Taking great care over the Great War

Sainsbury's Christmas ad campaign demanded a production with sensitivity and authenticity, Tim Riley writes.

My mum keeps a faded old newspaper cutting in a drawer. "Plucky conduct on the battlefield," the headline reads, in the understated, stiff-upper-lip style of the period. The article, from August 1917,
reports that sergeant James King of the Royal Field Artillery has been awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal for conspicuous gallantry "whilst the battery was being heavily bombarded with gas shells". It goes on to describe how he rescued and dressed a wounded gunner, "afterwards returning to bring the gassed men to safety". The picture alongside the article shows a young man who doesn’t look old enough to get served in a pub, let alone serve his country. This was her father, my grandad.

Jim, as he was known to the family, was one of the lucky ones. He came home. My great uncle Sydney is buried at St Sever Cemetery in Rouen. Ringan Ledwidge’s great uncle, Francis Ledwidge, an Irish war poet, was killed at the Battle of Passchendaele.

Of the six million men who fought in the Great War, more than 700,000 lost their lives, and one-and-a-half million more were wounded. It was an event that touched the lives of almost everyone in Britain then, and one that still arouses powerful emotions now. So anybody who decides to dramatise the First World War, particularly in a television commercial, clearly has to proceed with the utmost care and sensitivity.

Sainsbury’s has a 20-year association with The Royal British Legion and raised more than £4.5 million for the charity last year alone. We thought if we could help them raise even more funds for the organisation, using the chocolate bar featured in the commercial, it would be a fitting testament to the length and success of the relationship. The Royal British Legion gave the project its blessing and we consulted with it at every stage of the process.

With the help of our military advisor, Taff Gillingham, we strove to make every detail of the production as accurate as possible. Despite the fact that the Christmas truce is the one incident from the First World War that everyone seems to know about, there is no record of any formal ceasefire having been declared. However, there is evidence that several small truces did take place at various points along the front. "They sang Silent Night/Stille Nacht," one soldier from the Queen’s Royal Regiment recalled. "I shall never forget it. It was one of the highlights of my life."

Ordering a truce…Ledwidge marshalling the troops on the set during the five-day shoot

The two British regiments featured in the commercial, the Norfolks and the Cheshires, fought alongside each other in December 1914 and letters from soldiers in both regiments describe a brief Christmas ceasefire.

The German regiment we feature, IR104, was stationed opposite the Norfolks at the same time. So although there is no absolute proof that these two groups of men met in no man’s land on 25 December 1914, it is certainly well within the bounds of possibility.

The uniforms worn by both sides are historically accurate, right down to the cap badges and buttons. To ensure that the soldiers had authentically grubby fingernails throughout the five days of the shoot, the dirt was tattooed on with henna. The trenches were all dug to the correct depths. Even the dry biscuit the British soldier contemplates at the start of the commercial was baked to an authentic period recipe.

At one point, we thought we had cast the perfect postman to deliver the parcel. Great character. Cheeky smile. Ringan was happy. We were happy.

But, as with everything else on the production, a QuickTime of his casting session was sent to Taff for approval.

Period details…uniforms were historically accurate and fingernails were made grubby with henna

"Sorry," the reply came back, "he’s too young. To be a postman in the army at that time, you needed to be trustworthy. You had to have reached the rank of corporal. That means he would need to be at least 30." We had to find a new, older postman.

Originally, the script was written without dialogue but, during pre-production, we changed our minds. That meant we needed to come up with names for the two lads who meet in no man’s land.

We quickly decided on Otto for the German, but what about the plucky young British soldier?

"Let’s call him Jim," I said.

Tim Riley is the vice-chairman and head of copy at Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO