Poppies, adverts, libraries

Next spring, Sainsbury’s will doubtless be celebrating Easter with a feelgood mini-movie about the crucifixion, so that they can sell more chocolate eggs. A good-looking young Roman soldier could cheer up the Virgin Mary by handing her a Kinder Surprise…
It’s been a funny old fortnight for Remembrance-watchers.
I didn’t get to see the poppies at the Tower, but five million did, and I’ve met people who were considerably moved by them. Jonathan Jones in the Guardian dismissed the spectacle as fake and trite, but perhaps he’s missing the point. He writes:

The first world war was not noble. War is not noble. A meaningful mass memorial to this horror would not be dignified or pretty. It would be gory, vile and terrible to see. The moat of the Tower should be filled with barbed wire and bones. That would mean something.

Yes, it would. It would mean one thing. It would be an artistic statement about war (and perhaps rather an obvious one) but it would not be much good as a memorial. The best memorials do not batter you over the head with meaning. They let you bring your own meanings to them, which is why the highly abstract Cenotaph, or the plain obelisk on the average English village green, are effective as focuses for the feelings of whole communities, bringing together people of a wide range of political views.

The Cenotaph does not say that the War was evil, or that it was good. It parades no point of view. Soldiers can lay a wreath there and think with pride of their comrades’ achievements; pacifists can see it as a dreadful reminder of what must never happen again. However complex and ambiguous your feelings about the War, the plain, unadorned Cenotaph can be a focus for them. I think that the flood of poppies would work in much the same way.
Mind you, others agree with Jones. Recently Professor Lisa Jardine criticised the new display at the Imperial War Museum for being too clear and informative, and not being preachy enough. And Siegfried Sassoon expressed Jones-like sentiments about the New Menin Gate, the dignified memorial that recorded the names of the graveless dead on the Salient:

Here was the world’s worst wound. And here with pride
‘Their name liveth for ever’, the Gateway claims.
Was ever an immolation so belied
as these intolerably nameless names?
Well might the Dead who struggled in the slime
Rise and deride this sepulchre of crime.

Sassoon felt that the grave and noble monument somehow prettified the crime of war. Perhaps he was one of those (like Churchill) who felt that the city of Ypres should be left in ruins as a terrible warning to the future.
By and large succeeding generations have not agreed with him. That seemingly endless list of names on the memorial tells its story in a way that stirs the imagination of the most casual visitor. Understatement works better than horror-movie images would.
But images of remembrance can indeed be too pretty, and the talking point of the past week has been that Sainsbury’s advertisement, which cleverly tells the story of the Christmas Truce in a style reminiscent of Spielberg’s War Horse film. Drama, Christmas carols, sentiment, football chocolate. What’s not to like?
Advertisements traditionally have very little connection with reality, and Sainsbury’s have sensibly been undeterred by the fact that British-German football matches on No-Man’s Land never actually happened. After all, you wouldn’t have got couch-potatoes in a Christmas spending mood by showing soldiers peeling their dead off the barbed wire and burying them.
The whole film takes place in a fantasy Morpurgo-Land of high thinking and political correctness. It made me puke slightly, but I bet it gets customers in through the doors.
The ad takes about four minutes, but the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford-upon-Avon are presenting a family show for Christmas which, judging by its trailer, stretches the same material out to a couple of hours. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=24WXo8DVplI
Once again football features heavily. You can see and hear the author and director talking sanctimoniously about it here. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EmZSNrJY_Fc
Meanwhile, in other news, there is a threat to close the Library at the Imperial War Museum. Fantasy about the War conquers the land, and a source of accurate information is threatened…
If this is not just a scare story to force more cash out of the granting bodies,there has been a serious lack of joined-up thinking by someone here. After a very expensive rehang of the galleries, which closed the museum for a long time, there is apparently not enough money to keep running the Library, with its unique collection. someone should be very ashamed. Without a library to inform the curatorial work, the Museum is unlikely to thrive.
To sign a petition protesting the closure, click here.
Maybe Sainsbury’s would like to make a donation.


  1. Alan Allport
    Posted November 18, 2014 at 3:20 pm | Permalink

    The Sainsbury’s ad is pretty awful, but I find just as objectionable Lisa Jardine’s assumption that the men who joined up during the First World War were all naive dupes. This is infantilization of the most condescending kind, and simply untrue – as many detailed studies of the enlistment phenomenon have shown.

    • Posted November 18, 2014 at 5:53 pm | Permalink

      Agreed. Professorial condescension to the soldiers – and also to the museum visitors, who can’t be trusted to see that war is horrible without having the horror rammed down their throats.

  2. Posted November 19, 2014 at 11:50 am | Permalink

    A useful history of the IWM library can be found here: http://archiveshub.ac.uk/features/imperialwarmuseum/

  3. Posted November 19, 2014 at 6:40 pm | Permalink

    I think the statement that “Sassoon felt that the grave and noble monument somehow prettified the crime of war” is slightly off-beam. I don’t think that he had a problem with a memorial being erected – his main objection, I feel, was that it simply wasn’t enough. That is what I get from the poem.

    • Posted November 19, 2014 at 7:58 pm | Permalink

      But he says the Salient has been ‘crudely renewed’ and calls the gate ‘a pile of peace-complacent stone’.
      He definitely wasn’t a fan.

  4. Posted November 19, 2014 at 6:56 pm | Permalink

    Oh, and actually the football match did happen, even if it was just a “kick-about”. See the Letters page of BBC History magazine (September edition) where a member of the public rightly takes issue with Dan Snow for not checking his sources. Apparently Herbert Jones of Blackburn Rovers recalled participating.

  5. Posted November 20, 2014 at 12:03 pm | Permalink

    I don’t see that the date makes a material difference.

    • Posted November 20, 2014 at 12:11 pm | Permalink

      It makes a difference because 1914 was when the football was generally supposed to have been played (though sources tend to vanish when looked at critically).
      In 1915 there were some truces at Christmas, but senior officers on both sides tried hard to prevent them, so they were small-scale. Did any get beyond mutual pauses to bury the dead (not uncommon in quiet sectors, even outside the Xmas season) and a few cheery greetings? Anything as large-scale as a football match in 1915 seems unlikely. Are there any other reports of extended truces in 1915? How reliable is Herbert Jones as a witness?

  6. Jonathan Lighter
    Posted November 20, 2014 at 2:04 pm | Permalink

    A very astute column, George, except for one idea that raises troublesome doubts:

    “Understatement works better than horror-movie images would.”

    Remember, it’s 2014. Horror-show images save the annoyance of independent and intelligent thought.

    (But they do provide a better education than the the award-winning WW2 funfest, “Life is Beautiful.”)

  7. Steve Paradis
    Posted November 20, 2014 at 2:51 pm | Permalink

    What I found amusing (as in “I used to be disgusted; now I’m just amused”) was the male models cavorting in the snow, as compared to the readily available images of the actual squaddies who look like they spent the last ten nights in a dugout.

  8. Posted November 20, 2014 at 6:58 pm | Permalink

    Although I do feel some revulsion at the idea of WWI imagery being used to sell stuff on TV, I also feel that we have gone too far in labelling all our perceptions of the First World War as mythology. Leave that to Hastings, Reynolds et al. A lot of what the poets wrote was true, and a lot of the stories the soldiers told were true. Now I recall that I blogged about the Christmas truce (obliquely) last December: http://sassoonfellowship.blogspot.co.uk/2013/12/a-christmas-truce.html

  9. Bill
    Posted December 7, 2014 at 10:50 am | Permalink

    The recently released General Congreve letter widely quoted in the press does seem to support a Sainsbury’s version of the truce, even if based on widespread hearsay, given Congreve’s reluctance to tempt them with the sight of a general. And mentions football.

    • Posted December 7, 2014 at 11:11 am | Permalink

      Congreve’s letter reports a rumour, not an eye-witness sighting:

      I hope devoutly they will – next door the 2 battalions opposite each other were shooting away all day & so I hear it was further north, 1st R.B. playing football with the Germans opposite them – next Regiments shooting each other.

      Who were the R.B.? The Rifle Brigade?
      What do the soldiers of that regiment say happened?

      • Bill
        Posted December 7, 2014 at 11:29 am | Permalink

        The detail given earlier in the letter seems to confirm the atmosphere was rather more convivial than a mutual burial party truce, even if football is a distant rumour and the only gifts exchanged were cigars. More interestingly, perhaps, the general implies no disapproval of the truce. Maybe things only changed when the non-professional soldiers started arriving.

  10. Posted December 7, 2014 at 11:38 am | Permalink

    Believable accounts such as Bairnsfather’s make it clear that there was conviviality – I love his detail of a British hairdresser cutting a German’s hair int he middle of No-mans-Land.
    The reactions of higher officers probably varied considerably, but anxiety was expressed, and there was a crack-down to prevent repetitions in 1915.
    If RB means Rifle Brigade, Henry Williamson was in the London Rifle Brigade, and participated in the truce but does not mention football.

    • Bill
      Posted December 7, 2014 at 12:03 pm | Permalink

      I suppose Congreve would pay more attention to rumours from the Rifle Brigade, but the point he seems to be making is the piecemeal nature of the truce(s).

      I imagine any crackdown may have been brought about by the alleged later refusal of some troops to fire on those enemy troops with whom they had exchanged greetings, rather than by the truces themselves. But there seems even less evidence for that.

      • Posted December 7, 2014 at 3:31 pm | Permalink

        Congreve implies that they were all firing away at the enemy the next day – though of course, maybe that’s what a general like him wanted to believe. The whole subject is a miasma of perhapses…

  11. Bill
    Posted December 7, 2014 at 10:01 pm | Permalink

    The “Letters from the Front” published in The Times on 1st Jan 1915 include a member of the London Rifle Brigade quoted as saying “on Christmas Day a football match was played between them and us in front of the trench”. I always assumed that these letters (which seem to be extracts from letters to relatives) were probably the original source of the story of “Football with the Enemy” (the headline attached to them, even though football is a relatively minor reference – perhaps connected with a following news item about the recruitment of a “football battalion”).

    • Posted December 8, 2014 at 12:19 am | Permalink

      The Times Letters from the Front, in those days before accredited war correspondents, were not always accurate.
      A letter from a member of the LRB that has not been mediated by the press, says: ‘One regiment, I hear, tried to arrange a football match for this afternoon, but I don’t think that came off.’
      This could easily be a source of the story, then distorted by the Chinese whispers of rumour.

  12. Bill
    Posted December 8, 2014 at 9:02 am | Permalink

    I suppose the interesting question is why anyone would go to the trouble of inventing a story of football playing, if there wasn’t some substantial core of truth. If it didn’t happen, then it is even more interesting that so many people have wanted it to be true for so long.

  13. James Grant Repshire
    Posted December 11, 2014 at 11:06 am | Permalink

    The real problem with the Sainsbury’s commercial isn’t the use of war to market goods. If people really have a problem with that, then they shouldn’t watch Hollywood war movies that put millions into the pockets of actors, directors, and production companies either. The problem that this commercial highlights is that the UK government places the burden of care for veterans on charities like the RBL, who then have to seek corporate sponsorship like this in order to raise funds. Rather than complain about this commercial, UK citizens should petition the government to develop a veterans’ care programme similar to the USA’s Department of Veterans’ Affairs, or at least donate some money to the RBL or another veterans’ charity. But since most people’s donations don’t go past buying a £1 paper poppy every year, at least the RBL knows that they might also buy a chocolate bar from Sainsbury’s that the RBL gets a 50 pence from. And so, the RBL has to help Sainsbury’s market by using war, in order to provide support that UK veterans desperately need.

  14. Posted January 15, 2015 at 1:22 am | Permalink

    Having gone through the sources from both sides for (part of) the Christmas Truce for my forthcoming book on the Royal Saxon Army in Flanders, I am quite convinced that multiple, highly informal ‘football matches’ (not necessarily with an actual ball – ‘match’ is too grandiose a word) did take place. It seems that football was one of the major subjects of Anglo-German conversation during the fraternisation, as evidenced by countless contemporary eyewitness accounts – naturally enough, being a safely ‘apolitical’ shared interest for both sides.

    In several parts of the line the (junior) officers on both sides seem to have been much taken with the idea of a proper formal match on Boxing Day, but this seems to have been logistically unfeasible (or perhaps judged on further sober consideration to be going a bit too far, considering possible reactions from higher up).

    I’ve posted a link in the ‘website’ field to my (admittedly rather dry) article summarising my Christmas Truce research. I set out to pin down all of the parties involved on the map as precisely as possible (something English-speaking authors have consistently failed to do effectively for the German units) and then to match up the accounts from both sides in specific areas in an attempt to get closer to the truth – basically the same approach I use with more conventional military events.

    My Saxon co-author and I are quite fond of the Sainsburys ad (though we could certainly pick holes in it – the battlefield looks far too devastated for late 1914 for a start), merely because it’s the first time we’ve ever seen anyone attempt to portray officers and men of one of the Saxon regiments we’ve been studying for so many years on screen. It is a great pity that there is no historically sound film on the subject – the fairly recent production ‘Joyeux Noel’ takes immeasurably greater liberties in portraying a completely mythical three-way truce involving the French, transplants the personality of Hermann Goering into the German Crown Prince, recycles myths about trucing units being sent to the Eastern Front… I could go on all day. Comparatively speaking the Sainsburys ad is relatively accurate (entirely thanks to the historical advisers, I should add), and far less objectionable in that it is only selling chocolate (and suporting veterans’ causes in the process) rather than a poitical agenda.

  15. Andrew Lucas
    Posted January 15, 2015 at 1:26 am | Permalink

    Oops, wrong link.

    It should be: http://parispigalle.co.uk/royalsaxonarmy/index.php/features/34-the-christmas-truce-on-the-front-of-xix-armeekorps

    • Posted January 15, 2015 at 10:15 am | Permalink

      Thanks for pointing me to this informative essay. I’m especially interested in your suggestion that accounts of the truce were influenced by the desire not to seem the instigator:

      ‘Most of the officers and men involved seem to have correctly surmised that the wrath of higher command was far more likely to descend on those who had actively initiated fraternisation and trucing, than on those who had just humanely accepted such an offer from the enemy. On the German side, a strict anti-fraternisation order was issued by OHL on 29th December, proclaiming that all unauthorised approaches to the enemy were to be punished as high treason.

      As a result, it became essential to put all local truces on a formal basis and to retrospectively justify the contact that had occurred within that framework.’
      Most of the British accounts I’ve read have the Germans as instigators of the truces, so similar considerations may have been at work.

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