This year, as every year, retailers are seeking to capitalize on a massive Christmas market. In Britain, this manifests itself in the form of ‘Christmas advertisements,’ which are closely watched by British society and generate considerable competition amongst retailers to produce the most striking, and hence most effective, television advertisement. This year, Sainsbury’s, a British supermarket chain, has produced a television advertisement set in the First World War. In particular, the advertisement covers the so-called ‘Christmas truces’ of 1914 and with these a football match that supposedly took place between British and German units in no-man’s-land.
Now, while the advertisement obviously seeks to draw shoppers into Sainsbury’s, it is not so crass as to end with a large Sainsbury’s logo over the trenches of Belgium. The advertisement focuses on the chocolate bars Sainbury’s is selling this Christmas season, the proceeds of which will go to the Royal British Legion, a charity established in part by Field Marshal Lord Haig to provide support to British veterans of the First World War.
While this is by no means the first advertisement to use war to sell goods, the Sainsbury’s advertisement has set off a massive response in Britain. Some have seen it as a belittlement of the horrendous casualties of the war. To these observers, Sainsbury’s is callously attempting to cash in on the millions who were killed during the war. Others have posed important questions about the veracity of the tales of the Christmas truce and the Christmas football matches. While consensus seems to be emerging that local truces did occur, they have pointed out that there is very little contemporary evidence for football matches occurring.
I will leave it to others to prove or disprove the existence of football matches. In my view, the Christmas truce, with or without football matches, tells us some important things about the nature of the war in 1914 and what soldiers thought at this stage in the war. First, despite being told the war would be over ‘before the leaves fell’ or ‘by Christmas,’ it obviously was nowhere near finished by Christmas 1914. However, this does not mean that most soldiers, or even most their commanders, believed the war would go on for several more years and that they would be in roughly the same trenches almost four years later. In late December 1914, all belligerents expected the campaigns of 1915 to finish what had started in 1914, and all armies were busy over the winter of 1914/1915 learning the lessons of 1914 campaigns, restructuring to make good losses, and restocking expended munitions.
Second, the Christmas truces tell us something about how soldiers viewed their opponents at this stage of the war (and perhaps beyond). The 1914 campaigns had been incredibly tough. The original British Expeditionary Force had been all but wiped out, and the German army had suffered some 850,000 casualties by late 1914. Despite the intensity of fighting, the Christmas truces show to us that each side still viewed the other as ‘opponents’ (Gegner in German) and not yet as ‘enemies’ (Feind in German). The distinction is important (if a bit clear in the German language than the English). What we can see from the Christmas truces is that the soldiers of both sides were still able to connect with one another on an individual, human level. These truces took place before government propaganda campaigns designed to mobilize their own populations in the face of heavy sacrifice had really gotten going. (The Bryce Report in German atrocities during the 1914 campaign in Belgium was published in early May 1915, just days after a German submarine had sunk the ocean liner RMS Lusitania taking nearly 2,000 passengers, including 129 US citizens, down with it.) During Christmas 1914, the other side was not yet seen as a horrible enemy there simply to be defeated.
Indeed, we have long known that local, temporary truces and other limitations on violence occurred throughout the war. Sometimes these might be linked to specific holidays. For example, truces between German and Russian units on the Eastern Front took place usually around Easter. Other times truces might simply be based around common needs – to retrieve wounded, to bury the recently killed, to allow rations to be moved forward, or simply to be left in peace to a short time. This ‘live-and-let-live system’ was certainly not condoned by high commands, but there is no doubt it existed throughout the war.
In my view, the Sainsbury’s advertisement highlights these points. While it may not be the most historically accurate account, the advertisement demonstrates that over Christmas 1914, there was still considerable hope amongst the belligerents. Hope that the war would be over before too long and hope that normal relations between neighbors could be reestablished before too long. Finally, the advertisement reminds us that even in some of the most trying conditions, acts of kindness towards the enemy could and did occur. In my view, this is significant: While the advertisement may perpetuate a myth about a Christmas football match, it implicitly challenges a wider myth that the war was filled with uninterrupted horror. Historians have long known this is a crass oversimplification of the war, but the Sainsbury’s advertisement spreads this message to a wider public.