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Champagne and World War One: ‘the darkest hour’

From Champagne houses printing banknotes to harvesting under shellfire, Decanter looks at Champagne during World War One as part of the Armistice Day and Veterans Day commemorations.

Champagne and World War One:

Champagne lost people, vineyards, buildings and markets as a result of vicious fighting during World War One.

Don and Petie Kladstrup, writing in their book Champagne, described World War One as Champagne’s ‘darkest hour’.

They wrote, ‘of all the terrible moments in Champagne’s long history, none was more catastrophic than World War One.’

Champagne quickly found itself on the frontline between the German and Allied armies in autumn 1914 and was thereafter at the centre of the bloody war of attrition that continued for another four years.

Reims cathedral was among the first casualties after German artillery caused the building to catch fire in September 1914.

Champagne harvests during the ‘Great War’ have become famous for being predominantly handled by women and children; most of the men having been conscripted to fight.

The 1914 vintage has since been lauded as one of the 20th Century’s finest in Champagne, but the harvest was a close-run thing in many areas. An Allied offensive forced the Germans to abandon Epernay only a week before picking began, and harvesting was brought forward amid gunfire and shelling.

There were also financial worries. Maurice Pol Roger, of the namesake Champagne house, was mayor of Epernay at the time German troops marched into town on 4 September 1914.

‘All the banks closed once the Germans arrived, so there was no way of getting any money,’ Hubert de Billy, great grandson of Maurice Pol Roger, told guests at the Decanter Fine Wine Encounter in London last weekend.

‘So, he and others decided to begin printing their own banknotes,’ de Billy said.

Epernay banknote 1914

An Epernay emergency banknote from 1914. Credit: Ebay

Several cities and towns across France were given special dispensation to print ’emergency banknotes’ during the war. Some of the notes have since become collectors items.

By 25 September 1915, the second great battle in the Champagne area got underway following a French attack on German lines orchestrated by Marshal Joffre. He abandoned the offensive around one week later.

Years of trench warfare followed and it is estimated that around 40% of Champagne’s vineyards were destroyed by Armistice Day on 11 November 1918.

But, Champagne was still produced. A recent auction of a Krug cellar visit and tasting of the 1915 vintage sold for $116,000 at Sotheby’s in September this year.

After World War One, Champagne lost much custom in two major markets due to the Russian Revolution and US prohibition.

It is quite something, therefore, that Champagne growers and houses now produce around 300m bottles annually.

Sources: ‘Champagne’ by Don & Petie KladstrupDecanter Fine Wine Encounter 2015, FTHowtospendit, Wikipedia

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