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The Last of the Last
Described as “the last known survivor of the Christmas Truce,” former Royal Welch Fusiliers private Bertie Felstead died at 106 on July 22, 2001. “The older he was, the more famous he became,” a reporter for The Economist wrote. The New York Times called him “a soldier who joined a timeout in the war.” The soccer Fédération Internationale reported that Felstead was “the last survivor of the First World War Christmas Day truce when British and German troops played football together.” In every language in which European football was reported, stories about Felstead’s dramatic experience appeared, and, from pulpits, soccer-related sermons were delivered. In one, the Reverend Axel Gehmann declared, “In our play we reveal what kind of people we are.”
At Laventie, west of Lille, where the 15th Royal Welch Fusiliers were holding the line, Felstead recalled, shouts of “Merry Christmas, Tommy!” were answered from the British trenches with “Merry Christmas!” The Germans reportedly followed—curiously—with “All through the Night” (perhaps Felstead was misheard in a late interview and meant “Silent Night”). The Welshmen responded with “Good King Wenceslas” and other carols. (The Welsh loved to sing.) At dawn, Felstead recalled, “Human nature being what it is, feelings [had] built up overnight and so both sides got up from their front line trenches to meet halfway in no-man’s land.” The Jerries, he thought, got the idea first. Armed with sausages, tinned coffee, tinned sauerkraut, and cigars, the field grays of a Bavarian regiment left their lines and met the enemy at a small willow-lined stream that separated them. There they bartered their stock for English cigarettes, tinned bully beef and biscuits, and, Felstead remembered, mingled together and kicked a ball about. “Of course we realized that we were in the most extraordinary position, wishing each other Happy Christmas one day and shooting at each other the next, and we sheltered each other. No one would shoot at us while we were all mixed up.”
Less than half an hour later—much had apparently occurred in the interim—their company officer and a major accompanied by a sergeant appeared, one of them shouting, “You came to fight the Huns, not to make friends with them.” Reluctantly the Welsh infantrymen returned to their lines, after which British eighteen-pounders fired salvos at the trenches from which the camaraderie had come.
“There wouldn’t have been a war if it had been left to the public,” Felstead later said, as he was increasingly feted for his longevity and his connection to the almost mythic Christmas truce. In 1916, at the Somme, he had suffered a “blighty” wound, which hospitalized him in England. Felstead was then sent to Salonika, in malaria-ridden Greece, and invalided home the next year. Demobbed in 1919, he worked as a civilian for the RAF in Gloucestershire, retiring in 1939. Increasingly sought after as a participant in the Christmas truce, he continued to dine out on his experience and in 1998, at 104, he was awarded the Légion d’honneur by President Jacques Chirac, with the decoration presented by Brigadier David Ross, colonel of the Royal Welch Fusiliers. Felstead was also cited in the book Centurions, presented to him at his nursing home on his 105th birthday, for his role in the remarkable truce, as one of the hundred most memorable Britons of the twentieth century.
There was only one problem with Felstead’s increasing fame, which lasted to his death and continues into the nearly four hundred obituaries and articles about him. His Christmas truce in 1915, rather than 1914, which he called the “second Christmas Truce,” almost certainly never happened. Both the Germans and the British issued explicit orders, under pain of court martial and punishment, that there was to be no repetition of the 1914 stoppage of the war, and certainly no play. Wars were to be won, with no holidays from the killing. There was no football, and no match. (The two Scottish officers who actually attempted to initiate a truce at the second Christmas were stopped, court-martialed, and reprimanded.) Private Felstead joined his battalion after it had participated in the 1914 truce, and he obviously savored its stories of what had happened. Nothing in his account seems to ring true for 1915, but the last man—as he thought he was—has the last word, and he made the most of it.
Yet he was not the last. Alfred Anderson, who died at 109 on November 21, 2005, in a nursing home in Newtyle, Angus, Scotland, was eighteen and in the 5th Territorial Battalion of the Black Watch, which was off the line but nearby when German and British troops emerged from their trenches on Christmas Eve 1914, and fraternized. Neil Griffiths, speaking for the Royal British Legion of Scotland, eulogized Anderson as “the last surviving link with a time that shimmers on the edge of our folk memory.” His passing left only eight living veterans of the war in Britain, of an original five million, none of whom had been in Flanders as early as the first Christmas. He had been the only soldier left of the 690,235 Scots who then wore the king’s uniform. On his last Armistice Day he was too frail to take part, but said, “I’m the last man standing—the last surviving Scottish soldier from the Great War. It’s up to me to remember all those who have gone before.”
For nearly ninety years he had little to say about his closeness to the Christmas Truce. Then a fleeting celebrity flickered. He was interviewed at 105, and again at 108. For the BBC’s “The Last Tommy Gallery,” Anderson recalled his shipping out across the channel in a cattle boat; a three-day march from Le Havre, in freezing weather, to the front; and the deaths of his new companions in arms. As his father had an undertaking and joinery business in Newtyle, to which young Alfred was apprenticed, death generally did not shock him, but these deaths, of his wartime intimates, had. The last of the veterans of the retreat from Mons, and thus of the memorable “Old Contemptibles” of the British Expeditionary Force who wore the Mons Star, he was the last of the last in many dimensions.
“I remember the eerie silence that Christmas Day,” he told an interviewer. “All the explosions stopped. We were billeted in a farmhouse at the time and we went outside and stood there, listening—and remembering our friends who were gone and our people back home. We’d spent two months with the cracking of bullets and machine-gun fire, and sometimes distant German voices—but now it was quiet all round. In the dead silence we shouted out ‘Merry Christmas’—although none of us felt at all merry.”
Anderson had received his Princess Mary brass box—the hinged tin of cigarettes with a Christmas card from the royal family. For him, a nonsmoker, it was the wrong stuff. Unwilling to barter, he gave the cigarettes away, but not the box with the princess’s profile embossed on the lid. He told the Observer, “A lot of the lads thought the box was worth nothing, but I said someone’s bound to have put a lot of thought into it. Some of the boys had Christmas presents from home anyway, but mine didn’t arrive on time.” He used the tin to protect the pocket-size New Testament given him in parting, inscribed “September 5, 1914. Alfred Anderson. A Present from Mother.” It would be the only object he brought back from the war, which he would leave rather violently. “I have the bible yet,” he said at 108.
Life on the line was especially difficult for a uniformed Scot. “The kilt was a bad thing. You were never dry. Dragged in the mud and water and that. The water came up your leg and it never really evaporated. Wherever you walked in the trenches, there were fellers who wore trousers if they wanted. And funny enough, nobody queried it. Because they were glad to get out of the kilt themselves.”
“We were so tired,” he recalled, “[that] we didn’t have the energy to play football—and we were quite away from the frontlines, so we didn’t do any mixing with the Germans that was so famous.” But his battalion heard “some cheering”—and soon “some of the boys” returned to their billets to tell the others what was happening.
In his sector, the truce was perhaps the most abbreviated along the three-hundred-mile front. Artillerymen to the rear soon obeyed orders from even farther to the rear to begin a rolling fire to disrupt the stillness. “Then it became the usual thing. . . . The silence came to an end in the afternoon when the guns started again. The killing began again, too. It was a very short-lived peace. Now at Christmas I think of that day in 1914 and I remember all my friends who didn’t make it.”
One who didn’t was Captain Fergus Bowes-Lyon, brother of Lady Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon, who married the future King George VI and became his queen and mother to Elizabeth II. Anderson was briefly batman—orderly and messenger—to Bowes-Lyon, who died in the bloody battle of Loos. Carrying messages through the trenches was essential, as telephone land lines were useless. If shell bursts didn’t sever the lines, rats chewed the insulation.
At Loos, “Hundreds of our regiment were killed. You see, our bombardment wasn’t strong enough to break the German [barbed] wire or destroy their machine guns.” The Jerries had more firepower, while the Scots had only one or two machine guns for every battalion. One night, on the Somme, in the spring of 1916, his squad on a night patrol returned before daylight. As they were resting and brewing tea, a shell exploded over their heads. Several were killed. Anderson had shrapnel lodged in his neck, and crawled to an officers’ dugout where someone applied a field dressing. He lay there in pain, until he was evacuated in a mule wagon. “My fighting days were over, but I had been lucky to survive. That day my dearest friends were left behind in that trench forever.”
It was a blighty wound, from which he recuperated for two months in a hospital in Norwich. Issued a pass then to return home, he boarded a train to Newtyle and, to offer condolences, visited the family of one of his friends killed on the Somme. Three grieving sisters came to the door. “They were very frosty and didn’t invite me in. I wasn’t welcome with them, and I said, ‘It’s not my fault.’ But they were quite clear. ‘Aye, but you’re here, and he’s not.’” Anderson turned about and walked away.
After the war he resumed his job as a joiner, carpentering coffins and furniture in his father’s business, which he then took over. When war came again, he was too old for active service but organized the local Home Guard. Years later, in 1998, Anderson was, like Bertie Felstead, awarded the Légion d’honneur. The Prince of Wales visited him twice, last in 2002, talking with him about Captain Bowes-Lyon, Prince Charles’s great-uncle, whom he had never known. Anderson, the prince said later, “had a legendary reputation within the Black Watch. . . . He will be missed by many. We should not forget him, and the others of his generation, who gave so much for their country.”
At the end, Andrew Anderson received thirty seconds on the evening news. Yet as the last veterans of the truce flickered out, their lives became public property, imagined as more than they were. The Edinburgh Scotsman wrote that he “was a witness to the remarkable truce on the Western Front on Christmas Day 1914 . . . when German and UK soldiers played football.” But he never boasted of what he did not do. In a dilapidated farmhouse close to the front, Anderson experienced the brief silence of the truce, held on to a treasured brass Christmas box, and bantered afterward with friends who had been out in no-man’s-land, mingling with their temporary friends, the enemy. That he “witnessed” the truce, as some romantically suggest, stretches reality. The last survivor, he had long recognized that, and realized that when the shooting stopped, it was only a parenthesis between the horrors that had come before and the horrors still to come. “See,” he said toward the end, “all these years I’ve been trying to forget. It’s all being raked up again. I thought I was going to die peaceful like.”
1 An Outbreak of Peace
2 Christmas Eve
3 The Dead
4 Our Friends, the Enemy
6 How It Ended
7 What If -- ?
Three myths would arise during the early months of the Great War. Burly Cossacks, sent by the Czar to bolster the Western Front, were seen embarking from British railway stations for Dover, still shaking the persistent snows of Russia from their boots. In France, during the British retreat from Mons, angels appeared—spirit bowmen out of the English past—to cover the withdrawal. And the third was that, to the dismay of the generals, along the front lines late in December 1914, opponents in the West laid down their arms and celebrated Christmas together in a spontaneous gesture of peace on earth and good will toward men. Only one of the myths—the last—was true.
In an issue sent to press just before Christmas, The New Republic, an American weekly writing from a plague-on-both-sides neutrality, accepted what seemed obvious. "If men must hate, it is perhaps just as well that they make no Christmas truce." A futile resolution had been introduced in the Senate in Washington urging that the belligerents hold a twenty-day truce at Christmas "with the hope that the cessation of hostilities at the said time may stimulate reflection upon the part of the nations [at war] as to the meaning and spirit of Christmas time."
Since early August the European war had claimed hundreds of thousands of killed, wounded, and missing. An appeal for a cease-fire at Christmas from Pope Benedict XV, elected just three months earlier, only weeks after war had broken out, had made headlines but was quickly rebuffed by both sides as "impossible." Rather, The New Republic suggested sardonically, "The stench of battle should rise above the churches where they preach good-will to men. A few carols, a little incense and some tinsel will heal no wounds." A wartime Christmas would be a festival "so empty that it jeers at us."
To many, the end of the war and the failure of the peace would validate the Christmas cease-fire as the only meaningful episode in the apocalypse. It belied the bellicose slogans and suggested that the men fighting and often dying were, as usual, proxies for governments and issues that had little to do with their everyday lives. A candle lit in the darkness of Flanders, the truce flickered briefly and survives only in memoirs, letters, song, drama and story.
"Live-and-let-live" accommodations occur in all wars. Chronicles at least since Troy record cessations in fighting to bury the dead, to pray to the gods, to negotiate a peace, to assuage war weariness, to offer signs of amity to enemies so long opposite in a static war as to encourage mutual respect. None had ever occurred on the scale of, or with the duration, or with the potential for changing things, as when the shooting suddenly stopped on Christmas Eve, 1914. The difference in 1914 was its potential to become more than a temporary respite. The event appears in retrospect somehow unreal, incredible in its intensity and extent, seemingly impossible to have happened without consequences for the outcome of the war. Like a dream, when it was over, men wondered at it, then went on with the grim business at hand. Under the rigid discipline of wartime command authority, that business was killing.
Dismissed in official histories as an aberration of no consequence, that remarkable moment happened. For the rival governments, for which war was politics conducted by persuasive force, it was imperative to make even temporary peace unappealing and unworkable, only an impulsive interval in a necessarily hostile and competitive world. The impromptu truce seemed dangerously akin to the populist politics of the streets, the spontaneous movements that topple tyrants and autocrats. For that reason alone, high commands could not permit it to gain any momentum to expand in time and in space, or to capture broad appeal back home. That it did not was more accident than design.
After a silent night and day—in many sectors much more than that—the war went on. The peace seemed nearly forgotten. Yet memories of Christmas 1914 persist, and underlying them the compelling realities and the intriguing might-have-beens. What if...?
Late in December 1999 a group of nine quirky "Khaki Chums" crossed the English Channel to Flanders with the "blatantly daft idea" of commemorating the truce where it may have begun, near Ploegsteert Wood in Belgium. Wearing makeshift uniforms recalling 1914, and working in the rain and snow, they dug trenches, reinforcing them with sandbags and planks which "literally disappeared into the bottomless mud." For several days they cooked their rations, reinforced their parapets, and slept soaked through to the skin. They also endured curious onlookers and enjoyed visits from the media. Before departing, the nine planted a large timber cross in the quagmire as a temporary mark of respect for the wartime dead, filled back their trenches and slogged homeward.
Months later they were astonished to learn that local villagers had treated their crude memorial with a wood preservative and set it in a concrete base. In season, now, poppies flower beneath it. Thousands of Great War monuments, some moving and others mawkish, remain in town squares and military cemeteries across Europe. The afterthought of the "Khaki Chums" lark in the Flanders mud is the only memorial to the Christmas Truce of 1914.
Copyright © 2001 by Stanley Weintraub
Posted December 6, 2011
This beautifully written book reads like a novel. It's uplifting and inspiring. These men showed what the human spirit can accomplish even in the ugliest of circumstance, and Stanley Weintraub captures the scene perfectly. This true story makes you wonder, if the heroes WWI could show compassion for their fellow man, why can't the rest of the world?
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Posted January 24, 2012
I have heard about this but never read actual account of it. I enjoy historical books and really enjoyed this to read over the holidays. It is amazing what war can do and yet the spirit of the mtrue meaning of Christmas came through all that war on that special night.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted October 27, 2008
Given that the Christmas Truce happened only once, under unfavorable conditions and never again was repeated during the duration of the first World War, the story told in this book is pretty amazing. That numerous countries in different parts along the front line all had the same idea to put down their weapons and enjoy Christmas was unheard of and for the governments involved, potentially dangerous.<BR/><BR/>Against restrictions and bans from both sides of the battle front, soldiers disobeyed direct orders and officers looked the other way, singing carols, putting up Christmas trees, trading drinks, exchanging smokes and even playing futbol.<BR/><BR/>Based on letters and stories related by veterans, Stanley Weintraub puts together a comprehensive tale of what happened on December 1914. And strangely it is a war story with a good, heartfelt message. Unfortunately, the truce was not to last and in most places did not extend into New Years, and for the rest of the war, never repeated itself anywhere. The book gives insight into what happened in numerous places and tells some very interesting stories.<BR/><BR/>Because the topic discussed is so narrow, however, this book can get tedious to read, for as one goes on, the stories seem to repeat itself. Many times, it may seem like you are reading the same story. Also questionable, though not incredibly so, is the fact that the author jumps around from one place to another to unfold his book, where I think it may have been better to make this book a compilation of stories and let the reader take on the stories they found intriguing. Nonetheless, the way it is broken down is comprehensive and relatively well narrated.<BR/><BR/>There is however a pair of points that I did find frustrating. One, the fact that a lot of times he quotes in the tongue in which things were written and fails to provide translation, even as foot notes. Having studied French, I caught all the English and French references, but I was entirely lost in the German vocabulary and it took reading into the book to put two and two together to figure out what some words meant. The other problem I had with the book was a very obvious bias on the author¿s side to paint the Germans as the saintly figures, in fact crediting them with most of the realizations that took place between trenches. It may have been the case that, as he explains, the Germans were winning and therefore they had less to lose by extending a hand to their enemies, but throughout the book, one gets the feeling that there is a definite bias.<BR/><BR/>If one can overlook those two points, however, the book did make for some interesting reading.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted December 24, 2004
This is a wonderful book. I don't recommend reading it if you can't read books without using your agenda as a bookmarker. It defines fact from fiction, and is reputable in doing so. I found it a stimulating glimpse into humanity.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted August 12, 2004
I have read over 40 books about World War I, and this is the worst book I've ever read on the subject. The book is boring, disorganized, and relentlessly pursues it pacifist agenda. The book is repititous ad nauseaum. In the author's attempt to convince his readers that the ordinary soldiers didn't want to fight, he presents a huge number of barely discernible short stories and excerpts throughout the book. The text is erratic and disorganized. This unconvincing book seems not like the work of a published author, but the work of a human psychology student's term paper. Much of the book simply consists of word-for-word extracts from other published media. Ignore the positive reviews on the back cover - it's clear these reviewers didn't read more than the first few pages. This book isn't worth the paper it's printed on!
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Posted May 10, 2004
In December 1914, the Western Front ran through Belgium and northern France. The muddy, slimy quagmire of Flanders trenches became the home-away-from-home of soldiers from Belgium, France, including Algeria, and Britain, including Scotland, Wales and India, on the one side, and from Germany, Saxony, Westphalia, Bavaria and Prussia, on the other. Bubbling up from the ranks of the enlisted and the conscripted, soldiers observed a Christmas 'you no shoot, we no shoot' day, initially to reclaim and bury their dead from No Man's Land. The holiday feelings manifested themselves in Christmas trees, carolling, friendly insults and facetious taunts, followed by heartfelt exchanges of sausages, chocolates, cigarettes, plum pudding--and even barrels of beer and soccer matches. Recalled memorably later on in 'Oh! What a Lovely War,' and in letters, songs and poems, the remarkable impromptu truce was downplayed in official reports. Seeking plausible deniability, officers on both sides blamed the enemy side. But here Weintraub poignantly presents in black and white the ample evidence, including photographs. Highly recommended.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted February 25, 2004
This book was very painful to read. I could barely make it through the first fifty pages before throwing it out of the window. I would strongly suggest not reading this book to anyone who is interested.
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Posted July 10, 2003
Christmas will never be the same again. Every time that I hear the carole 'Stille Nacht', I will always remember how the true Christmas spirit lived, a long time ago, in a place that too many people have long since forgotten.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted March 28, 2003
Silent Night is an excellent book! It not only provides the facts of the Truce but also the fiction. The reader cannot help but be provoked to speculate on the What if ...? It is a must have for any World War I collection.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted December 21, 2002
This story brings the warmth of a family Christmas dinner in a warm house with friends, to the soldiers at war. No matter where you are or which ever country you come from, a war will always stop at the dinner table.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted December 28, 2009
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Posted July 29, 2009
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Posted December 28, 2009
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Posted December 4, 2008
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