The 1914 Christmas Truces as History and Memory

Over the last several weeks, the British supermarket chain Sainsbury’s has been running an advertisement on television and in movie theaters in which, over the course of its three minutes and twenty seconds, the essential fragments of what has become the cultural memory of the 1914 Christmas truce pass in rapid succession. It opens with the words “Christmas Eve 1914” and images of soldiers huddled in trenches receiving mail as snow sainsburys_-_christmas_is_for_sharing_2falls through the darkness and artillery shells rumble in the distance. A young British soldier who has been contemplating his grim Christmas ration — a coarse brown biscuit — receives a package from the home-front: a large chocolate bar, wrapped in blue and gold, with an accompanying picture of his sweetheart. As a smile spreads across his face, he hears  German voices in distance singing the words “schlaf in himmlischer Ruh.”  The camera pans back and forth between the German and English trenches, catching the uplifted faces of soldiers, joining their voices in “Silent Night/Stille Nacht and looking at their comrades quizzically.

The landscape begins to brighten (the sun rises  rapidly on this Western Front) as the camera catches a tiny robin sitting on the barbed wire. The Tommy summons his courage, wrings his hands, and makes his move. Removing his hat and raising his hand, he climbs out of the trench. There is a quick cut to the German side, as the troops scramble for weapons, take their positions, and — with growing amazement — contemplate the unarmed figure advancing towards them over the brighting landscape. An unarmedScreenshot 2014-12-21 10.37.49German soldier reciprocates and, followed by troops from either side, the two enemies meet (shortly before the two-minute mark) in a lightly frosted no-man’s land.  Jim (the Tommy) and Otto (a German) shake hands, introduce themselves and, as Jim shows Otto a Screenshot 2014-12-21 10.38.40picture of his sweetheart, a football match breaks out, accompanied by swelling orchestral strings.  In the goal, Otto blocks one kick, but the persistent Jim eventually scores — exactly at the moment when the rumble of artillery is heard again.  As the troops bid each other farewell and return to their trenches, Jim and Otto meet one last time and exchange Christmas greetings.

Back in the German trench, Otto reaches into his coat and finds the chocolate bar that Jim dropped into his pocket when he retrieved the coat on the playing field. Back in the English trench, Jim opens his mess tin and pulls out that wretched brown biscuit while a smile crosses his face.  It’s time for the punchline.  Against the background of flying birds, the words “Christmas is for sharing” appear, followed by “Sainsbury’s” and (either as exorcism or imprimatur)  “Made in partnership with The Royal British Legion.”

It should come as no surprise that the true star of this history lesson, that magical blue and gold candy bar, is available for purchase at Sainsbury’s for £1, with “all profits” donated to the Royal British Legion (only the Scrooges among us will wonder whether the salaries of Sainsbury’s executives are included in the costs of producing this massive hunk of chocolate).

History, Memory, and “Creative Interpretation”

The reception of the ad has, perhaps predictably, been mixed.

Upon its premiered ADWEEK praised the handiwork of the creative team at AMV BBDO as “stunning … rich and evocative and entirely believable.” An additional video, released at the same time, featured interviews with British military historians, who testified to the care that the director Ringan Ledwidge had put into getting the historical details right. Alert readers might have wondered whether there was a certain tension in ADWEEK’s characterizing of the ad’s treatment of those events from a century ago as both historically authentic and as a “creative interpretation.”

The readers of The Guardian were a good deal less enthusiastic. One suggested that next Christmas Sainsbury might consider a heart-warming advertisement in which the baby Jesus escapes the slaughter of the innocents when one of Herod’s henchmen is distracted by the box of mince pies in his crib.  A subsequent opinion piece by Ally Fogg opened with a nod to Wilfred Owen:

What passing-bells for these who die as cattle? Not only the monstrous anger of the guns nor the stuttering rifles’ rapid rattle, but now an epic four-minute, eye-wateringly expensive commercial for a supermarket chain.

Fogg conceded that the ad was “on its own terms, a masterpiece.”

The cinematography is breathtaking. Without saying a word, the young cast conveys a startling array of emotional depth within a few short minutes. The simple narrative, built around the near-mythical Christmas truce between the trenches of 1914, has just the right blend of poignancy and sentimentality to bring a tear to the most cynical eye.

But he rightly refused to take the ad on its own (or should we say Sainsbury’s?) terms.

Exploiting the first world war for commercial gain is tasteless. This, however, is not what disturbs me most. The really upsetting details are the stunning shot of the robin on the wire, the actors’ trembles as they cautiously emerge from the trenches, half expecting a sniper’s bullet, the flicker of understanding in the eyes as the young soldiers reach into their pockets at the end. The film-makers here have done something to the first world war which is perhaps the most dangerous and disrespectful act of all: they have made it beautiful.

My only quibble with Fogg’s criticism would be that the undeniable artistry of this commercial is of a piece with its exploitation of the memory of Great War for commercial
gain. By the time we reach the closing shot of Jim contemplating his biscuit, history is well its the way to becoming myth and, if the creative staff of AMV BBDO have done their job Screenshot 2014-12-21 10.46.12properly (and there is nothing in the ad to suggest that they haven’t), we have been properly prepared for yet another orgy of consumption. As the man who coined the word Kulturindustrie once observed: “Advertising is psychoanalysis in reverse”  — which suggests that, if we are to understand what is going here,  we need to follow Adorno’s advice and trace, not the path of resistance, but instead inquire into what it is about this ad that — despite our efforts at resistance — remains so attractive.

The concern for “historical accuracy” that —  if we believe the promotional material that surrounds AMV BBDO’s “creative interpretation” —  is so central to this undertaking seems to have been limited to getting the costumes right.  Pitched to a British audience, the ad has a Tommy initiate the truce: the accounts that have been passed down in letters from the front are consistent in reporting that the initiate came from the other side. With the prospect of an early victory frustrated and their advance stalled in French territory, German troops were bent on celebrating Christmas as best they could and were aided in the endeavor by the shipment of Christmas trees to the front. Perhaps leery of a historical record that would appear to border on kitsch, the creative team at AMV BBDO opted not to open with a panning shot of the lighted Christmas trees that unexpectedly began to crop up on German ramparts.

The football game has always seemed a bit suspect. There are a few first-hand reports of contests of some sort taking place, but it is hard to see how soccer balls could have been abundant in the trenches (and even less likely that troops were being supplied with them for Christmas) and harder still to imagine how the pockmarked expanse of no-man’s land could have been magically transformed into the level playing field that we see in Sainsbury’s advertisement. Nor is there any mention of the fact that, as the troops climbed out of their trenches, they would have come across the bodies of comrades and enemies that, in some cases, had been lying exposed for two months.

Nor, it appears, did the Christmas truces always commence on Christmas Eve.  A December 20 letter offered this account of how they began in one area:

Some Germans came out and held up their hands and began to take in some of their wounded and so we ourselves immediately got out of the trenches and began bringing in our wounded also. The Germans then beckoned to us and a lot of us went over and talked to them and they helped us to bury our dead. This lasted the whole morning and I talked to several of them and I must say they seemed extraordinarily fine men. … It seemed too ironical for words.1

Corpses and candy bars do not mix, but in would appear that at least one of the central activities during the Christmas true involved the burying of bodies.


Celebrity and Secrecy

What is perhaps the most significant part of the ADWEEK discussion of Sainsbury’s advertisement is easily overlooked: its use of the phrase “famous 1914 Christmas Truce.” Unless Google is leading us astray, this may mark the first time that anyone has characterized the Christmas truce as “famous”.

It is not as if the broad outlines of the Christmas truces are unfamiliar. Over the last half-century they have loomed ever larger in the memory of World War I. They routinely appear (if only in passing) in general histories of the war (see, for example, Martin Gilbert’s 2002 survey) and play a pivotal role in Modris Eksteins’ Rites of Spring.2  In 1984 Malcolm Brown (a military historian associated with the Imperial War Museum) and Shirley Seaton (a researcher associated with the BBC) produced a well-documented account of the truce drawing based on the then-available archives.3 It was followed in 2002 by the American historian Stanley Weintraub’s account, which incorporated additional materials from German and French sources.4

Oh-What-a-Lovely-War-PosterThe truces have long figured in popular culture.  They turn up in Joan Littlewood’s sardonic 1963 revue “Oh What a Lovely War” and, three years later, were twisted into “Snoopy’s Christmas”, the Royal Guardsmen’s (now mercifully forgotten) seasonal hit. The folksinger John McCutcheon’s 1984 song “Christmas in the Trenches” has gone on to become a staple of public radio Christmas playlists;  his 2006 book of the same title is but one example of an ever-growing children’s literature on the topic. It is possible for those so inclined to purchase a DVD on which Walter Cronkite narrates the story of the Christmas truce (and then proceeds to lead the Mormon Tabernacle Choir in a performance of the Hallelujah Chorus). Christian Carion’s 2005 film Joyeux Noël  was met with a number of award nominations and mixed reviews and has been recently recast as a Pulitzer Prize winning opera. Finally, with the advent of initiatives aimed at collecting and archiving letters, journals, and recollections of the war (for example, the European Union’s Europeana 1914-1918), accounts of the truce — admittedly, of varying value — are now widely available on the web.

One feature of these accounts bears noting: though the Christmas Truce may have become “famous”, there is a repeated tendency for those who talk about it to act as if it isn’t.5 Brown and Seaton opened their 1984 account with a summary of the conventional wisdom:

The Christmas true of 1914 did not take place. It could not have happened in so brutal and savage a war. It was a myth of the time, like the story of the Angels of Mons. Or if anything of the kind occurred it was some minor incident blown up out of all proportion, natural fodder for sentimentalists and the pacifists of later generations (ix).

Over a decade and a half later, Weintraub began his study with a similar move, suggesting that the Christmas truces differed from the legend of the Angels of Mons and the appearance of Cossack troops at English railway stations only because they were the one Great War myth that turned out to be true.

While it is clear that historians have long been aware of the truces, it would seem that they have had difficulties knowing what to make of them.  Military historians have stressed that truces of this sort are not unusual — they have occurred in earlier wars and, while they may not have been as extensive as the 1914 truces, this is because few earlier wars were as extensive as the Great War.  Further, as Tony Ashworth argued in an influential account account of the “live and let live system” that evolved on the Western front, combatants had every reason to work out arrangements to manage the novel circumstances of protracted trench warfare.6  In contrast, those historians who have attempted to fit the truces into larger narratives are faced with the problem of whether, in the end, they really mattered.

That difficulty can be seen in the earliest accounts of the truces.  There is an extensive discussion of them in the fourth volume of the massive series of volumes on The History of the War published by the Times of London (that the series had reached a fourth volume by 1915 suggests something of its ambitions). It stressed that the initiative came from the German side (and notes the appearance of Christmas trees on the German parapets) and covers the various arrangements made for the burial of the dead and the subsequent fraternization between forces. It suggested that “This wonderful Christmas outburst is a text from which many morals might be preached, and the reader will doubtless draw his own,” but rightly observed that “similar rapprochements are not unknown in the history of war” (IV:225). It went on to draw distinctions between the conduct of Saxons and Bavarians and that of Prussian forces and speculated that, perhaps, the German hatred of England was a Prussian project into which the Bavarians and Saxons had been recruited. It concluded as follows:

At any rate, it was necessary to remember that, among brave men, fighting each other for their respective countries according to the rules of war, there does, after, or between the outbursts of martial fury, grow up a sense of mutual respect, which is apt to evolve even such friendliness as will at times make the combatants unconsciously regard themselves as almost comrades in arms. Had the German Army carried on its invasion with less brutality, and its warlike operations with less unfairness and devilry, such feelings would have grown more luxuriantly among the soldiers of the allies who fought to withstand the invasion (IV:228-229).

Each volume of the Times history contained an index and the index for Volume IV included an entry from the fraternization of troops over Christmas.  Volume XXII, published in 1921, contained a comprehensive index for the entire series.  It contained no reference to the event. Presumably, the editors had concluded that, in the end, it didn’t warrant notice.

Later historians have had no better luck in figuring out how to situate the Christmas Truces into their narratives. Brown and Seaton, persuaded that they were chronicling an event that had been ignored, were content to note that, in fact, there had been a Christmas Truce but that it was never repeated. Eksteins saw the failure of the truces to hold as marking the point when the old Europe died and the modern age began. And Weintraub closed his discussion with nineteen pages of what he described as “frivolous” speculations about how history might have been different had the truce held — e.g.,Lenin and Hitler would have gone on to lead obscure lives, America would have shunned Europe and set its eyes on the Pacific, the development of military technology would have languished, Germany would have emerged as a center of culture and science.  In the absence of any agreement of what significance the truces might have had, it is perhaps understandable that those who write about them have little to say other than that they, in fact, took place.

A Concluding Kantian Postscript

In 1798 Immanuel Kant’s Conflict of the Faculties raised, once again, the “old question” of whether the human race was progressing. He considered the alternative narratives that had been employed by those who seek to prophesy what lies ahead — a “terroristic” march into an ever-worsening condition, “eudaemonistic” progress to a state of perfection, or an “abderitic” path of progress and regress that would cast the human race in the role of Sisyphus. And, having considered these accounts, he concluded that they were looking for signs of moral progress in the wrong place. Repeating the “Copernican” turn that he had executed at the start of the Critique of Pure Reason he argued that the sign to which we should attend lies within us — in that “wishful participation, bordering on enthusiasm” with which Europeans greeted the news of the fall of the Bastille. No matter what course the revolution might take (and Kant, in 1798, had few illusions about the course it had taken) that enthusiasm was “an event that could never be forgotten.” It testified to a desire for a world where governments might, at long last, treat their citizens with the dignity and respect that this their birthright.

Perhaps there is something to be learned from Kant about how we might make sense of the peculiar way in which the Christmas truce haunts modern memory. That those who speak of it tend to treat it as if it were a secret possessing a significance neglected by others is of a piece with the season — a time marked by an ever-encroaching darkness that, miraculously, begins to move back towards the light. Those who look to it as a sign of a moment when the darkness — however briefly — began to lift are treading on familiar ground. “The past,” Walter Benjamin wrote, “carries with it a secret index by which it is referred to redemption.” If the history of the last hundred years has been a nightmare from which we are struggling to awake, this peculiar sign from a century ago — no matter how degraded by kitsch and commerce — might remain something worth remembering.

Screenshot 2014-12-22 10.20.42

 

  1. Quoted from Malcolm Brown, The Christmas Truce (London: Leo Cooper in association with Secker & Warburg ; New York, 1984) 52.
  2. Modris Eksteins, Rites of Spring: The Great War and the Birth of the Modern Age (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2000) 95-135.
  3. Malcolm Brown, The Christmas Truce (London: Leo Cooper in association with Secker & Warburg ; New York, 1984).
  4. Stanley Weintraub, Silent Night : The the Story of the World War I Christmas Truce (New York: Plume Books, 2002).
  5. As late as 2005, a reviewer in the Journal of Military History (69:2 582-3) found it worth praising a book that he otherwise panned for having “conclusively” provide that “the strange occurrence” did indeed occur — as if, in 2005, there was still a need to prove this.
  6. Tony Ashworth, Trench Warfare, 1914-1918: The Live and Let Live System (New York, N.Y: Holmes & Meier, 1980).

About James Schmidt

Professor of History, Philosophy, and Political Science Boston University
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