‘We desire to acknowledge our debt to the Australian Comforts Fund. Their soup kitchen was the goal to which even the weariest man persevered during the dreadful outward journeys from the line.’ – ‘The Somme Winter 1916-1917’, The History of the 22nd Battalion
Small advantages can make a big difference in war. The supply of hot drinks — tea, coffee and cocoa — was crucial in maintaining soldiers’ health and morale on the Western Front.
In 1916–17, France was experiencing one of its worst winters on record and conditions in the trenches were so bad they were causing nearly as many casualties as the fighting.
Sleep-deprived, standing in freezing water and huddling in blankets, Australian troops regarded the hot drinks as both comforting and energising, thanks to the caffeine.
When voluntary organisations, such as the Red Cross and the Australian Comforts Fund, arrived with refreshments, they were regarded as saviours.
Their kitchens were often no more than wagons with portable stoves, staffed by women who followed the men as they advanced, but it is estimated they provided 12-million cups of tea, coffee and cocoa to troops leaving the trenches.
After the war, reflecting on the Allied victory, some authors cited the restorative effects of tea as part of a winning strategy.
In 1921, British neurologist M. Allen Starr noted: ‘During the [First World] war the English troops were freely supplied with tea and carried it instead of water in their canteens’.
The British Army’s Surgeon-General Annesley de Renzy wrote: ‘All I can say is that on a long march, and where troops are exposed to great hardships, a cup of Assam tea is one of the most sustaining and invigorating beverages a soldier could have’.
More recently, authors Ian and Iris MacFarlane have suggested tea was both stimulating and relaxing:
‘The caffeine stimulates and relaxes both the mind and body, adds to the confidence of the drinker, and so makes him more efficient as a fighter. The caffeine also combats stress and injury; hence the immediate response of most British people after any accident is to offer or drink a hot cup of sweet tea’.
While the British and tea were almost synonymous, Americans had other cultural traditions stemming from the Boston Tea Party (1773) when it became ‘patriotic’ to switch to coffee.
United States troops arriving in Europe were issued with large amounts of coffee to ‘restore courage and strength’ and ‘keep up morale’.
The United States even set up its own roasting and grinding plants in France to ensure supply.
Then it began issuing a new type of coffee: instant. The soluble coffee powder had been marketed to American consumers from 1910 for its convenience and digestibility, and for men on the frontline it was packaged in single-serve sachets.
One of the first major brands was George Washington (no relation to the first President), giving rise to the popular request for ’a cup of George’.
Americans also enjoyed hot cocoa, which was supplied by the Young Men’s Christian Association.
The YMCA sent 25,000 volunteers to the war, providing refreshments from comfort huts and canteens close to battlefields.
While soldiers had their preference, the reality was that they gratefully accepted whatever was on offer.