I love used bookstores. I go used bookstore-ing (yes, I just made up a verb) the same way others go antiquing. My motivation is similar, though. You never know when one person’s castoff will become another’s treasure. I found my latest treasure at a used bookstore in Charlottesville, Virginia. It’s a 1967 book about Champagne, written by Patrick Forbes – Champagne: The wine, the land and the people. The pages are yellowed and brittle, and it smells of vanilla and dust. And I couldn’t wait to crack it open!
As I started reading my new treasure, I was drawn to what Forbes calls the Historical Perspective of Champagne — how revolution and war shaped and influenced the region. And I thought to myself, History and wine, tangled up together?!? This book is going to be right up my alley!
Champagne is drenched in history, but I jumped into the historical rabbit hole of World War I for today’s words. During that merciless, four year slog (1914-1918), Champagne provided the setting for some of the most decisive battles of the war. But perhaps the most enduring feature of the war in Champagne was its role as unintentional, but official host of the Western Front.
Indulge me in a little background . . .
In early September of 1914, the German Army rolled into Reims. Their objective was to cross the Marne River and from there, waltz their way across the Seine and into Paris. Easy-peasy, right? Wrong. The Allies had other plans. French and British resistance near the Marne was unexpected and fierce, and (long history story short) they repelled the Germans back across the Marne. The Germans would never reach Paris, but they weren’t just going to go home and lick their wounds.
After the Allied victory at the Battle of the Marne, both sides dug in, and adapted to the realities of a new kind of warfare — trench warfare. A criss-cross network of trenches weaved and stretched its way across the chalky vineyards of Champagne, becoming the scene of a four year impasse in which neither side gained significant territory.
World War I also saw new military technologies — artillery and machine guns became the key weapons of war. The no man’s land in between the trenches became a tangle of artillery craters, barbed wire and impending machine gun fire — a lethal combination that made attacking nearly futile (well, futile until the introduction of the tank in 1916).
Life in a trench was a horror show — death and misery on an unimaginable scale. The men who lived and fought in those trenches endured constant artillery bombardments, sniper fire, rats, lice, poison gas, trench foot (which, btw, is something I wish I hadn’t Googled), trench fever, and shell shock. And if you weren’t actively engaged with that walk in the park, you waited for it. Your odds of escaping those realities were, well, almost zippy.
Forbes dedicates an entire chapter to the soldiers of World War I and their experience in Champagne. Forbes asked veterans about their wartime memories (remember, this book was published in 1967, so war veterans would have been in their late sixties or early seventies), and a theme emerged: “If you ask a man who fought in Champagne what his most vivid memory of the campaign is, he replies,
The chalk that in summer lay like virgin snow on hill and plain, ready at a whisper from the wind or flicker of human movement to rise up in furious puffs and shroud man, beast and vehicle in ghostly whiteness; the chalk that in winter became a hell of gray, clinging mud; the chalk that all the year round was lanced with zigzag trenches, pocked with shell holes and mines. The chalk — and the waiting.”
I have chills — I’ve never thought of waiting as such a tense and ominous word.
Newsweek Magazine has some great photographs of the chalk trenches of Champagne, if you’re interested (it’s worth a look).
And what about the Champagne?
Remember, it was September — harvest time. But, all the men of Champagne were at the front (in the trenches). So, the task of bringing in the harvest fell to the women, the elderly, and even the children of Champagne. Often targets themselves (because World War I was a total war — civilians were considered collateral damage), they picked grapes under nearly constant artillery bombardment. Right up until March of 1918, when civilians were ordered to evacuate Champagne,
“the vine in those vineyards continued to be tended. Many growers needed a military permit to get to their plots; many found that shells rained down on them the moment they showed themselves among the rows; but so great was their love of the vine, so strong their determination to save something for those who returned, that day in, day out, they risked — and sometimes gave — their lives for the vines.”
Ironically, 1914 vintage in Champagne is regarded as one of the finest of the 20th century. The 1915 and 1917 vintages are also considered very good. The 1916? Well, you can’t have everything. There was a war going on, after all.
Dangerous conditions were so persistent in Champagne, many of the great Champagne houses opened their underground cellars to the population for protection from the bombings. Children even attended ad hoc school underground. Today, many Champagne cellars still contain, and even preserve graffiti from World War I.
It’s impossible to talk about the terroir of Champagne without talking about chalk. Chalk directly contributes to the clean, crisp, mineral bubbles adored around the globe. But, after reading Forbes’ words, I doubt I will pop open a bottle of Champagne without thinking about the chalk . . . and the waiting.