Friday, November 14, 2014

Sainsbury’s and the “Christmas truce”

There are plenty of ways people could object to the Sainsbury’s “1914 Christmas Truce” TV Commercial. You could accuse it of historical inaccuracy or sentimentality. You could object to the use of a tragic war to promote a supermarket brand. You might argue that this one event was utterly unrepresentative of the more than four years of hell that was the Great War. But all of these objections ignore one simple fact. At the lowest level war is about individuals. The poor bloody infantry. The lions led by donkeys. On both sides.

Max Hastings’s astonishing book about the first year of the War ”Catastrophe” is a work of genius not just for its thorough research and its determination to be as accurate as it could (both true) but for its frequent use of personal histories. Not (just) the memories of the Generals but of the ordinary soldiers. The poignant letter of  private soldier – the last he wrote before the sniper’s bullet got him. Of the German officer cut down by an attack by the residents of a village they had just subdued. The reprisal killings that followed. And on, and on for four ghastly years.

The Sainsbury’s ad combines brilliant filmmaking and casting with a quite legitimate message about “sharing”. They might have said – though it was inherent in the mini story – that at an individual level we have more in common with our “enemies” than we might be told or think. One perspective on the War was that it was a “Bosses” war and that the infantry (etc.) on both sides were simply cannon fodder. That may be a Marxist view (Karl Marx said : Proletarier aller Länder vereinigt Euch!, literally “Workers of all nations Unite! You have nothing to lose but your chains”) but there is more than a scintilla of truth in it. The “truce” didn't happen again and fraternisation of any sort was forbidden. And there was no real mechanism for the lions of the two sides to turn on the donkeys and declare that enough was enough. Disobedience of orders was met swiftly by the firing squad.

At an individual level Tommy and Fritz had much in common. But by December 1914 the war was already dehumanised and casualties were in their hundreds of thousands. The war would be won by the smarter and the luckier Generals (if you read their memoirs) and by the side who deserved to win a “Just War” (if you read some historians). But it was the poets and the artists who told the true story. As Wilfred Owen put it “Dulce et Decorum est Pro patria mori” was an “old Lie”. There was nothing “sweet and right” at all about dying for your country. But if you seek honour and bravery and selflessness in the battle stories you will find countless examples. On both sides of the wire. There is a symbolism about the “Christmas truce”, about the carol singing and about the football. And, yes, about the “sharing” – however brief it might have been.


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