When the First World War began in August 1914, few believed that, with the marvels of modern technology and warfare, any conflict between the advanced nations of Europe could possibly stretch out longer than a few months. However, the war swiftly put to rest the optimism on all sides as through the ensuing months, the various armed forces arrayed against each other across Europe ground to a halt and settled for the winter into the network of trenches that would characterize the remainder of the conflict.
But after those first few months, when the reality of the war began to seep into the collective European consciousness, there was a moment that has since became ensconced in the Christmas season lore as a symbol of hope and light in a time of darkness: the 1914 Christmas Truce.
Of course, this year marked the 100th anniversary of the now fabled Christmas Truce, during which spontaneous cease-fires and truces cropped up across the Western as well as Eastern fronts, among soldiers of all nationalities. Although the accounts vary from sector to sector, it is remarkable how in the majority of cases it was similarly characterized by tentative overtures from one side or the other from the common soldiers, followed by meetings in no-man’s-land and even the exchange of gifts (often in the form of chocolate, tobacco products, or other souvenirs).
This is the image that we generally see presented, of enemies being brought together by the “spirit of Christmas” amidst the desolation and devastation of the trenches and no-man’s-land. So popular is it, that it has been recounted in children’s books, as well as in the excellent film Joyeux Noël. However, the film hits at some of the more complex, less idealistic aspects of the actual event, as the soldiers who engaged in the truce in one sector face repercussions from their superior officers. Perhaps this opposition from superiors determined to continue the war, and the continued degradation of the conditions in the Eastern and Western fronts would account for why the Christmas Truce of 1914 is such an isolated, and almost mythologized, event.
Despite things not being not so simple as they might appear, the event has served as an inspirational instance of ordinary people finding common ground, through their shared humanity and experience. And it is not the sole example of culturally rooted cease-fires.
Most famous in the Western world perhaps is the Olympic Truce, originally constituting a “laying down of arms” to permit the safety of the host Greek city and the safe passage of spectators and competitors to said city. As an idea it was somewhat revived during the 2012 London Summer Olympic Games, when the United Kingdom’s foreign office worked in conjunction with the International Olympic Committee and the United Nations to promote international participation in a program promoting the “Ideals of the Olympic Peace.”
The Kashmir conflict between India and Pakistan, which flared up again this fall, has had a history of cease-fires, at times based around cultural events, such as in 2003 during which a ceasefire was struck while the two countries’ Muslim populations celebrated Eid al-Fitr in November of that year.
Likewise during the on-going Syrian conflict, cease-fires surrounding Islamic festivals and events have been proposed numerous times, and sometimes even agreed to by various parties, as was the case in 2012 when the Assad Regime agreed to a cease-fire in honour of the Eid al-Adha festival, with the opposition Free Syrian Army and several other rebel groups (although not all). However, as this war has raged on as well, calls for truces are increasingly unheeded as was the case this summer in response to calls for a Ramadan cease-fire from international organizations such as the Arab League.
When I initially conceived of this article, I was curious about other instances of cease-fires, truces, or peace accords brought on by religious or cultural observances. However, aside from the few listed above, I’ve not been able to find other examples. If any readers can think of any, it would be appreciated if they shared them in the comments below. It is a curious subject, and perhaps one that requires a bit more academic exploration, as to whether any practical conflict management lessons might be obtained from these culturally based truces.
It should be noted that there were no Canadian battalions or regiments involved in that first Christmas of 1914, as they were still largely making their way to Europe after initial mobilization and training efforts. However, it remains a notable, if perhaps isolated part of First World War history that often gets brought up during the holiday season as an example of a more modern, and spontaneous, instance of individuals practicing that Christmas mantra of “peace on Earth, good will toward men” despite enduring some of the most horrendous experiences of the 20th century.
So as the holiday season winds down, it would do to think not only of those areas throughout the world still steeped in conflict, including some of those mentioned above, but also of our own Canadian Forces members currently serving far away from home.
George Stairs is a second year M.A. candidate in the Conflict Analysis and Conflict Resolution field at the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs. He has written on various conflicts before, including extensive research and writing on the possibility of instability in the Middle-East arising from the Arab Spring uprisings.
Featured Photo by Wikipedia Creative Commons.