Alfred Anderson

Last of the Old Contemptibles and sole remaining survivor of the 1914 Christmas truce
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The Independent Online

Alfred Anderson, joiner and wartime soldier: born Dundee 25 June 1896; married 1917 Susanna Iddeson (died 1979; two sons and two daughters, and one daughter deceased); died Newtyle, Angus 21 November 2005.

Alfred Anderson, who has died at the age of 109, was the last member of the British Expeditionary Force - the Old Contemptibles - and the sole remaining survivor of the "Christmas truce" of 1914.

Alfred Anderson was lucky to be born in Dundee, as his two elder brothers were born in Chicago where his father had gone to work as a joiner. Alfred had vivid memories of his childhood in the days of gas lamps and coal fires. He remembered two soldiers returning from the Boer War in 1902, one of whom picked him up and carried him on his shoulder. That year, his family moved to Newtyle in Angus, where his father bought his own joinery and undertaking business.

At the age of 10, Alfred was delivering milk before school and by 12 had saved enough to buy a bicycle so that he was able to increase his pocket money from the round by carrying milk churns on his handlebars. From the age of 12 until 14, he went by train to the Harris Academy in Dundee, where he enjoyed reading, writing and drawing; at one time he thought he would become an architect. After school he would visit friends at a local farm and this is where he developed an interest in animals, especially horses.

When he left school he began an apprenticeship as a joiner with his father's firm and in 1912 with his friends joined the Territorial Army in the 5th Battalion the Black Watch. For him and his friends it became a way of life - two evenings a week drilling, weekend training with the Lee Enfield rifle and, most pleasing of all, a whole week's camp in Montrose and Crieff. When war was declared his battalion, after two months training, arrived in Le Havre in October 1914 on a cattle boat. As Alfred Anderson recalled,

We spent a night in a tented camp, which was bitterly cold. We couldn't wash in the morning

because the water had frozen in the pipes. We were glad when they marched us up to the front. It took three days but it warmed us up a bit!

Anderson was soon into action and saw his friends being killed and wounded around him. This was a shock for him; his work in his father's undertakers had somewhat cushioned him to the sight of death, but not to the loss of friends.

When Christmas came, he was in a reserve trench some way from the front:

I remember the eerie silence that Christmas Day. 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.

We were so tired, we didn't have the energy to play football - and we were quite away from the front lines, so we didn't do any mixing with the Germans that was so famous. 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.

During this period, he received his Christmas box, a tin box filled with cigarettes. In it was a card which said "With best wishes for a happy Christmas and a Victorious New Year, from Princess Mary and friends at home". As a non-smoker, he gave away the cigarettes and used the tin to carry the New Testament which his mother had given him. It would be the only thing he brought back from the war.

Apart from his normal duties as an infantryman Anderson became batman to Lt Ian Bruce-Gardyne and for a short time to Capt Fergus Bowes-Lyon (brother of Lady Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon, who would become Queen Elizabeth). Anderson survived the punishing battle of Loos but was saddened by the death of Bowes-Lyon. He always felt deeply about it:

Hundreds of our regiment were killed. You see, our bombardment wasn't strong enough to break the German wire or destroy their machine guns.

While on the Somme in spring 1916, having returned from a night listening for German activity, Anderson was making tea when a shell exploded over his head, killing a number of his friends. He was himself badly wounded by shrapnel in his neck. He crawled to an officers' dugout where someone put a field dressing on his wound. He had to lie in intense pain throughout the day until a stretcher bearer could take him to a field dressing station. "My fighting days were over, but I'd been lucky to survive," he said. "That day my dearest friends were left behind in that trench forever."

After two months' recuperation in Norwich, he got a train back to Newtyle and as he walked down the street he was moved to see his mother polishing the brass door fittings. While at home he went to visit the family of one of his friends who had been killed, to offer his condolences:

But they were very frosty and didn't invite me in. I realised I wasn't welcome with them, and said "It's not my fault." But they were quite clear. "Aye, but you're here, and he's not."

He was posted to Ripon as an instructor where he met and fell in love with Susanna Iddeson, and married her in 1917. He was asked by the Army to stay on after the war with the rank of Sergeant Major, but his father needed him in the business as his two other sons had emigrated to Canada. Anderson moved back to Newtyle in 1919 and was to spend the rest of his working life as a joiner.

On the outbreak of the Second World War he was too old for active service but organised the local Home Guard. In 1956, he gave up his business and worked for a number of councils, retiring as Clerk of Works for Perth City Council and Crieff Town Council. In 1998 the French awarded him the Légion d'honneur.

Anderson seldom spoke of his wartime experiences but was delighted when the Prince of Wales talked to him about his great-uncle Bowes-Lyon and listened to Anderson's account of the Great War. He featured recently in the BBC documentary The Last Tommy, showing the determination, humour and modesty that had got him through his whole life.

When I interviewed him a few months ago for Last Post: the final word from our First World War soldiers, he was still full of energy and looking forward to the future. He told me:

It doesn't do to look back. We lived for each day during the war - and even at my age, now, I do the same thing. I'm still looking forward. I'm more interested in what's happening now.

Max Arthur