I was just talking about this event, the "Christmas Truce" of 1914, the other day with students, seeing it as the last spontaneous holdover of one of medieval Christendom's features that now seems almost more the stuff of fiction: religious rules governing political warfare, particularly "God's Truce," where on certain feast days, combatants were forbidden to fight. As a kid, I remember seeing these old men, these veterans, driven through the crowds on the 4th of July parades, and thinking how distant and irrelevant The Great War--World War I--appeared, since I was all crazy about histories of World War II. Only as I really began to formally study history did I begin to realize the almost unimaginable weight
of World War I on the minds and heart of its generation. We think of WWII as being the war where the doctrine of "Total War" came into its own, where the bombing of civilians--in Warsaw, London, then Dresden and Hiroshima--became accepted as part of the ethic of warfare. But I think perhaps the culture really changed there in 1914, when it was determined that nothing like the Christmas Truce would happen again. It always moves me, as an historian, when the last eyewitness to some event or generation dies, and that kind of oral access to a history comes to an end. I thought it well worth noting here in the journal.
One of Britain's Last WWI Vets Dies at 109
Nov 21, 3:03 PM (ET)
By JILL LAWLESS
LONDON (AP) - Alfred Anderson, 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 at age 109. More than 80 years after the war, Anderson recalled the "eerie sound of silence" as shooting stopped and soldiers clambered from trenches to greet one another Dec. 25, 1914.
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.
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 Christmas Day in 1914. 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 The 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 batman - or 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 a shell. In 1998, he was awarded France's Legion of Honor for his war service.
Anderson was Scotland's oldest man. The country's First Minister, Jack McConnell, said he "represented the generation of young Scots who fought in the First World War, and endured unimaginable horrors."
"Many of them made the ultimate sacrifice for their country and we must never forget what they have given to us."
Lt. Col. Roddy Riddell, regimental secretary of the Black Watch, said Anderson's death marked "the end of the epoch."
"The entire regiment is in mourning and we are all the sadder for his passing," he said.
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 later years, Anderson spoke often of the guilt he felt over the loss of friends and comrades.
"I felt so guilty meeting the families of friends who were lost," he told The Times newspaper this month. "They looked at me as if I should have been left in the mud of France instead of their loved one. I couldn't blame them, they were grieving, and I still share their grief and bear that feeling of guilt."
Anderson is survived by four children, 10 grandchildren, 18 great-grandchildren and two great-great-grandchildren. Funeral details were not immediately available.