For the most part, we look at Christmas as a holiday for peace and family gatherings. Unfortunately, Christmas and other holidays are times during wars that some use to push their battles and strategies.
“Forget Christmas truces. In most conflicts, hostilities continued largely unabated over the holidays. In some cases, fighting even intensified.”
The Christmas Truce that took place along Western Front during the Great War’s first December has long fascinated the public.
The impromptu holiday ceasefire famously saw British and German troops along some stretches of the front lines suspend hostilities and, according to some accounts, even briefly meet in “No Man’s Land” to shake hands, chat and swap rations.
“We are having the most extraordinary Christmas Day imaginable,” wrote one English Tommy. “A sort of un-arranged and quite unauthorized but perfectly understood and scrupulously observed truce exists between us and our friends in front.”
Of course, part of what makes the Christmas Truce of 1914 so poignant is its rareness in the annals of warfare. In most other conflicts, hostilities continued largely unabated over the holidays, and in some cases, fighting even intensified. Consider these famous battles that were fought during Christmastime.
Washington’s Christmas surprise
One of the most celebrated moments of the American Revolution unfolded on Dec. 25, 1776.
Just after dark on Christmas Day, an army of 2,400 Continentals under the command of George Washington crossed the frigid Delaware River to surprise a party of Hessian troops quartered downstream at Trenton, New Jersey.
After landing undetected on the hostile shore, the rebels marched all night in freezing rain to reach their objective. At daybreak, the soaked and shivering attackers quickly overpowered the German mercenaries, many of who were still nursing hangovers from the previous evening’s revelry. More than 1,000 enemy troops were captured in the brief skirmish.
The victory, although minor in military terms, served as a major morale boost to the flagging cause of independence.
Although George Washington’s men spent their Christmas night crossing the Delaware River, their defeat of the Hessians at Trenton the next morning made for a very happy New Year.
Blood in the snow
There were very few Christmas truces during the American Civil War. Consider the following:
In December 1862, the dashing Confederate cavalry commander John Hunt Morgan used the holiday season to launch his famous Christmas Raid into Kentucky. The campaign saw Rebel horsemen savage Union supply convoys, destroy bridges, and fight a series of skirmishes against Yankee troops.
Two years later, the holidays were again marred by the North’s attempt to seize Fort Fisher, a vital stronghold guarding the strategic port of Wilmington, North Carolina. The fortress, which was known as the “Gibraltar of the Confederacy,” bristled with 15 heavy cannon and a monster breech-loading 150-pounder known as an Armstrong Gun.
Beginning on Dec. 23, a flotilla of 60 Yankee gunboats pulverized the garrison with a 10,000-shell bombardment. The fleet even attempted to run a fire ship laden with 200 tons of explosives aground near the garrison’s walls. Next came an amphibious assault by Union troops under the command of Benjamin Butler. Unfortunately for the North, a freak winter storm scattered the landing force and the whole expedition had to be postponed to the New Year.
While the disaster put a damper on the holidays for many in the Union, on Dec. 25, spirits rebounded as word reached Washington that the Southern city of Savannah had fallen. Three days earlier, William Tecumseh Sherman had sent a telegram to the White House declaring that the captured city was his Christmas present for President Lincoln.
No peace on Earth
During the Second World War, neither the Allies nor the Axis paid much attention to Christmas as these incidents illustrate:
On Dec. 25, 1939, Soviet troops launched a pre-dawn assault on Finnish positions on the Suvanto River. While initially, the attack made progress, the defenders unleashed a torrent of artillery onto the Red Army, grinding the offensive to a halt.
The following Christmas saw a running fight in the mid-Atlantic between the German cruiser Admiral Hipper and the escorts of an Allied convoy. The action began early on Dec. 25, 1940, when the German vessel steamed out of the gloom to shell a troop ship. Sixteen were killed before the raider was driven off by HMS Berwick and the carriers Argus and Furious. While retreating eastwards, the Admiral Hipper crossed paths with the cargo vessel SS Jumna. The German warship crippled the transport leaving more than 110 survivors bobbing in the freezing ocean. All perished.
On Christmas Day 1941, the beleaguered 12,000-man British garrison on Hong Kong finally surrendered to the Japanese. The capitulation capped 17 days of fierce fighting that resulted in the deaths of 2,000 Allied troops and 3,000 civilians. The defeat, which ushered in a brutal four-year occupation marked by widespread murder and rape, is still remembered as the “Black Christmas” in Hong Kong.
There was no holiday respite in 1942 for Germans surrounded in Stalingrad either. With supplies nearly exhausted, the starving Axis troops were forced to slaughter their own horses for meat. As many as 12,000 animals were butchered and eaten.
On Christmas of 1944, Hitler’s 11-day old Ardennes Offensive was finally running out of steam. A turning point came on Dec. 25, when British and American troops halted the 2nd Panzer Division on the banks of the Meuse River. While the German onslaught had penetrated 60 miles into Allied territory, the Third Reich had lost 3,500 men and more than 400 vehicles. Three days later, Berlin called off the attack. Within 130 days, the war would be over.
Christmas: 1914 to 1918
While British Tommies and German soldiers in Flanders famously lay down their weapons for Christmas in 1914, elsewhere the fighting continued.
On Dec. 24 of that year, Germany mounted its second ever air raid on Great Britain. The first, which took place only 72 hours earlier, saw a lone Friedrichshafen FF.29 seaplane strike a navy pier at Dover, England. Fortunately for those on the ground, the small bombs fell short of their target and plunged harmlessly into the water. On Christmas Eve day, a follow-up raid was conducted. Although this mission also failed, this time the ordnance landed on the shore marking the first time in history that an enemy bomb had struck British soil.
On Christmas Day 1914, seven Royal Navy seaplanes launched from ships in the North Sea struck a series of targets at Cuxhaven, near the German port of Wilhelmshaven. Despite poor visibility, the raid caused light damage to various harbor facilities. What’s more, all the aircraft returned safely and were hoisted back aboard their vessels.
The following year’s was also marked by violence. On Dec. 24, 1915, Ottoman troops besieging the Iraqi city of Kut launched a night attack against the British and Indian perimeter. The garrison withstood the holiday assault, but finally capitulated in April of 1916.
December of 1916 saw heavy fighting on the Eastern Front between German and Russian forces north of Riga. On Dec. 23 of that year, two Latvian brigades launched a daring attack on elements of the Kaiser’s 8th Army in what became known as the Christmas Battle. As many as 40,000 troops supported by 200 guns stormed the German lines. More than 10,000 died in the week-long offensive. The battlefield is now a historic site in Latvia, complete with monuments, restored trenches and even a museum.
Nixon’s “Christmas Bombings”
Peace between North Vietnam and the United States seemed as elusive as ever as 1972 drew to a close. Yet President Richard Nixon hoped to force a speedy conclusion to the stalled negotiations with his controversial 1972 Christmas Bombing campaign on Hanoi.
Codenamed Operation Linebacker II, the mammoth air assault saw the communist capital pounded by more than 200 B-52 Stratofortresses and 2,000 strike aircraft for 11 days beginning on Dec. 18.
In all, more than 20,000 tons of bombs were dropped on the city, making it one of the largest air campaigns in history. Tough defenses claimed nearly 20 U.S. warplanes over the course of the battle. In fact, Vietnamese resistance was so stiff, many American aircrews refused to fly their missions. The bombing raids, which resulted in the deaths of at least 1,600 civilians, drew worldwide condemnation, with some comparing them to genocide. Yet despite the backlash, Hanoi returned to the bargaining table in the New Year and by Jan. 27, 1973, the two nations had reached an accord.
Harold B. Wolford is president of the Vietnam Veterans of America Chapter 1095. He served in the United States Army from 1970 to 1973.