The First World War in 261 weeks

Meet all the characters of the Great War

026 Alfred Anderson and the match without a referee

Alfred Anderson

Alfred Anderson

Tommy and Fritz are having Christmas together

It is Sunday 20 December 1914. It is the 26th week after the shooting at Sarajevo.

In South Africa Boer leader Jopie Fourie is brought in front of a firing squad for high treason.

The Germans do not succeed in crossing the river Bzura in the heart of Poland.

At the end of the Battle of Givenchy the British hold their positions and the French advance towards Noyon.

News about a Romanian revolt in Transylvania appears.

Australian and New Zealand troops arrive in Cairo.

French commander-in-chief Joseph Joffre launches an offensive in the Champagne after the backwashing battle in Flanders.

An air raid on Dover is a reason for Lord Kitchener to expand the Royal Flying Corps.

The Turks try to penetrate the Caucasus at Sarikamish, after a defeat is inflicted upon them by the Russians at lake Van.

On the west coast of Africa the Portuguese colony of Angola is invaded by German troops.

As Austrian commanding officer on the Balkans Oskar Potiorek has to make way for Archduke Eugen.

And in numerous places on the western front the arms are silent at Christmas, which is an unforgettable event for the Scotsman Alfred Anderson.

In the pitch-darkness of the Great War a small flame flickered for just a moment. At Christmas 1914 the generals on both sides came and quickly blew it out. Men who climbed from their trenches to have a smoke together or play a game of soccer, the war had not started for that.

When the Scotsman Alfred Anderson dies at the age of 109 in 2005, nobody is left to  testify to the Christmas truce of 1914. Nobody is left who had heard the Germans sing ‘Stille Nacht, Heilige Nacht’, and who had heard the shouting: ‘Merry Christmas! We not shoot, you not shoot!’

For just a moment no bullets whistling. No machineguns rattling. No boys either calling out for their mothers, before they died for their country.  ‘I remember the silence’, Anderson would relate in his old age. ‘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.’

They would be at home before the leaves were falling. Or at least before Christmas. That had been promised. And they had believed it. But now it was Christmas and they could unwrap their Christmas bonuses in a trench, where the mud had become hard as concrete. It was a cold Christmas. The German emperor had sent a meerschaum pipe for his soldiers and a box of cigars for his officers. For the British there was a brass box containing a pipe, a lighter, cigarettes and tobacco. For the non-smokers there were some acid tablets, a khaki writing case and a bullet-shaped pencil. But the most important item in the boxes was the photograph of Princess Mary and her best wishes for the new victorious year.

On the box was also the portrait of Mary and the two words written over it for which the boys were suffering from the cold, ‘Imperium Brittannicum’. Mary was the 17-year-old daughter of King George V. Apparently it was her own idea to make a collection among the people for a national Christmas present for the troops. It was a resounding success, though they did not succeed in delivering the Princess Mary Box to each soldier. So after Christmas 1914 the production of it was continued, but the quality of the box was declining. The ammunition factories needed the brass. Besides, a shipment which was ordered in the United States went down with the Lusitania in May 1915.

Alfred Anderson cherished his Princess Mary Box like a gem all his life. In his box there were cigarettes, but as Alfred did not smoke, he gave them  away. Now the box was the place where he could keep the New Testament that his mother had given him.

No other episode has lent itself more for myth formation than the Christmas truce of 1914. Watching a film like ‘Merry Christmas’ from 2005 makes it difficult to keep your eyes dry. In this film the Christmas truce is spoiled by the romance of a German opera singer and his Danish diva. Alfred Anderson will not have been aware of this.

The story of gunner Herbert Smith is more credible. ‘On Christmas Eve there was a lull in the fighting, no firing going on at all after 6 p.m. The Germans had a Christmas tree in the trenches and Chinese lanterns all along the top of a parapet.Eventually the Germans started shouting, “Come over, I want to speak to you.” Our chaps hardly knew how to take this, but one of the ‘nuts’ belonging to the Regiment got out of the trench and started to walk towards the German lines. One of the Germans met him about half-way across, and they shook hands and became quite friendly. In due time the ‘nut’ came back and told the others all about it. So more of them took it in turns to go and visit the Germans. The officer commanding would not allow more than three men at a time. I went out myself on Christmas Day and exchanged some cigarettes for cigars, and this game had been going on from Christmas Eve till midnight on Boxing Day without a single round being fired. The German I met had been a waiter in London and could use our language a little. He says they didn’t want to fight and I think he was telling the truth as we are not getting half so many bullets as usual.’

Lieutenant Johannes Niemann of the 133rd Royal Saxon Regiment puts the Christmas truce into words as follows: ‘ I grabbed my binoculars and looking cautiously over the parapet saw the incredible sight of our soldiers exchanging cigarettes, schnapps and chocolate with the enemy. Later a Scottish soldier appeared with a football which seemed to come from nowhere and a few minutes later a real football match got underway.  The Scots marked their goal mouth with their strange caps and we did the same with ours.  It was far from easy to play on the frozen ground, but we continued, keeping rigorously to the rules, despite the fact that it only lasted an hour and that we had no referee.  A great many of the passes went wide, but all the amateur footballers, although they must have been very tired, played with huge enthusiasm.’  Niemann also says how shocked they were when they saw that the Scots wore nothing under their kilts and that it was their officer who ordered them to end the match after an hour. According to Niemann the final score was ‘three goals to two in favour of Fritz against Tommy’.

They had been friends for one day. A day that they played soccer together, drank, smoked and grieved together for the dead who were rotting away in no man’s land. There is the story of a funeral where Germans and British prayed psalm 23 together: ‘The Lord is my Shepherd.’ ‘Der Herr ist mein Hirte’. In some places the truce had arisen from the mutual need to bury the dead. It was only after fulfilling this sad duty that there was time for fraternisation and merriment.

The Christmas Truce of 1914 spread over large areas of the almost 700-kilometre-long western front, spontaneously. The Pope had called for a Christmas truce a few weeks earlier, but there was nobody who had directed this short-lived period of peace. Nobody had anticipated that a German barber was going to give a British officer a haircut in no man’s land. No impresario came to watch a show presented by a German magician, who had worked in the music halls of London before the war. Except for a few places it remained quiet until the turn of the year, but generally speaking the war just went on right after Christmas, as was arranged in various places. Besides, the mud was defrosting.

The generals learned their lessons from the Christmas Truce. It had taken a while before they finally became aware in their castles behind the front lines of the outrageous reconciliation between their soldiers and those of the enemy. In the following years they started to increase the fighting before Christmas in order to be ahead of new cordialities. A regular changing of the guards prevented contact with the antipodes past no man’s land.

The Christmas Truce of 1914 – for which the French felt far less enthusiasm in their own country than the British – did not repeat itself to such an extent in the Great War. Perhaps the mountain of dead bodies in later years had become too high to shake hands on the peak. Already in 1914 there had been soldiers who cried out against the reconciliation and who kept watch in the trenches while their comrades played soccer. One of these diehards was called Adolf Hitler.

A historian like David Stevenson places the Christmas Truce of 1914 in the context of military disobedience. Stevenson argues that silent truces along the western front were normal practice. No more firing than strictly necessary, sparing areas where the enemy carried off the wounded or replenished supplies, not disturbing breakfast on the other side with the thunder of guns, deliberately aiming too high – all this must have occurred on a large scale. And when a battalion had to go ‘over the top’, chaos was so big that soldiers could easily back out of orders. Stevenson writes: ‘Governments and high commands created the circumstances in which thousands of troops with merciless weaponry were obliged to kill and maim, but they cold not determine the speed and scale of carnage.’


Alfred Anderson backed out of the game of soccer. ‘We did not have a bit of energy left to play football, and we were exhausted by the fighting, by life in the trenches.’ And he continues: ‘We shouted ‘merry Christmas’, even though nobody felt merryThe silence ended in the early afternoon and the killing started again. It was a short peace in a terrible war.’

In 1916 the war had ended for Alfred Anderson. Shell fragments gave him his Blighty wound, something every soldier hoped for and some even tried to inflict upon themselves. It was a wound which was serious enough to allow you to go home. ‘Blighty’, a word of Hindu origin, meant something like ‘home sweet home’. When he was recovering at home, Anderson visited the relatives of a comrade who had been killed next to him in the trenches. They would not let him in. When he asked why he was not allowed in, the answer was: ‘Because you’re here and he’s not.’ This was in line with the soldier’s song that brilliantly expressed the meaninglessness of the Great War: ‘We’re here, because we’re here, because we’re here…’

The sense of guilt never stopped troubling Alfred Anderson. Shortly before he died he told a journalist of The Times: ‘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.’

In the Second World War Alfred Anderson served as a sergeant of the Home Guard. He even celebrated his diamond wedding anniversary and when he died he left four children, ten grandchildren, eighteen great-grandchildren and two great-great-grandchildren.

The French granted him the Légion d’Honneur, but Alfred was also the last person to bear the Mons Star, the special medal that was presented to the soldiers of the British Expeditionary Force, the contemptible little army, which had so bravely fought against the Germans at Mons in August 1914.

After his death Alfred’s children gave a bust of dad to the museum of the Black Watch, the army unit in which he served. The famous truce was never a merry story for him. ‘I’ll give Christmas Day 1914 a brief thought, as I do every year’, he once said. ‘And I’ll think about all my friends who never made it home. But it’s too sad to think too much about it. Far too sad’!

Next week: Enver Pasha

Tom Tacken (translation Peter Veltman)


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