Centenary of The Battle of the Lys: Remembering Maurice Symington

2nd Lieutenant Maurice Symington’s “mentioned in despatches” commendation, signed by Winston Churchill.

Earlier this week, the President and the Prime Minister of Portugal joined the French President in Paris and then in Richebourg, in French Flanders, to mark the centenary of the Battle of the Lys where the Portuguese Expeditionary Force was attacked by German forces — five times their number. The presidents of both nations laid wreaths during a ceremony at the Portuguese National Cemetery, Richebourg, in memory of the thousands of Portuguese soldiers who lost their lives.

In 1918, Maurice Symington was a 2nd Lieutenant in the Royal Field Artillery, British Army, which he had joined on leaving school in August 1914. Being fluent in Portuguese, he was part of the British Mission to the 55,000 strong ‘Corpo Expedicionário Português’, the Portuguese Expeditionary Force that had joined the Allies in France in 1917.

On 9th of April 1918, 2nd Lieutenant Symington was with the Portuguese Artillery in France just behind the trenches between Armentieres and Festubert when the German Army launched one of the most powerful attacks of the war. Eight German Divisions amounting to some 100,000 men attacked 20,000 Portuguese. After heroic resistance, the Portuguese were overrun and the neighbouring 119th Brigade of the British 40th Division was also forced back. Total casualties on the Allied side during the battle of La Lys (7th-29th April 2018) were truly horrendous at circa 120,000 men.

This is an extract from the diary of 23-year-old 2nd Lieutenant Maurice Symington for Tuesday 9th April 1918, while fighting with the Corpo Expedicionário Português in France:

‘Woke at 4 am by salvo round house. Tremendous bombardment everywhere. SOS from everywhere. All lines cut. Shells falling about 10 a minute. This continued till 9, when the Boche attacked and after that till 2.15pm when the barrage finally lifted. Machine guns active all around us and behind in two points. Decided to retire at 2.45pm. Only just escaped in time. Went to Lestrem, but found nobody there. Finally got to Calonne sur-la-Lys. My clothes consisted of pyjamas, gum boots, breeches and my British Warm [Greatcoat warn by British Army Officers]. Also pistol & box of cigarettes. ‘If’, my dog, stuck to me and got through. Don’t know how we weren’t all killed. Worst thing I have ever been through in my life.’

Maurice Symington was lucky to be one of the survivors, and eventually returned to Portugal after the war ended in November 1918, together with his faithful dog ‘If’. He was subsequently awarded the Portuguese Ordem Militar de Avis and was Mentioned in Despatches by the British Army for ‘Gallant and distinguished service in the field’ in a certificate signed by Winston Churchill, then Secretary of War in the British Government.

Maurice joined his father as a Port producer in Portugal in late 1918, where his descendants today continue the long family tradition. He eventually died in April 1974, in the same room that he had been born in at N˚1283 Avenida de Boavista, Porto, Portugal. His father, Andrew James Symington, was a Port producer who had come to Portugal from Scotland aged 18 in 1882. His mother was Beatriz Leitão de Carvalhosa Atkinson from an Anglo-Portuguese family who had been Port producers since the 17th century.

2nd Lieutenant Maurice Symington (left) with two Portuguese Army Officers
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2016 Vintage Port Declared

The Symington family is pleased to announce our decision to declare 2016 as a Vintage Port year. This is only the fourth Vintage declaration for all our Port companies since 2000 and the first since the magnificent 2011’s. Few wine regions anywhere restrict Vintage Years with such meticulous care and only truly exceptional Ports are declared in this way.

The 2015/16 winter was wetter than average, which provided a vital counterbalance to the hot Douro summer. Damp weather continued into May, which caused considerable fruit loss to the unwary. From June, normal service was resumed, and August was very warm although some welcome rain fell on the 24th and 26th. More heat ushered in September, and some started picking although it was clear to those who were properly monitoring their vines that the grapes were not ready. Furthermore, the long-range forecast predicted showers and sure enough invaluable rain fell on the 12th and 13th September.

This was the year to read the signs and to take risks; Charles Symington, head winemaker, delayed harvesting until the 19th September and the best Touriga Nacional was not harvested until the 26th, and the late-ripening Touriga Franca only during the first ten days of October. The greatest 2016 Symington Ports were made during this later period under lovely blue skies. It is not easy in our incredibly diverse region to pick grapes at exactly the right time, especially when yields are amongst the lowest in the world at 26 hectolitres/ha, with high risk of dehydration and when many producers rely on bought grapes and are therefore dependent on farmers for picking.  All the 2016 Symington Vintage Ports are made from our own Quinta vineyards where Charles and his viticulture team can be seen every day tasting and analysing grapes throughout August and September. All our Vintage Ports were made in our five small lagar wineries, using the classic treading method for great Port.

The 2016 Vintage Ports are exceptional with tannins that are amongst the most refined ever, supporting beautiful red-fruit flavours with extraordinary intense, purple colour. They have impressive structure and balance, with Baumés, acidity, tannins and colour in rare and perfect alignment. This is no doubt a result of the later ripening cycle which allowed our grapes to mature evenly and completely. Production of each of our 2016 Vintage Ports is approximately 1/5th below our previous declared Vintage following rigorous selection in the tasting room.

Vila Nova de Gaia, 9th April 2018


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