Wednesday, 12 November 2014

25th December, 1914.

It feels like October, the clock changes and Halloween were ages ago. The pumpkins, ghouls and wizards disappeared quite literally overnight, and shiny plastic tinsel and chocolate oranges took their places. We're now well into November, and for most of us there's only one payday left until Christmas.

It's the time of year when advent and advert are easily confused. 

I've seen a lot of bloggers singing the praises of the John Lewis advert this year. Some of their posts are probably sponsored, some not. JL adverts have become the "thing" now - the sign that the year's biggest shopping occasion is nearly upon us, and that we must frantically buy stuff to show our loved ones how much we care about them (my Scrooge-esque opinions are nothing new, I've mentioned my disdain for Christmas gifts before. It's another entry on the Why I'm Not A Lifestyle Blogger list). 

To say I was surprised by the Sainsbury's advert this year would be an understatement. No emphasis on bankrupting ourselves on a single meal - instead a simple, and incredibly poignant message. 
No one knows for certain how or why the Christmas Ceasefire happened. It seems to have been spontaneous, perhaps triggered by Germans decorating trees with candles (after all, the habit is German in origin) or singing hymns on Christmas Eve. Silent Night is the most likely to have bonded the troops, as it's one of only a small number of carols commonly sung in English, French and German. Hundreds of small breaks in the war spontaneously erupted.

Maybe it happened because the lads had a moment of realisation that really, regardless of who they were or why they were there, they were all missing their families and trying to make the best of a pretty dire situation. Maybe it's because they were all volunteers, who had signed up early under the impression it wouldn't last long. They were not yet made bitter by the brutality and propaganda that was yet to come. Both sides had thought that it would all be over by Christmas. 
'Over The Top' 1st Artist's Rifles at Marcoing, 30th December 1918, John Nash. (Imperial War Museums)
Christmas Day probably started in most places in a way typical to a ceasefire. In traditional battlefield combat (after all - World War I is often regarded as the turning point in warfare, when hand to hand fighting was overtaken by technology), ceasefires were often called to allow each side to safely collect their dead. 25th December 1914 started in the same way in many places. Anecdotal evidence tells of men from both British and German armies burying their men alongside each other just outside Lille. 
Burying those killed in the attack of 18th December. Imperial War Museum: Q50720
Most of the men wouldn't have spoken each other's language. Inevitably, exchange of rations and trinkets would have happened in lieu of conversation. Treats from home - jam, boiled sweets and chocolate from the British ration packs, vegetables from the Germans. The British packs were considered the "best", but undoubtedly after some folk had spent six months without a vegetable, a fresh carrot would have been worth swapping a bar of Cadbury's for. 
Men from the 2nd Battalion, Royal Dublin Fusiliers with German soldiers, Boxing Day 1914. Imperial War Museum: HU 35801
Captain Sir Edward Hulse reported singsongs around campfires, which "ended up with 'Auld lang syne' which we all, English, Scots, Irish, Prussians, Wurttenbergers, etc, joined in. It was absolutely astounding, and if I had seen it on a cinematograph film I should have sworn that it was faked!" 

Makeshift football games cropped up - mostly as a kick-about between battalions on the same side, but again there's anecdotal evidence that Britain vs Germany matches took place. Sadly not the first example though, as many jokes claim. The rivalry had been alive and well since the first England vs Germany game in 1899. 

As darkness descended, flares went up, a signal that the fighting was to restart. 
Wire, Paul Nash. (Imperial War Museums)
The Christmas 1914 ceasefire was the only long break in fighting. A British press embargo was immediately arranged to stop any news getting back home, but it was broken after a week by the New York Times. The stories would have slowly got home in letters anyway. When public opinion began to turn against the war, and fears of refusals to fight increased, arrangements were made to prevent troops from fraternising with the enemy and to increase propaganda in the trenches themselves. But still - the sentiment remained on a small scale. Historian Tony Ashworth has described how the "live and let live" ethos developed in some areas, with an unofficial avoidance of attack during meal times. I find this incredibly poignant. A small act of rebellion, a small act of recognising that despite the fighting, they were all human.

"I wouldn't have missed that unique and weird Christmas Day for anything. ... I spotted a German officer, some sort of lieutenant I should think, and being a bit of a collector, I intimated to him that I had taken a fancy to some of his buttons. ... I brought out my wire clippers and, with a few deft snips, removed a couple of his buttons and put them in my pocket. I then gave him two of mine in exchange. ... The last I saw was one of my machine gunners, who was a bit of an amateur hairdresser in civil life, cutting the unnaturally long hair of a docile Boche, who was patiently kneeling on the ground whilst the automatic clippers crept up the back of his neck." - Bruce Bairnsfather


  1. Brilliant post Gwen. Watching all these ads is pretty much a professional obligation, given my job, and I share some of your unease about some of the ads this year. I love this ad – but as a film, not an ad. The fact that it’s being used to encourage people to buy more stuff makes me kind of uncomfortable. But I accept that ads are as valid a form of expression – and yes, hell, even art, so can sit with that. If you’re going to have ads (and we are) then better that they perform a useful social function, alongside ‘buy our stuff’.

    The emotional manipulation from most other ads is so blatant - cute kids, animals, longing, wish fulfillment, the 'it's all about love' message when we know most of these organisations are just about profit. I've also, weirdly, had some unease this year about the 100th anniversary Remembrance events, which have been going on all year. Some of the events and dialogue have felt like an uncritical call to simply 'remember' - with talk of heroism and a sad but just war. This is a valid reading, but it's not the only one - the point of remembering is to feel unease, discomfort, gratitude - not to shy away from the fact that it was complicated and political and horrible. The amazing thing is that this ad doesn't. It shows the preciousness of peace - and that peace, not war, can be seen as the temporary and hard won, fragile state. The thing I find hardest to believe is that this beautiful film is ultimately, only created to sell more stuff. But I'm glad that it's been made

    1. Thanks!

      I understand what you mean. I’m torn in a lot of ways – I hate Christmas ads, so to find one that (to me, anyway) reflects the spirit of Christmas is great. I also really like that it’s been done in association with the Royal British Legion. I know it’s a fairly obvious marketing tactic but as a charity bod, it makes me more comfortable to know that the RBL are ok with it as they are the “experts” on how appropriate it is (hopefully that makes sense?!). I agree though that it is mostly moving because it’s a short film, not really an advert.

      I also agree with you that there have been elements of the 100th anniversary events that are missing the point a bit. To me, Remembrance Day should be an opportunity for reflection on how badly we treat each other, and how many people went to war because of conscription. They didn't have a choice like we do now. I find it odd that a lot of the commemorations are for the start of the conflict. How will we commemorate the end? I had a conversation the other day about how we don’t remember those that came home – often scarred, mentally and physically. Hopefully that will come up in the 2018 memorials (if there are any by then).