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Painting of the Battle of Trenton

6 battles fought on Christmas Day

Image: The Battle of Trenton by Hugh Charles McBarron, Jr

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.

4. Battle of Tucapel 1553

Often, clashes between the Native Americans and the conquering Spanish ended in tragic defeats for the natives. However, in 1553 an army of Mapuche native warriors was able to stem the tide, giving the Spanish a bitter and bloody defeat for Christmas.

The Spanish colonisation of the Mapuche people of modern-day Chile began in 1541 under the rule of a Spanish conquistador named Pedro de Valdivia. Having come from a lowly, impoverished noble house, Pedro rose to prominence through his military career, serving in many battles under King Charles I of Spain.

While Valdivia wished to mend relations between the Spaniards and the Mapuche, the men under his leadership were not so keen. Against his wishes, the conquistadors set the natives to work in gold mines, that precious metal that had brought them across the ocean. This was slave labour and incredibly dangerous work at that.

Tired of the Spanish settlement of their land and their exploitation, the Mapuche rebelled against their numerically inferior, but still dangerous foes. This started a series of different wars between the Spanish and Mapuche that may have lasted sporadically for about three centuries, though historians aren’t all in agreement on this.

The war initially went poorly for the Mapuche, who suffered devastating defeats against much smaller Spanish forces (who were also bolstered by Native mercenaries and nobles). However, as the Spanish celebrated the birth of their messiah in 1553, their luck would turn.

With fifty Spaniards and 2000 - 5000 friendly natives by his side, Valdivia made for the fort of Tucapel, where he believed reinforcements would be waiting to help him defeat the Mapuche. However, when they made it, they found the fort destroyed and no one was left alive. It was then that the Spanish heard cries coming from outside the fort. The Mapuche had followed them.

The first Mapuche advance was beaten back with few Spanish casualties. But the natives had learned from previous battles with the Spanish and used lances and ropes to dismount the Spanish horsemen. The second advance was again beaten back, but Spanish numbers began to dwindle. Then the third advance came, led by Lautoro, the war leader of the Mapuche, himself.

All the Spanish soldiers were killed, save for Valdivia who managed to escape. However, he became bogged down in a swamp and was captured. He was then executed by the Mapuche, though the exact method is unknown. He may have either been dismembered and had his limbs cooked and eaten in front of him, was forced to drink molten gold or was tortured for three days and had his heart extracted and eaten.

This battle marked a major turning point in the war between the Mapuche and the Spanish and cemented Lauturo as a symbol of Chilean resistance against foreign invaders for years to come. It was a great gift to the Mapuche people, but a grisly end to their would-be oppressors.

5. The Eggnog Riot of 1826

If the description of having a man’s limbs eaten in front of him hasn’t ruined your appetite, you might be in the mood for a nice glass of warm eggnog. That was exactly what many cadets at the US military academy in West Point, New York wanted in 1826. The only issue was their eggnog had no alcohol in it.

Faculty at the academy believed alcohol usage had become a prevalent issue at the academy, despite the prohibition of alcohol on the site. As such, they made sure that the eggnog served at the upcoming Christmas party would be made without alcohol.

Hearing this, some cadets smuggled in two gallons of whisky from the local tavern to hold their party. While higher faculty of the academy celebrated with wine, nine cadets in the North Barracks snuck the smuggled whisky into their eggnog. As the night went on, many joined them.

Captain Ethan Allen Hitchcock, a man who would later serve in the Union army as a major general against the Confederates, was one faculty member tasked with keeping order in the barracks. Many times, during the early hours of the morning Hitchcock was awoken by singing, stomping, and laughing. Each time, Hitchcock would confront the now-drunk cadets and give them a stern reprimanding. As the men drank more Hitchcock’s actions became stricter. Conflict began to arise.

Another of the faculty members, Lieutenant William A. Thornton, was attacked and knocked out by some cadets, while others hunted for Hitchcock. At around 5:00, several cadets attacked the door to Hitchcock’s room and fired a pistol into it. Hitchcock arrested many of the cadets and then requested help from the commandant, which some of the cadets took to mean that the riot would be quelled with violence.

This caused some cadets to take up arms in defence of the barracks. Yet as the riot went on, many of the drunk cadets were arrested by faculty members or by other cadets who were not drunk. By 6:00 the barracks had been trashed, with windows broken, but the riot was finally quelled.

Over the next few months, the guilty cadets would be tried in court. Many were expelled outright, though many were granted clemency. One of the cadets who was involved in the riots but wasn’t convicted was Jefferson Davis, future president of the rebellious Confederate States of America. Once a rebel, always a rebel.

6. Battle of Hong Kong 1941

Finally, we come to the end of the Battle of Hong Kong, fought between the 8th and 25th December 1941. One day before the beginning of the battle, Japanese forces had attacked the American naval base of Pearl Harbour in Hawaii, as well as launching invasions into British-held Malaysia, Singapore and, of course, Hong Kong itself.

The territory of Hong Kong was defended by around 15,000 men, a mix of British, Canadian, Indian and Hong Kong citizens. They were supported by only five outdated RAF aeroplanes and only a paltry handful of Royal Navy ships. It was their role to hold off the Japanese advance for as long as possible.

The Japanese attacked at 6:00 on the 8th December. At 8:00 Japanese bombers destroyed four out of the five planes the British had stationed there. Punjab forces were the first to meet the Japanese in combat and were able to inflict heavy damage before being forced to retreat to the Gin Drinkers’ Line.

This was a defensive network of interconnected fortifications, with pillboxes, barbed wire and artillery positions on high ground and was the first line of defence before Hong Kong island itself. However, with no air support, insufficient numbers of men and a cunning night attack by the Japanese, the line was taken by the 10th of December.

The defence of the Gin Drinkers’ Line was a complete disaster for the British and allowed the Japanese to besiege the city of Hong Kong. News of Japanese war crimes in China had no doubt reached the ears of the defenders and citizens of the city. Surrender was not an option.

What followed were horrendous artillery bombardments and air attacks from the Japanese. After days of shelling and bombing the island, on the 18th of December, the infantry were sent in. They paddled across the strait, with artillery support meant to keep the defenders’ heads down. However, many of the boats were spotted and fired upon by Rajput troops. Still, the Japanese were able to land and started to overwhelm their foes.

While the defenders fought doggedly, the superior number of Japanese troops and artillery support made holding them back an impossibility. The Japanese intentions were made clear by the words of one officer, “Order is all captives must die”.

On Christmas morning of 1941, the British forces were forced to swallow a bitter pill. High-ranking officials were evacuated and the island was surrendered to the Japanese. While some pockets of resistance remained, the island was effectively lost. The day is still known today as “Black Christmas” in Hong Kong.

The loss of Hong Kong was an inevitability, as British forces were spread too thin to defend it. Yet the bravery of its defenders should not be forgotten, all the more so for the futility of the defence.

These bloody battles should remind us to be grateful for the peace that the holidays bring to us, to hold our families close knowing that so many men in history died far from home and kin. It is important also to remember that even today, many soldiers are forced to fight instead of spending the holidays with their families. So put your petty family feuds to bed and keep your loved ones close this Christmas. A Merry Christmas to you all.