Veteran of First World War 'Christmas truce' dies at 109

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The Independent Online

The last known survivor of the First World War "Christmas truce" - in which British and German troops cautiously emerged from their trenches to play football in no man's land - has died.

Alfred Anderson was 18 when opposing sides put down their weapons to meet in the middle of the battlefield on 25 December 1914 to swap cigarettes and tunic buttons and sing carols. Yesterday the 109-year-old died in his sleep at a nursing home in Angus, Scotland, bringing the number of surviving First World War servicemen to just eight.

Like many of his generation, the former Black Watch veteran kept the horrors of his experiences in the trenches to himself for much of his life, only telling a little of what he had seen as he realised he was among the last of the men who fought "the war to end all wars". Although at the time of the impromptu truce Mr Anderson was billeted behind the lines, he had sharp memories of the eerie silence which descended across 500 miles of the front that morning.

He and his schoolfriends, who had enlisted together in the Territorial Army in 1912, were already battle-weary veterans by the time the truce happened, having been sent to France in October 1914. His unit, the Fifth Battalion of the Black Watch, was one of the first involved in trench warfare.

"I remember the eerie sound of silence," he recalled last year. "All I'd heard for two months in the trenches was the hissing, cracking and whining of bullets in flight, machine-gun fire and distant German voices. But there was a dead silence that morning, right across the land as far as you could see." The unauthorised truce spread across much of the 500-mile Western Front, where more than a million were encamped, and lasted up to several weeks in some places. In some sectors troops played football together, kicking around empty bully-beef cans and using their caps or steel helmets as goalposts, while others swapped souvenirs and addresses.

"We shouted, 'Merry Christmas', even though nobody felt merry," said Mr Anderson. "The silence ended early in the afternoon and the killing started again. It was a short peace in a terrible war."

Each Christmas afterwards Mr Anderson, whose life spanned three centuries, admitted that he could not help but think of the events of that day and the lives lost in a war that devastated a generation and left 31 million people dead, maimed or missing.

"I think about all my friends who never made it home. But it's too sad to think too much about it. Far too sad," he said.

Born in Dundee on 25 June 1896, he served for two years in the trenches, reaching the rank of sergeant by the time he was invalided out in 1916 after a shell exploded above his position, killing several of his comrades and leaving him with serious shrapnel wounds.

After the war he married Susan Iddison, a nanny from Ripon, North Yorkshire, whom he met while stationed with his regiment at Catterick in 1917. The couple moved to Scotland, where Mr Anderson took over his father's building and joinery business in Newtyle near Dundee. They brought up a family of six children. His wife died of a stroke, aged 83, in 1979.

Too old for active service in the Second World War, he helped to set up the Home Guard units and remained until the end of his life fiercely proud of his army service. In 1998 he was awarded France's highest honour, the Légion d'honneur, and was visited by the Prince of Wales two years ago after it emerged he had served as batman to Captain Fergus Bowes-Lyon, the late Queen Mother's brother, who was among 500 soldiers killed at the battle of Loos in 1915.

Mr Anderson, who always attributed his good health to being a non-smoker and drinking in moderation, is survived by four children, 10 grandchildren, 18 great-grandchildren and two great-great-grandchildren.