At York Cocoa House’s 20-seater marble table, tucked away to the side of the speciality chocolate shop, a small group of us hunkered down over some free hot chocolate to have an intimate discussion with eminent historian Gary Sheffield about World War One.
Sheffield is the professor of War Studies at Wolverhampton University. He studied history at Leeds University, staying there to complete a masters degree, and continued his ascent into academia with a PhD at Kings College, London. He has regularly featured on TV programmes dealing with military history – with his favourite feature being assisting Hugh Dennis in his attempts to uncover the truth about his grandfather’s experience in war on BBC One’s ‘Who Do You Think You Are?’
Sheffield’s message was essentially that whilst the First World War is rightly seen as a tragic event, we generally have a skewed image of what people at the time would’ve felt about it. Owing in part to the prevalence and popularity of the war poets – certainly my first exposure to the Great War was through Wilfried Owen’s ironically titled ‘dulce et decorum est [pro patria mori]‘ (It is sweet and right [to die for your country]) – we assume that every soldier was possessed by ideas of futility and pointlessness, and ‘saw through the war’ in the same way that Siegfried Sassoon or Wilfried Owen did.
Sheffield continually rallies against this, saying that for the ordinary man the war was very much worth fighting – and wasn’t always as hopeless as is often conveyed.
Sheffield states that the war poets could basically have been fighting a different war. For one, they were rich, officer class – and poets! The majority of the soldiers were working-class factory men, from cities like York, and would have been bound by a real sense of patriotism. For them, the war wasn’t futile. Contemporary living conditions weren’t great, but they feared that a German victory would repeal even the most modest of creature comforts.
The talk was co-sponsored by York Cocoa House and Pilot Theatre to celebrate the launch of the city’s immersive First World War play, Blood and Chocolate. The performance takes headphone-clad viewers around York, from the Theatre Royal to Clifford’s tower, and offers them an insight into the lives of ordinary families and soldiers from York that struggled through the first Great War of the 20th Century. Through the headphones, audience members can hear the miked-up actors from any distance – leading to some impressive feats of distance, such as watching soldiers in the trenches at the base of Clifford’s Tower from outside the Castle Museum.
Said Mr. Sheffield, “Blood and Chocolate captures exactly what people were feeling like during the First World War – there was a mixture of patriotism and other, ambiguous emotions.
“It was a much more subtle production than I was expecting. It would be easy to do a strict anti-war piece, from an artistic point of view, but to include some of the more positive messages – such as the fact that (some) women gained the vote as a result of the war’s conclusion – was really commendable. The truth is that the Great War wasn’t seen as completely futile and negative for the common man, and Blood and Chocolate did a great job of conveying that.
“I absolutely loved it. It’s just a shame that the production is completely sold out, because I’d love for more people to be able to see it!”
Blood and Chocolate’s run finishes on 20th October. The performance is sadly now sold out, but a live stream and a video archive will be available from the 17th October at pilot-theatre.tv. Gary can be reached at @profgsheffield , and his upcoming book, ‘The First World War in 100 Objects’, will be released on the 10th October.