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Passing from memory into history

02 November 2006


Paul Vallely marks the death of the last survivor of the Christmas Truce of 1914

From the top of the bookshelves in my living room dangle the long, waxy-leafed tendrils of a hoya plant. It is the only pot-plant I have managed to keep alive for 30 years — and for a reason.

When I was a young reporter, I went to interview a doddery First World War veteran. Before I met him, I boned up on the war, and learned that eight million men were killed and 21 million wounded. But the statistics were hollow until he told me that of his regiment, the Bradford Pals, 1700 were killed or injured in just the first hour of the Battle of the Somme in 1916. Only a handful returned.

I am ashamed to say I have forgotten the man’s name. But I will never forget the stories he told me. Nor his account of how, years later, he went to revisit the field of battle, and saw there, growing among the graves, and nurtured by the blood of his fallen comrades, a hoya plant — flourishing and in heavy-scented flower.

He picked a leaf from it and put it inside his spectacles case. Idly, on his return, he popped it into potting compost, and, amazingly, it rooted. From the luxuriant plant that grew, he potted off a number of cuttings. He gave me one. Not long after, he died.

I looked at my plant again on Monday, when the news came through that the last known veteran of the Christmas Truce — in which British and German soldiers exchanged handshakes and gifts in No Man’s Land — had died. Alfred Anderson was 109, and the oldest man in Scotland. He had been 18 when he woke beneath that beautiful, cloudless, perfect blue sky, with the ground hard and white, and a thin low-lying mist over the distant woods, on Christmas morning in 1914. The guns had not fired. And, in the dead silence, he heard the shout of "Merry Christmas!"

The story is told usually told now with the romantic sentimental tinge of myth. But it was real enough in more than one place along the Western Front, as it ran south from the infamous Ypres salient for 27 miles to the La Bassée Canal. In some locations, it sprang out of truces to allow the collection of the dead. When opposing burial parties met, they shook hands. At one funeral, soldiers from both sides gathered and read a passage from the 23rd Psalm. Elsewhere, it began when the Germans erected little Christmas trees, with candles clamped to their branches, which had been sent as a morale-booster from home, and the two sides began to sing carols back at one another.

The men emerged from their trenches, to talk and exchange gifts from the Christmas tins they had received from home. Famously, they played football. Scots troops took on Saxons (the Germans won 3-2). The odd British officer had a sly look at the layout of the enemy trenches, but, for most, it was a moment of surreal fraternity.

In January 1915, the British newspapers were full of details of the exchanges, after soldiers wrote home and their letters were passed on to the local paper. In many sectors, the truces lasted through the night, and even for several days, producing a change in atmosphere that the generals took care to ensure should never happen again. In the years that followed, they ordered Christmas Day bombardments.

With the death of Alfred Anderson, those events have passed from memory into history. Something that was remembered becomes merely written. The affirmation of a man’s identity is transmuted into an abstraction. With an ineffable sadness, the present slips through our fingers. In the night skies around us, another little light flickers out. Above the door of Alfred Anderson’s family home in Perthshire, his Black Watch cap, with its famous red hackle, will no longer hang in its proud place. My hoya will need watering.

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