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Estaminets

From Lt Bernard Adams’s diary 13th October 1915: ‘It is a strange place, this belt of land behind the firing-line. The men are out of the trenches for three days, and it is their duty, after perhaps a running parade before breakfast and two or three hours’ drill and inspection in the morning to rest for the remainder of the day ... in the afternoon you will see groups of Tommies doing nothing most religiously, smoking cigarettes, writing letters home. From six to eight the estaminets are open, and everyone flocks to them to get bad beer.’

What were these estaminets? They’re well described by ex-privates John Brophy and Eric Partridge in their Dictionary of Tommie’s Songs and Slang from 1930. ‘On the Western Front an estaminet was not a pub.

Neither was it a café or a restaurant. It had some of the qualities of all three. It was never large and was found only in villages and very minor towns. It had low ceilings, an open iron stove; it was warm and fuggy; it had wooden benches and table. It sold wine, cognac and thin beer, as well as coffee, soup, eggs and chips and omelettes. The proprietress (a proprietor was unthinkable) had a daughter or two, or nieces, or younger sisters who served at table and made no objection to tobacco smoke and ribald choruses in English and pidgin French.

No doubt some estaminets overcharged but in general they provided for the soldier off duty behind the line many a happy hour. The name had a magical quality in 1914-19 – and still has for those who survive.’

But their main attraction was the absence of officers. Here men could release their bodies from readiness to sudden salute. There was food and drink, safety from shelling and female attention. And they could loosen their tongues.

One of the best ways to let off steam was to sing, so the estaminets were perfect for creating and spreading soldier’s versions of popular songs. To the tune of Auld Lang Syne they’d sing ‘We’re here because we’re here, because we’re here, because we’re here’. To the tune of My Love is Like a Red, Red Rose, they’d sing:

‘I have no pain, dear mother, now, but oh! I am so dry.
Connect me to a brewery and leave me there to die.’

At a time when you could hire a piano for a shilling a week, many could play and most would sing. Capt J.C. Dunn later described informal concerts at estaminets: ‘Fellowship gave these cabarets a favour the organised entertainments never drew. The performers were inspirited and repaid by the house with free drinks.’

But hierarchy returned at eight o’clock sharp when military police arrived to flush out the revellers. Thence the sobering trudge back to billets.