The Story of the World War I Christmas Truce
In the early months of World War I, on Christmas Eve, men on both sides of the trenches laid down their arms and joined in a spontaneous celebration. Despite orders to continue shooting, the unofficial truce spread across the front lines. Even the participants found what they were doing incredible: Germans placed candlelit Christmas trees on trench parapets, warring soldiers sang carols, and men on both sides shared food parcels from home. They climbed from the trenches to meet in "No Man's Land" where they buried the dead, exchanged gifts, ate and drank together, and even played soccer.
Throughout his narrative, Stanley Weintraub uses the stories of the men who were there, as well as their letters and diaries, to illuminate the fragile truce and bring to life this extraordinary moment in time.
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.”
"Weintraub has brought an obscure and bizarre incident to life with a flair that gives the reader a detailed glimpse of a unique Christmas story." —The Seattle Times
"Deeply moving." —The Boston Globe
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