Mediated Memory, Myth, and Legend: The Christmas Truce of 1914 and the Great War in Modern Thought
By Anna Rindfleisch
In the wake of the centenary of the signing of the Armistice, the focus of the lasting legacy of the Great War is shifting to a discussion on the ways in which the European people exited the “War to End all Wars”. The massive outpouring of social media postings and institutional centenary events over the past four years suggests that the 100-year-old trauma attached to the iconic image of the Front Soldier has been transmitted down generations and shaped our contemporary understanding of the Great War. When BBC published a video-short in 2015 "How Much Do Millennials Know About WWI?" the content shocked. What truth these European millennials knew of the Great War seemingly reflected the atmosphere of those who'd lived a hundred years ago. They knew it was fought mainly in Europe, it had been a horrific event, a lot of teenage boys were sent to fight, a lot of them were killed, and Germany lost. As to why the fighting started or what its ultimate purpose was, they had no words.
The Unknown Soldier and Les Monument aux Morts
The mediated memory of the Great War has always emphasized its human and psychological cost by commemorating the loss of the war-dead. We can understand mediated memory as representations of the past that are transmitted through modern media and affect the construction of personal and/or collective memory. The BBC video, coupled with the public centenary ceremony the Royal British Legion and 14-18 NOW put on a year prior demonstrates just how present the traumatic memory of the Great War is today. On the very hour that Britain entered the Great War a hundred years ago, London was plunged into a dark silence. They called the ceremony "Lights Out". During the 22nd hour on August 4th, 2014 people flocked in the darkened streets to a candle vigil at Westminster Abbey which concluded at 23:00 with the temporary stamping out of the torch at the base of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. The ceremony included musical orchestration and loud speaker readings of dead soldier writings. On the 11th hour on November 11th, 2018 a similar event commemorated the ending of the Great War. A two minute silence was observed at 11:00am to mimic the falling silent of the guns and massive celebrations, commemoratory ceremonies, and social media selfies with people wearing poppy pins erupted around the world for the rest of the day.
At the crux of each event was the burial of a single unknown soldier. As such, this performance of memorializing war-dead was once again, a hundred years later, focused on a ritualized mourning practice, that was implemented around the world. Laurence Van Ypersele in the chapter he contributed to "A companion to World War I" entitled "Mourning and Memory, 1919-45," argues this figure of the unknown soldier is a potent focal point because its anonymity is and was able to encompass "the loss of an entire nation" which in turn "guaranteed equality for all heroes and allowed for the mourning of each individual" (579). Similar thought processes have been applied when analyzing les monuments aux morts whereon the names of those who'd fallen in the war are given credence through the inscription of their individual name on a public monument. The bereaved could return to this monument in order to interact with their grief until the time when they were, in theory, able to move on. The use of the same tactics a hundred years later to mourn the beginning and commemorate the end of the War demonstrates the extent of the influence of these mourning rituals which emerged in Europe during the Interwar Period, which still has on the way Western Europeans understand war commemorations.
The Language of Silence: Auditory Commemoration and Performative Non-Speech Acts
Jay Winter, a historian, recently published "War Beyond Words: Languages of Remembrance from the Great War to the Present". In the chapter entitled "Shell Shock, Silence, and Memories of War," he puts forward auditory commemoration as a pillar of remembrance. He defines auditory commemoration as “performative non-speech acts," which are "constitutive rather than descriptive" meaning "they speak rather than describe." He gives an example: the two-minute periods of silence that accompany Armistice Day ceremonies. These performative non-speech acts and the silence they're built on can be found reverberating throughout modern-day US military ceremonies like the Last Roll Call ceremony, Missing Man formation, Twelve Gun Salute, and The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier's Guard at Arlington Cemetery. We also find this type of silent mourning in the "Lights Out" vigil at Westminster Abbey and the darkening of London at 22:00, August 4th, 2014. These examples suggest that silence is a type of universal language which gives a special speech to memory. Performative non-speech rites give outward expression to internal unspeakable trauma. Acts like the two-minute silences at military ceremonies are ways for people to tell interpersonal stories of their war experience with Winter says are "beyond words."
The image below shows another particularly poignant expression of this language of silence. Two photographs taken by Michael St Maur Sheil of the Newfoundland Memorial Park located in Beaumont Hamel and the Somme (France), show the silent lapse of a hundred years. During this time span, the earth has pulled itself back together like skin healing around stitches. The jagged lines are what remains of the trench networks, once home to some 60 million men who were mobilized over the course of the Great War. The craters speak of nightly bombardments.
Sheil's photos succinctly demonstrate the traumatic legacy of the Great War by revealing that the War's terror is still physically present among the landscape of Europe. I would also suggest that they also serve as reminders for the psychological memory of Europe's millennials that the horrific event of WWI is still present. While millennials circa 2015 may not know why or when the Great War started, they can understand the landscape's traces of the massive death toll.
The 2014 Sainsbury's Christmas Truce Advertisement: Cinematic Memorial in Action
Professor Mark Connelly from the University of Kent approached the topic of mediated memory within public consciousness with the talk he gave December of 2015. He talked about the Sainsbury's 2014 Christmas advertisement, which tells the iconic story of the 1914 Christmas Truce. In the video, a soldier receives a chocolate bar from his love-interest back home. The emotional gift spurs him to venture out of the trench and into No Man's Land where he and a German soldier shake hands. The rest of the soldiers clamor out of the trenches and play a game of soccer before the rumbling sounds of gunshots sends them retreating back to their sides.
The Sainsbury Christmas advert is exemplary of cinematic memorial in action, thanks to modern-day technology and the fad of "Reaction Videos." Reaction videos are videos in which people react to events. In particular, videos showing the emotional reactions of people viewing television series episodes or film trailers are numerous and popular on video hosting services, particularly YouTube. The impact of the ad on UK public can be gauged visually as well as textually. If parsed, frame-by-frame, the advert becomes something of a micro-history on war memorials and its relationship to the modern-day use of war memory. My analysis of this ad appears below. I have posted the image of each frame and my text appears underneath it:
The first image is of darkness, the text appears on the screen and the light from the lantern brings men in uniform into focus. The song of "Silent Night" begins to resound, the camera pans upward revealing the trenches. German and English overlap as the men from both sides sing a universal song of the Holiday Season. The viewers — i.e. us — consume these emotionally charged images, the text, and the song; all of which are guiding markers which bring forth the associations society has learned about the experience of a Great War trench soldier. The modernly familiar sound of "Silent Night" secures an emotional connection between the language of memory being portrayed through the symbolic imagery and the viewer.
The camera hones in on one soldier, who's received a package from a runner. He opens it slowly, as the viewers watch the intimate action. He holds up a picture of a woman, the camera captures the slow upturn of his lips into a smile. Underneath the picture appears a letter and a chocolate bar. The soldier holds and regards the chocolate bar fondly. The aesthetic choice of dirty fingernails and well-worn gloves corresponds to the common stock-image of a Great War soldier, an image we all know, in a state of filth and despair. The appeal to a collective memory allows the viewer to rationally validate the film as a truthful representation of what a Great War British front soldier would have looked like. The contrast of the chocolate bar's blue packaging, the dirty fingers of the soldier, and the nostalgic smile the soldier displays to the camera convey to the viewer that they are witnessing an emotional response to a gift his sweetheart has sent him.
The soldier comes to a decision. He stands up and begins to ascend a ladder, to the left of the screen a comrade shouts "Jim! Jim! No, don't do it!" Jim pokes his head out from the trench, hat held up as a symbol of peace, and face wrinkled in fear. Just a mile away, the Germans ready their guns until a single soldier shouts "Stop! He's not armed!"
Jim and the German soldier emerge from their trenches inching towards each other. Their respective battalions begin to follow, the two soldiers reach the middle of No Man's Land. "My name is Jim," he says. Silence, then the Germans soldiers responds: "My name is Otto." They clasp hands to an eruption of joyous music. The soldiers close ranks, remove hats and jackets as they shake hands. The viewers feel elated.
Jim shows Otto the picture of sweetheart, whose holiday gift sparked the temporary truce. Otto remarks on her beauty. Within this frame the viewer enters into the private lives of two soldiers through this image of a woman.
The noise of shouts and laughter pull the two soldiers from their conversation. They dissolve into the mass of teenagers engaging in a game of soccer. They appear to be just like any other group of boys playing a game in an open field. The destitution of the war glimpsed at the beginning of the advert has fully disappeared.
A rumble of bombardments in the distance breaks up the laughter reminding the soldiers of their reality. Quickly the noise of war drowns out the laughter, smiles, and soft sounds of upbeat music. Officers from both sides look off into the distance, a steely look of resolve slips back into place. The smiles have all but vanished now, the two soldiers that started the truce shake one final time, and both sides disappear into their trenches once more.
As soldiers slump back into the earthen walls, Otto reaches into his pocket and, to his surprise, pulls out the candy bar Jim received from his sweetheart. He stares down and the viewers watch, transfixed, as the emotional climax reaches its apex.
In the last scene, Otto looks up into the distance, a small smile of shock spreading across his face. The camera pans toward the blue of the sky, as birds fly across the screen, and the final text flints onto the screen before the advert ends. It reads: "Christmas is for sharing.” The unspoken reality of this advert is that historically these soldiers were made to resume firing on the same men they’d just played soccer with. This historical realization invokes the monstrous horror of the Great War and settles on the viewers in a new fashion as the human aspect of the war is emphasized.
Not only was this Christmas advert made especially to acknowledge the centenary of the Great War, but it strategically appeals to the human aspect of the War. Winter argues, "In 1914, war had a human face." Indeed, it did. The Christmas Truce of 1914 is, in many ways, the emblem of Winter's quote, the very reaffirmation of the War that toppled the traditions of warfare and required the refashioning of mourning practices.
The advert has, to date, received over 20 million views on YouTube with over 12,000 comments, the vast majority of which discuss the emotional and visceral reaction they had while watching it. One commenter, Sabrina Umstead, wrote: "My 7th grade social studies teacher showed our class this while learning about World War 1. This is forever my favorite commercial not only because the story behind it, but the memory attached." The advert's use of the Christmas Truce impacted a teacher to such a strong extent, that he worked it into his lesson plan for the Great War. Umstead's quote marks the distinction between the message of the ad "Christmas is for sharing" and the memory of the War that is attached to the stock-images Sainsbury's ad portrayed. In the "TV Reactions to Sainsbury's Advert," that Ed Ward released on YouTube December 6th, 2014 similar visual responses of Londoners tearing up reiterate these commenters sentiments.
The ad intrigues because advertisements function differently from a film, novel, poem, or play. Ads are marketing tools aim at relaying a very specific message. They function to sell a product or ideal; in the case of the Sainsbury advert, the product was the chocolate bar. In the YouTube description attached to the Sainsbury advert, the company wrote: "The chocolate bar featured in the ad is on sale now at Sainsbury’s. All profits (50p per bar) will go to The Royal British Legion and will benefit our armed forces and their families, past and present." Coupled with the emotionally jarring experience of the advert, and the marketing push, on December 17th, 2014 Sainsbury's Twitter feed released a picture of the chocolate bar with the caption: "We’re on track to raise £500,000 for The Royal British Legion through our chocolate bar sales! #ChristmasIsForSharing" Sainsbury's ad was released to YouTube on November 12th, 2014 and, within 38, days they'd turned a massive profit of approximately $657,980. Two days later, Sainsbury had doubled their original production of the bar and responded to a commenter on Twitter who hadn't been able to find the chocolate bar in any of the stores near him. Sainsbury replied: "The demand for these was greater than we ever expected. Really sorry to hear you weren't able to get one." At peak, Sainsbury was selling 5,000 chocolate bars an hour and had over 10 million views within the first week of releasing the ad.
With massive popularity came equally daunting backlash. Neil Kelly was quoted by Rebecca Perring, a writer for Express, Home of the Daily, and Sunday Press, "It’s a lovely story from history but I find it upsetting they’ve used the First World War as a vehicle to promote a supermarket. The sentiment behind it, supporting the RBL, is sound, but there’s something that doesn’t sit right with the use of the war." This response was just one of the thousands of people who saw the advert as abuse of the memory of the Great War to further consumerism. The immediate popularity of the ad and the massive response Sainsbury received because of it proves how vivid the memory of the Great War is in modern-day thought.
The BCC video-short released in 2015, the Royal British Legion's "Lights Out" ceremony held in 2014, the widely popular Sainsbury Christmas Advert, and the large amount of events and social media postings that commemorated the centenary of the signing of the Armistice demonstrate the success of the Myth of the War Experience and the failure of the mourning process in the Interwar Period. The Myth of the War Experience disseminated narratives of national purpose through the figure of the sacred Front Soldier to the public in an attempt at mass consolation and absolution of war guilt. The foundations of the Myth of the War Experience after the War built the National Public Grief narratives, which used the war-dead to address the universal need of the individuals' absolution of guilt. However, in allowing the bereaved to mourn collectively, the National Public Grief narratives might have removed their ability to grieve at a private level; thus, we see the resulting disruption to the mourning process.
These four aforementioned events: the BCC video-short released in 2015, the Royal British Legion's "Lights Out" ceremony held in 2014, the widely popular Sainsbury Christmas Advert, and the large number of events and social media postings that commemorated the centenary of the signing of the Armistice provide traces of an unresolved traumatic memory. If I informally postulate as to why these traces are found in modern-day thought, I come to multiple reasons. The rapid turn around from the end of the Great War to the beginning of the Second World War suggests a lack of time for the bereaved to fully conduct the mourning process. The unprecedented atrocities of the Second World War, in a way, overshadowed the lingering grief of its predecessor. A newly scarred community of the bereaved faced the trauma of a post-Hiroshima and Auschwitz world with a dismantled language of mourning. Both bound to language and betrayed by languages inadequacies, the bereaved of the Second World War attempted to mourn in ways unseen before. Consequently, the bereaved of the Great War transmitted their unresolved individual trauma into the forthcoming generations. Thus, there is the modern-day notion of the Great War as a monstrous affair which stole the lives of nearly 10 million teenagers as the BBC video-short "How Much Do Millennials Know About WWI?" revealed. Deeply impactful, the widespread popularity of the Sainsbury advert and the outpouring of sorrowful remembrance postings that accompanied November 11, 2018, show just how much the emotionally charged figure of the Great War Front Soldier still invokes this need within individuals to lament. Perhaps, this signals the lack of closure that the bereaved of the Interwar Period endured may still be present within our contemporary society.
Anna Rindfleisch, 23 years old, is an English Research Historian interested in the transmission of Great War trauma/grief into modes of performance. She recently graduated from Columbia University with a Master's Degree in History and Literature. She went back to her native southern California after a year in Paris and continues her work on the Interwar Years coping culture. She is also a California State Parks Interpretive Specialist at Lake Perris Regional Indian Museum. She will complete her Ph.D. at Kings College, London. You can follow her writing on Twitter or at her site .