Alfred Anderson died last month at the very ripe old age of 109.
But it was not the Scotsman’s many years that made him remarkable at the end of his long life. It was that, to his last days, he well recalled participating in the Christmas Truce of 1914 — that brief respite from the carnage of World War I that saw soldiers of both sides in the conflict lay down their arms, climb out of their trenches and celebrate together along the 500-mile Western Front.
Anderson was the last surviving old soldier known to have participated in what he would refer to in his later years as “a short peace in a terrible war.”
That peace, which was initiated not by presidents or prime ministers, but by the soldiers themselves, serves to this day as a reminder that war is seldom so necessary — nor so unstoppable — as politicians would have us believe.
So it comes as no surprise that the Christmas Truce of 1914 is a bit of history that many in power have neglected over the past 90 years.
But Anderson’s long survival, and his clear memory, made it impossible to write this chapter out of history.
On December 25, 1914, Anderson was an 18-year-old soldier serving with 5th Battalion, Black Watch, of the British Army, one of the first to engage in the bloody trench warfare that was the ugliest manifestation of a war that claimed 31 million lives. But on that day, there was no violence.
Rather, Anderson recalled in an interview on the 90th anniversary of the truce, “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 calls of “Merry Christmas” from the Brits were answered by Germans singing: “Stille Nacht. Heilige Nacht. Alles Schlaft, einsam wacht.”
The Brits responded by singing “Silent Night” in English. Then, from the trenches opposite them, climbed a German soldier who held a small tree lit with candles and shouted in broken English, “Merry Christmas. We not shoot. You not shoot.”
Thus, began the Christmas Truce. Soldiers of both armies — more than a million in all — climbed from the trenches along the Western Front to exchange cigarettes and military badges. They even played soccer, using the helmets they had taken off as goalposts. And they did not rush to again take up arms. Along some stretches of the Front, the truce lasted into January of 1915.
Finally, distant commanders forced the fighting to begin anew.
Thus, it has ever been with war. As George McGovern, the decorated World War II veteran who would become one of America’s greatest champions of peace, “old men (are always) thinking up wars for young men to die in.”
But Alfred Anderson remembered, well beyond the century of two world wars and too many lesser conflicts, that the young men of opposing armies often have more in common with one another than they do with the old men who send them into battle.
Once, on a Christmas Day that ought not be forgotten, the young men decided to make a short peace in a terrible war.
The memory of the courage of those who chose, however briefly, to see the humanity in one another, and to lay down the arms of one of the most brutal wars this planet has ever seen, offers hope this weekend, as Christians mark the birth of the Nazarene who was called Prince of Peace. Perhaps, someday, we will make a Christmas truce that lasts not merely through the hours of good cheer on this Holiday but the whole year long.