They were called the Chocolate Soldiers, “for ornament, not use”.
So said a moving poem published in The Birmingham Post in 1916, about the Birmingham Pals who signed up to fight in the First World War.
As they weren’t deployed to France for more than a year, the initial enthusiasm for the volunteers soon waned.
But they were far from “chocolate soldiers” when they were sent into battle.
Now a group of Birmingham teenagers, of similar ages to the young recruits of 100 years ago, have been finding out what life in the trenches was like for the men.
The Chocolate Soldiers is a performance piece premiering on Sunday, taking audiences on an evocative journey including the car park in Thorp Street where the drill hall used by the young recruits of the Royal Warwickshires once stood.
It will be performed by a cast of 20 young men from Moseley and Queensbridge Schools and Elmhurst School of Dance.
The play is a culmination of a project paid for by the Heritage Lottery Fund and a partnership between Birmingham Hippodrome, Women & Theatre and the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers Museum in Warwick.
It began when Liz Leck, creative learning manager at the Hippodrome, wanted to put on an educational piece to mark the outbreak of the First World War.
“The best way to learn history is to create it and immerse yourself in it,” says Liz.
“These boys will know more about the First World War at the end of this project than through any dry history lesson.
“It was a shock for the boys to learn what their predecessors went through. It’s a very moving piece.
“I came up with the idea after visiting the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers Museum and finding the poem.
“The Birmingham Pals – whole streets, families and groups of friends – signed up together and went off together to fight, thinking it would be a jolly adventure.
“But instead they went into hell. The final line of the poem really got to me, about the chocolate soldiers not melting yet.”
The Birmingham Pals were turned into three battalions – the 14th, 15th and 16th Battalions of the Royal Warwickshire Regiment.
The new recruits were trained in the drill hall in Thorp Street, opposite the Hippodrome stage door and now the car park for the Chung Ying Garden Restaurant. It originally had a roof and still bears a plaque linking it to the Royal Warwickshire Regiment.
The Chocolate Soldiers performance will begin in the Hippodrome foyer, then move on to the Thorp Street car park before finishing in the Patrick Centre, which will be transformed into a theatre of war complete with trenches.
Janice Connolly, artistic director of Birmingham-based Women & Theatre, says: “The performance comes at the end of the project, which has been all about the boys finding out about the war. It’s about their response to the poem.
“Our research took us to the museum in Warwick and a couple of old people’s homes.
“We interviewed relatives of people who had fought. We met a woman in her eighties whose father served in the war but who never talked about his experience. Nobody talked about it, it was such a shock to people.
“We also have letters that were sent back from the front, asking for socks and chocolate and complaining how wet and muddy it was, about the physical discomfort and boredom because they were hardly making any progress.
“It’s tragic but not all doom and gloom. At the beginning the boys were all excited, they were going on a great adventure and most were going abroad for the first time.
“Everyone thought they would be home by Christmas, but of course they weren’t.
“What’s really arresting about it is their age. Many lied about their age and signed up when they were only 15. That was a shock for our present day performers.”
The poem Chocolate Soldiers All was written by Private Richard Louis-Bertram Moore, known as Ricardo, as a tribute to the Birmingham Pals after a great number of them died in France. Part of his book of war poetry, The Warblings of a Windy Warrior, it was published by the Birmingham Post at the end of 1916.
* The Chocolate Soldiers is performed at 2pm and 4pm on Sunday, March 30. For tickets, ring 0844 338 5000 or go to www.birminghamhippodrome.com .
Chocolate Soldiers All
There were three battalions raised in Brum
About two years ago,
They dres’t us in blue
And put us on view
And petted us don’t-yer-know.
They put us in billets at Sutton,
Paid 19 and 3d a head,
Lived on the best,
Thought it a jest.
And the populace were not the least impressed,
For the wiseacres smiled and said:
“They’re only for people to look at,
“That’s what they’ve been raised for,
“They’re only chocolate soldiers,
“They’ll never go to the war.”
Then we were shifted to Wensleydale,
And after six weeks up there
They moved us again
Down to the Plain
And khaki we had to wear.
We’d finished with billets for ever
And laid the blue on one side,
We went tho’ the mill
At bayonet drill
And divisional schemes which were harder still,
And still the knowalls cried:
“They’re only the City Battalions
“So spick and span and spruce
“Birmingham’s chocolate soldiers,
“For ornament, not use.”
Then we were shifted from Salisbury Plain
And after that, in due course
By train and ship
We took a trip
To the jolly old B.E. Force.
An’ ever since then we’ve been scrappin’
Or restin’ (that means fatigues).
And the boys shaped well
‘Mid the shot and shell
And we’ve been in places that rivalled hell
And marched for many leagues.
But we often say to each other now
(It’s a joke we can’t forget):
“They said we were Chocolate Soldiers,
“But we haven’t melted yet.”