The Sainsbury’s Christmas ad has arrived, and you will no doubt already be aware that it takes for its setting the lone heartwarming episode in a war that decimated a generation of men one hundred years ago. The football game that united enemy sides on Christmas Day of 1914 was a short-lived but touching truce whose legend has grown stronger over the years, even inspiring a syrupy film in 2005. In the Sainsbury’s advert, two wide-eyed young men in the twinky vein of Wilfred Owen or Siegfried Sassoon slip each other an illicit treat on Christmas Day, the memory of which will remain with them for some time after both sides have resumed their conflict, perhaps even up until their death by spade, grenade or bayonet the next day or year. The advert doesn’t say so of course, but we are rather led to hope that these dewy-faced teens are not among the reported 888,246 British troops or the estimated 2,037,000 Germans who were murdered in the war. Chances are that they would have been, obviously, but don’t let that spoil your pigs in blankets.
Gathering around our computers - and later this evening our televisions - to witness the annual unveiling of the new festive films literally devised with the intention of making an audience of consumers spend money, can’t help but have a touch of the Brave New Worlds about it. Aldous Huxley, an old Etonian, somehow escaped conscription in 1916 when he was twenty, meaning that he did not become one of the 2.2% of the British population to die in the First World War, and was therefore able to write Brave New World in 1932 - for which we give thanks. Brave New World, as you know, tells of a hideous, scarcely imaginable dystopia in which individualism is shunned and the supine populace is mass-manipulated by moving images. The book’s future world takes as its starting point the creation of the Model T automobile by Henry Ford in the early 20th Century. Ford, in the novel, is revered as a near-deity for having perfected the assembly line, and with it enabled mass production of cheap goods. For which we give thanks.
Two people who also revered Ford, back in our own brave world, were Walt Disney and Ray Kroc, the founder of McDonalds. Writing about the pair in a London Review of Books article on Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation, James Meek notes that the two men served in the same military unit in World War One and observes:
“The mode of operation in the trenches fascinated both Kroc and Disney: the assembly line. Everyone – the ammunition worker, the machine-gunner, the infantryman – played their small, repetitive, unskilled role with as much speed and efficiency as they could muster. (...) The trenches were the ultimate assembly line: the dehumanised troops not only manned it but constituted the raw material.”
It’s so grotesque that it’s almost thrilling to consider that perspicacious people might have learnt valuable lessons from the First World War about how to run a wildly successful business, by subsuming individuality and using people with few alternatives in order to build an empire. But Kroc and Disney would not be the only ones to make a buck from the Great War.
What were these “dehumanised troops”, including the unnamed lads in the Sainsburys advert, fighting for? Here’s a clue: you need lots of it to get through Christmas. That’s right, money! If the self-appointed pitbull of the British Empire, Michael Gove ever reads this post he will no doubt bite me on the arse for saying this, but the First World War which we celebrate - sorry, commemorate - this year could hardly have had less noble origins. To recap: everyone in Europe had been preparing for a massive old war for two or three decades before 1914 - since, pretty much, the Industrial Revolution. The elites in charge of the old Empires - French, British, Austro-Hungarian - were involved in a huge and probably quite fun game of weapons-chicken from the late 19th Century onwards, and were perpetually having itchy little skirmishes with each other from then up until the First World War, such as the hilariously petty Pig War of 1906-08 between Austria and Serbia. The commercial and imperial interests of the so-termed Great Nations had to contend with a rising nationalism across the continent, meaning that sooner or later conflict would occur.
Michael Gove got into hot water with historians earlier this year after advancing absurd and unsupported plans for the commemoration of the Great War’s centenary. How we mark the occasion - from the display of poppies at the Tower of London to this Sainsbury’s advert - is actually quite important. Our view of the First World War is important too: were the soldiers willing heroes, embarked on a vital crusade, or were they unwitting and helpless heroes, sacrificing their lives for a futility? Notwithstanding his hilarious demotion earlier this year, Gove is a member of a Tory government that has delighted in taking money from the poor since not winning the election in 2010. So it makes sense that he would want to paint WW1 as a noble and unavoidable foray by Britain and its allies to quash the dangerous extremism of Germany, rather than a petty and despair-inducingly needless conflict of the ruling class’s devising in order to protect its financial interests. You have only to look at David Cameron now to see someone engaged in a similarly hotblooded and misconceived tussle with Europe - an act of financial and political self-interest masquerading as “the right thing to do”. It would be funny if it weren’t so sad.
The irony of a film about the soldiers’ Christmas Day truce being used to flog products to a soma-quaffing mass audience one hundred years on is so poetic I could weep. The one day when the power of the people called a brief end to the violence and selfishness of the ruling regimes, and they met each other and spoke to each other and played together, is the new hook for a commercial for an enormous corporation. Here you are, little people - here’s your chocolate.