A new exhibition at the Foxlowe Arts Centre in Staffordshire tells the story of Bombardier Ted Hassall – the chocolate soldier – who formed an unlikely friendship with a six-year-old girl and her family after finding her message on the front-lines of the Somme.
The chocolate soldier
A long relationship between Bombardier Edwin ‘Ted’ Hassall and a family in Cornwall began by chance after he came across a chocolate wrapper lying in a front-line trench. Written on it was the name and address of six-year-old Joan Burbidge, which she had insisted her father add to the parcel he was sending to the front.
'Little Joan' Burbidge and her chocolate wrapper message
On the eve of the Battle of the Somme, Bombardier Hassall wrote back to little Joan:
"I was taking cover in the trenches recently occupied by the enemy when I idly picked up the enclosed chocolate packet. I have carried the packet with me, off duty and on for probably a fortnight and have at last found time to send it to you.
"Please forgive me for writing - I thought that you would be interested to know that your name had reached the German line in the hottest contended battle of the war."
Bombardier Hassall's response to little Joan
He thanked little Joan for "a message from the children of England in who's defence we are fighting" and said how it had "cheered" him.
With the help of her father, Joan wrote back to her chocolate soldier. Inspired by a recent wedding in her family, Joan sent her love and told him she would marry him when she grew up.
So began a correspondence between Ted Hassall and the Burbidge family that lasted through the war and beyond. The chocolate soldier’s letters vividly described the scenes on the front-line of the Somme and were mainly addressed to Joan’s father, but were usually read aloud to the whole family.
"I thought the Somme was the limit of human endurance and fortitude but the war increases in bitterness and frightfulness every day, and the future holds no limit."Bombardier Ted Hassall
Sadly, although Ted survived the war, a long illness led to an early death in 1923.
A commemorative exhibition
Exactly 100 years to the minute after the battle commenced, the Foxlowe Arts Centre in Leek, Staffordshire, has held a commemorative event to launch the exhibition, remember the chocolate solider and all those who fought at the Battle of the Somme.
The Mayor of Leek blew a whistle at 7.30am to mark the moment that soldiers went over the top. At 11am, a formal commemoration was held using the Legion’s Somme 100 toolkit. The toolkit materials are on display as part of the exhibition which is now open until the end of September.
A veteran remembers the fallen during Leek's Somme commemoration
Remember the Somme
For the 100-year anniversary of the Battle of the Somme, the Legion is encouraging communities across the UK to take the time out from their daily lives to honour those who fought and fell.
“Their collective sacrifice is as relevant today as ever but in this centenary year we pay special tribute to their Service.”The Royal British Legion’s Head of Remembrance, The Right Reverend Nigel McCulloch KCVO