Chocolate For Our Soldiers
As a World War One researcher my greatest interest is not in military strategy, technological advances in weaponry or the political climate of the time - it is the “human element” - the personal thoughts and experiences of those that served and the families they left behind. As we make preparations to celebrate the holiday season with our family, friends and co-workers, one can only imagine how different Christmas must have been for those separated by the Great War. A couple of artifacts in the Fanshawe Pioneer Village permanent collection help to provide us with a rare and personal glimpse into Christmases past.
Small and diminutive, but covered in patriotic Canadian imagery, this little chocolate tin was produced in Toronto by The Cowan Chocolate Company of Canada. The tin would have been marketed in retail stores across Canada during the war years and likely many found their way to the front line. Filled with the company’s famous “Maple Buds”, or perhaps milk medallions or chocolate ginger, the tin and its contents would have been a welcome Christmas treat and a remembrance of home to a soldier in the trenches.
Even Britain’s Royal Family took steps to make sure those serving in his Majesty’s Service were remembered at Christmas. In 1914 Princess Mary, the 17 year-old daughter of King George V and Queen Mary, organized a public appeal to raise funds to ensure “every Sailor afloat and every Soldier at the front” received a Christmas present. The response was so overwhelming that the criterion was expanded to include every person “wearing the King’s uniform on Christmas Day 1914”. The gift was a small brass tin, decoratively embossed with a portrait of Mary and the names of Britain’s allies. The contents varied; officers and men on active service received a box containing a combination of pipe, lighter, 1 oz. of tobacco and twenty cigarettes. Non-smokers and boys received a bullet pencil and a packet of sweets instead. Indian troops often got sweets and spices, and nurses were treated to chocolate.
Twenty-seven year old Henry Alexander Nisbet was living with his widowed mother Charlotte at 273 Christina Street in Sarnia when he enlisted on May 6, 1916. He listed his occupation as “clerk”, and showed eight years previous experience as a Lieutenant with the 27th Battalion, Canadian Militia. Henry’s father Thomas had died the previous year leaving him, the youngest and only son, to support his widowed mother. His previous military training along with a quest for adventure and a sense of duty likely enticed Henry to enlist, and he would spend the next three Christmases separated from his family.
Determined to provide Henry with some of the comforts of home his family sent him a Christmas parcel and an enclosed postcard from his mother describes the contents: “For my dear boy - from 273-Christina St- I send the Dominoes, & “canned heat” E & K, the soap, cocoa, coffee, Dora, the trench cap - Cousin Mary-the chocolate Cousin Liffe the socks & we all wish you as Happy a Christmas as is possible - recipe for which is - try & make some other fellow happy.” Such sage words of wisdom from a mother whose only thoughts must have been for the safe return of her only son.
Henry Nisbet survived the Great War and returned home to Christina Street where he began working at Imperial Oil. He married Violet Gorringe in 1921 and welcomed the arrival of daughter Daphne in 1923.