The last known survivor of no-man’s-land football died on July 22nd, 2001, aged 106.
OLD soldiers, they say, never die, they only fade away. Bertie Felstead was an exception. The older he was, the more famous he became. He was over 100 years old, and had long been ensconced in a nursing home in Gloucester, when he was awarded the French Légion d’Honneur by President Jacques Chirac. He was over 105 when he became the oldest man in Britain. And by then he was even more famous as the sole survivor of the spontaneous Christmas truces that occurred on the western front during the first world war. Few wartime events are the subject of so much controversy and myth.
Mr Felstead, a Londoner and at the time a market gardener, volunteered for service in 1915. Later in that same year he took part in the second, and last, of the Christmas truces while stationed near the village of Laventie in northern France. He was then a private in the Royal Welch Fusiliers, the regiment of Robert Graves, the author of one of the most powerful books about that war, “Goodbye to All That”. As Mr Felstead remembered it, the peace overture came on Christmas Eve from enemy lines. Soldiers there sang, in German, the Welsh hymn “Ar Hyd y Nos”. Their choice of hymn was taken as a much-appreciated acknowledgment of the nationality of the regiment opposing them in trenches about 100 metres away, and the Royal Welch Fusiliers responded by singing “Good King Wenceslas”.
After a night of carol singing, Mr Felstead recalled, feelings of goodwill had so swelled up that at dawn Bavarian and British soldiers clambered spontaneously out of their trenches. Shouting such greetings as “Hello Tommy” and “Hello Fritz” they at first shook hands in no-man’s-land, and then presented one another with gifts. German beer, sausages and spiked helmets were given, or bartered, in return for bully beef, biscuits and tunic buttons.
A different ball game
The game they played was, Mr Felstead recalled, a rough sort of soccer. “It wasn’t a game as such, more a kick-around and a free-for-all. There could have been 50 on each side for all I know. I played because I really liked football. I don’t know how long it lasted, probably half an hour.” Then, as another of the Fusiliers remembered it, the fun was brought to a stop by a British sergeant-major ordering his men back into the trenches and gruffly reminding them that they were there “to fight the Huns, not to make friends with them”.
This intervention has helped sustain the vulgar Marxist myth, relayed for instance in the musical “Oh, What a Lovely War!”, that the ordinary soldiers on both sides longed only for a comradely peace and were excited or compelled to fight by jingoistic officers pursuing their class interest. In fact, officers on both sides started several of the Christmas truces in 1915 and of the much wider truces in 1914. After parleying to agree the terms of the ceasefires, most officers mingled with the enemy just as keenly as their men did.
In his account of the truces, Robert Graves explained why. “[My battalion] never allowed itself to have any political feelings about the Germans. A professional soldier’s duty was simply to fight whomever the King ordered him to fight…The Christmas 1914 fraternisation, in which the Battalion was among the first to participate, had had the same professional simplicity: no emotional hiatus, this, but a commonplace of military tradition—an exchange of courtesies between officers of opposing armies.”
According to Bruce Bairnsfather, one of the most popular soldier-writers of the first world war, the Tommies were just as hardheaded. There was, he wrote, not an atom of hate on either side during these truces, “and yet, on our side, 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 many British contemporary accounts of the truces help scotch another myth: that the authorities kept all knowledge of fraternisation from the public at home lest it damage morale. Popular British newspapers and magazines printed photographs and drawings of German and British soldiers celebrating Christmas together in no-man’s-land.
It is true, however, that the Christmas truces were not repeated in the later years of the war. By 1916 and 1917 the relentless slaughter of a war of attrition had so deepened enmity on both sides that friendly meetings in no-man’s-land were all but unthinkable, even at Christmas.
Mr Felstead was among the doughtiest of the Tommies. He returned home for hospital treatment after being wounded in the battle of the Somme in 1916 but recovered sufficiently to qualify again for service overseas. He was sent to Salonika, where he caught acute malaria and then, after a further spell of recuperation in Blighty, served out the final months of the war in France.
After being demobbed, he led a comparatively dull, respectable life. Only longevity put an end to his obscurity. Writers and journalists clamoured to interview, and celebrate, a participant in a legendary truce whose life eventually stretched across three centuries. He told them that all Europeans, including the British and the Germans, should be friends.