Guardian Friday 3 August 2001
Last survivor of a famous first world Christmas Truce
In 1998, some 80 years after the
armistice that ended the first world war, the French government, in a
gracious and imaginative gesture, awarded the small band of British
survivors the Legion díHonneur. Among the recipients was Bertie Felstead,
then a lively centenarian living in a Gloucestershire nursing home, and the
last surviving participant in the famous Christmas truce of 1915, when
British and German forces laid down their weapons and fraternised in
By his own admission, Felstead, who
has died aged 106, was an "average" man. Born in London, he was 20
when war broke in August 1914. He had no idea what horrors the next four
years would bring, nor could he have foreseen the extent to which the
enterprise on which he had embarked would change, irrevocably, the world
into which he had been born.
Having no particular preference as
to regiment, Felstead made his choice by walking through the first door
he came to inside the London recruiting office. So he found himself in the
15th (London Welsh) Battalion, Royal Welch Fusiliers, which eventually
numbered 42 battalions, mostly recruited from rural areas, and was to lose
nearly 10,000 men in the conflict.
Felstead went to France in 1915,
and, on Christmas Eve that year, found himself in a freezing trench near the
village of Laventie in northern France.
Much has been written about
Christmas Day 1914, and the unofficial truce that took place at various
points along the frontline. During the course of the day, officers and men
from both sides climbed out of their trenches and crossed into no-manís
land to exchange greetings. The writer Henry Williamson, then serving as a
private in the London Rifle Brigade, recorded that gifts were passed across
Many years later, talking about his
own experience of a similar truce in 1915, Felstead recalled that the sound
of German soldiers singing
Silent Night, barely 100 yards away,
encouraged the British to respond with Good King Wenceslas. The following
day, there was an impromptu kick-about with a football.
This seasonal fraternisation
apparently went on for about half an hour, until brought to an abrupt end by
a furious British officer, who ordered his men back to the trenches, telling
them. in no uncertain terms, the brutal truth of their situation. namely
that they were there "to kill the Hun, not make friends with him".
There were other spontaneous truces
along the frontline, but, after 1915, they did not reoccur because, by the
following Christmas, few British soldiers had the stomach for them. In the
intervening period, the British army suffered its worst casualties in a
single day, losing nearly 60,000 men on the opening day in Battle of the
Somme on July 1 1916.
Felstead was seriously wounded
during that battle, and was eventually shipped home
to England. The following year, he was posted to Salonika, from where he was
eventually invalided home with a serious bout of malaria. Demobilised in
1919, he went to work as a civilian at R.A.F Uxbridge, later moving to a job
with the General Electric Company.
In an interview two years before his
death, Felstead made a telling comment which explained why the military
authorities reacted so strongly against friendly contact with the enemy.
Recalling the carols, sung in the trenches on Christmas Eve, he said:
"You couldn't hear each other sing like that without it affecting your
feelings for the other side?"
Felsteadís wife, Alice, to whom he
was married for 65 years, died in 1983. He is survived by two of his three
daughters and by 18 grandchildren, great grandchildren and great great
Bertie Felstead, soldier,
born October28 1894; died July22 2001
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