Thursday, October 27, 2011

Teatime in the Trenches

Nestle's Milk Poster, 1918. Brown University Collections.
It occurred to me, as I was reading Geoffrey Malins's memoir of filming the Great War, that he mentions  teatime quite often. How on earth, I've been wondering, did anyone in the British Army have tea under the conditions of trench warfare? And, more specifically, the avowed milk-taker in me has to ask: did they have milk to put in it?

Tea is a frequent motif for Malins--it is both a comforting brew and a regularizing feature of the military routine. At one moment, he recounts dodging shellfire and mustard gas,  getting "back to H.Q. [headquarters]...just in time for tea" (132), as though settling comfortably into an armchair and accepting a steaming china cup after a busy day at the office. Another time, however, he escapes a bombardment by diving into a dug-out, in his rush "upset[ting] a canteen of tea over a bucket-fire which one of our lads was preparing to drink" (147). Minutes later, after another shelling that has sent "dirt and rubble pour[ing]" over him as he lay flat in the trench, Malins sees that the men "for the loss of whose tea I was responsible" have been killed (147). Tea never to be drunk creates a terrible pathos in this scene, but Malins cannot linger before it and must move to a safer location.
"Tea Tabloids," Burroughs and Wellcome Co., ca. 1900. The Wellcome Library, London.
Back to the more practical side of tea history. Tea was definitely an essential on the front, and soldiers did drink lots of it. Above, I place an image of "tea tabloids," which were small compressed tablets of tea that could be placed in boiling water. A tin of such pellets, whatever their failings, (one can only imagine that their flavor and strength left much to be desired) was compact, could be kept dry, and was easily shipped and carried in a soldier's pack. And soldiers had regular packets of tea too, much like we still use today. For the creative anachronists out there, I might add, Tommy's Pack Fillers offers amazingly convincing reproductions of everything for a Great War soldier's pack, including tea!

She never carried any of the laden trays herself, but she saw to it that no man missed his mug of steaming tea...
 --E.M. Delafield, The War Workers, 1918.

Clare Atwood. Christmas Day in the London Bridge YMCA Canteen, 1920. © IWM (Art.IWM ART 3062)

On the homefront, tea was also an essential comfort and tradition. Women war workers ran Red Cross canteens at which vast amounts of tea were served to soldiers on leave. Clare Atwood's painting, above, gives you an idea of the hustle-bustle of a YMCA canteen, where tea was brewed in massive quantities for tired soldiers.

To my relief, the answer to the question of whether there was milk for tea in the trenches is "yes." Condensed milk, evaporated milk, and milk tabloids made it possible for soldiers to have milky tea or cocoa if they could boil water. While it was not always top of mind amid the devastation of the battlefield, tea was a small beacon of comfort, sustenance, warmth, and normalcy for many. That it is mentioned so frequently in Malins's account, for example, indicates its importance as a drink and an institution on the front.

Not to be overlooked is tea's imperial nature and the complications that are created by the fact of its being gathered and processed in the hands of colonial subjects in India to fuel tired British bodies on the front and to sustain a British populace at home. More on tea, war, and empire to come.

I love tea and its history, so you may rest assured that it will be teatime at "Ghosts of 1914" again soon. Until then, I raise a "cuppa" to you and wish you good cheer.

© Fiona Robinson


Sources and further reading:

Malins, Geoffrey. How I Filmed the War. London: Imperial War Museum Department of Printed Books, 1993 (orig. 1920).

Tommy's Pack Fillers: British Great War Period Reproductions
Tea Tabloids, Burroughs and Wellcome Co., ca 1900. Wellcome Library, London.
Delafield, E.M. The War Workers. New York: Knopf, 1918.


  1. Great stuff, by Jove!
    Being strangely fascinated by words and their evolution, I got to thinking about two that are in your post: 1) Canteen, which still (in certain parts of the world) means an institutional cafe, such as in a dormitory, and 2) tabloid - I wonder about the literary dots that might connect tea tabloids to tabloid newspapers?

    Anyway, keep up the good work there!
    Vinoo Mamoo

  2. Thank you, Vinoo Mamoo!! I do think it's interesting thinking of these two words. I was rolling the term "tabloids" around quite a bit in my mind today. And "canteen" must have an interesting history too.


  3. Tea would have had a greater psychological value than culinary I imagine. One little drop of normality in a world that had gone mad.