This will not be the first Christmas where many U.S. soldiers will be stationed and on guard at military bases far from their homes and family. It was the case in 1776 at the Battle of Trenton, at Valley Forge the very next year and, right up to now, where 170,000 American military men and women are deployed on active duty at 800 military bases all around the world.
May we send them our special wishes for peace and a speedy return home. We pray for their safety.
Christmas and wars have been entangled in history for centuries but we are only looking back here at the two-and-a-half American centuries. General George Washington chose Christmas Day in 1776 to mount a surprise attack on German Hessian troops who were fighting for the British. History books contain the vivid oil painting of Washington, his booted foot perched on the bow of his troop vessel, “Crossing the Delaware (River.)” The Battle of Trenton lasted just 90 minutes before all 2,000 Hessians had been captured and surrendered.
One year later, on Dec. 19, 1777, Gen. Washington bivouacked 12,000 troops at Valley Forge, northwest of Philadelphia, which was occupied by the British. His troops were tattered, lacking supplies and facing a long, cold winter away from their homes. There is no mention in history books of that year’s Christmas celebrations and perhaps there were none. Times were bleak.
This Christmas, we will see glimpses of our troops in Afghanistan and maybe Iraq during TV breaks of football games. It’s become a commercialized tradition, like the halftime shows themselves.
The 75th anniversary of World War II’s pivotal Battle of the Bulge was marked in Belgium this month. It also was a battle fought during Christmas in 1944. The battle commenced Dec. 16 when 200,000 German troops and 1,000 tanks attacked American and allied troops. The battle front pushed back and forth at near-stalemate conditions until the Germans fell back exhausted in men and machines, losing 90,000 causalities while killing 19,000 Americans in one of histories bloodiest battles ever.
The most often told Christmas story during wartime is about the Christmas truces held during World War I between the allied French and British and their enemies, the Germans. In 1914, as many as 100,000 fighting troops filled miles of trenches on the war’s Western Front. As Christmas approached, soldiers adorned their trenches with candles and decorated trees and branches. Both the Germans and the Franco-British soldiers did this. Christmas songs were sung in English, German and French. A few brave or desperate soldiers left their trenches to approach the “no man’s land” between the armies. This accidental “truce” was followed in 1915 with a more formal truce, announced and agreed by leaders of both armies. The soldiers met, exchanged drink and smokes and small souvenirs. Joint burial ceremonies were held. Pope Benedict XV issued a Papal message “that the guns may fall silent at last upon the night the angels sing.” Alas, the bullets, bombs and killing resumed just days later. There were no more Christmas truces during that war until the final Armistice in November 1918.
There were several Christmas truces observed during the Vietnam War. Both presidents Johnson and Nixon made official declarations. In 1971, Nixon ordered a 24-hour Christmas truce, but he continued his secret bombing of Laos and Cambodia. In 1972, Nixon ordered massive B-52 bombings of North Vietnam, but allowed for a 36-hour Christmas break before resuming the non-stop barrage. Just one month later, the Paris Peace Accords were signed, laying out the eventual end of the war four years later.
For all of us comfortable in our homes and who have never been deployed to foreign military duty, the idea of waking on Christmas Day in a trench, tent or military barracks is hard to define or imagine. Perhaps a Korean War veteran once said it best: “It’s the loneliest day of the year.”