By Mason Robbins
University of Edinburgh
How does 1914 Christmas Day Truce Affect Modern Peace-Building Initiatives?
On a cold, windy day in the middle of the countryside, two groups with very different backgrounds and beliefs lined up next to each other. Unnoticed but by a few in the outside world, these men shared a common bond that has stood the test of time. More than 100 years later, a group of 22 people with similar backgrounds stood in the same field outside of Ypres, Belgium to commemorate where British and German troops laid down their arms and played football to celebrate Christmas away from home. Just like the soldiers from several generations before them, these people set aside their differences and played a symbolic match where the greatest achievement was not the final score but the continued memories of how mortal enemies were able to come together in the middle of a war.
How then does the memory of significant sporting events, such as the Christmas Day Truce of 1914, animate contemporary sport-related peace-building initiatives?
This blog examines the following areas:
- How memory of events can affect the way people perceive events after conflict.
- The role of sport in peace-building initiatives.
- Reflections upon the argument to how sport may produce more harm than good in community-building efforts.
Football, Memory and Conflict
To understand how memory can be integral in current sport-related peace-building initiatives, we can begin by examining the instance of the use of football in an organically-created, grass-roots effort that created a small window of peace during an era of conflict. The 1914 Christmas Day Truce during World War One, was a moment in modern military history where both sides in a conflict laid down arms and met in ‘no man’s land’ to celebrate a common event. Upon hearing of the ‘unofficial armistice,’ the high command from both sides were enraged by the actions of their non-commissioned officers (NCOs) and sought to end ‘this Elysian [almost divine] situation’. The Truce began on Christmas Eve with German soldiers singing ‘hymns and tunes common to both nations… understandably, a wave of nostalgia passed over us [the British soldiers].’ According to accounts from the trenches by the brothers Frank and Michael Wary, two members of the 1st London Brigade:
A battalion of the 10th Division on our left [flank] arranged a football match against a German team ─ one of their number having found in the opposing unit a fellow member of his local Liverpool football club who was also his hairdresser! Many souvenirs were exchanged… A joint working group party was formed for burying the dead men and animals… A distant improvement in the atmosphere was made, in which we were to continue to live until Easter.
Even though the fleeting peace that evolved in the middle of war during Christmas Day has not been replicated since 1914, peace-building organisations and, to a limited extent, researchers have sought to understand how the memory of peaceful events can affect divided societies.
Memory and Conflict
Memory is an essential tool that is used to record history. Duncan Bell’s definition of collective memory is as the ‘widely shared perceptions of the past, linking the past-present-future to a collective, simplified narrative.’ It is through a group’s collective memory that we are able to use past events to help formulate policy and develop tools for peace-building. The last section presented an observation from two brothers. Unfortunately, since the event was spontaneous and led by NCOs, it was never properly documented and the events of the day were pieced together through the accounts of wounded soldiers who were taken from the front line. Now taking the accounts of the event as recalled by other soldiers and written about by authors ─ such as Stanley Weintraub in Silent Night ─ their collective memory of the event has enabled historians to piece together the events of the Christmas Day Truce. In other words, it is the large number of soldiers’ accounts that validates this historical event.
Another important aspect when dealing with memory and conflict is addressing the role of trauma to an individual or a shared traumatic experience. Jeffery Alexander states that trauma occurs ‘when individuals and groups feel they have been subjected to a horrendous event that leaves indelible marks upon their consciousness, [because it] will mark their memories forever and will change their future in fundamentally irrevocable ways.’ Applying this definition to the Christmas Day Truce, it can be argued that that the trauma of trench warfare affected the soldiers on both sides almost equally. Their shared experience, set within the framework of a common holiday, allowed the two sides to unite around sport while re-humanising the other. As reported by the Wary Brothers, the culmination of this was the two British and German soldiers who realised that they knew each other from before the war and how, even after they were forced to resume fighting, ‘the mood in the trenches changed for the months following’ the event.
When further examining the Wray brothers’ case, it can be seen that the window for using trauma as a tool for unification can be lost as easily as it is established. At the end of the report, it was conveyed that the brothers’ brigade was ‘taken out of the [front] line for a rest period but, unfortunately within a week, we found ourselves involved in the 2nd Battle of Ypres during which the majority of the Battalion became causalities.’ The organically created Christmas Day Truce was an opportunity for official peace-building that was lost by the high command, although it was unattainable in the greater context of this war.
It is in these ripe moments that modern peace-builders have to work the hardest to find solutions to conflicts so that opportunities become attainable. Although missing the ripe moment presented in collective trauma can deny opportunities for peace-building, collective memory is not easily lost. This is evident by the commemoration of the Christmas Day Truce many years later: neither side forgot the importance of the truce. The shared trauma, when introduced at the right moment, and the collective memory of an event are two powerful tools that peace-builders have begun to use when developing sport-related initiatives in divided societies.
The use of sport in peace-building initiatives in divided societies is not new but it is oftem misunderstood. One of the often documented examples is the 1995 Rugby World Cup in South Africa. Nelson Mandela led the push to unite a divided country emerging from under Apartheid by encouraging South Africa’s diverse community to support the national rugby team, historically a white man’s sport. The moment when Mandela handed the championship trophy to the South African Capitan while wearing the shirt and hat of the national team would forever embody the unifying power that sport has on divided societies. This gesture is often viewed as the beginning of the path towards reconciliation in South Africa.
Although there have been many initiatives using sport in divided societies, there is a definite lack of research on the phenomena. John Sugden and Adrian Haasner have compiled one on of the most comprehensive theoretical frameworks for using sport in peace-building:
- Help people ‘re-humanise’ each other through its ritual ceremonies and ethics of ‘fair play’ and sportsmanship;
- Help people (re)build relationships in the organisation and conduct of events; and
- Help build webs [inter-connections] and relationships at the sub-system level.
When analysing the Christmas Day Truce using the Sugden and Haasner model, we can begin to understand how enemies on the battlefield were able to become friends on the football pitch. All three criteria were met on the battlefield that day. Through a collective traumatic experience and a shared background, the mortal enemies were able to re-humanise each other. The soldiers then went on to build relationships through playing sport, exchanging gifts, and even burying their respective casualties together. Finally, the inter-connections were strengthened when they discovered that enemies were formerly neighbours, colleagues, and brothers in sport before the war, which produced a level of mutual respect and understanding in the trenches that lasted for several months after the event.
Darnell has added to the debate on how sport can be used as a positive tool in helping with the development and education of youth in conflict. Citing Armstrong’s research during conflict in Liberia, Darnell adds that ‘while football cannot solve social ills such as poverty, lack of education, and limited access to food and shelter, local football initiatives can offer a path to better health and an opportunity, both metaphoric and practical, to facilitate the development of youth character.’ The most important concept is that football was able to instil the values of sportsmanship and partnership in this Liberian community.
Darnell concludes that, ‘learning to be a sportsperson extends well beyond learning the physical and mental skills necessary to play the game; it also means learning norms of citizenship within the democratic structure that sport requires for its organisation…’ The concept of sportsmanship was a central tool in the outcome of the Christmas Day Truce. No matter the outcome of the game, when it was over, both sides exchanged handshakes and gifts that were treasured many years afterword.
Organised football associations have done their best to minimise the negative effects of sport. However, the luxury of working within the parameters of organised football is not the case when working in most conflict zones where there has been a breakdown in civil society. Sugden and Haasner argue that the actions and desires of individuals who want change and the use their will in sport are a part of a broader range of contested elements in ‘civil society’ that can challenge ‘political society’. It is in ‘understanding the role of sport in the relationship between political and civil society that is the key in understanding the role it can have in the peace processes.’ In other words, peace-builders need to be able to identify the commonalities between different groups in a given society or situation ─ just as the two soldiers from Liverpool did in 1914 ─ in order to build systems that will focus on similarities and minimise differences while being culturally sensitive.
To commemorate the Christmas Day Truce of 1914, the British and German militaries organised a football match on 11 November, 2008 between modern soldiers from the regiments that were said to have played in the original match. Almost reflecting the original outcome (3-2, Germany) the match ended 2-1 with Germany prevailing. The most important outcome from the commemorative match was not the final score but the relationship and the understanding that was rekindled between two powers that historically were enemies. The Truce was commemorated not only to remember those who gave their lives in the Great War but also to remember those few brave men who were willing to cross physical and metaphoric boundaries and break down barriers that were built to help de-humanise the people on the other side.
As seen, the use of sport in areas of conflict does not come without its short falls. Fortunately, practitioners and academics are learning how to minimise the potential toxic elements (i.e. racism, cultural sensitivity, and entrenchment of rivalries) that are associated with introducing sport into a divided society. For sport initiatives to become truly successful, not only do the grass-roots, individual movements have to be engaged, but the political society needs to understand the importance of the peace-building objectives. An unfortunate example of the breakdown of society’s commitment to peace-building was exemplified with the tragedy in Egypt.
Darnell points out that ‘sport does not ease the importance of a political commitment to peace; at best sport offers an entry point into conversations about, and struggles towards, peace building. This notion is the heart of the debate over the role of sport as a tool of peace-building in divided societies. This does not mean that people should not try to introduce new sport-related initiatives in a divided society without a commitment to peace from the political society. The successes of the British Council sponsored programme, Football for Peace, in Israel is a prime example of the effectiveness of a sports programme working in a society where the leadership is not fully committed to peace. This example of successfully bringing Israelis and Palestinians together shows that even though it is harder for these initiatives to become established, there can be a successful outcome.
As the Christmas Day Truce of 1914 has exemplified the effectiveness of sport in the ultimate form of division between relatively similar cultures, sport can produce a unifying force more powerful than war. It is the memory of the event ─ how a simple game unified enemies ─ that has lasted long after that last surviving member has passed on. When active duty soldiers from both Great Britain and Germany played in the commemoration game 94 years later, the legacy and courage of those brave soldiers in 1914 was solidified as a peace-building initiative. The act of having two historically opposing enemies facing off on the same battlefield with active duty soldiers is rarely seen in the modern context in such a highly profiled event.
In the end, using sport as a peace-building tool is not solely the answer when attempting to unite divided societies. However, even though the use of sport in peace-building initiatives has faced obstacles, the successes outweigh the challenges. It is these successes that need to be built upon by practitioners and studied by academics to find the most effective uses of sports initiatives in divided societies.
Reflecting on the lessons learned from the memories of events from the past will help peace-builders find ways of helping people involved in conflicts to ‘re-humanise’ their enemy and collectively start to heal from traumatic events. The goal is to help individuals affected by conflict learn how to work as positive contributors within civil society. Then when political society is ready to facilitate peace, the population of educated citizens will be ready to comprehend what it means to be at peace because they will have experienced it through the benefits of sport.
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