On Christmas day 1914, German and Allied troops on the western front came out of their trenches and made their own, unofficial truce: some played games of football described by a British captain as “unique in the world’s history”. Those events will be re-enacted at the Belgian town of Mons next year.

Football has not always been synonymous with peace: World Cup qualifiers sparked the “football war” between El Salvador and Honduras in 1969. But the game is global so the 1914 truce is something people of many nations can identify with as they prepare to commemorate the first world war’s centenary from next August.

Thirty years ago, interest in the war was fading, but it has returned sharply, notably in northern Europe and the English-speaking world. Wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have much to do with it. But in a way our world is becoming more like it was in 1914: no longer divided between two nuclear superpowers, it is a multipolar world adapting to China, a rising power as Germany once was.

Nations have different perspectives. France, where two of the bloodiest battles were fought, will commemorate it scrupulously. Germany’s plans are lower key. Australia and New Zealand will mark their sacrifice at Gallipoli. Turkey is anxious about the 1915 anniversary of the death of up to 1.5m Armenians at the hands of Ottoman forces. For Russians, there will be mixed feelings about a war that led to Bolshevism, civil war, starvation and Stalin.

For Britain, the tone has been tricky to get right while commitment to the EU is wavering. Events begin with a service at Glasgow cathedral attended by Commonwealth heads of state after the end of the Commonwealth Games. There are funds to repair war memorials, renovate London’s Imperial War Museum and send two children from every English school to visit battlefields and cemeteries.

The government has been criticised for its non-judgmental approach – but it is hard when views about the war are polarised between a “poetic” camp, which regards Britain’s participation as a blunder by the elite with disastrous consequences; and military historians such as Sir Max Hastings, who believe going to war was necessary and just.

My sympathies lie more with the former. True, staying out would have brought problems: either a German hegemony on the continent; or, if France and Russia had won, Russian pressure on parts of the British empire. But it could hardly have been worse than what did happen, a catastrophe that led to Hitler, Stalin, the second world war and the cold war.

It would not be fitting, though, for the government to impose an official narrative on these events. Its role is surely to help people debate and understand them and think about lessons for the future.

Not-so-virgin births

One in 200 US women claims to have given birth while still a virgin, according to a long-term study of reproductive health, published in the British Medical Journal.

The findings were based on a study of 7,870 women and girls aged 15 to 28, as part of the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health, which ran from 1995 to 2009. The BMJ reported that, of the women who took part, 45 (0.5 per cent) reported at least one virgin pregnancy, “unrelated to the use of assisted reproductive technology”/

Of these girls, 31 per cent had signed a so-called “chastity pledge”, vowing – usually for religious reasons – not to have sex.

Do these results mean the “virgin birth” of Jesus claimed in the Bible is not unique? Alas, no. The researchers said: “Fallible memory, beliefs and wishes can cause people to err in what they tell scientists.”

Beware your wishes

Time to repeat my favourite Christmas story. Its subject is no longer around to confirm its authenticity, but it is recounted in various books.

In 1948, a Washington radio station contacted ambassadors in the US capital, asking what each most wished for Christmas. The French ambassador said he would like to see peace throughout the world. The Russian ambassador wanted freedom for all people enslaved by imperialism.

The UK’s representative, Sir Oliver Franks, mistook the request, saying: “Well, it’s very kind of you to ask. I’d quite like a box of crystallised fruit.”

brian.groom@ft.com

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