In a few short days there will be a pause in various places around the world to commemorate the one hundredth anniversary of the end of “The Great War” on November 11, 1918 at 11 o’clock in the morning. Too many have little awareness of what that war was about or how it impacts the world even today.
Those who lived during that time called it “The Great War.” It was greater than any war waged before it, but for those people who came after that time it was known as WW I. Many who studied history courses during high school years have a fuzzier idea of it than of WW II. Perhaps it was because countries were drawn into it without one specific villain that represented a threat, but its scope and aftermath should give us all pause. It permanently shaped the political and cultural panorama in ways still evident today.
The one lingering mental picture that remains of that war is that of trenches. During those four long hellish years the two opposing forces faced each other over 400 miles in a series of trenches. There were front line trenches that were six to eight feet deep, support trenches, and rear trenches plus communication trenches that ran zigzag between the others. Several million men spent most their time in these trenches that were dirty, smelly, lice-infested, and riddled with disease.
Fifty-nine million troops were mobilized to fight in this war. By the end of it, nine million soldiers had died and twenty-nine million were wounded. Those numbers are impossible to fathom. It translates into five men being killed every minute. Two hundred and fifty thousand men were killed in the Battle of the Somme that lasted 140 days in 1916.
Civilians who lived in the war zone suffered as well. Five million civilians were killed by the time it was over. It is little wonder that those caught in the midst of this believed they were in hell and wondered if this was the beginning of the end of the world. There was a belief that heroism was dead. Faith and innocence were lost.
The cultural impact resulted in nearly destroying Christianity in Europe and shredding of the idealism that existed before the war began. By the end, the plausibility of the idea of God was dead. Think about the gravity of that.
It is important that we learn some of the stories of that time and highlight several persons who left us a different perspective despite all of this.
One of my favorite stories occurred early in the war on Christmas Eve of 1914. On the Western Front both sides put down their weapons. Dr. Joseph Loconte, Associate Professor of History at The King’s College in New York City, describes it this way:
“The armies of both sides of the Western Front put down their weapons, sang hymns, and treated their enemies as brothers.
No one ordered the now-famous Christmas truce of 1914. No one could have planned for it. It arose spontaneously, without warning, among officers as well as ordinary soldiers, along hundreds of miles of fortified defenses. ‘Between the trenches, the hatred and bitter opponents meet around the Christmas tree and sing Christmas carols,’ Josef Wenzl, a soldier in the German infantry wrote to his parents, ‘This once in a lifetime vision I will not forget.’
Beginning on Christmas Eve and extending into Christmas Day, the killing machines of the Great War went silent. Soldiers came out of their trenches and greeted their adversaries in ‘No Man’s Land,’ the dead-zone separating enemy defenses. They gathered to sing ‘Stille Nacht’ (“Silent Night”) and to exchange food, drinks, and tobacco. ‘Gradually firing ceased almost everywhere along the line that Christmas Eve,’ writes historian Modris Ekstein. ‘The Christmas spirit had simply conquered the battlefield.’”
This “Great War” that was supposed to make the world safe for democracy, bring an end to all wars, and usher in the kingdom of heaven did not succeed in any of these aims and instead crushed the hopes and dreams of a generation and ravaged a continent.
But on this one night early in the war, Christmas Eve 1914, the guns fell silent and the focus shifted to a higher plane to the only One who could bring peace…the Prince of Peace.
His message reaches out to us today in the midst of violence, chaos, and confusion from the words written by John, the disciple closest to Jesus, as he quotes Him:
“And everything I’ve taught you is so that the peace which is in me will be in you and will give you great confidence as you rest in me. For in this unbelieving world you will experience trouble and sorrows, but you must be courageous, for I have conquered the world!”
John 16:33 (TPT)