Canadian Vending

Features Coffee Service
Coffee Trends: Coffee in Uniform

Coffee in Uniform

February 28, 2008
By Brian Martell


Coffee has played an important role in the lives and challenges of the men and women of the armed forces.

Coffee has played an important role in the lives and challenges of the men and women of the armed forces.

From the early part of Canadian military history, coffee has either
made up part of the moving rations afforded to soldiers or was part of
the fair garrisoned privates might have had while defending the
colonies during the later part of the 18th century and early 19th.

Whether coffee was responsible for any major victory on the battlefield
may never be ascertained, but one thing is certain, it sure has had a
positive impact on maintaining morale and awareness when it counted the


Within the American context coffee became a staple more prized than
bread during the Civil War. Soldiers on both sides were rationed coffee
and often looked forward to the effects it would have after a long
forced night march.

One soldier remarked how going all night long could be mitigated with a
good pint of coffee, leaving him feeling as if he had had a full
night’s sleep.

Competition amongst the rank and file for coffee forced the
quartermasters to carefully apportion each lot to each soldier in a
manner that would leave no dispute as to favouritism. Turning his back
on the coffee piles laid out on rubber blankets, the quartermaster
would have his second in command point to a ration on the blanket while
he blindly read out names of the enlisted men.

Getting the ration was one thing; keeping it was quite another story.
Not having the essential means to carry the coffee, it was often put in
the “haversack” (the food storage bag) which often would have the
remains of other foodstuffs like salted pork, flour, hard tack and the
like, making for one giant mixture of various foods balled together in
a greasy pile.

In spite of the unfortunate way it was stored, it was generally agreed
by all ranks that the coffee rations received during the American Civil
War were of high quality. This could have been conceived as a means of
maintaining morale during what was otherwise a very trying and
stressful period.

During the Second World War, the advent of instant coffee made the
logistics and preparation of coffee much easier for soldiers and field
cooks to keep the troops
in caffeine.
The invention of instant coffee at the beginning of the 20th century
was a boon to quartermasters around the world who looked to new ways of
improving efficiency in feeding the most troops with the least amount
of cost or weight.

According to two different accounts, the term “a cup of Joe” was
derived from the armed services. One account has it that the term came
from American GI’s who were very fond of coffee and since they were
known as GI Joes, the term “Joe” to denote coffee was coined (GI, by
the way stood, for Government Issue, which was a common tag on all
things given to the soldiers).

The other story has it that during the First World War, Josephus
Daniels, the Secretary of the U.S. Navy at the time, was concerned with
what was perceived to be rampant drunkenness aboard U.S. Ships. He
decreed that the U.S. Navy would become entirely dry forbidding any and
all alcohol aboard. The sailors were none too pleased and while
relegated to drinking coffee, derisively named the only thing they
could drink as a cup of Joe in disparaging honour to Admiral Daniels.

While both these are possible explanations to the term, Canadian
sailors may have a hard time with the latter as even to this day all
ships bearing the initials HMCS are not dry, even though the Canadian
Navy did away with rum rations back in 1972.

In more recent times, the Canadian Armed forces have been interested in
the effect of coffee on their soldiers.  The endurance of highly
trained and fit combat units to persevere without sleep of any kind is
at best 48 hours.
When coffee was introduced into the equation, Canadian troops were able
to stay alert and combat ready for as much as 60 hours without any
sleep. Realizing that battle conditions would not usually allow for the
preparation of a hot cup of coffee, the Canadian government as well as
others started experimenting with the active ingredient (caffeine) in a
more user friendly delivery system … chewing gum.

Now, Canadian infantry are issued with caffeinated gum in their rations
as a means of keeping them alert. The level of caffeine in the gum is
at a level where it could not be sold to the general public, although
similar products with much lower levels of caffeine exist and are sold

As a testament to the strong cultural pull of coffee in the Canadian
Armed Forces, the Minister of Defence subsidizes a Tim Hortons coffee
shop at the Kandahar military base in Afghanistan (possibly the only
Tim Hortons in all of Asia). The shop went into business in mid 2006
and has been going strong ever since.

In closing, while coffee has been a part of the social customs we
enjoy, it has also been there in the aid of the men and women who have
fought to preserve these customs.

Questions or comments? E-mail Brian at

Print this page


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *