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Stille Nacht
December 19, 2004 3:58 PM   Subscribe

Alfred Anderson, last survivor of the 1914 Christmas Truce
Apparently, Alfred Anderson is the last man still living who spent 25 December 1914 serving in a conflict that left 31 million people dead, wounded or missing.
posted by tomcosgrave (36 comments total)

 
Unless I'm missing something, the article's only saying he's the last one who bore witness to that historical Christmas truce in the trenches.

I just want to know who won that soccer match.
posted by cosmonik at 4:04 PM on December 19, 2004


What an incredible story! Thanks for the post. It's interesting to hear that an old soldier still remembers fallen comrades after such a long time, and with such clarity.
posted by PossumCowboy at 4:05 PM on December 19, 2004


He recalled one incident that gave him a 'sore heart'. When he was first home on leave, he visited the family of a dead friend to express his condolences. He knew them well but soon realised that he was getting a frosty reception. 'I asked if they were going to ask me in and they said no. When I asked why, they just said, "Because you're here and he's not". That was awful. He's one of the lads I miss most.'

Great story, thanks.
posted by interrobang at 4:06 PM on December 19, 2004


Obligatory pop culture references: The Farm - Altogether Now, A Midnight Clear, and that damn Wings song the name of which I can't seem to remember.
posted by muckster at 4:18 PM on December 19, 2004


I believe it's The Pipes of Peace. McCartney plays soccer in the video and accidentally swaps sweetheart photos with a German soldier.
posted by muckster at 4:25 PM on December 19, 2004


muckster, you've forgotten the Royal Guardsmen's immortal ballad, Snoopy's Christmas.
posted by Faint of Butt at 4:41 PM on December 19, 2004


see also a BBC story saying that a new movie about the 1914 truce is in the works.
posted by pokeydonut at 4:42 PM on December 19, 2004


Nice story, but it would have been a better front-page post with a little background. Firstworldwar.com has a good, thoughtful discussion of the Christmas truce, opening up the myth of a spontaneous "shining episode of sanity" in favor of the more interesting and complex truth:

The reality of the Christmas Truce, however, is a slightly less romantic and a more down to earth story. It was an organic affair that in some spots hardly registered a mention and in others left a profound impact upon those who took part. Many accounts were rushed, confused or contradictory. Others, written long after the event, are weighed down by hindsight. These difficulties aside, the true story is still striking precisely because of its rag-tagged nature: it is more 'human' and therefore all the more potent.
posted by mediareport at 4:45 PM on December 19, 2004


I just want to know who won that soccer match.

It was a 0-0 tie, settled by a shootout.

Also, great post!
posted by languagehat at 5:20 PM on December 19, 2004


Just saw A very long engagement , which is an incredibly beautiful movie, but also a sobering reminder of how ugly that conflict was.
posted by allan at 5:30 PM on December 19, 2004


Re: the soccer match, one account states that Fritz won it 3-2.
posted by George_Spiggott at 5:41 PM on December 19, 2004


John McCutcheon's song Christmas in the Trenches is great.
posted by thebabelfish at 5:44 PM on December 19, 2004


Good post. Seems people hardly think about anything before WWII anymore. (Except for the Civil War, but even that's getting crowded off the history channel)

media: even the quoted discription sounds pretty romantic.
posted by absalom at 6:18 PM on December 19, 2004


Silent night.
posted by mwhybark at 6:55 PM on December 19, 2004


Thank you.
posted by DrJohnEvans at 7:26 PM on December 19, 2004


absalom: Actually, it's interesting. I just spent the past four months guiding tourists around World War I battlefields, and the British are still fascinated by the conflict. Way more so than we here in North America tend to be. I have my theories as to why this is, but I know that they are probably way wrong...

Can any Brits around here give me a better idea why this tends to be the case?
posted by Old Man Wilson at 8:00 PM on December 19, 2004


My guess is that it was so much more devastating to the Brits and Europeans than it was to the Yanks. We got in there towards the end and suffered relatively few casualties compared to those who where in it for the duration. The physical distance of it being "over there" rather than right in our backyard would also make it a more distant memory for us in the US.
posted by jim-of-oz at 8:07 PM on December 19, 2004


Old Man Wilson: Yeah, you're right. I should have said it's hardly talked about in the US. As I understand it, many of the nations in Eastern Europe revere WWI, since they all became independent afterwards.
posted by absalom at 8:12 PM on December 19, 2004


WWI changed Europe, WWII changed America.

Didn't WWI represent more social change or maybe more change in many European countries sense of national identity? As far as I understand, it caused many to reconsider their ideas about European cultural superiority. The British empire and colonialism generally were at their height in the 1800's, whereas some call the 1900's 'The American Century'.

From the European cultural perspective was WWII not a more or less a continuation of WWI? If I recall correctly Hitler, a corporal in WWI, felt the civilian population had betrayed the German army by giving in too soon and this in part, formed his thinking later on.

For the US of course, WWII was a radically different situation with earlier and far heavier involvement.
posted by scheptech at 8:52 PM on December 19, 2004


I wonder if in the soccer match the players behaved in the normal manner - like total sissies - clutching their shins and rolling around on the ground every time anybody ran within five metres of them? That sort of behaviour would hardly strike fear into an enemy's heart, would it?

(Of course, running into barbed wire, UXBs, or mines would be a decent enough excuse to try to milk a free kick)
posted by UbuRoivas at 9:15 PM on December 19, 2004


Whenever I heard this story as a child I always wondered why if they could call off the war for a day, could they not call it off all together. You'd think that men playing soccer could come to some sort of friendly, sensical arrangement.

I think I was a lot smarter back then.
posted by ODiV at 9:55 PM on December 19, 2004


ODiV, actually, if I recall correctly, some officers came damn close to being shot and it came awfully close to a lot of soldiers saying "fuck this, I'm going home."
posted by u.n. owen at 10:21 PM on December 19, 2004


Can any Brits around here give me a better idea why this tends to be the case?

It changed the entire social structure of the country forever. Authority and social position was an accepted part of British life before the war. The traditional ideas of social strata were never quite seen in the same way again after the officer classes had blindly ordered thousands of men to march in to the face of machine guns.

It changed Britain's relationship with the rest of the world forever - despite being the victors we were never really a first class world power again afterwards, after WWI it was all pretence. We pawned the family jewels for artillery.

One only has to compare the early works of an arch-imperialist like Kipling and compare it with his later work to see how the war changed every one here.

WWII was horrific but it was mostly truly horrific for the Russians and Chinese. The losses of any one of the western allies in WWI, except the US, were higher than the combined losses of all the western allies in WWII.
posted by vbfg at 1:43 AM on December 20, 2004


The British view on WWI is informed by the simple fact that we (the Brits, although the same must be true for the French and Germans) lost almost an entire generation of men. People died in staggering quantities in muddy fields. There was probably not a family in the entire country that did not lose at least one member. It's not much of an exaggeration to talk about decimation in the true sense of the word.

I can't really begin to comprehend the scale of the tragedy when numbers like 60,000 British troops were lost on the first day of the Battle of the Somme. The only way I can humanise the scale is to consider that I was brought up in a tiny village that had no more than 5 buildings in 1914, yet it has a war memorial with the names of 6 dead from WWI, including 5 from the same family.
posted by grahamspankee at 2:29 AM on December 20, 2004


as a child I always wondered why if they could call off the war for a day, could they not call it off all together. You'd think that men playing soccer could come to some sort of friendly, sensical arrangement.

Apparently there was some consideration of this, but Roy Keane's grandad was playing on the British side so it all fell through.
posted by biffa at 2:52 AM on December 20, 2004


Thank you for the post...it is a beautiful and moving story about a very dark period in our history. I shall take a moment this christmas eve to give thanks for those that lost their lives so many years ago.
posted by gren at 4:15 AM on December 20, 2004


grahamspankee, from your link it looks like the total lost was 60k, with 20k of them dying on the first day. Staggering numbers never the less.
posted by zeoslap at 6:18 AM on December 20, 2004


my mistake, 58,000 lost on the first day, 20k of which were killed, so presumably 40k were wounded. awful.
posted by zeoslap at 6:28 AM on December 20, 2004


Way more so than we here in North America tend to be. I have my theories as to why this is, but I know that they are probably way wrong...

In addition to what other people said, WWI is hard to forget when people are still digging explosives out of the ground 85 years later. Fields in the East and North of France are still full of them. It is estimated that 800,000 tons of ordnance (WWI and WWII) are still buried in France, mostly in the North of the country. 2000 suspect objects are found per year, 80 still containing explosives. In April 2001, a village was evacuated for a whole week because of 58 tons of WWI explosives that had to be moved. In June 2001, 9000 artillery shells from WWI were found by construction workers and 560 people were evacuated. So, yes, WWI is still a contemporary problem in the areas where it took place.
On the positive side, it also makes people think twice before they start bombing other folks, which is why you don't have many of them daydreaming about "levelling" this or that foreign country.
posted by elgilito at 6:40 AM on December 20, 2004


some officers came damn close to being shot

Not directly on topic, but: British soldiers executed in First World War denied official pardon.
A typical case is that of Harry Farr, who joined the British Expeditionary Force in 1914 and fought in the trenches. His position was repeatedly shelled, and in May 1915 he collapsed with strong convulsions. In hospital, his wife Gertrude—who was denied a widow's pension after the war—recalled, “he shook all the time. He couldn't stand the noise of the guns. We got a letter from him, but it was in a stranger's handwriting. He could write perfectly well, but couldn't hold the pen because his hand was shaking.”

It is now thought that Farr was possibly suffering from hypacusis, which occurs when the eardrums are so damaged that the auditory nerve becomes exposed, making loud noises physically unbearable. Despite this, Farr was sent back to the front and fought at the Somme. After several months of fighting, he requested to see a medical orderly but was refused. In Farr's Court Martial papers, the Sergeant Major is quoted as saying “If you don't go up to the f*****g front, I'm going to f*****g blow your brains out” to which Farr simply replied “I just can't go on.”

The Court Martial was over in 20 minutes. Harry Farr had to defend himself. General Haig signed his death warrant and he was shot at dawn on October 16, 1916.
posted by languagehat at 7:06 AM on December 20, 2004


I think quite a few lads of my generation learned a fair bit about World War I from Pat Mills' Charley's War. It was horrifying, educational and entertaining at the same time.

As an aside - does the US celebrate Armistice Day (now Veteran's Day as so few Great War vets are left) on Nov 11th? I know it's a major deal in Europe but I am not sure whether it would be a big date on most American calenders.
posted by longbaugh at 7:10 AM on December 20, 2004


longbaugh- Veteran's day is still a federal holiday here in the states.
posted by scottymac at 8:18 AM on December 20, 2004


Can any Brits around here give me a better idea why this tends to be the case?

It changed the entire social structure of the country forever.


Absolutely. Much has been written about the long term effects of, for instance, the perceived change in roles for the genders. Women who had been traditionally confined to being mothers, kept in the home with the children, became the main workforce for munitions manufacture etc. Their men were away and the money was earned by them. Never again would they take sitting down the strictures that society had imposed on them. Without WW1 the emancipation of women may have been delayed by a decade or more.

Conversely the men who had previously been working and active were confined by circumstance to billets or trenches in conditions that would have seemed passive if it wasn't for the Germans trying to kill them. This "passivity" has been quoted as a major contributor towards shell shock in the men.

The death toll was made much worse for the relatives by the practice of recruiting 'pals' regiments where whole factories, street and towns of me enlisted together. On the first day of the Somme several battalions were almost wipe out to the man. The telegrams that arrived to the relatives a few days or weeks later were accompanied by hundreds of others delivered to their neighbours, workmates and families.

I intend to be on the Somme in 2016 for the 100th anniversary and I expect to meet many, many others like me who never knew the suffering, knowing full well that the last of the remaining few survivors will be long dead by then.



We will remember them!
posted by hardcode at 8:38 AM on December 20, 2004


That was a lovely story, thanks.


The losses of any one of the western allies in WWI, except the US, were higher than the combined losses of all the western allies in WWII.

This is stunning, and so frequently forgotten.
posted by CunningLinguist at 8:40 AM on December 20, 2004


does the US celebrate Armistice Day (now Veteran's Day as so few Great War vets are left) on Nov 11th?

Canada has Remembrance Day on Nov. 11, not all provinces have a full day off but there are official, and very moving, ceremonies marking the 11th month, day, and hour around the country and I'm happy to say these seem to be better attended every year lately.
posted by scheptech at 12:50 PM on December 20, 2004


The British view on WWI is informed by the simple fact that we (the Brits, although the same must be true for the French and Germans) lost almost an entire generation of men.

Excellent point, and one that I hadn't really thought of. I don't know what happend in France and Germany in terms of recruitment but in Britain they used what were called "pals battallions". This meant that to encourage people to sign up in the early days of the war the rallying call was that you'd go to war with your friends as entire towns were signed up in to the same units. Along with the naiotnalistic fervour it did the job and helped with recruitment.

These men passed their training and were shipped out in time for the big offensive of 1916. A lot of them went over the top at the Somme and were told to walk, not run, towards the German trenches. It was felt that the new recruits wouldn't maintain formation with their minimum of training so the preceding artillery barrage was built up in to the largest ever at that time until the brass thought they'd be able to just stroll over.

The rest is history. The German machine guns survived the artillery. Most were cut down climbing out of the trenches to 'stroll over'. 50,000 British Tommys died on the first day, most of them before lunch. The entire male population of many British towns was wiped out in the space of a few minutes.

Some more info here from the BBC,
posted by vbfg at 2:21 PM on December 20, 2004


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