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The Cocktail That Won the Great War

The Cocktail That Won the Great War

From WWI to today, the French 75 stands for the resilience of the human spirit and the ability to find pleasure amidst terrible circumstances.

John Maxwell Hamilton, Carolyn Stewart

Somewhere between the Espresso Martini and the Old Fashioned, on cocktail menus the globe over lies a remnant of World War I propaganda—the French 75. The Soixante Quinze (as the French call it)is a cocktail that initially contained gin, grenadine, lemon juice, and apple brandy, but also the hope and pride of a nation at war. It’s gone on to become the most elastic of cocktails, containing everything from the more traditional champagne to peach liqueur and curry-flavored gin. Today, the French 75 has seemingly unlimited iterations for its imbibers to enjoy. 

If you’ve sipped a French 75 cocktail, then you are part of a long, and arguably successful, propaganda campaign by the French government to direct its citizens’ minds towards wartime victory. The cocktail was the namesake of France’s Canon de 75mm Modèle 1897, the first modern artillery field gun. The cannon was a technological marvel favored by Allies and feared by the Germans. It contributed to France’s victory against the Germans in 1918, which we continue to celebrate each year on November 11, Armistice Day.

For the cocktail-drinking citizens of Paris, the frontline in World War I was a mere ninety minutes away. Yet they felt it was their patriotic duty to continue life as if nothing had changed, and the French 75 cocktail offered them a tangible symbol of French heroism and military might. As such, it was an ideal vehicle for a February 1915 fundraising campaign to send packages to soldiers on the front lines. Les Annales exhorted, “Why is the hero of this day the 75 gun? Because, from the beginning of hostilities, this admirable defender gave us hope. Because it was there, as was French valor. Because it stands for, in the eyes of the whole world, the approaching victory. Give on February 7—and there will be joy in the trenches."

The origins of the French 75 cocktail have been largely forgotten. When it comes to remembering the Great War, we focus on the grim fact that there was little “joy in the trenches.” But the French 75 stands for the resilience of the human spirit and the ability to find pleasure amidst terrible circumstances. It shows us how a drink—with a name redolent of good times as much as of war—can become “famous for being famous,” to borrow from historian Danial Boorstin’s trope on celebrity. A deep dive into the drink’s origins offers an opportunity both to remember the end of the Great War and to celebrate an iconic cocktail that stayed in service after the French 75 cannons were silenced.

On a rainy Sunday morning in February 1915, women fanned out across France carrying emblems of the French 75 cannon. Passersby dropped coins into baskets hanging around the women’s necks and plucked out one of the various medals—some simple and some elaborate—suspended from a red, white, and blue ribbon, the colors of the French flag. “No one would have dared to continue walking with an undecorated buttonhole,” a French artilleryman recalled. Some patriots did not stop at buying one medal; they wanted one of each individual type. 

Twenty-two million medals ended up in buttonholes that day. The coins donated for them piled up to nearly five-and-a-half million francs. “The glorification of the 75 gave our soldiers a sense of well-being. It also created a great feeling of fraternal union among all French people,” the same artilleryman avowed in a book he ostensibly wrote, Notre 75: Une Merveille du Génie Français–Our 75: A Marvel of French IngenuityIt was a beautifully produced volume with a pop-up representation of the gun on a cardboard flyleaf endsheet. Another expression of war propaganda, it appeared shortly after the fundraising event.

The creation story of this field gun marvel added to its patriotic mystique. Development of the French 75 mm cannon began in secret following France’s humiliating defeat in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71. The French hid the funding for the project in their budget and disseminated disinformation to disguise their work. The military did not acknowledge the existence of their new hyper-secret artillery piece until Bastille Day 1899, two years after it had gone into mass production. Even then, details on the gun remained classified. The piece was designed so that artillerymen could easily blow-up classified components of the weapon if the enemy were about to overrun their position. 

The Canon de 75mm Modèle 1897 gave the French an advantage when the Great War broke out. It was the first modern field gun: Unlike its predecessors, whose entire structure lurched backward when a round was fired, only the French 75’s barrel recoiled; the carriage holding the barrel stayed put thanks to its innovative hydro-pneumatic recoil mechanism. Because the gunners did not have to reposition the carriage for the next shot, they could rapidly reload and fire. The French 75 could fire anywhere from fifteen up to thirty rounds a minute. Additionally, the artillery piece was capable of indirect fire. As historian David Stevenson summed it up, the French 75 mm cannon delivered “intense and accurate surprise bombardment from a hidden position.”

The French 75 helped to stop the German advance toward Paris. Afterward, when belligerents settled in to protracted trench warfare, artillery took on greater importance than it had in the past. In the Franco-Prussian War the ratio of artillery pieces to soldiers was 1:350; in the latter part of the Great War, the ratio was 1:60. The steady artillery bombardment kept the opposing sides in their trenches. Hours of shelling preceeded planned attackes, in order to clear obstacles and demoralize the enemy. “There are no words between the covers of the dictionary which can convey any adequate idea of what one of these great artillery actions is like,” American war correspondent E. Alexander Powell wrote. 

Powell was one of the few American journalists to get to the front lines in the early stages of the war. The Allies facilitated the trip because of its propaganda value. In letters to his parents, Powell frankly acknowledged that he wanted to advertise “the wonderful work the French are accomplishing.” His admiring coverage focused on the role of artillery and especially on the contribution of the 75 mm cannon. In one of his quickly written Great War books, Vive la France!, published in 1915, Powell observed, “The guns to which the French owe their success in Champagne, the guns which may well prove the deciding factor in this war, are not the cumbersome siege pieces or the mammoth navel cannon, but the mobile, quick-firing, never-tiring, hard-hitting, ‘seventy-fives,’ whose fire, the Germans resentfully exclaim, is not deadly but murderous.” 

The French 75 mm cannon offered a bright spot of hope when it was most needed. It quickly became inculcated into the material culture of French daily life. Its inspirational image appeared on mugs, spoons, posters, and board games; cigarette holders and inkwells; wine bottles and chocolates; and even as a set of romantic postcards (“L’Artillerie de L’Amour”). The warfighting cannon soon became cocktail canon, and it’s little wonder that the enthusiasm and hope it engendered spilled over into spirited experimentation. 

The cocktail’s origins remain shrouded in mystery, but many credit Henry Tépé of Henry’s Bar in Paris with the potent combination of dry gin, apple brandy, grenadine, and a dash of lemon juice. In 1915, the recipe made its way to the United States when Powell came home to promote the war effort. The Washington Herald reported his description of the cocktail and is connection to French battlefields. After the war, an equally powerful version appeared at Harry’s New York Bar in Paris. It was fueled by calvados (a French apple brandy), gin, grenadine, and a touch of absenthe.

The Roaring Twenties brought a lighter formulation of the cocktail that reigns supreme to this day, involving a base of champagne fortified with gin, lemon juice, and powdered sugar (or more often today, simple syrup). As Harry Craddock noted in his 1930 The Savoy Cocktail Book, the blend “hits with remarkable precision.”

So heady was the link between the cocktail and the artillery field gun that romanticism set in. One apocryphal story asserts that members of the Lafayette Escadrille, a unit largely made up of American volunteer fighter pilots, invented the French 75 to salute fallen comrades. (The problem here is that the unit was founded in 1916, a year after the drink was first mentioned in the press.) Others imagine that French pilots drank their 75s out of a 75 cannon brass casing, and still others assert that French soldiers drank the cocktail before going into battle. In an attempt to allay such wild conjecture, Powell reported that, in observing soldiers in the lead up to battle, “I have never seen spirits of any kind in use in the zone of operations.” His efforts to debunk canards about tipsy fighting Frenchmen met with little success. 

Propaganda is intoxicating. But who can deny that the French 75 cocktail, and French café culture in general, helped French citizens endure the emotional tolls of war?

In the early days following Germany’s declaration of war, it was a matter of pride that normal French life went on as usual. Parisians drank in bars, visited the theatre, and patronized shops. The phenomenon is alive and well currently in Ukraine’s capital, where cafes are packed, and the National Philharmonic of Ukraine provided a lively program of summer performances. A Ukrainian reporter offered her perspective when we asked about Kyiv’s hopping nightlife: “When each day might be your last, you focus on living.” In the midst of so much disruption, one can’t overlook the emotional resilience offered by a bit of joy, companionship, and a moment of normalcy. 

The early months of Covid-19 tell a similar tale. The pandemic lockdown disrupted every aspect of daily life and sense of security. When the hospitality industry tanked, Washington, D.C. bartender Chantal Tseng took her practice online. Renowned for her creative cocktails inspired by literature, Tseng had to find ways to adapt to the needs of her patrons. “The home bar was the only bar,” she told us, and people were looking for “ways to commune with a drink while separate.” She began offering virtual cocktail classes, and created a service called Custom Cocktails for End Times, where she’d concoct bespoke cocktail recipes customized to whatever was lingering in your home liquor cabinet. The French 75, in its own way, was also a cocktail adapted to trying times—with the champagne region decimated and wine being diverted to the French front, the original formulation of the cocktail could be made with the remaining ingredients on hand.

Tseng’s gambit on adaptive bartending took off. Despite the existential anxiety gripping the world, orders for custom cocktail recipes flooded in. From Switzerland to South Africa, people were seeking a little excitement and novelty to enliven their stark reality. “It was nice to be able to curate lovely experiences amidst the horror that was the pandemic,” she told us. “Folks that didn’t regularly see their friends or families that lived far away actually found they were connecting more regularly.” As extraneous as a home-crafted cocktail or virtual happy hour may seem, as a form of social connectedness in hard times, it’s tough to beat. Consider this a formal bid on our part to retroactively award bartenders with “first-responder” status. 

Over time, the urge to toast the Allied victory in the Great War faded. As new weapon technology came along, the 75 mm gun was decommissioned, except for ceremonial salutes. The inkwells with statues of the gun became war memorabilia, as did the medals and all the rest—all, that is, save the cocktail. 

The French 75 cocktail is flourishing around the world. The New Orleans restaurant Arnaud’s, which started a French 75 Bar with a cognac based version some years ago, was ground zero for a surge in its modern popularity. The cocktail is now featured widely with quirky ingredients. The French 75 Lounge and Art Gallery in Aurora, Illinois, serves three versions of the cocktail, including one it made up. The upscale Atlas Bar in Singapore recently invented a recipe that could hardly be further from the 1915 original. It includes salt, peach liquor, and a curry-flavored gin from Sri Lanka. Occasionally, a luxe bar shuns the drink because of its “too heavy” military past, but most people find the history quaint, or simply like the name—precisely why Arnaud’s choose the name for its bar.

We think the drink should be savored today in its many iterations while being remembered for what it stood for in the first place.

When the cocktail was created, the 75 mm cannon and the 75 drink were a symbiotic duo. The drink propagandized the war; the war advertised the cocktail. A century later, we have much to gain by approaching the French 75 with a fresh palette and perspective. We can think of the French 75 as a liquid expression of sympathy for the Allied cause, a symbol of hope during dark times, and take a moment to toast the men and women fighting comparable wars today. 

Who knows—our next new cocktail might be a paean to the high-mobility rocket system used in Ukraine, the HIMARS.


John Maxwell Hamilton is a global fellow with the Wilson Center, serves on the faculty for Louisiana State University, and is author of Manipulating the Masses: Woodrow Wilson and the Birth of American Propaganda (2020). This article draws material from his forthcoming book The French 75, to be published in next spring by Louisiana State University Press.

Carolyn Stewart is the acting editor-in-chief of American Purpose, and a writer covering the arts and culture.

Image: Armistice Day Celebrations, Paris, 11 November 1918. An American sailor, an American Red Cross Nurse and two British soldiers celebrating the signing of the Armistice, near the Paris Gate at Vincennes, Paris. (Wikimedia Commons: Imperial War Museum)