Britain, World War I—and Tea

Every Veterans Day we honor our veterans and those still in the armed forces, remembering their sacrifices and paying tribute to their unselfish service. This year is especially poignant, being the 100-year anniversary of World War I.

Although Veterans Day was actually yesterday, financial institutions and many federal offices remain closed in observance. And so today, here is a very brief look at how tea was entwined in Britain’s war efforts during WWI.

Earl Grey 69 crop-web
Earl Grey tea

For British troops, tea was a staple, and there was never any argument against the soldiers enjoying the beverage.  Perhaps serendipitously, it ended up serving a dual purpose (if you can imagine this actually working):

It was a familiar comfort and concealed the taste of the water, which was often transported to the frontline in petrol tins. (Lee 2014)

Meanwhile, on the home front, things were not so clear-cut. Yes, tea was a given for soldiers, but that afternoon tea for everyone else was being called out as an unnecessary and dispensable luxury.

Certainly the supply chain of food and beverages had been greatly disrupted, and in 1916 the newly founded Ministry of Food was responsible for sorting it all out. So the question became, what exactly was tea?

silverwareIn the preceding years, tea had been taxed as a luxury item and although growers in India were irate, the fact was that the tea industry had remained pretty robust.

By 1916, however, shipping costs had increased, stocks had fallen, and tea prices in Britain had gone up—and people were complaining. Controls on price were put into place for 40% of the total tea supply but with quantities of this controlled-price tea limited, complaining increased so much so that by winter of 1917–1918,

crowds were . . . rushing shop and stalls demanding tea and other basic foods. (Rappaport 2017:226)

Price controls were then put on 90% of the tea, and finally, in 1918, tea was rationed.

So what exactly was tea?

Nutritionists discounted the benefits of tea, agreeing with the British government that it had little value as food.

Those in the lower and middle classes, however, begged to differ!

tea hope mugThey insisted that “afternoon tea was a democratic meal enjoyed by men and women of all classes, and that as such it aided the war effort” (Rappaport 2017:227).

For example, fortified with tea, a munitions factory worker could withstand long hours, and tea helped people cope with the myriad hardships they encountered every single day.

The Cake and Pastry Order of April 18, 1917, clarified the entire question in one respect. Sweets were decreed as luxury items, but—undoubtedly seeing the wisdom of keeping those in the armed forces, and those toiling in factories necessary to the war effort, fortified with at least a bit of comfort—

tea was protected as a weapon of war. (Rappaport 2017:227)

Tea growers and importers immediately benefited from this decision, and in India, the industry flourished so much that tea was vastly more affordable to Indians. Further taking advantage of the opportunity, the tea industry worked to make tea part of Indian culture, serving tea in factories so that workers would begin to consider tea an everyday beverage. Likewise, tea was available on ships and trains and in grocery stores, and it was aggressively advertised.

In the end,

marketers acknowledged the importance of working-class and colonial consumers. (Rappaport 2017)

tea in a styrofoam cupSo did it stick?

Not really. After the war, attention turned to the potentially lucrative market in the United States. . . .

Still, during the war, at least some of those who suffered the most were offered a slight, fleeting, solace in the form of a cup of tea.

Sometimes, sadly, that’s all we can do.

–”The battle to feed Tommy: new exhibition looks at the diet of a WWI solder,” by A. Lee, Express, Aug. 23, 2014.
A Thirst for Empire, by E. Rappaport, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2017.


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