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Wine in war: The origins of 'plonk'

AWM E00420


Posted on 22 January 2018

On the Western Front, French cafés provided respite from the gruelling existence of trench warfare.

Infantryman Maurice Graffet Neal recalled: ‘In spite of all this we got a good deal of fun … at times. More so when we had any cash and had been in the estaminets with ‘vin rouge’ and ‘vin blanc’ to keep us cheerful.’

During the war many Australian soldiers developed a taste for vin blanc or vin rouge. In contrast to today’s regional varieties in France that are subjected to strict quality control, these wines were known for being cheap and cheerful.

Diggers referred to them as ‘vin blank’ and ‘vin roush’, leading to the slang for being drunk (‘von blinked’) and hung-over (‘point blanc’). It is also likely a variation of these references led to the enduring term ‘plonk’, meaning cheap, low-quality wine.

Historian Nick Johnson found that wine was plentiful, though not so much among Commonwealth troops.

A month after the war began, the French Army issued its soldiers with a daily wine ration – a pinard, a low-quality red wine likened to petrol or manure (according to the marching song, ‘Ode to Pinard’).

French infantrymen received 500ml of wine a day and, if wine wasn’t available, it was substituted with beer, cider or brandy. Brandy was often issued just before an attack, as ‘liquid courage’.

In spite of all this we got a good deal of fun … at times. More so when we had any cash and had been in the estaminets with ‘vin rouge’ and ‘vin blanc’ to keep us cheerful. – Infantryman Maurice Graffet Neal

Red wine, however, remained the most common alcoholic drink and, on special occasions, spiced or sparkling wine was served.
British policy (and that of Australia) was more conservative. Commonwealth soldiers, apart from Muslim men from Britain’s imperial possessions, received a daily rum ration.

One ounce (28ml) was usually issued in the morning and sometimes mixed with tea or coffee.

Soldier and poet Siegfried Sassoon recalled in his memoirs: ‘We’d got some rum inside us and could find something to laugh about. Our laughter leapt up, like the flames of camp fires in the dusk, soon to be stamped out.’

War changed the French wine industry forever by destroying much of the landscape, including parts of the Champagne region, but wines were still produced in underground cellars, using fruit picked by women and children.

After the war, vineyards were re-established with more planning and, in 1935, the French government set up the legal designation Appellation d’orgine contrôlée, creating new winemaking laws and 12 main regions.

The contested northern territory of Alsace was returned to France and it, along with Lorraine, Chablis and Champagne, are now world renowned, especially for their whites, notably Champagne.

But vin rouge or vin blanc are still served in restaurants and cafés today, in carafes and pitchers.


[1] Maurice Graffet Neal. A Long Way to Tipperary: Bombs, Bullets and Bravery in the Trenches of World War I.

[1] Siegfried Sassoon. Memoirs of an Infantry Officer. London : Faber & Faber, 1931. 84.

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