The Christmas Truce of 1914 is one of the most fascinating stories of the First World War. The tale of German and British troops singing Silent Night, meeting each other in No Man’s Land, and then playing a game of football is a powerful counterpoint to the death and destruction of the Great War. As history teachers, however, we face the problem that a number of stories of the truce are uncorroborated and thus potentially inaccurate. How can we engage students with a discussion of the Christmas Truce, whilst ensuring that we don’t fuel the mythology?
Sainsbury’s supermarket chose to use the story of the Christmas Truce to drive their 2014 seasonal advertising campaign. The advert has spread a long way thanks to YouTube and within two days of its first broadcast in the UK my students in Romania were discussing it on their way to my history lesson.
I’ve always held the view that lessons and schemes of work should somehow tap into students’ interests, so I chose to seize this ‘teachable moment’ to deliver an impromptu lesson. I asked the students to analyse the advert as a historical source in order to answer the question, “How much can we learn from the Sainsbury’s advert about the First World War?”
To answer this question successfully, the students would need to analyse the advert in the same way as they would any other historical source. In order to direct their discussions, they were asked to focus on four key questions:
- Who made the advert?
- Why was it made?
- What does it tell us about the First World War?
- What does it not tell us about the First World War?
This guidance was given to keep students focused on an analysis of the advert as an historical source, rather than allow the lesson to slip into a discussion of the moral and ethical issues surrounding it. They immediately commented that it tells us that soldiers played football on Christmas Day, but also mentioned other details such as it telling us about what soldiers wore and how the trenches were constructed. On the flip side, a student highlighted that the advert only shows the Truce for one group of soldiers. This point was developed by another who commented that the explosion that sends the two sides back to their trenches proves that the fighting continued. This last point was really important as it led us to a discussion of the dangers of using one event to draw conclusions about the past in general.
Further background information about the advert was then presented to the students, to help them understand how the advert had been created. They watched the ‘making of’ video and read a series of extracts from the Twitter feed of Taff Gillingham, the historical consultant who worked on the advert. A copy of the joint press release by the British Legion and Sainsbury’s (click here to view) also helped the students add detail to their responses.
These materials helped students to recognise that the advert was an interpretation of the Truce and that it was, therefore, a compromise of the different aims of those involved in its production. They quickly spotted that the press release refers to the advert as “a creative interpretation”, but pointed out that the creators “sought to make the portrayal of the truce as accurate as possible”. They recognised that this was proved by the involvement of Mr Gillingham, whose Twitter posts go into significant detail about the sources he used to ensure the historical accuracy of the advert. Students did, however, identify that Mr Gillingham tells of how he and the director didn’t want the recorded football match to dominate the advert, but that “the client” (i.e. Sainsbury’s) wanted to “push the football hard”.
As a final activity, students from different groups were then asked to pair off to share their findings with each other, and to reach a conclusion of the overall lesson question about how much the advert can teach us about the First World War. Their opinions were written on Post-It notes, which they arranged into a continuum on the board for a plenary discussion.
Teaching history through current events is a rare privilege, and so I am glad that I seized the opportunity to use the advert in class. Although there are many things I would like to improve the way I taught this lesson, I was very happy with the outcome. My Year 9 students provided that they were able to analyse a source by considering its origin and purpose, and they gained a more balanced understanding of the Christmas Truce in the process.
Scott Allsop teaches History at the British School of Bucharest, having previously taught in Egypt and the UK. He runs an award-winning educational website at mrallsophistory.com and you can find him on Twitter at @MrAllsopHistory.