Compo Tea 101

When I was but a young fellow I didn’t really have much of a concept of what tea was. Tea, at our house, was a powdered concoction that came in a big jar and was mixed in a pitcher and stored in the refrigerator. I drank just enough of it to confirm that it was something that I didn’t want to drink. All of which came to mind recently when I ran across a reference to something called Compo Tea.

Definitely NOT Compo Tea! (ETS Image)
Definitely NOT Compo Tea! (ETS Image)

Solving the problem of how to supply troops on the go with tea was – and surely still is – a tricky problem. Proper tea preparation doesn’t necessarily lend itself to any kind of mobile situation, and of course with troops in the field there are additional complications that can arise.

But it’s hard to conceive of British soldiers, in particular, getting by without their tea, and so during World War II the British military came up with a solution that was referred to as Compo Tea. As the historical record seems to suggest, it might not have been the best solution but it was presumably at least a little better than no tea at all.

The Compo in Compo Tea was an abbreviated version of the term Composite Ration Pack, an item which could vary in its exact makeup but which would typically include tea. I’ve never had the dubious pleasure of sampling any field rations, but I’m pretty sure I’ve never heard of anyone who spoke lovingly of them.

As a site that covers Canadian military history puts it, “unquestionably, the feature of Compo rations destined to be remembered beyond all others is Compo tea.” This dubious treat is described as “blocks of instant tea (which included powdered milk and sugar).” The instructions for preparing it went something like this, “sprinkle powder on heated water and bring to the boil, stirring well, three heaped teaspoons to one pint of water.”

According to one account this delicacy was tolerable while it was still hot and if you were fond of strong, sweet tea, but otherwise it left a bit to be desired. Read more about it and Composite Ration Packs in general, here. If you prefer to experience the glories of Compo Tea (or a reasonable facsimile thereof) for yourself, you can do so courtesy of a company that specializes in recreating rations from the world wars.

See more of William I. Lengeman’s articles here.

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