When the words ‘Christmas’ and ‘battle’ are placed next to each other, we may think of shell-shocked British and German troops putting down their rifles to enjoy a game of footy in frosty no-man's land.
But for many soldiers in history, Christmas day was to become the worst day of their lives or even their last. In the line of duty, they traded gifts for artillery shells, baubles for bullets, and the only Christmas feast was whatever was left over in their field rations.
Let us go over the bloodiest conflicts ever to take place on Christmas day, in remembrance of those soldiers who sacrificed festive joy for duty.
1: George Washington crosses the Delaware
As British Colonel Rall feasted with his officers on a dark, frosty night on 25th December 1776 they must have felt entirely safe from the winter winds that screeched outside the shuttered windows. Little did they know of the much greater threat looming on the other side of the Delaware.
Unbeknownst to the Hessian (German mercenaries in service to Britain) forces in the small town of Trenton, New Jersey, over two thousand American rebels sought passage over the vast and partially frozen Delaware river. They were led by the infamous turncoat, George Washington.
While Imperial forces feasted, drank and gambled the day away, the American troops spent their Christmas braving the freezing weather and choppy waters, transporting men, horses and artillery guns across the vicious river. After 12 hours of perilous crossing, the rebel army was ready to strike.
The Hessian forces were only able to put up a feeble defence, outnumbered by the determined rebels. By the end of the 26th of December, 22 Imperial soldiers lay dead, 83 were wounded and around 900 were captured. In comparison, two Americans died of the cold and five were wounded.
It was a small battle, but a gift to the beleaguered rebels as it sparked a turning point in the American Revolution. Only seven years later peace was signed, and the fledgling rebellion became one of the most powerful nations of its age. Now talk about a Christmas miracle.
2: Jamaican ‘Christmas Rebellion’ of 1831
Staying on the topic of rebellion we move to the fairer climes of Jamaica. What may now be an ideal Christmas getaway for some was, at that time, a colony of the British Empire and home to as many as 300,000 enslaved people.
Under the leadership of Baptist priest Samuel Sharpe, 60,000 slaves orchestrated a general strike for greater freedoms and wages from their enslavers on 25th December 1831. What began as a non-violent strike was quickly met with reprisals and exploded into violence from 27th December onwards.
What followed were days of brutal fighting between colonial forces and the enslaved that culminated in the Jamaican Maroons, who were themselves freed slaves, being called on to aid in quelling the rebellion.
Around 500 rebels were killed, 207 of which were killed in the fighting and the rest were executed after its suppression. The brutality shown to the rebel slaves was largely influential in Parliament’s decision to abolish slavery within the Empire in 1833.
3: The Christmas Battles 1916
Finally, we’ll end on the bloodiest battle fought over the holiday period, those being the Christmas Battles fought between Russia and Germany in 1916.
In the freezing forests of Riga, Latvia, German forces entrenched themselves in the rock-solid soil, awaiting the oncoming advance of Russian Imperial Forces. The snowstorm was about to play host to a storm of artillery fire.
On the morning of 23rd December (according to the Julian calendar) the first wave of Latvian riflemen in the service of the Russian Tsar met the German defences head-on. The Germans were surprised, as they had believed the Imperial forces would be celebrating Christmas. But there were to be no shared carols or footy matches on this battleground.
The German lines were pushed further and further back by dogged Latvian assaults, though this advance came at the cost of thousands of soldiers’ lives, many dying from frostbite in the -35°C snowstorm. Still, the Christmas offensive was considered a success.
That was, until the Germans returned the Russians’ gift with a counterattack of their own, reclaiming most of the land the Russian-Latvian forces had fought desperately to take with light casualties.
In the end, all that Russian general Radko Dimitriev gave to his country that Christmas was over 40,000 fallen soldiers, while over 6000 Germans lay dead in the snow. This battle serves as a snapshot of the brutality and futility of trench warfare, where thousands of lives can be given for only a few kilometres of dirt.
The incompetence of Russian military leadership was one contributing factor to the Russian Revolution and the rise of the Bolsheviks to power only a year later.
But with all that doom and gloom in mind, I believe we should take some perspective away from this. Keep your loved ones close, keep yourself warm and know that while your rows over Christmas dinner might be insufferable, it could be a lot, lot worse.