Keep On Pushing: Let there be peace
On June 28, 1914 Archduke Ferdinand, the presumptive heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne was assassinated in Sarajevo. His assignation precipitated a series of diplomatic crises culminating in Austria-Hungary delivering an ultimatum to the Kingdom of Serbia.
A number of international alliances formed over the previous decades were invoked and before long the world was embroiled in a hot conflict. The Great war, as World War One was known before the outbreak of World War Two began on July 28, 1914 and lasted until November 11, 1918.
Although this took place more than a century ago, I think it is still instructive to us today. Given the current geo-political climate that exist, some of the diplomatic moves being taken by leaders around the world, and the rhetoric that is being thrown around; it is not difficult to surmise that we could easily find ourselves in a hot conflict worldwide.
Therefore as individual citizens in our respective countries, we have a grave responsibility and we have to be very mindful of how we cast our ballots. Our actions and decisions in every aspect of our lives have consequences. And sometimes those consequences can be dire.
However, this post is not about geopolitics, your decisions in the voting booth or even how the First World War started. I actually want to highlight a little known but incredible and significant event that took place during the Great War.
The war was only five months old by the time Christmas 1914 rolled around. And although it was a relatively sort period of time since the outbreak of hostilities, the level of hunger, thirst, sleep deprivation, PTSD, casualties and homesickness the soldiers were experiencing was high and gave Christmas an even more profound meaning for them.
They were physically exhausted, mentally and emotionally drained. I have to believe that they were spiritually challenged as well. They were living in frigid temperatures in trenches that were waterlogged, and invested with rats and louse. Unable to bury their dead because the battles were so fierce, the corpses of the comrades were just lying around.
As you can imagine, as Christmas approached, the soldiers were thinking of the good food, safety, comfort and warmth of home and the loved ones they had left behind. Needless to say, some of them would never make it back home -they were already killed. The others wondered if they would make it out alive.
The opposing lines on the Western Front were only 100 yards apart and in some instances, much closer. As the troops settled down on December 24th during a break in the fighting, one German soldier started to sing “Stille Nacht”. His voice carried across the short distance of No man’s land to the Allied trenches and they, recognizing the tune started to sing “Silent night”. Before long both camps began taking turns singing Christmas carols.
The next morning, the Germans emerged from their trenches shouting “Merry Christmas” in English, with some holding up signs that read “You no shoot, we no shoot.”
The Allied soldiers warily emerged from their trenches to join their enemies in No man’s land where they exchanged gifts of cigarettes, food, buttons and hats.
Of course back then, they did not have reporters embedded with the troops so there is a huge range of differing oral accounts, diary entries and letters home from those who took part make. In fact, historians still disagree as to exactly when, where and how this Christmas truce started but what is clear is that it was fairly spontaneous. There were 600 miles of trenches running through France and Belgium and so different things happened at different points along the front. There were of course the exchange of gifts but more importantly both sides had an opportunity to gather and bury their dead. There were reports of pick up soccer games with makeshift balls. There is even one account of a British soldier getting a hair cut from his pre-war German barber.
Needless to say, top military brass on both sides were absolutely against this truce which lasted only a day in some cases and as long as after New Year’s Day in others.
This Christmas truce which was never allowed to happen again despite an attempt in 1915 is truly a testament to the power of hope and humanity even during our darkest hour. It was truly a remarkable event and it left behind some valuable lessons that are still applicable today:
- Get out of your trenches.
If we refuse to get out of our trenches or get out for a short period and return to take up our old positions, the battle will rage on and continue to drag out. Theoretically, the truce gave those soldiers an opportunity to end the war after only five months. Instead they returned to the trenches -they returned to fight and the war dragged on for four years. As a result, 9 to 11 million military personnel and 5 to 6 million civilians were killed. Instead of going back to your trench and verbally shoot at your enemy – the people you disagree with; I want to challenge you to venture into No man’s land where you will be able to find compromise, strike a conciliatory tone and find solutions to your problems. You will spare everyone concerned a lot of devastation and heartache.
- Get to know the “other”
When you get out of your trench and venture into No man’s land, you give yourself a chance to get to know the “other” – the people you see in the distance. Those who may be of a different race, ethnicity, sexual orientation or political stripe. You’ll be surprised that when you get to know them you will discover that you both have so much more in common than readily meets the eye. By the way this is true even within families where people may have divergent political views among other things. Sitting around the dinner table during the holidays gives everyone an opportunity to see where the other’s point of view. You may still end up disagreeing, but you would have improved understanding because you would have found common ground and seen the humanity in each other. This is something I have been speaking about a lot these days with the 2018 Olympic Games in PyoengChang just around the corner. My first Olympics was in Calgary 1988. You may remember that back then the world was at the height of the Cold War. I had just completed my military officer training and I was made to believe that everyone behind the Iron Curtain was evil. However, while in the Olympic Village, I came across several athletes representing countries who were behind the Iron Curtain and it dawned on me that we had more in common than the things that divided us. We were both there to represent and do the best for our countries, we shared similar hopes and aspiration and suffered from the same human frailties and the only real difference between us was ideology. As those soldiers on the Western Front discovered and taught us – when you spend time to get to know the other you will be pleasantly surprised to discover that they are more like you than you could have ever imagined.
- Make peace with yourself
You need to establish a truce with your own worst enemy -that obnoxious little person who is always criticizing and belittling you. That person who is always beating you down and making you feel less than. You need to form a truce with YOU!! There is no way you can begin to make peace with and appreciate others until you learn to love and appreciate yourself. Quite frankly most of the issues we have in the world begins with the man in the mirror.
So, if these soldiers, more than one hundred years ago, in the middle of a battle field, can find time to see the humanity in each other under some of the most dire circumstance; it stands to argue that we can do the very same and with less challenging obstacles to hurdle.
So let there be peace!
Let there be peace in your own life, in your family, in your community and ultimately the world.
That is the message of Christmas.
That is the message of the Christmas truce and the message I want to bring to you as well.
Keep On Pushing!