Saturday, December 06, 2014

British TV ad recalling WWI, "Christmas in the Trenches" goes viral

The Christmas truce, or Weihnachtsfrieden in German, at the beginning of World War I is the subject of a powerful and impeccably produced British supermarket chain's institutional advertisement for the Christmas season. It's going viral, and, I think, deservedly so. Nathalie Tadena reported today on the Journal's website::

Sainsbury’s four-minute ad is based on the 1914 Christmas Truce, in which British and German soldiers dropped their guns and met in no-man’s land on Christmas Eve. In the ad, the soldiers of the two armies leave the trenches to play a game of soccer. At the end of the video, a German soldier discovers that a British soldier has left him a chocolate bar from home in his pocket. Sainsbury’s is selling the chocolate bar featured in the ad at its stores and will donate profits to the Royal British Legion.

Since the campaign’s launch on Nov. 12, the ad has been viewed more than 9.5 million times and received more than 383,000 social interactions, according to Visible Measures.

Sainsbury's is a chain of supermarkets and convenience stores in the UK. And, yes, they do sell chocolate. Although that's probably not the point of this ad, which is a example of institutional advertising designed to promote goodwill toward the corporation. The Royal British Legion, analogous to the American Legion in the US, is a veterans' assistance and advocacy group.

Sainsbury's has posted the video to YouTube:

True story. Even the football (soccer) game in no man's land, although accounts vary. And "Silent Night/Stille Nacht" is one of the songs the British and German troops sang that night. I also hear the American gospel tune "Leaning on the Everlasting Arms" in the background during the football game beginning at 2:10. Not sure that's historically accurate, at least I've not heard before that it was sung that night, but I think it's appropriate to the ad's message.

Wikipedia, typically, has the most balanced, complete and judicious survey of fraternization up and down the front lines. Equally authoritative, although it doesn't quote as many German and French sources, is an article by Malcolm Brown, a historian at the Imperial War Museum, las month in the Guardian. Here's Brown's take on the iconic moment:

… the devil is often said to be in the detail, but not in this story. On Christmas Eve at Plugstreet Wood [Ploegsteert Wood, in Flanders], Germans put Christmas trees on the parapet of their front-line trench and sang Stille Nacht (Silent Night), then largely unfamiliar to British ears but instantly acknowledged as a carol of extraordinary beauty. Moved to respond the territorials [British troops, equivalent to our National Guard] opposite struck up with The First Noël. So it continued until, when the British sang O Come, All Ye Faithful, they heard the Germans joining in with the Latin words Adeste Fideles. Recalling the event many years later, one former soldier commented: "I thought this a most extraordinary thing - two nations both singing the same carol in the middle of the war."

In the clip below, Sainsbury's PR people give more background:

In all, a classy way to sell chocolates. Or corporate goodwill (same difference).

Singer-songwriter, activist and storyteller John McCutcheon tells of the same incident in one of his most requested songs He wrote it in 1984 and included it on his 1985 album (that's what we called them back then) Winter Solstice. Here he is singing it in concert in 2011 in Gainesville, Fla., preceded by a delightful account of the time he met Frank Buckles, the last surviving veteran of World War I (who corrected him on several inaccuracies in the song). The singing begins at 8:25:

I knew John in the 1970s when he was music director of the Epworth Congregation/Jubilee Community Arts, an ecumenical inner-city ministry near the University of Tennessee campus in Knoxville. A recent graduate of St. John's University in Minnesota, he was a folk singer in the mold of Pete Seeger, and he'd come south to learn Appalachian traditional music. He's still fighting what he believes to be the good fight all these years later.

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