SaiSainsburys 2015 christmas advert is a world away from last year's foray into received history.nsbury’s 2014 Christmas advert based on the first noel in the Flanders trenches has not been repeated this year despite the outrageous success it registered in 2014. This year, it’s ‘let’s ignore history and get back to basics’. Marks and Spencer’s Art of Christmas advert celebrates middle-class excess; John Lewis has produced a heart-tugging mini-story with a gift-ridden solution to loneliness. Asda promises glitter and traditional nonsense, Lidl offers a School of Christmas and Waitrose jazzes up Heston Blumethal. [1] More pertinently, Sainsbury’s has abandoned the trenches in favour of a feline children’s book character called Mog. [2] The British Expeditionary Force has served its commercial purpose and can once more fade into history.

In 2014 the so-called 'christmas truce' in the trenches was the central feature of Sainsbury's campaign

The reason for the short lived homage to the Western Front will not be analysed in our blind and biased media. Memories of Christmas 1915 are to be buried with the hundreds of thousands already sacrificed in a miserable war of attrition that raged across Europe in December of that fateful year.

Of course the Northcliffe press did their best to minimise the disaster. On Christmas Eve they rejoiced that the Royal Family would again be at Sandringham and soldiers on leave were to be found pushing ‘through civilian crowds in cheerful groups, happy in their holiday’. [3] Without the slightest trace of sarcasm the Times decided that ‘The merriest centres of entertainment in the country will be the place where the troops of the new armies are at present stationed, for it is a paradox of war that most men throw off care when they put on uniform’. Finally, in order to stress the normality of Christmas in Blighty, it reported that the display of poultry at Smithfield was a wondrous sight … with the supplies of British and Irish Turkeys described as plentiful. With just a bit of imaginative manipulation, Sainsbury’s might have made something of this. British and Irish turkeys, indeed.

royal christmas

The reality was frightening. In France the murderous fighting in the Vosges mountains of Alsace gave rise to claims from both sides that they possessed the strategic ridge which had been the object of so many assaults over 1915. The French attacked the summit of the Hartmannsweilerkopf from December 21-23 [4] with no thought of a seasonal peace. On Christmas Eve an official message from Berlin claimed that ‘we have completely recaptured Hartmannsweilerkopf’, while on Christmas Day a French communique insisted that the Germans had launched a violent attack … but had been everywhere repulsed.’ [5]

Flanders had already descended into a quagmire ill-fitted for celebration of humanity and hope. There were no exchanges of carols or gifts between the brotherhood of man. On Christmas Eve 1915, the order was clearly understood. ‘Our men will have no fraternising tomorrow.’ [6] The British Commanders ensured that there would not be a repeat of the dangerous nonsense of the previous year. As the Times correspondent wrote: ‘Christmas Day began with rain … the aqueous roads were crowded with the traffic of war. Screened by shrubbery, I began my Christmas in the trenches by discovering the bottom of the mud too late …’ He found the salvos from British Howitzers roaring methodically from their lairs, screaming across no-man’s land towards enemy positions,‘exhilarating’. [7] Orders from the top brass ensured that there would be footballing rematches in 1915.

mud and flood in the trenches made a miserable christmas in 1915.

In an unusually frank and compassionate ending, the Times correspondent described a view which Sainsbury’s would never have attempted to commercialise. ‘We splashed and squeezed about between those stacks of hard grey bags, and ooze was everywhere, repulsive to touch and to smell. Within dark recesses of the bags I saw recumbent figures covered with new mud, fast asleep; others jammed themselves against the muck to allow us to pass as cleanly as possible … Through the indirect eye of a cautious mirror I could make out beyond the still land, ominous in its astonishing quietude, with some fantastic ruins beyond, through which showed the forlorn light of this Christmas Day.’ [8] Not the cosy image that sells product, I’m afraid.

The disaster of the Dardanelles also hung over the British Empire towards the final months of 1915 awaiting the unkind apportioning of blame. In November, with the Russians no longer a threat to Constantinople, Kitchener gave the order to abandon Gallipoli and 93,000 troops, 200 guns and more than 5,000 animals had to be spirited away from the vulnerable shores of that ill-judged target. Another sacrifice in a miserable litany of sacrifice. [9] The evacuated Australian troops celebrated their salvation that Christmas on the island of Lemnos, far from home. One miserable irony marred their brave attempt to find solace in the seasonal act of giving and receiving.

Christmas 'Billy' prepared for the Australian troops who had been evacuated from Gallipoli

Each man was presented with a ‘Christmas Billy’ but the picture on its exterior showed a Kangaroo on the map of Gallipoli, with his tail knocking a Turk into the sea. The words beneath said THIS BIT OF THE WORLD BELONGS TO ME. Not so, though those they left behind might have made such a claim. [10] To make such misery even worse, the entire Gallipoli strategy had been a ploy to assuage the Russians and keep them in the war. [11] The loss of tens of thousands of Australian, New Zealand, Irish, French and British troops had been but the residual cost of a greater lie. Pity the dead, but even more, the widows and families torn asunder by a prolonged war.

One particular voice from the front deserves our attention. Ben Keeling, (Frederick Hillersdon Keeling) a militant socialist in his undergraduate days at Cambridge and disciple of George Bernard Shaw wrote insightful letters to friends and family from the western front. [12] These told a far different tale from the usual tripe dished out by the propaganda machines like Northcliffe’s newspapers. Keeling was a patriot, devastated by Britain’s ‘madness’ to side with France and Russia against Germany. He had no personal quarrel with Germany and ‘firmly believed that Russia had provoked the war … These accursed barbarians, Jew-baiters and upholders of gross medieval Christianity … [Russians] may stand for culture but are the enemies of civilisation.’ [13] Wait a minute. Wasn’t Britain and the Empire fighting to save Civilisation? Isn’t this the diatribe still gushing from the mouths of contemporary warmongers and First World War co-celebrants?

Ben Keeling as sergeant

At Christmas 1915 Ben Keeling told it as it was in a letter to his friend R C K Ensor [14] ‘We are in a camp of tents with a very few mud huts. By the way the Chronicle published some time ago some rot from some blithering correspondent who, I suppose, drives about in GHQ motor-cars and thinks it is a wonderful thing to come under shell-fire, to the effect that all the troops are comfortably housed for the winter in nice warm huts. That sort of thing makes men swear out here. … It is a bloody shame to deceive the public and say we are in comfortable huts when we aren’t. Till the autumn we hadn’t even got tents, but generally just our waterproof sheets as roofs for bivvy shelters … In our brigade a man is damned lucky if he gets a dozen hour’s sleep in three days in the trenches … And then people think that it is mud and wet we mind; that is nothing, absolutely nothing compared with the nerve-wracking hell of bombardment.’ [15]

Consider his words. Life at the Front at Christmas 1915 was barely tolerable, but the stories published back home devised images of comfort and warmth. This was no misrepresentation; it was a damned lie. It was a myth concocted to assure the public that all was well and the troops were content in their safe sanctuaries. And it was a lie promulgated from the pulpit. The great prelates of England struggled with the concept of Peace on Earth, interpreting the message of Christmas 1915 as a reinforcement of the propaganda about righteousness, honour and truth. The Archbishop of Canterbury peddled the promise that victory would make ‘no such fighting either necessary or possible in years to come.’ [16] A century on such words must be embarrassing; best not to ponder that Christmas message as we lay plans to rip Syria apart at Christmas 2015.

Dean Inge addressing troops on the steps of St Paul's

Dean Inge of St Paul’s, the Church of England’s personal military recruiter rallied his congregation with a timely reminder of the duty of sacrifice, as in – other people being sacrificed. The Church did not approve of Chaplains at the front. [17] With the certainty of a race-patriot he extolled the qualities of ‘our race at its best’ and took a swipe at the militant unions and ‘cliques, factions and classes’ who made plots against public order. Bishop Inge did not clarify whether he meant the engineering strikes, the rent strikes which protested against mothers and their children being thrown onto the streets while their men folk fought in the trenches, [18] or the conscientious objectors.

Bearing all this in mind, we can appreciate why Sainsbury’s have not turned to Christmas 1915 in their latest advert. Images of hellish bombardment, physical and mental deprivation or soldiers cursing those who deliberately misrepresented their plight will not sell the merchandise they so desperately need to protect their market share. So it’s back to Christmas schmaltz. Mog might just prove to be a winner. Simple economics, you see. Last years’s romanticising of the unofficial Christmas ‘truce’, was simple economics, not patriotism. It was made for profit, as was the miserably prolonged first world war.

[3] The Times, Friday 24 December 1915, p. 3.
[4] John Howard Morrow, The Great War: An Imperial History p. 75.
[6] The Times, 27 December 1915, p. 7.
[7] Ibid.
[8] Ibid.
[9] Gallipoli Blogs 1-19 posted from 4/2/2015 to 24/4/2015
[11] Gallipoli, The Untold Story, in New Dawn, No. 149, March-April 2015.
[12] F.H. Keeling, The Keeling Letters and Recollections, with forward by H.G. Wells,
[13] Ibid. p. 181.
[14] Robert Ensor worked for the Daily Chronicle during the war and was later commissioned to write a volume of the Oxford History of England covering 1870-1914.
[15] Keeling, The Keeling Letters and Recollections, pp. 258-9.
[16] The Times, 27 December 1915, p.10.
[17] The Unholy Spirit, Blog posted 24/9/2014
[18] The Glasgow Rent Strikes of 1915 were an embarrassment to Asquith’s Liberal government
[] as were the demands from unions involved in Munitions. The prime minister had to send Lloyd George in person to try to calm the agitation amongst engineers and munitions workers on Christmas Day 1915.†