Even today, the impact of the First World War remains fresh in our collective memory. ‘Heartwarming’ stories from those fighting on the Western Front in France and Belgium were always going to be thin on the ground. But one story which has now acquired the status of legend is the account of those unofficial, spontaneous ceasefires which took place during the week leading up to that first wartime Christmas of 1914. In what has become known as ‘The Christmas Truce’, troops from both the Allied and German sides crossed over “no man’s land” to shake hands, exchange gifts, sing carols and, in some places, play games of football.
This was not the way to win wars. For several days, news of these events was hushed up by an unofficial press embargo. Then on New Year’s Eve, The New York Times carried the story. As a newspaper in a neutral country, it was unaffected by any embargo and was perhaps more prepared to take one step back and view events with objectivity. Once the story was out – and rather surprisingly – the British newspapers followed with astonishing speed, publishing first-hand accounts from soldiers in the field, taken from letters home to their families. Most of the news media ran with the story.
But not Reuters.
Editors at the company’s Old Jewry headquarters in the City of London must have been well aware of the story – and that the story of the reporting of the story had become a story in itself. However, the self-styled “Newsagency of the British Empire” said nothing. Why?
The answer lay in its informal status. In 1914, as far as war-reporting was concerned, Reuters correspondents were still acting under the conventions of the 19th Century. They never forgot their semi-official status and also that – first and foremost – they were “British”. The Christmas Truce story was an oddity. Was it really showing the right degree of patriotism? Better to be on the safe side.
And there was more. For Reuters output during the First World War was heavily controlled by British Government censorship – to a degree denied for decades and only recently fully understood. From the start of the conflict, alongside its standard Reuters service, the agency ran an official service for the Department of Information. Nearly four years later, in 1918, when the British Government formed its Ministry of Information, Roderick Jones, Reuters Managing Director, became its Director of Propaganda as well as remaining Reuters MD. Stories of this kind were not calculated to stiffen morale and hatred of the enemy. Even if it had wanted to, Reuters would not have been allowed to publish the story.
Today we enjoy the privilege of hindsight. And things – as I have said before – have a way of coming round full circle. So when, in 2005, Alfred Anderson, the last survivor of that poignant and surreal Christmas of 1914, died at the age 109, Reuters was one of the first to issue the story. Written by journalist, Peter Graff, there were then living no more than three or four veterans of the trench warfare on the Western Front.
Today there are none, but the story remains of that long-ago Christmas when just for a few brief hours the expectations and hatreds of war were put aside.
Here is Peter’s 21st Century story:
Last UK witness of WWI Christmas truce dies at 109
By Peter Graff
21 November 2005
(c) 2005 Reuters Limited
LONDON, Nov 21 (Reuters) – The last known surviving allied veteran of the Christmas Truce that saw German and British soldiers shake hands between the trenches in World War One died on Monday at 109, his parish priest said.
Alfred Anderson was the oldest man in Scotland and the last known surviving Scottish veteran of the war.
“I remember the silence, the eerie sound of silence,” he was quoted as saying in the Observer newspaper last year, describing the day-long Christmas Truce of 1914, which began spontaneously when German soldiers sang carols in the trenches, and British soldiers responded in English.
“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 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.”
Troops in the trenches swapped cigarettes, uniform buttons and addresses and even played football in one of the most extraordinary episodes of the war.
Parish priest Neil Gardner of Anderson’s Alyth Parish Church in Scotland said he had died in his sleep and was survived by a large family, including 18 great grandchildren and two great great grandchildren.
“He was a wonderful old man: he was gracious, gentle, he had a great sense of humour and a fine sense of wisdom from his experience spanning three centuries,” said Gardner, who also served as chaplain to Anderson’s regiment, the Black Watch.
Anderson also served briefly as a member of the household staff of Queen Elizabeth’s uncle, Fergus Bowes-Lyon.
With Anderson’s death, fewer than 10 British veterans of the war remain alive, of whom only three or four were veterans of trench warfare on the Western Front.
Attention has turned to the last survivors in recent weeks, with filmmakers bringing out documentaries in time for this month’s Armistice Day holiday, marking the day the guns fell silent on Nov. 11, 1918.