger) saying in his poem "Ode in Memory of the American Volunteers Fallen for France," which he wrote for a May 30, 1916 ceremony honoring what was then known as Decoration Day, renamed Memorial Day after WWI.
Despite the destruction in Champagne, Seeger (photo left) sensed the underlying magnificence of the region and the wine. While serving in the French Foreign Legion in WWI, he wrote a poem entitled, "Champagne 1914-1915," in which he says that the exquisite wine "concentrates/ The sunshine and the beauty of the world."
Seeger dedicated this poem "...To those whose blood, in pious duty shed,/ Hallows the soil where that same wine had birth."
On July 4, 1916, Seeger’s own blood was shed there at age 28, shortly after writing his prophetic poem, "I Have a Rendezvous with Death." Posthumously, Seeger was awarded France's highest honor, the Croix de Guerre (War Cross), plus the Medaille Militaire (Military Medal).
I learned that, like Seeger, so many others have had their rendezvous with death on that soil in northern France. It has been a battlefield not only for World War I and World War II, but also throughout history -- for The Goths, Attila the Hun, the Romans, the Hundred Years' War, Thirty Years' War, Napoleonic wars, among many others, according to Champagne: The Wine, the Land and the People by Patrick Forbes.
It was hard for me to imagine that the region could possibly have suffered more than it did during WWI. As I traveled around the Western Front in France, my overwhelming reaction, upon seeing thousands upon thousands of crosses and a few Jewish Stars of David in WWI cemeteries, was -- what a waste of human lives.
At the same time, I was struck by the peacefulness and serenity of its meadows, farmlands, and forests one century after the devastation of artillery shells, fires, poison gas, and trenches had left it looking apocalyptic.
"[T]he earth itself is corpselike" with "fields of sterility," French writer and WWI combatant Henri Barbusse described it in Under Fire (Le Feu).
When I commented about such lush forests to our travel guide Guillaume Moizan, he explained, "One war reparation was Austria had to give pine seeds to France to rebuild destroyed forests."
Other countries and organizations also assisted. Women volunteers with the American Red Cross helped re-seed 4,000 acres and plant 3,000 fruit trees in northern France, according to the book Anne Morgan: Photography, Philanthropy & Advocacy by Alan Govenar and Mary Niles Maack.
Still, many of the reforested battlefields remain pockmarked with craters and scarred with trenches. The contrast reminded me of the difference between Joyce Kilmer's well-known, bucolic work, "Trees": "I think that I shall never see/ A poem lovely as a tree," compared to his far darker WWI poem "Rouge Bouquet" (Kilmer, photo right):
In a wood they call the Rouge Bouquet
There is a new-made grave to-day...
There is on earth no worthier grave
To hold the bodies of the brave
Than this place of pain and pride
Where they nobly fought and nobly died.
"Rouge Bouquet" was published two weeks after a German sniper's bullet killed 31-year-old U.S. Army Sergeant Kilmer on July 30, 1918. One of the few U.S. WWI fighters to be awarded France's Croix de Guerre, Kilmer is buried at the Oise-Aisne American Cemetery in Seringes-et-Nesles, near where he was shot. The New Jersey-born poet is among more than 6,000 "doughboys" buried at the Oise-Aisne American Cemetery.
The Oise-Aisne American Cemetery is just north of another ABMC site, the Château-Thierry Monument honoring the battle of Château-Thierry, an important part of military lore. The U.S. Third Division earned the name "Rock of the Marne" for its June 1918 defense of bridgeheads over the strategically crucial Marne River there.The rosebush-lined Oise-Aisne burial site is one of 18 WWI American cemeteries, memorials, and monuments in France that are maintained exquisitely by the American Battle Monuments Commission (ABMC). A total 30,974 American military dead are buried in ABMC cemeteries in other WWI-affected countries.
The stunning art deco Château-Thierry Monument, by French-American architect Paul Philippe Cret, commemorates U.S. and French troops in the pivotal Second Battle of the Marne, plus the nearby major Oise-Aisne offensive and Aisne-Marne offensive. Two heroic elongated human figures, representing U.S. and France, hold hands on the memorial's west façade.
The grand sweeping terrace overlooks the Marne River Valley and its rich champagne vineyards, as well as the town of Château-Thierry, birthplace of 17th century poet and fable writer Jean de La Fontaine, and home of Champagne Pannier. I wondered what war or other destruction La Fontaine might have witnessed here in his era.
Champagne: Battlefield and Haven
As a writer myself, I was inspired by the fascinating contradictions of Champagne’s WWI history. I was especially intrigued to learn that the caves or cellars (crayères) of Champagne Pannier and many other fine brands in nearby Reims and Épernay sheltered not only millions of bottles of the wine, but also civilians during WWI. A haven existed below the battles raging above.
So, with guides, I explored the ancient chalk limestone cellars of Champagne Pannier and those of Champagne Taittinger in Reims.
Champagne Pannier's 12th-century limestone caves were a safe harbor for residents throughout much of the area's four-year German occupation, and especially during the 41-day Battle of Château-Thierry. No wonder, because the cellars are more than 98 feet deep.
One of the most interesting sights along the 1.3 mile-long-caves is a 14th-century carving of an archer, uncovered during an archaeological study in 2000. The archer was adopted as its logo in 2002 because an archer, like fine champagne, must have elegance, precision, and balance, the Pannier guide explained.
The Great War (1914-1918) devastated the entire Champagne area of northern France. That region alone lost more than half its population, and an estimated 40 percent of its vineyards, according to the Kladstrups and other sources.
The destruction was symbolized by the near-razing of Reims, the former regional capital of Champagne, and its magnificent Notre-Dame de Reims Cathedral, eighty-to-ninety-percent destroyed. Twenty-five French kings had been crowned at this Gothic cathedral dating back to 1212. The Rockefeller family funded much of the Reims Cathedral's reconstruction, and now it is a UNESCO Heritage Site.
Due partly to this history, UNESCO granted World Heritage Site status in 2015 to "Champagne Hillsides, Houses and Cellars," including the Avenue de Champagne in Épernay. Reims and Épernay, 15 miles apart, are the two most renowned cities of the region.
Late in the war, "the entire champagne industry was forced to move its operations into the crayères," the Kladstrups noted. "Virtually all of the champagne firms suffered serious damage" from the Germans' "Big Bertha," a cannon that propelled artillery shells as far as 75 miles.
The 60-feet-deep, 2.5-mile-long caves that now belong to Champagne Taittinger date from the 4th century, when Gallo-Roman slaves cut slabs of limestone to build the city of Durocortorum (now Reims). One of the most fascinating parts of the Taittinger caves is the ruins of the 13th-century Saint Nicaise Abbey, destroyed during the French Revolution.
During WWI, hundreds of Reims' citizens sheltered in the caves -- as did French and German troops, when they occupied the city. These cellars, like others, were used also as a hospital for French soldiers, a school, and even a playground. Hospital cots, archaic medical equipment, and some uniforms remain in the Taittinger cellars.
I was so moved to see remnants of these rudimentary medical items that helped save lives in these dark, dank caves. And the carvings of soldiers brought to life their fear, despair, and also hope.
Graffiti in French and in German is carved into the walls of chalk, a soft, fine-textured type of limestone. The graffiti ranges from sad to sunny, and from artful to primitive. The most poignant was in French, translating to "I am on the front lines since the first day of war." Another is a three-leaf clover beneath a sunburst. Some depict the spiked German helmets. One shows a woman's dreamy face within a heart shape.
During the tours and tastings, I continued to learn how, miraculously, La Champagne region and le champagne wine have managed to survive and thrive throughout war and peace. After each tour in the caves, our group toasted to peace and freedom with glasses of the delicious drink.
As I raised my glass, I had a fantasy like the founder of the great Taittinger champagne house, Pierre Taittinger, had when he was a World War I cavalry officer headquartered nearby. He had promised himself that he would own a champagne house one day if he survived the war. Taittinger certainly fulfilled his promise. But alas, my dream of owning a champagne house must remain an evanescent, effervescent-inspired fantasy.
Pol Roger by Cynthia Parzych and John Turner.In nearby Épernay, the heroic deeds of Maurice Pol-Roger, head of Pol Roger Champagne and the city's mayor, are still celebrated today. He was one of the few officials who did not flee when Germans invaded Épernay on September 4, 1914. "I will stay no matter what happens, to reassure and to comfort those who wish to leave but cannot. And I will do all that is humanly possible to defend them," Pol-Roger said, according to the book
I felt thankful for Mayor Pol-Roger’s persistence because it's my favorite brand, probably because it was famously Winston Churchill's preferred brand. The best-known, most loyal customer of Pol Roger Champagne was the formidable former British Prime Minister.
I learned that Churchill’s career in World War I was almost as disastrous as his World War II leadership was victorious. In 1915, as First Lord of the Admiralty, Churchill helped plan the failed Dardanelles naval campaign, and also the military landings on Gallipoli, both of which incurred heavy losses. Churchill was demoted and resigned from government. He became an army officer and served on the Western Front until early 1916, according to Britain's Imperial War Museum’s website.
Churchill is widely quoted as crediting champagne for his rebound during WWII. When drinking champagne, "The nerves are braced, the imagination is equally stirred; the wits become more nimble," he said. The prime minister even spurred on the troops by saying, "Remember, gentlemen, it's not just France we are fighting for, it's champagne."
So it’s no wonder Churchill often quoted Napoleon, "'I cannot live without champagne. In victory I deserve it, and in defeat I need it.'"
Marsha Dubrow earned an M.F.A. in Writing and Literature at Bennington College, which published her chapbook, Single Blessedness. Her work has appeared in literary journals, anthologies, and major magazines. Dubrow is a Contributor to U.S. News & World Report, MSN, DCist, among others. She is a volunteer editor for the National Archives and the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, and was a Correspondent for Life and Reuters.