The Accrington Pals and the Benedictine Connection – or ‘A Bene ‘n ‘ot’ – 1918
It is a remarkable fact that more Benedictine liqueur is drunk in East Lancashire – more specifically the area which includes Accrington, Blackburn and Burnley – than anywhere outside France, and that the Burnley Miners Social Club is to this day, reportedly the world’s biggest single consumer.
The connection dates from at least the days following the end of the First World War, when the 11th (Service) Battalion, East Lancashire Regiment – better known as the famous Accrington Pals – was based in the Le Havre, Harfleur and Fecamp area, close to the Benectine Abbey which produces the liqueur, from June to October 1919.
The Armistice on 11 November 1918 found the Accrington Pals at Gramont, in Belgium. From there they moved back to France, to St Omer, Calais, and Abbeville before being posted to Le Havre in early June 1919, and finally to No 2 Dispatching Camp at Harfleur (now a suburb of Le Havre) on 25 June 1919. This, as the name implies, was a base from which men went to England for demobilisation.
Both those awaiting demobilisation, and men newly posted in to the camp, spent their time on route marches, lectures, football and cricket. It was inevitable that the camp would have a relatively relaxed atmosphere. Everyone, officers and men alike, looked forward to going home for good. There was plenty of free time – time to sight-see, and to dine and drink in the cafes and bars in the area.
The town and port of Fecamp is just over 20 miles from Harfleur. A particular attraction of the town is Le Palais Benedictine, a huge neo-Gothic building in the town centre. Le Palais had produced Benedictine since 1863. It is possible that, in 1919, parties of the Pals visited the distillery. What is more certain is that Benedictine was sold in every café and bar in Harfleur and Le Havre.
Men whose physical condition had suffered in years of fighting, or were still recuperating from wounds and sickness, all agreed that ‘a Bene’ had medicinal properties and a fortifying effect. The liqueur rapidly became the Pals favourite tipple. So when they returned home to East Lancashire, it was inevitable that they began to ask for ‘a Bene.’
Such was the demand for the drink that sales in East Lancashire soon amounted to most of the sales in Britain, and so it has continued to this day.
To keep out the chill of the bleak Lancashire winter, they sought the glowing comfort of a ‘Bene’ with added hot water – a ‘Bene and (h)’ot’: a uniquely English way of drinking Benedictine, still one of the most popular mixed drinks in Lancashire. It can be purchased, for instance, at every home game of Burnley United Football Club (the ‘Clarets’), where its devotees insist that there is no better way of keeping out the winter chill while manning the terraces.
In the 21st Century, there are also other unconventional ways to enjoy Benedictine – with tonic and a dash of lemon juice, or with grapefruit juice, or Café Benedictine (black coffee with a generous tot of Benedictine, topped with whipped cream), to name but three. In the kitchen, fruit cake with Benedictine (soak the ingredients in the liqueur overnight), or Benedictine Tart (soak the raisins overnight), can be made and enjoyed with a glass of Bene as a ‘digestif’.
Of course, the Accrington Pals cannot take all the credit for these modern cocktails and dishes, but at least they forged the first links of this most pleasurable chain that binds so many in East Lancashire to Le Palais in Fecamp.
(The Lancashire Infantry Museum is indebted for this article to the late William Turner, who through years of study and research, probably knew more about the Accrington Pals, or did more to preserve their memory, than anyone else in recent times)