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Anson: Living through wartime Bordeaux

Jane Anson draws on interviews, memoirs and diary accounts from Bordeaux's wine world to report on life in the region during World War II, 80 years on from the beginning of the Nazi Occupation.

The following is an extract from a chapter I wrote for On Bordeaux, an anthology of writings about the region that is being published this week by Académie du Vin Library.

‘The military presence was everywhere. The tentacles of the German administration reached throughout the Occupied Zone, and no doubt extended well into the Free Zone. Access to supplies disappeared extremely quickly after the soldiers arrived.’

This is from the diary of the late Jean-Paul Gardère, a wine broker and former director of Château Latour, who gave me a copy of them – loose-leaf, hand-typed with scrawled additions studded in the margins throughout – a few years before his death in 2014.

They make for fascinating, sombre reading of a time that remains little spoken of in Bordeaux, despite the fact that 2020 marks a full 80 years since Nazi troops reached the city to begin an occupation that lasted from 28 June 1940 until 28 August 1944.

You can still find reminders. Most obviously the submarine base with its 10-metre thick reinforced concrete walls stands in downtown Bordeaux, now site of the biggest digital art space in Europe. Along the coast, remnants of the Regelbau bunkers and other military defences are still visible, if increasingly half-buried in sand.

You can even find wartime graffiti in the limestone cellars beneath Château Franc Mayne in St-Emilion, as on the attic walls of Château Palmer in Margaux.

Don and Petie Kladstrup’s brilliant Wine and War covers certain parts of the war in Bordeaux – mainly the ‘weinführer’ Heinz Bömers, and négociants like Louis Eschenauer, who worked closely enough with Bömers to be later found guilty of collaboration.

We see less about what everyday life was like during the war years. Some stories here have been shared directly with me; those of Gardère, but also Jean-Michel Cazes, Jacques de Boüard, May-Éliane de Lencquesaing, Daniel Lawton and others.

Added to these are things I have learnt from memoirs, letters, châteaux archives, local history books and university dissertations.

Piecing all of these memories together paints a picture of a region that was both protected and exposed because of its strategic importance.

The same thing attracted the German army to Bordeaux as has always attracted people to this place – its port, and its location on the Gironde Estuary that made it a vital conduit for transporting men and material.

Within hours of arrival the invading army had set up checkpoints, requisitioned homes, unfurled Nazi flags, taken control of the port and set up gun emplacements. The port teemed with soldiers, and the city as a whole was crammed with refugees, many from northern France who had arrived on foot in fear of the occupying army sweeping them out of their homes.

The population of the city swelled from 250,000 to one million people, putting further pressure on shops that were already being cleared out by German soldiers sending fabrics, jam, coffee, chocolate and cigarettes back home to their families.

This was just a week after the Armistice had been signed, which itself came a few days after 12 German bombers had killed 65 and wounded 160 in a bombing raid in the heart of Bordeaux city – in a move design to put pressure on the French government to sign the ceasefire.

Five Gironde parliamentarians had been among the 80 across France who said no to the Armistice, calling it treasonous.

One of these was Jean-Emmanuel Roy, mayor of Naujan et Postiac in Entre-Deux-Mers, and himself a winemaker who was instrumental in the founding of France’s appellation laws. But like so many others, he then had no choice but to watch it happen.

The demarcation line that divided France into two was created at midnight on the morning of 25 June 1940, and passed through the Bordeaux region, almost exactly halfway between Castillon (Occupied) and Ste-Foy-la-Grande (Free France, under Vichy government control) down through Sauveterre-de-Guyenne in Entre-Deux-Mers to Langon in the southern tip of the Graves.

Barsac, Sauternes, Libourne, St-Emilion, the Médoc, most of the Graves and Bordeaux city were all occupied.

Châteaux were immediately requisitioned by German soldiers. In St-Emilion that included Soutard, Trottevieille, Clos Fourtet and Ausone – where the German general went to great lengths to ensure he had peace and quiet, stationing guards at every entry point to the Château to ensure no one could enter.

Over in the Médoc, the first châteaux to be occupied were those with British or Jewish links, most famously those belonging to the Sichels, the Bartons and the Rothschilds, or those with strategic locations, such as Grand-Puy-Ducasse on the Pauillac waterfront.

Closer to the city, Haut-Brion’s owners first turned it into a hospital for French soldiers, but it was then seized by Germans and turned into a rest home for the Luftwaffe.

At the same time, the Germans set up a whole series of measure to limit the circulation of people, goods and the postal traffic between two zones either side of the ‘Demarcation Line’.

Josette de Boüard, who would go on to marry Christian de Boüard of Château Angélus in 1945, remembered in a written history of St-Emilion that for first year after the Armistice, it was impossible to telephone or even send a postcard from one side to the other. However, her husband remembers how aged 17 in 1941 he smuggled a pig over the line with the local baker, butchering it in the cellars of the Château.

Gardère wrote that 1941 ‘was undoubtedly the most difficult year of the war. I am sure the administration did what it could, but a lead weight lay across France’.

He recounted that the population ‘lived in permanent fear, struck dumb and in daily worry of finding food’. Electricity was on only once or twice-a-week, and imports were cut off, meaning fuel and food supplies dwindled to almost nothing.

May-Eliane de Lencquesaing, long-time owner of Château Pichon Comtesse de Lalande in Pauillac, wrote in her diaries that the vegetable gardens at the châteaux became increasingly important – even though, she added, the gravel soils of the Médoc were never much good at growing anything but vines…

‘Our everyday life is marked by a total lack of basic goods, little heating, a very restricted diet with no sugar, little bread, almost no meat, butter does not exist,’ she wrote. ‘We live according to the rhythm of the season, we grind corn to make a rough flour which serves for the base of most of our food. We roast barley for fake coffee’.

Gardère’s diaries list rations that included 250g of bread per day for women and children (about one baguette), 350g of bread for manual workers and 100g of meat per month. Milk, butter, cheese and vegetable oils were almost never available. Cigarettes came with a ration of five packets every 10 days, and wine was only available for manual labourers, who were allowed around three litres per month.

Any men in the Médoc aged 20 to 40 who had not gone off to fight were sent to build the Atlantic Wall along Soulac, Le Verdun, Montalivet and Arcachon. He remembered they would head off in the morning with wine in cans, and return in the evening, trying where possible to do small acts of resistance, or ‘petit sabotage’ as he put it. Examples included ‘putting as much sand in the bricks as possible to ensure the defences weren’t strong’.

The black market flourished from 1942, where ‘the clever got very rich and the rest got poorer than ever’. Gardère recalled certain restaurants that would never ask for your ration tickets ‘for a price’.

He was writing this around 20 years after the war, trying to capture the memories, and said, ‘my exact figures might be a little off, but I clearly remember the bread rations, and how you could buy fake bread coupons on the black market. If your baker knew you well, sometimes he would accept them and hide them in the middle of the real coupons.’

Bicycles, he wrote, were like gold-dust, and almost anything you wanted had to be swapped for something else – so a bottle of wine for a bag of potatoes, and ‘bad luck for those who had nothing to swap’. Life was easier in the countryside than it was in big towns like Bordeaux, and everyone tried to find relatives with vegetable gardens.

By the end of 1943 and into 1944, the Allied bombings increased in intensity. Gardère, who lived in Soussans just outside Margaux, built a bomb shelter that was 2m long and 80cm wide, dug into his garden, covered with a frame with earth piled on top. ‘Plenty of people laughed at me, but when the Allies starting bombing Pauillac and Blaye on 5 August 1944, they were lining up to get inside.’

Jean-Michel Cazes remembers that, on that same day a few miles up the road, he was sat aged nine with his eight-year-old sister at Château Lynch-Bages, watching the bombs fall ‘like fireworks’ on Pauillac town centre.

Their mother was taking shelter in Pauillac, barely 1km away from the Château, in a trench not unlike the one that Gardère had dug, with nothing but her handbag over her head for protection.

Forty-five locals died in those raids, carried out by 306 Lancaster Bombers and 30 Mosquitos from the RAF and American airforce. Cazes also remembers that a few decades after the war, when he was over in Texas, he met one of the pilots who flew the mission.

For much of the population, these moments of high danger were interspersed with life continuing as normal, even among the deprivations. Cazes, who was four at the start of the war and nine at its end, remembers that by 1942 he and his friends had switched from playing German soldiers in the playground to playing Allied soldiers, but most of the time they were fascinated by their new neighbours.

Some of his most vivid memories are of soldiers marching through the streets of Pauillac singing German military songs, or walking in formation to go swimming in a local reservoir, in uniform but with their towels slung over their shoulders. With a father held as a prisoner-of-war, Cazes was given an extra ration of biscuits at school, and was invited every few months to the town hall with other boys whose fathers were interned.

Once-a-month he was able to send a letter – or rather to sign a standard form letter attesting to the fact that everything was fine – and every few months they could send a larger parcel containing jam, cigarettes and other small luxuries.

For the final year of the war they had no news of André Cazes at all, but in August 1945 he made his way home to Pauillac, weighing just 45 kilos, having been liberated by the Russians.


On Bordeaux, Tales of the Unexpected from the World’s Greatest Wine Region, Académie du Vin Library. Decanter readers can get £5 off with the code DECANTER5


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