Women, Warriors & Wine
It is a long acknowledged truth that the hardships of war often force men to drink, and drink heavily. In Anglo Saxon England the brutality of the shield wall style of combat made drinking vast quantities compulsory before a fight. Throughout history the suppressed anxiety and fear of an army would be unleashed after battle, resulting in frantic pillaging often fueled by ‘liberated’ wine cellars.
It is no surprise therefore, that many armies have sought to regiment the consumption and supply of wine to their troops in a more controlled manner, keeping them within camp and within view of their officers. So we come to the typically French rank of ‘Vivandière’. The vivandière, or cantinière, was a person (usually female) attached to a regiment who would facilitate the supply of wine and other commodities to the troops in a bid to maintain moral on campaign. The position was formally created in the eighteenth century and lasted right up until the First World War.
This was something beyond an armies daily ration, a little bit of luxury to brighten up a day. For the French soldier, drawn from all corners of France, it was a taste of home. A relief from the mundanity and drudgery of the long campaigns. Vivandière went with troops to North Africa, the French Colonies and throughout the Napoleonic Campaigns. They became famous for offering comfort in even the hardiest of situations, bringing food and wine to troops even under fire and being rightly recognised for their gallantry in doing so. In 1797 for instance, one Marie Dauranne (a Vivandière with the 51st Demi Brigade) was decorated by Napoleon for saving two French soldiers from drowning whilst crossing a river in Italy.
It was said that the quality of a Vivandière’s wine ‘is in inverse proportion to her beauty’, as a young soldier would pay to sit next to a pretty woman regardless of what was in his glass. Yet these women were clearly not just waitresses. They were also ingenious, creating portable tonnelets with brass taps to distribute their drinks, often divided between brandy and wine. They were cooks, launderettes, wives, mothers and warriors. Some opted to fight alongside the men in the harshest of conditions, such as Algiers in the 1830’s. One observer in North Africa observed – ‘In the event of a charge a charge she stations herself behind the second platoon; if a square is formed, she takes her place in the centre… she goes from one wounded man to another, tenderly providing assistance, and distributing glasses of wine or brandy… these women have rendered singular service to humanity’.
The Spanish also saw the benefits of just such an appointment, encouraging their own cantieres in the latter 19th Century. Likewise, when American observers came to observe European armies fighting in the Crimea it was the notion of the cantinière which they took back to across the Atlantic. So it was that vivandieres served on both sides of the American Civil War. It’s easy to forget however, that they were not entirely saintly. The prices vivandières could charge on the eve of battle for a glass of wine perhaps made the risks seem all the more worthwhile.
Regardless of some motives of greed, the vivandières rightfully became a cultural phenomenon for the French. By the twentieth century the there were poems, plays and uniforms. The singular comfort that these women brought to men facing the harshest of conditions cannot be underestimated.