Boer War Chocolate

There has recently been an exchange of letters in the Telegraph, concerning the chocolates sent on behalf of HM Queen Victoria, to soldiers in the Boer War:

Which was followed-up by:

As the letters above suggest, HM the Queen decreed that every soldier and officer in South Africa would receive a tin of chocolate to mark the New Year of 1899/1900, and she would cover the costs herself. Britain’s three biggest chocolate manufacturers – J S Fry & Sons, Cadbury Brothers Limited, and Rowntree and Company Limited – were approached to produce the chocolates, but all three, being owned by Quakers, did not want to be seen to be profiting from the war. They all instead made the chocolate for free, and HM covered the cost of the tins.

The scheme continued well into 1900, and an Army Order issued from Bloemfontein in the April of that year decreed that tins were also to be forwarded to officers and men who had been invalided home before the Queen’s gift arrived, and to the next-of-kin of those who had died in the war thus far. With this in mind it is interesting to note that, according to the National Army Museum, a total of 123,000 tins of chocolate were issued – ie. not ‘half a million’ (which is, as we know, the number of troops True Believers always like to pretend were in theatre at the time).

As a gift from the Queen, many soldiers preserved their tins with the chocolate intact, even posting them back home for safe-keeping. In exceptional cases, some especially deferential recipients did not even dare untie the ribbon round the packaging.

Mention of the chocolates can be found in various letters sent home by the combatants. A noteworthy one was sent by a member of the RN Brigade which fought as part of Methuen’s Division on the Western Front. On 25 November, just two days after defeating the Boers at Belmont, Methuen’s men repeated the trick at Graspan[i], this time against a rather larger Boer force. De la Rey’s commando held the position initially, but he managed to persuade some of the demoralized survivors of Belmont to join him, taking the defending force up to 2,300, supported by three Krupp 75mm guns and a couple of pom-poms.[ii]

The 9th Infantry Brigade—with the 300 hardy sea-dogs of the newly arrived Naval Brigade attached—did the lion’s share of the fighting. Despite taking a hammering from de la Rey’s marksmen, the infantry, marines, and blue jackets stormed the Boer position with astounding gallantry. Once more the Boers broke and ran,[iii] having managed to hold their positions for just thirty minutes.[iv] Describing the battle in a letter written a few weeks later, one of the blue jackets recalled the rout, before turning to more pressing business:

‘…at 200 yards we fixed bayonets, and we just saw their heels; they didn’t wait when they heard the rattle. Queen’s Chocolate? Yes, it came on Christmas Day and so did your plum puddings.’[v]


[i] this action is sometimes referred to as ‘Enslin’ as the fighting took place between Graspan and Enslin

[ii] Selby, The Boer War: A study in cowardice and courage, p.87

[iii] Kruger, R., Goodbye Dolly Gray, p.113

[iv] Selby, p.88

[v] Weston, My Life among the Blue-Jackets, p.203


  • Damian O’Connor Posted July 10, 2024 11:02 am

    ‘Waltzing Mathilda’ is set to a much older tune – The Recruiting Sergeant of Rochester – from Marlborough’s wars.

    ‘Who’ll be a soldier?
    Who’ll be a soldier?
    Who’ll be a soldier,
    For Marlborough and me.

    • Bulldog Posted July 10, 2024 11:13 am

      Yes, indeed it is – though ‘Banjo’ Paterson’s lyrics are still brilliant.

  • Peter Dickens Posted July 10, 2024 2:33 pm

    I visited a small museum in Robertson and they had a Boer War chocolate box with all its chocolates still intact. It sits at the back of a dusty cabinet – I don’t think they know the value of it.

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