Title - The Benedictine Myth
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Benedictine bottle Bénédictine itself has a long history. It is said that the liqueur was first created by a monk, Dom Bernardo Vincelli, in 1510 at the Benedictine abbey at Fécamp on the coast of Normandy. Bénédictine as we know it today is thanks to a wine trader of Fécamp, Alexandre Le Grand, who recreated the liqueur in 1863 after the original recipe had been lost during the upheaval of the French Revolution, and who went on to build the Palais Bénédictine to house both the distillery and his art collection.1

The remarkable fact around which the myth connecting Bénédictine to the Accrington Pals has been spun is that the largest consumer of Bénédictine outside of France is the Burnley Miners’ Club where it is popularly sold as a blend with hot water known as a Bene’n’hot.2

This long-standing myth typically speaks of the taste for Bénédictine having been acquired by the Accrington Pals when they were stationed at Fécamp during the First World War.3 Other writers have correctly relocated the battalion away from Fécamp itself and the relevant timing into 1919, yet continue to lend credence to the story.4

In reality, the battalion that marched into the Belgian village of Goefferdinge on 11th November 1918 was unrecognisable as the Accrington Pals who had gone into action on the opening day of the Battle of the Somme and even less so as the thousand or so men who had joined up from the towns of Accrington, Burnley, Chorley and Blackburn in September 1914. Each of the battalion’s major actions – the Somme in 1916, Oppy-Gavrelle in 1917, Ayette, the Lys, La Becque and Ploegsteert Wood in 1918 – had resulted in hundreds of casualties who for the most part were replaced by men from outside of the battalion’s home towns.

Demobilisation then began to take effect. The coalminers were the first to leave in December 1918, 2 officers and 223 men left in January 1919, and a further 4 officers and 266 men left in February 1919.5 The decision taken by the British Government on 17th January 1918 that all men who had enlisted in 1914 and 1915 were to be demobilised as soon as transport became available to take them home6 would have ensured that very few from the original Accrington Pals remained with the battalion when it first came remotely within reach of Fécamp on arriving at Le Havre on 28th May 1919. While there would have been some Burnley men with the battalion when it reached Le Havre, they would hardly have been in sufficient numbers to have led a revolution in the drinking habits at the Miners’ Club. And even when the remnants of the battalion edged closer to Fécamp, reaching Harfleur on 25th June 1919, they were separated by 36km from the source of the liqueur – at best, a journey of an hour-and-a-half by train.7

The myth is exploded completely if we believe the late Tony Bell who, in his book, Owt & Nowt: The story of a Working Men’s Club, asserted that "The first twenty-four bottles of Benedictine were delivered to the Club on the 22nd December 2018, just in time for Christmas. Two weeks after the initial delivery, the first week of January 1919, a further order for 100 bottles was sent…This was followed by an order marked urgent on 16th March 1919 for another 200 bottles."8 If true, the surge in popularity of the liqueur in Burnley happened well before the Accrington Pals reached Normandy. It is unfortunate that Tony gave no sources for his information, and enquiries at both the Miners’ Club and the Palais Bénédictine have drawn a blank.9

Tony went on to point to the 5th Battalion of the East Lancashire Regiment – the Burnley Territorials – being introduced to the drink. He quotes from a letter said to have been written from a casualty clearing station at Yport by a mortally-wounded Private Archy Wilson to his wife, Clementine: "Our nurse brought round a very nice drink with hot water in it called Benedictine. It warmed my heart. Lads of the 5 E Lancs Batt’ are in my ward and they all drink it."10 No trace of Archy Wilson has been found.

Bénédictine was first imported into the United Kingdom in the 1870s11, and before the end of the century was appearing on the wine list at Burnley’s Empress Hotel.12 There is no doubt that its popularity among working men was well-established after the First World War; the evidence in a 1928 court case against a Richard Pollard included the remark that "he could afford to go into the stalls at the Palace and pay for five Benedictines on a Friday night."13 Pollard, as it happens, had fought as a gunner in the war with 330 Brigade of the Royal Field Artillery.14

There is still no definitive explanation for the extraordinary popularity of Bénédictine in Burnley. What is clear is that there was no need to be in the vicinity of Fécamp to acquire a taste for the liqueur. Indeed, the published history of the Leinster Regiment records that in January 1917, when its 2nd Battalion was out of the line, "…luxury was the order of the day. Les Brebis, not three thousand yards from the enemy, supplied eggs and Benedictine, and lived its usual life unharmed…"15 Les Brebis is no longer found on maps. The Pas-de-Calais village lay between the towns of Mazingarbe and Bully-les-Mines in an area known to the troops as "The Egg and Chips Front" owing to the ready availability of hot meals and good billets.16 From the experience of the Leinsters, Bénédictine could also be found there. On 22nd December 1917, 5th East Lancashire came out of the line on "The Egg and Chips Front" and went into billets in the village of Le Préolan. Christmas was celebrated three days later, the divisional history recording that "Rations were supplemented lavishly from canteen funds, and there was no lack of cash, for it was intended that the men should have a good time."17

Might the 1917 Christmas celebrations of the Burnley Territorials have sparked the later demand for Bénédictine at the Miners’ Club? It is surely a more plausible explanation than the appearance of the Accrington Pals on the Normandy coast late in May 1919.

Notes

  1. https://www.benedictinedom.com/flamboyant-palais/about-us/ (accessed 3rd November 2019). [back]
  2. See for example: https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p06r87t9 (accessed 30th October 2019). [back]
  3. See for example: Decanter, 1976, Volume 2, page 107. [back]
  4. See for example an article written by William Turner (accessed 20th November 2019). [back]
  5. War Diary, 11th Battalion, East Lancashire Regiment, TNA WO 95/2358. [back]
  6. The British Army Demobilisation Strikes in 1919 by William Butler, Stand To!, No. 116, October 2019, pages 74-78. [back]
  7. https://www.wikiwand.com/fr/Ligne_du_Havre-Graville_à_Tourville-les-Ifs (accessed 20th November 2019). [back]
  8. Owt & Nowt: The Story of a Working Men’s Club by Tony Bell (Tony Bell, 2002), page 166. [back]
  9. Communications of 20th January 2013 from Alan Kennedy, secretary of the Miners’ Club, and 22nd January 2013 from Sébastien Roncin, archivist at Palais Bénédictine. [back]
  10. Owt & Nowt, pages 169-170. [back]
  11. Harper’s Manual 1920, page 385. [back]
  12. The Burnley Gazette, 28th July 1897, page 1. [back]
  13. The Burnley News, 29th August 1928, page 7. [back]
  14. http://www.burnleyinthegreatwar.info/burnleyservedp.htm (accessed 20th November 2019). [back]
  15. The History of the Prince of Wales's Leinster Regiment - Volume 2 by Lieutenant-Colonel Frederick Ernest Whitton (Naval and Military Press, 2016), page 342. [back]
  16. Egypt, Gallipoli, France and Flanders with the 42nd (East Lancashire) Division in the Great War 1914-1919 by Bill Kennedy MM (Neil Richardson, 1990), page 38. [back]
  17. The 42nd East Lancashire Division 1914-1918 by Frederick P. Gibbon (Country Life, 1920), page 117. [back]

© Andrew C Jackson 2019
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