The joke circulating social media shows a picture of George Washington crossing the Delaware River and then the caption, “America is so hard core they will murder you in your sleep on Christmas.” The joke is funny but it also shows how Christmas is often an ironic time when the rest of the world celebrates peace on Earth but armies still try to kill each other.
That is partly because of the logic behind war. Surprise is an often necessary element in order to win and holidays are a good time to do so. The North Vietnamese and Viet Cong attacked American forces during Tet, the Vietnamese New Year, which became known as the Tet Offensive. The Israelis were attacked by Egypt when many of their soldiers were on leave for the holiday of Yom Kippur, thus sparking the Yom Kippur War. George Washington had an army made of free soldiers whose short-term enlistments were ready to expire. He relied upon a sneak attack on Christmas night to gain a pivotal victory that ensured his men would re-enlist, and provided a much needed morale boost to the rebel cause.
The Americans tend to remember December 1941 for the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7th. But the British remember December 1941 for the stunning assault on their Far Eastern territories including Singapore and Hong Kong. The attacks started almost simultaneously with the bombardment on Pearl Harbor, but the British in Hong Kong had only 15,000 soldiers, mostly reservists from Indian units. They fought bravely and held out for 17 days, but they surrendered on Christmas Day 1941. When the Japanese captured St. Stephen’s College field hospital, they cruelly tortured and killed the injured soldiers there. Combined with the fall of the garrison, this is known as Black Christmas in British history. The attack on Singapore happened a few months later as the Japanese would quickly overwhelm much of Southeast Asia.
The French fell quickly in 1940, but they also had a famous Christmas attack the same year and same day as the Hong Kong massacre. The colonial governor of the islands in Newfoundland refused to work with the puppet Vichy government. On Christmas Eve a small task force under Admiral Émile Muselier stormed the island. They met little resistance and a few minutes after midnight they telegraphed from the central administrative building that the island was liberated for free France. This prevented the Germans from having an outpost deep in allied territory. It is uncertain how pivotal it could have been, but it was still a Christmas Day victory for France.
The Battle of the Bulge was perhaps the most ironically cruel battle. In the second half of 1944, there was a good deal of talk among the allies of being in Berlin by Christmas. Instead, the allies made it to the borders of Germany and the burned out American units were sent to a quiet sector for the holidays. They didn’t get a peaceful holiday and they directly absorbed a fierce offensive and a last gasp from Hitler. December 25th finally turned clear, which allowed allied airpower to provide much-needed assistance. Most soldiers spent the day freezing in a hastily made foxhole eating a frozen breakfast from their C-rations. The besieged soldiers in Bastonge reported that some soldiers froze to death while on sentry duty. The Americans would go on to win the battle and the war less than 6 months later, but that Christmas was rather miserable for the Americans.
This Christmas it’s important to remember our men and women serving around the world. But we can also be thankful they largely don’t have to be a part of combat operations like previous generations of soldiers.