Wednesday, November 19, 2014

The Ghosts of 1914 and a Christmas Controversy

Hello dear Readers,
It is a bit early for Christmas or other holiday seasonal content, I feel. However, I just had to pop in and share some information I've been gathering on a very striking Christmas television advertisement from Sainsbury's. We don't have Sainsbury's stores here in the U.S., but I found the ad online. Here it is:

This commercial tells a version of the story of the famous Christmas Truce of 1914, an incredible event that I've written about before.

However, the ad has apparently stirred up a lot of anger and indignation, particularly among those who are disturbed at the retail giant's plans to destroy a WWI memorial in Bristol. I've learned that the city's memorial football stadium, an historic tribute to the First World War, is now the target of a massive redevelopment plan by none other than Sainsbury's.

Naturally, the controversy over the expansion of big box stores and their associated projects is nothing unusual here in the U.S. The progression of giant concrete buildings, with their miles of dreary aisles lit by gloomy flourescent beams, is a disturbing trend. Open spaces and small family-owned businesses are often at risk. Here, though, many of the emotions stirred by this commercial and its maker are centered not only around an historic site, but around the rightful ownership of what it commemorates. Sainsbury's, in issuing this ad, is felt to stake some claim on First World War memory or history--and especially to presume to tell a story that many feel is near-sacred. To make this claim more upsetting, the business's destructive plans for the Bristol site make it obvious that preserving that memory or history is not a primary concern. To complicate matters, the ad is a product of a partnership between Sainsbury's and The British Legion, an eminent UK armed forces charity.

I found some excellent articles about the controversy over the stadium and advertisement:
The Independent: "Hypocritical Sainsbury's Ad..."
The Guardian: Sainsbury's Christmas Ad

and a great blog post about the controversy by Chris at The Pietist Schoolman:
"On Advertising, Chocolate, and the First World War"

Though some, including Ally Fogg at The Guardian, say that the advertisement is mostly disturbing not because of the stadium controversy but because it is a commercialized and unrealistic portrait of WWI experience, it is important to recall at least that the Truce really did happen. In fact, I would argue that it is essential to remember that it happened and was documented. It is part of the British (and German) WWI experience, though it is of course not reflective of the larger reality of a soldier's existence in the trenches and in battle. That it seems such an unbelievable phenomenon makes it all the more worth our attention, because it makes the tragedies of the rest of the Great War all the more poignant.

I am not in favor of the commercialization of this story. I wish the advertisement could have been some kind of short film, issued in honor of the centenary of this extraordinary event and not linked to any commercial entity. It is worth such remembrance. I respect and sympathize with the anger that the ad has generated among those who do not wish to see the Bristol stadium torn down, and for that reason, I respect the feelings of those who would rather that Sainsbury's had never made a commercial telling a First World War story. What I hope, though, is that this commercial and its controversy help the WWI history community to grow, and for more people to be inspired to learn about the ghosts of 1914. 

The real message of the Christmas Truce has nothing to do with any shop, business, or any commercial objective, no matter who presumes to put their stamp on the telling of its story or how a retailer might seek to stir our emotions.  Those of us who have long been moved by this event have known that the real message is something that belongs to everyone; it is a gift that can never be transformed into a commodity. And what is that message? It's a simple one, in my opinion. "This was possible", the ghosts of the Christmas Truce tell us, giving us a glimpse of the desire for peace that lives in all of us.

A British officer's photo of soldiers meeting during the Christmas Truce of 1914. © IWM, Item Q 11718.

With early wishes for a peaceful and cheering holiday season,


© Fiona Robinson

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Remembering (and Thanking) Veterans

Hello dear Readers!
A brief post today to honor Remembrance Day/Veteran's Day. THANK YOU all service members, past and present. I've been so impressed with the poppy installation at the Tower of London, honoring those who gave their lives in the Great War. It presents a haunting, but fitting, image for a day like today:

"The Tower of London Remembers" Exhibition.
Source :

Let us give equal thanks, attention, and care to living veterans. As I have done in years past, I urge you to donate time and/or funds to supporting service people who need our help. Though I am not affiliated with it, I can recommend The Intrepid Fallen Heroes Fund, for a start.

I will close here, with links to past posts about Remembrance Day and resources for giving.

With Thanks,

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

The Passenger Pigeon: Avian Ghost of 1914

Martha, in the Smithsonian Collection
Image © Smithsonian

Hello dear readers,
I'd like to bring you today the first installment of a mini blog series about carrier pigeons and their work in the Great War. My interest was inspired this summer by the sight of Cher Ami(e), the brave little carrier pigeon, whose steely determination and intelligence saved many human lives.

Though she did not have a direct connection to the Great War, another female pigeon has been generating a lot of buzz and a kind of collective indirect nostalgia recently--this is Martha, the last passenger pigeon known to humankind. While British Great War history is our usual province here at Ghosts of 1914, today we cross the Atlantic back to the United States for a brief glimpse of this enigmatic bird's story.

Though there is at least one claimed modern sighting to be found online, for the rest of us an encounter with a live passenger pigeon is something only to be imagined. At one time, clouds of these birds roved American skies. The beautiful painting below, by Michigan artist Lewis Cross, gives us an idea of  what was once an unremarkable sight: 

Lewis Cross,  Passenger Pigeon landscape. © Lakeshore Museum Center, Michigan. 
Cross captures the sense of infinite plenty, the sky-darkening profusion, that might have led people to believe that there could be no end to the passenger pigeon. The swirl of birds in the painting could be taken for a kind of cornucopia, with its wrapping horn-like form. It is a kind of infinity symbol, arcing this way and that across the horizon. There is a dark presentiment, though, in the tapering trail of birds heading into the distance at the right. The pigeons swoop around and into this dwindling formation; Cross, who painted this piece years after Martha's passing in 1914, in this way shows us the past and present, the broad swath of birds stretching overhead and the tiny trace towards which they move.

Audubon sketch of a passenger pigeon, 1809.
© Special Collections Research Center, University of Chicago Library/Library of Congress 
The passenger pigeon's extinction centenary is a strange anniversary of sorts. It is a moment to mourn the solitary bird, Martha, whose rusty breast, soft brownish grey wings, and striking red-rounded eyes are quite haunting. What a burden to be the last of her kind! It is also a moment when those who never could have seen a live passenger pigeon are made wistful and sad at the thought that any species so visibly available at one moment could vanish in virtually the next. There are even proponents of bringing the passenger pigeon back, using modern DNA research and other technologies to resurrect a species that we identify today with still-shocking invisibility.

There is so much good content available online about the passenger pigeon. I'll close this prologue to our eventual foray into carrier pigeon history with some links for the curious.

Till next time,

© Fiona Robinson

More about the Passenger Pigeon:

Monday, August 4, 2014

4 August 1914/2014: England and Germany at War

"England and Germany at War", Birmingham Gazette, 5 August 1914Source: British Newspaper Archive

As this August 1914 front page (courtesy of the fascinating British Newspaper Archive's post on WWI Headlines) proclaims, Britain entered the First World War on 4 August, 1914. Earlier on the same day, Germany declared war on Belgium after the latter had attempted to remain a neutral territory. In consequence, Britain declared war on Germany late that evening. By this point, the two sides of the terrible conflict had been mustered: the Allies, which comprised Britain, France, and Russia; and the Central Powers, which included Germany and Austria-Hungary. 

A massive crowd of Londoners cheered the news of the war that night. The next morning, we might assume, many of these ghosts of 1914 opened a newspaper to take in the momentous occasion. We can read the 5 August 1914 edition of The Daily Telegraph along with some of them, thanks to the The Telegraph's wonderful online WWI newspaper resource.

Photograph of the crowd outside Buckingham Palace, London after the declaration of war against Germany, 
4 August 1914.  © National Archives, UK. 

Civilian Britons reading of their nation's entry into war were met, perhaps strangely, with a distinctly non-wartime assortment of peppy advertisements for hair products, laxatives, and vacations to Spain. Such newsprint chatter vied for space with maps of the conflict and reports of the official declaration, though. Already, some panic over war's consequences for civilian life are apparent, as one article details "Civic Cowardice" in the form of "housewives" whose frenzied stocking up on food items was already creating high prices and low supplies (p. 10). Another article insists, however, that supplies of meat and grains are plentiful (p. 9). Poignantly, an eye-catching notice reminds young unmarried men that "Your King and Country Need You!".

The Daily Telegraph, 5 August 1914, (p. 9). © The Telegraph World War One Archive

Its insistence that "each day is fraught with the gravest possibilities" and its portrayal of the Empire as being "on the brink of the greatest war in the history of the world" are both chillingly accurate and  already out-of-date. Clearly written before the awful certainty of this particular day's news, the Army notice reminds us that the gravest of possibilities for Britain in 1914 had come true.

© Fiona Robinson

Friday, August 1, 2014

1 August 1914/2014

From The Telegraph: "First World War Centenary: how events unfolded on August 1 1914"
Image © The Telegraph

One hundred years ago today: Germany declares war on Russia, 1 August 1914--a date recognized as the official start of the First World War.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

And so it began to begin...

As one who hangs down-bending from the side
Of a slow-moving boat, upon the breast
Of a still water, solacing himself
With such discoveries as his eye can make
Beneath him in the bottom of the deep,
Sees many beauteous sights--weeds, fishes, flowers,
Grots, pebbles, roots of trees, and fancies more,
Yet often is perplexed, and cannot part
The shadow from the substance, rocks and sky,
Mountains and clouds, reflected in the depth
Of the clear flood, from things which there abide
In their true dwelling; now is crossed by gleam
Of his own image, by a sunbeam now,
And wavering motions sent he knows not whence,
Impediments that make his task more sweet;
Such pleasant office have we long pursued
Incumbent o'er the surface of past time
With like success, nor often have appeared
Shapes fairer or less doubtfully discerned
Than these to which the Tale, indulgent Friend!
Would now direct thy notice.

 --William Wordsworth, The Prelude, Book 4, ll. 256-76

Hello Readers,
It's somewhat strange, waiting with bated breath for the steady gears of history to make their circuit towards the date when we can look back exactly one hundred years to the start of the Great War. It's as though we anticipate some kind of perspicuity that, like gazing down into a glass-clear lake, is only possible when the present aligns with the past just so. Like Wordsworth's boy looking down into the "still water" and confused by the reflections therein of sky and earth and of "his own image", though, perhaps we may find (and perhaps we already know) that shadow and substance cannot be so easily separated. Though the great span of time that a centennial marks might suggest a certain poignant stillness, calming the past into clarity and granting us objective distance, our own image may surprise us in those depths. What might we learn about ourselves and our world by looking  for and listening to those ghosts of 1914? As we have for some time now on this blog, we shall continue ask to this very question. We will continue to chase shadow and substance in the (deceptively) glassy deep of hundred-year-old history.

As we near and enter the official centenary, it is my aim to direct the blog towards following events of the war's unfolding over the years 1914-1918. 

To that end, I present a small collection of articles about the events of exactly one hundred years ago, when Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia:

And a last-but-not-least suggestion:'s fascinating "Back to the Mud" blog series on one man's adventure through family WWI history.

Till next time,

© Fiona Robinson

Saturday, June 28, 2014

The first Ghosts of 1914...

Austro-Hungarian Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie leave Sarajevo City Hall on June 28, 1914.
© JU Muzej Sarajevo/Washington Post/Reuters

Today marks the 100th anniversary of the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, on June 28 1914, in Sarajevo. This was the day, a century ago, when the world began hurtling towards the Great War. Though the conflict would not begin officially until August, we might say that the Archduke and his wife, Sophie, were the first Ghosts of 1914.

As I mentioned in my earlier post, has held a fantastic Twitter reenactment of the assassination today, related from the perspective of a journalist who was there at the time. You can review their posts from today here:

The Archduke and Sophie shortly before the assassination, June 28, 1914
© IWM (Q 79761)

There are many other resources for those seeking more about what happened on this dreaded day, one hundred years ago. A selected few, for those new to this history and for seasoned sleuths:

There is also news of the centenary observations, some of which have provoked serious controversy due to the persistent instability that WWI brought to Eastern Europe.

And for those of us who wonder what might have been, had this day's ancestor (June 28, 1914) been no more remarkable to us today than any other, several writers have written or explored alternate histories. These are just a few:

There is something so compelling about asking what our world would be like if, at the conclusion of that day in Sarajevo, the car bearing the Archduke and his party had simply returned to the train station in Sarajevo and nothing more of deep significance had been recorded. We'd like to think that the millions of Great War casualties would never have happened, that so many lives cut short or  harmed by the four years of strife and its aftermath could have remained untouched, undisturbed, and that a gentler course of history might have run peacefully through the first decades of the twentieth century. Perhaps this could have happened. But I think the most useful aspect of such dreams of a peaceful 1914-1918 is the waking from them, with eyes open to modern conflict and searching for the way to peace.


© Fiona Robinson