Chocolate soldiers who enjoyed a taste of home

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A new exhibition in York shows how chocolate gave soldiers in the trenches and sailors at sea a taste of home during the First World War. Chris Bond reports.

IT’S been said that an army marches on its stomach.

If that’s true then it’s a small wonder that soldiers in the First World War were able to endure their gruelling existence, sustained by such meagre rations. Meals consisted largely of a watery stew served with crackers that resembled, and probably tasted like, dog biscuits.

Not surprisingly, luxuries like chocolate were highly prized by troops facing the daily squalor of life in the trenches. At the time York was home to two of Britain’s biggest confectioners, Terry’s and Rowntree’s, and while the Terry’s factory was converted to make aircraft, the Rowntree’s factory on Haxby Road was commissioned by the government to supply British troops on the front line with chocolate.

There was a long-standing tradition of chocolate being sent out by the Royal family which continued during the Great War. In York, specially-commissioned chocolate tins were given to all the city’s servicemen at Christmas in 1914, and one of the few surviving tins forms part of a new exhibition at York’s Chocolate Story.

WW1: A Taste of Home uses artefacts, photographs and letters to show how chocolate helped boost wartime spirits both at home and abroad. Over a thousand men from the Rowntree’s factory on Haxby Road went off to fight with 179 killed, some of whose stories are featured in the exhibition.

Among the items on display are extracts from what have become known as the “chocolate letters”. These consist of more than 250 thank-you notes written by York servicemen in training camps, trenches, PoW camps and at sea and some are being seen in public for the first time.

Kirsty Archer-Thompson spent months going through the letters which she believes offer a poignant insight into how chocolate became a symbol of the life the men had left behind. Among those she unearthed was one from Henry Bailey, a gunner from Holgate, in York, dated January 11, 1915, in which he wrote: “I feel that I ought to send my very best thanks for the nice box of chocolate I received so unexpectedly... I am proud to be able to say that I am a York lad and am looking forward to a speedy termination of this cruel war. I shall prize the box as long as God spares me.”

Tragically, he was killed later that year but his letter reveals the significance many soldiers attached to these gifts. “They were almost like a talisman. A lot of them didn’t eat the chocolate, or they would take it out and hide it in their socks and use the tin for something else. There are all sorts of stories about tins like these saving people’s lives,” says Kirsty.

With so many workers going off to fight many of their jobs went to women, some of whom would have been the wives, girlfriends and sisters of those they were replacing. “This was the period when you really start to see women working in industry and that was certainly happening at the chocolate factories here. A lot of the pictures you see of staff during the war years are predominantly female and most of them would have been doing things like almond pasting and packing.”

However, the war posed a moral dilemma for the Quaker families that owned York’s chocolate factories. “The way the factory bosses were able to support the war effort is quite interesting. They set up things like the Friends Ambulance Unit and cared for the wounded. At Rowntree’s they ended up converting various areas of the factory to look after soldiers that had been injured.”

Among the items on display is a condolence letter from the Rowntree family to the father of a man killed in action who used to work in the starch room. “Joseph Rowntree, in particular, recorded names and he knew exactly how many people he had lost during the war. He took it very personally,” says Kirsty.

The Cocoa Works Magazine, which was published in York, was also Joseph Rowntree’s idea. “It was sent out to workers during the war and there are anecdotes of soldiers in the trenches sitting reading it.”

Then there are the accounts of people like Albert Hemingway, a seaman on HMS Grasshopper, who worked at the Rowntree factory. “He worked in the cake moulding room when he was 14 and joined the Navy at 15 and-a-quarter. He recorded an interview years later and the bit we’ve chosen to play is him talking about trying to set up a football field on the beach at Cape Hellas on the Gallipoli peninsula.

“He used random debris to make goalposts but the Turks came along and kept pinching things and he still sounded annoyed by it decades afterwards.”

The exhibition focuses on some of the more positive aspects of the conflict. “We’ve tried to tell a more uplifting story about the war because although it was grim there was actually a lot of camaraderie which we sometimes forget. We have a letter from one chap who lost the sight of his left eye; he was injured at Mons in the early days of the war, but was anxious to get back and do his bit.”

It’s these personal stories that help bring the war to life. “We learn about the war at school but I don’t think you really begin to understand until you investigate the stories of the people involved and that’s what we’ve tried to do here.”

• WW1: A Taste of Home, at York’s Chocolate Story, runs throughout the year. The museum would like to hear from relatives of people who worked in York’s chocolate factories during the war or went off to fight. Write to York’s Chocolate Story, King’s Square, York. YO1 7LD.