By Kieran Connolly
When the soldiers of many nations marched to war in August 1914 they were assured that they would be home by Christmas. However, on Christmas Eve they were in the trenches on the Western Front that extended from Flanders in Belgium to Switzerland. By then it was clear to both sides that there would not be a quick end to the war.
The area between the trenches was known as “No Man’s Land”.
At some points the lines were very close, perhaps separated by a distance of 30 metres. The soldiers could hear the enemy talking and smell their cooking. The distance quoted seems very short but the lines of barbed wire meant slow progress and the rapid fire of the machine guns made it lethal.
The commander of the British Second Corps, General Sir Horace Smith-Dorrien, believed this proximity posed “the greatest danger” to the morale of soldiers and told Divisional Commanders to explicitly prohibit any “friendly intercourse with the enemy”.
In a memo issued on December 5th, he warned that, “troops in trenches in close proximity to the enemy slide very easily, if permitted to do so, into a ‘live and let live’ theory of life”.
Prior to Christmas Eve the weather had been foggy and wet, the winter of that year was very bad. But on the night of Christmas Eve it was described as “a beautiful moonlit night, frost on the ground, white almost everywhere”. On that night along some sectors of the line the British and German soldiers engaged in a carol singing competition.
The British would sing a carol in English to be followed by the Germans singing another carol in their language. At one point when the British sang O Come All Ye Faithful they were surprised to hear the Germans sing the same song in Latin, that is, Adeste Fideles.