In place of hatred: The lesson of Christmas 1914

Sainsbury's Christmas advert is to be applauded for telling the story of the honour and heroism of British soldiers
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The Independent Online

When I first heard that the Sainsbury's Christmas advert was a cinematic portrayal of the 1914 Christmas Day truce between British and German soldiers, I was appalled. One of the most poignant moments of the First World War remade to sell Taste the Difference cranberry sauce under the marketing slogan "Christmas is for sharing" – surely this was the most distasteful seasonal ad ever? But then I watched the 3 minute 40 second film, and I changed my mind completely. Not just because it was made in partnership with the Royal British Legion. Nor just because that charity will receive the proceeds of the old-fashioned chocolate bar featured in the advert. It is also to be applauded for telling the story of the honour and heroism of British soldiers – and of Germans, too.

One reviewer said he hated it because the film-maker had made the horror of the First World War trenches beautiful. This analysis is wrong. The scenes in the advert are indeed beautiful because, for a few hours on 25 December 1914, the hatred, gore and futility of the war vanished and in their place rushed in beauty, common humanity and, yes, sharing.

In an account of the Christmas Day truce, written the next day, my daughter's great-grandfather Cyril Helm, a doctor who had spent the previous three months treating teenage soldiers who cried for their mothers as they died, wrote this in a letter to his parents: "The Germans and our men met between the trenches and gave each other cigars and cigarettes. They then sang hymns together and were very jolly. The officers did the same and some of ours lunched in their trenches. The generals are very angry about it and an order has come out forbidding it in future. A lot of the Germans spoke English and said they were heartily sick of the war. Some of them said they hated the Kaiser and long live good old King George."

In this moment, the men on both sides were just men. They shared carols, cigarettes, Christmas lunch and, most of all, a hatred of the war.

It has been easy, in this centenary year, to forget the German story. The Tower of London poppies were a breathtaking masterpiece of public art, but as we commemorate the British and colonial military deaths that each of those 888,246 ceramic flowers signified, we should remember, too, the nearly two million German soldiers who lost their lives.

And just as Germany is a major part of our country's history, so it is key to our future. When Sir John Major delivered a speech on Europe last week in which he warned there was a 50/50 chance that the UK could leave the EU, it was deliberate that he did so in Berlin. Major understands how important Germany is in Europe, but also recognises that it is a German leader, Angela Merkel, who can rescue us from international isolation – if she agrees to some concessions on freedom of movement. In the spirit of common purpose that Britain and Germany must now share, 100 years on from the Christmas Day truce, Major pleaded with Merkel: "We're saying we have a problem, and we need help."

The Sainsbury's advert is fitting because it reminds us that Christmas is now, as it was then, a huddling together over food and song. But the story of this golden moment out of blackness is more than that: it is a reminder of how human beings cling to peace. And if the 2014 First World War centenary is about anything it should be this: reconciliation.

Putting Ed into perspective

For Ed Miliband, getting favourable coverage for anything he does must be more difficult than harpooning a comet.

The Labour MPs who wished for a change of leader last week may have retreated into the shadows, but the polls still don't look good. When he attacks the right-wing press for being part of a conspiracy of "powerful forces" arrayed against him, he forgets that the latest turmoil began in the New Statesman. Yet I thought his "what doesn't kill you makes you stronger" speech last Thursday was otherwise decent and honest. He does not deserve the onslaught of personal attacks on his looks, voice or eating habits. These attacks put off voters.

So when Channel 4 News on Friday went to Essex to ask people if they thought Miliband could cut it as Prime Minister, it was disgraceful that the 5ft picture of the Labour leader shown to voters was one of the most unflattering shots the producers could find.

In any case, the polls show a more nuanced story than we are led to believe: according to Professor Paul Whiteley at the department of government at the University of Essex, when people are asked not who would make the better PM, David Cameron or Miliband (a binary question that has always favoured the incumbent) but how they rate each leader on a likeability scale out of 10, there is not a huge difference between the pair. In September this year, according to Whiteley, the Labour leader had an average score of 3.9 compared with 4.2 for Cameron and 3.3 for Nick Clegg, suggesting the differences between Miliband and Cameron are exaggerated.

Mob talk

This personalised nastiness works both ways. Labour MP John McDonnell's remark that Employment Minister Esther McVey should be "lynched" – he was echoing a constituent of hers – was vile. Had it been a Tory backbencher saying the same thing about Harriet Harman, Labour would have rightly kicked up a huge fuss. It is not good enough for the party to simply say McDonnell doesn't represent its views.

For the sake of sad trees

There was much outrage in Westminster at the revelation that a gardener strips the lime trees in front of Big Ben of their leaves before autumn can take its course – although this is how the trees are kept in their neatly pleached state for next year.

But this isn't the only horticultural hoo-hah in Parliament: I have noticed that the 12 Californian fig trees – which cost £400,000 – in Portcullis House haven't been given fresh soil for years, and the old soil has degraded, leaving the roots exposed. The trees are looking a bit sad. All it would take are a few bags of compost (peat-free and organic, please) to bring them back to life. Surely it's worth spending a few quid to save a £400,000 embarrassment?