In the early hours of 21st November 2005, Alfred Anderson, the oldest British veteran of the Great War, the last of "the Old Contemptibles", the last known holder of the Mons Star and the last Allied witness of the 1914 Christmas Truce, died peacefully in his sleep, aged 109.
Alfred Anderson was born at 6am on 25th June 1896 at Dundee (02W58, 56N30). His father was a joiner, a trade Alfred would adopt also. His parents, although both from the Dundee area, had married in Chicago and their first two children had been born in the USA. The family appears to have returned to Scotland in the early 1890s.
In 1912 at the age of 16, Alfred joined the Territorial Army, lured largely by the TA's summer camps. But at 7pm on 3rd August 1914, it was announced from London that Britain was at war with Germany, and Alfred was sent to France with the Angus & Dundee Battalion of the Black Watch. Like many of the other young men, he thought he was off on an adventure and that it would all be over by Christmas.
He served at the Western Front until the Spring of 1916 when he was injured in the neck and was returned to Britain. He continued to serve in the Army as an instructor, eventually becoming a Staff Sergeant. Prior to his injury he had served briefly as batman to Captain Fergus Bowes-Lyon, the brother of the Lady Elizabeth, later HM The Queen Mother. In Yorkshire he met his bride, Susie Iddison, whom he married on 2nd June 1917.
During the Second World War, he answered the call of duty yet again and served in the Home Guard. Throughout his life he remained very involved with the British Legion. In 1998 France awarded him and other veterans the Legion d’Honneur, in recognition of their services.
Alfred was described as having "something old-worldly about him - he was honourable, dignified and had a tremendously droll sense of humour. He always stood erect and was always immaculately turned out." He recalled the 1914 Christmas Truce thus:
"I remember the silence, the eerie sound of silence. Only the guards were on duty. We all went outside the farm buildings and just stood listening. And, of course, thinking of people back home. All I’d heard for two months in the trenches was the hissing, cracking and whining of bullets in flight, machinegun fire and distant German voices. “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."
The unofficial truce broke out at several points along the Western Front, starting and ending at sevaral times. A useful geographic midpoint for any chart is Armentieres, Nord-Pas-de-Calais, France (02E53, 50N41).
One story is that the sounds of "Stille Nacht, Heilige Nacht" were heard from the German side at 7.30pm on Christmas Eve, followed by an offer to stop shooting. Another is that a ceasefire was arranged on Christmas Day so that each side might collect its dead from No Man's Land, followed by the troops slipping out of each side's trenches to exchange gifts and to hold an impromptu international football game or two. Another tale, told by an officer of the Welsh Fusiliers, is that at 8.30am on Boxing Day, he and his corresponding German officer saluted each other, returned to their trenches, fired their pistols three times into the air - and the war resumed its relentless grind through another four years and millions of casualties.