Civilian Estaminets
25 July 2017

Estaminets were small shops established by French and Belgian civilians near the front lines that operated as a mix of bar, pub, restaurant and café for troops once pulled off the line (Pegler, Soldiers’ Songs And Slang of The Great War, p. 86). Amidst the destruction of war, they could be found in the form of half-ruined houses, shelters scrounged out of scrap materials, army Nissen huts re-claimed by civilians, and as proper store-fronts in nearly deserted villages. The civilian family that ran the estaminet often lived on the premises and took the opportunity to make a small income by selling coffee, alcohol and food to the soldiers who came off the line for rest periods. With the gutting of local economy in wartime, estaminets were often the few sources of steady income for those near the lines.

An elderly lady serves coffee to British troops at a French estaminet behind the lines at Croix-du-Bac, near Armentière.
© IWM (Q 635)

“Usually small with the barest of wooden tables and chairs and warmed by a huge iron stove. They were almost exclusively run by ‘madame’ often aided by her attractive daughters”, lending itself to plenty of attempted conversations in muddled pidgin French (Pegler,  Soldiers’ Songs And Slang of The Great War, p. 86). The most popular estaminet fare was eggs and fried potato chips (“Bombardier Fritz” to the soldiers), believed to be a “wartime invention due to the difficulty of finding meat” (Pegler,  Soldiers’ Songs And Slang of The Great War, p. 84).

Estaminets were such a cherished and symbolic institution to the frontline troops that an entire mock French village, full of estaminets, was built for the Canadian Corps Reunion of 1934. True to form, they too were scenes of raucous entertainment, laughter and letting loose.

The following quote from the memoir of a Canadian highlights the antics and revelry that went on at estaminets:

“Joe got into an argument in an estaminet one day getting hit on the head with a pick handle. Old Doc. Mothersill M.O. told him it was lucky he had no brains or he would have suffered from concussion. When Joe had a few drinks he would start to give a representation of a bear eating blueberries. He could certainly make some unearthly noises during this performance. At a certain stage of inebriation he would start to talk on theology and he had a surprising and wide knowledge of the subject…” (IriamIn The Trenches, 1914-1918, p. 121). 

This interior view of an estaminet depicts their varying nature, at times constructed from foraged materials of the battlefield. Here, an estaminet has been created out of a Nissen hut and converted dugout near Ypres.
IWM (Q 100380) – © Jeremy Gordon-Smith