It appears somewhere down the line, in the constant barrage of calendar dates and ever important moments of national relevance, a marketing department has managed to confuse commemorating millions of lives thrown away with the sugar-fed fantasia that is Christmas.
I’m not going to go into the rights and wrongs of what some see as a tasteless and disrespectful ploy by Sainsbury’s and the Royal British Legion to sell chocolate and draw in punters.
Yes, it is worrying that this neat, happy tale of humanity among the horrors of war has been sanitised and repackaged as something salesworthy, on a par with snow covered Cornish schools or lovelorn (or sexually predatory) penguins.
It also speaks disturbingly of the rose tinted way in which remembrance in this centenary year has been skewed towards jingoism and increasing militarism in our society, as misty eyed consumers talk about how it shows the way everyone could put aside their differences for one day – ‘and did you know it was based on a true story?’
What upsets me is that people can know that this was based on real events – in reality spread out across different sections of the front – can talk about the humanity on show, and not reflect on the flip side of that coin: for 364 days of that year, and the next, and for 365 days of the following two years, human beings who were more than happy to share chocolate and fags were also able to shoot, stab, or shell each other to death.
In the ‘story behind’ the ad, which Sainsbury’s follows its Youtube slot with, the RBL director of fundraising, Charles Byrne, calls the advert “A good way for people to start to understand the First World War and understand the humanity. Not just the scale of the destruction, but also the small moments of charity and support and human contact that could easily get lost otherwise.”
No-one has lost the idea that war, and the First World War in particular, is hell. No-one who reflects upon it is unaware of the scale of the destruction. But it is disingenuous to talk about the small moments of charity and the human contact without reflecting on the obverse, the fact that the trenches were filled with inhumanity day in, day out; and the chumminess of this advert only seems to heighten the tragedy that these boys were not fighting against dictators, they were not fighting religious zealots, they did not want to kill or to be killed, and yet they were sent to the slaughter.
It is almost comic in its tragedy, that people so much closer than the generals above them could come together for one day, before being forced by those generals, who cared nothing for them, to recommence hostilities.
It reduces the war to little more than that very game of football in no-man’s land, 90 minutes of kicking and sweating, and a handshake at the end. Except that it wasn’t a game, there was no handshake for the millions that died, and the many millions more that were left permanently wounded, or unable to face the horrors of what they had done – perhaps to that very same boy who had shared their chocolate on Christmas morning.
Viewers may speak of the warm inner feeling they get from the humanity shown by this advert, but that just serves to highlight the great inhumanity that is an inbuilt part of war. The inhumanity of the generals and officers who sent their men back over the top the next day, and the day after that, and on and on. And if not inhumanity, it shows with a chilling degree how so many decent human beings can, if asked, put their humanity aside at the exhortation of the man with the whistle and the gun.
The advert draws to a close with the thundering of artillery in the distance, a sign that the reality of war has brought this festive little tête-a-tête to an end. One of the historians in the follow up video readily states that the war continued at many points along the front that day.
The truce did not change the supreme folly that was the ‘war to end all wars’ – in following years the generals would simply order an artillery barrage to suppress any thoughts of fraternising with the enemy – it simply served to highlight it.
*For a far more human treatment of the truces of Christmas 1914, which gives at least some glimpse of the repercussions such an event can have, try the superb, multilingual Joyeaux Noël. Ignore the fact it’s got Trevor from Eastenders, he’s actually quite good.