The odds are pretty good that you’ve never heard of Bertie Felstead. And yet, when he died in 2001, the New York Times, the Economist and many British newspapers published articles about his life.
Most folks who get famous do it when they’re young. Then they fade from view and we hear about them again only when they finally die. Bertie Felstead was just the opposite.
For most of his life, no one thought much about him, but he picked up notice as he aged. When he was over 100 years old, living in a nursing home, he was awarded the Legion of Honor by French President Jacque Chirac. In 1999 he was included in a book about the one hundred most significant living Britons.
Mr. Felstead was not a world leader, or a literary figure, or an entertainer, or a politician. He led a mostly ordinary life as a civilian storekeeper for the Air Force until he retired. What made him famous was that he became the last living survivor of one of the legendary events of the First World War, the spontaneous Christmas Truces.
The first of the truces came in 1914, the first year of that war to end all wars. On Christmas Eve, all along the Western Front, British and Welsh and French and German soldiers put down their weapons and exchanged gifts and songs and talk for a few short hours.
Bertie wasn’t part of that truce. He volunteered for service in 1915, joining the Royal Welsh Fusiliers, the regiment of Robert Graves. And he was there on the Western Front at Christmas of that year when the soldiers simply quit fighting for the second and last time.
In front of his unit, the truce began with the Germans singing “All Through the Night,” a beloved Welsh song. The Welsh Fusiliers responded with “Good King Wenceslas.” Then they all sang “Silent Night,” together, in harmony and in two different languages.
On Christmas morning, the soldiers approached each other cautiously in No Man’s Land. They mingled and exchanged gifts and greetings, bartered for souvenirs and began an impromptu soccer game. Years later, Mr. Felstead said, “It wasn’t a game as such – more of a kick-around and free-for-all. There could have been fifty on each side for all I know. No one was keeping score.”
The game and the fraternization ended when a British Sergeant Major arrived on the scene, bellowing “You came out to fight the Huns, not make friends with them!” Not every officer or NCO felt that way, though. In some places it was the officers who initiated the truce.
The truces took slightly different shape in different places. Sometimes it was initiated by the Germans, sometimes by the English. In some places there was a soccer game, in others not. But there are a few inaccurate stories that seem to keep popping up.
One holds that stories about the truces were kept from the public back home. But pictures and stories appeared in both English and German newspapers. Coverage went on for over a month in Britain, under headlines like “Extraordinary Unofficial Armistice.”
Another myth is that the soldiers had to be forced to fight after the truces. But the evidence doesn’t support that. The soldiers involved in the truces on both sides fought as hard and honorably after the truces as before. A soldier of the time, Bruce Bairnsfather, put it this way, “Not for a moment was the will to win the war and the will to beat them relaxed. It was just like the interval between the rounds in a friendly boxing match.”
The Christmas Truces are immortalized, somewhat inaccurately, by John McCutcheon in his wonderful song, “Christmas in the Trenches.” They’re worth thinking about in these days when young men with weapons search for other young men with weapons and try to kill them first. They’re worth thinking about when some celebrate the birth of the Prince of Peace with gunfire and explosions, instead of joy and prayer and singing. And they’re worth thinking about when we are divided in so many ways, like troops in separate trenches.
Here, then, are the closing words from McCutcheon’s song.
“My name is Francis Tolliver, in Liverpool I dwell.
Each Christmas come since World War I, I’ve learned its lessons well.
That the ones who call the shots won’t be among the dead and lame
And on each end of the rifle we’re the same”
Here’s a pointer to another song about the truces, “Christmas 1915.” by Celtic Thunder