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Alfred Anderson, 109; Last Survivor of World War I's 'Christmas Truce' in 1914

November 22, 2005|From Associated Press

Alfred Anderson, believed to be the last surviving soldier to have heard the guns fall silent along the Western Front during the spontaneous "Christmas Truce" of World War I, died Monday. He was 109.

His parish priest, the Rev. Neil Gardner, said Anderson died in his sleep early Monday at a nursing home in Newtyle, Scotland. His death leaves fewer than 10 veterans of World War I alive in Britain.

More than 80 years after the war, Anderson recalled the "eerie sound of silence" as the shooting stopped and soldiers clambered from trenches to greet one another on Dec. 25, 1914.

Born June 25, 1896, Anderson was an 18-year-old soldier in the Black Watch regiment when British and German troops cautiously emerged from the trenches that day. The enemies swapped cigarettes and tunic buttons, sang carols and even played soccer amid the mud, barbed wire and shell-holes of no man's land.

The informal truce spread along much of the 500-mile Western Front, in some cases lasting for days -- alarming army commanders who feared fraternization would sap the troops' will to fight. The next year brought the start of vast battles of attrition that claimed 10 million lives, and the Christmas truce was never repeated.

"I remember the silence, the eerie sound of silence," Anderson told Britain's Observer newspaper 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," said Anderson, who was billeted in a French farmhouse behind the front lines.

"But there was a dead silence that morning, right across the land as far as you could see. We shouted 'Merry Christmas,' even though nobody felt merry. The silence ended early in the afternoon and the killing started again. It was a short peace in a terrible war."

During the war, Anderson served briefly as valet to Capt. Fergus Bowes-Lyon, brother of the Queen Mother Elizabeth. Bowes-Lyon was killed at the Battle of Loos in 1915.

Prince Charles said he was "deeply saddened" by Anderson's death and recalled meeting him several times.

"We should not forget him, and the others of his generation who have given so much for their country," the heir to the British throne said.

Anderson fought in France until 1916, when he was wounded by shrapnel from an explosion that killed several of his colleagues.

After his discharge, he married Susan Iddison, an English nanny. They moved to Scotland, where Anderson took over his father's building business in Newtyle. They were married for more than 50 years before Susan Anderson died of complications from a stroke in 1979. She was 83.

Gardner said Anderson "was quite philosophical about his wartime experiences." Anderson himself said he tried to put them out of his mind.

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

In 1998, he was awarded France's Legion of Honor for his war service

Anderson is survived by four children, 10 grandchildren, 18 great-grandchildren and two great-great-grandchildren.

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