Global peace has deteriorated for the 11th time in the last 14 years, according to IEP’s 2022 Global Peace Index. Alongside this, for the first time since the end of the Second World War Europe sees itself in the midst of a major conflict. On top of the tragic human cost of conflict, the economic impact of violence is enormous and amounted to $16.5 trillion in 2021 alone. The invasion of Ukraine by Russia has exacerbated this, and given rise to the largest military build-up the world has seen since the Cold War. However, despite all of this, the world has been more peaceful in the 21st century than it has ever been in human history.
The two World Wars in the first half of the 20th century wrought destruction and violence on a scale the world had never seen. The First World War in particular changed the face of war forever. Civilians were targeted en masse, chemical weapons saw indiscriminate use, and the conflict marked the advent of widespread mechanised warfare. Up to 22 million people lost their lives during this war, and the seeds were sown for the Second World War which saw even more bloodshed. However, amongst the chaos and brutality of the First World War, events on Christmas Day of 1914 represented a fleeting moment of peace.
“It will be over by Christmas.” That was what many of the 60 million soldiers sent to fight in the First World War had been told; and like so much of what they had heard about the conflict, this was a lie.
War had been declared in July 1914, and by Christmas of that year there was no end in sight. Millions of soldiers were dug in, in trenches along the Western Front. The soldiers were packed together, living in freezing conditions. Often these soldiers were living a stone’s throw from their enemy, with the distance between British and German trenches as close as 30 metres in places.
Late on Christmas Eve German troops began unwrapping gifts from home, with many having been sent Christmas trees with candles. As the German soldiers lit their lanterns and displayed them on the edge of their trenches, carol singing broke out. Soon enough the British and French troops joined in. Christmas greetings and well wishes were exchanged, and offers of a temporary ceasefire were communicated between the trenches.
Fear and distrust gave way to humanity. As the sun rose on Christmas morning, troops from both sides tentatively made their way out to no man’s land. The troops began to greet one another, and messages and gifts were exchanged. In a number of places caps and jackets became goal posts, as spontaneous games of football broke out, at least one of which the German’s allegedly won 3-2.
Corporal John Ferguson was among the many soldiers who wrote about their experiences that Christmas.
“What a sight – little groups of Germans and British extending almost the length of our front! Out of the darkness we could hear laughter and see lighted matches, a German lighting a Scotchman’s cigarette and vice versa, exchanging cigarettes and souvenirs.”
What makes the Truce of 1914 so surprising, is that it was not one truce but many. The British-held area of the Western Front stretched across swathes of land, and was home to a huge number of troops. Dozens of impromptu truces sprung up across the front involving over 100,000 soldiers. While there were instances of failed truces, or areas where the fighting continued, the scale of the truces that were observed is remarkable.
The lull in fighting lasted until the New Year in some places, but ultimately the pause was brief and the peace was short-lived. While a number of similar instances occurred throughout the war, there was never another truce on the scale of Christmas 1914.
In the wake of the events of the Christmas Truce, there was a crackdown by the military higher ups of both forces. British High Command feared that similar incidents could undermine morale and erode the antagonism between German and British troops. Steps were taken to try and ensure it would not happen again.
Despite promises that the war would be over by Christmas 1914, the war was barely getting started. Three more Christmases came and went, and millions more troops would go on to lose their lives in the conflict. Despite this the Christmas Truce remains a powerful and inspirational story of tenderness and compassion, in the midst of the senseless chaos of war. This moment speaks to the humanity of the soldiers involved.
In 2022 Russia’s invasion has seen millions displaced and caused enormous destruction within Ukraine. Huge numbers of Ukrainians face the prospect of a Christmas without power, as Russian munitions continue to hit Ukrainian infrastructure.
Much like the soldiers that fought in the First World War, there will be soldiers in Ukraine likely to spend this Christmas in trenches, fighting in Europe’s largest conflict since the end of the Second World War. The events in Ukraine risk undermining Europe’s longest period of sustained peace, and reversing the improvements in peace the world has witnessed since the Second World War.
Peace is critical for development. Moving forwards we must hope for any future periods of peace to be maintained, for Ukraine to have the chance to rebuild, and for its displaced people to have the opportunity to return home.