Note: I wrote most of this on Christmas but didn’t finish it until a bit after 1AM on the 26th.
Today as on so many Christmas Days in days gone by military personnel serve on the front lines in wars far away from home and sometimes not far from their homes. Today American and NATO troops engage a resourceful and determined enemy in Afghanistan. To the west Americans support our Iraqi allies in their continued battle to end terrorism in that country while in many corners of the globe others stand watch on land, at sea and in the air. Unfortunately wars continue and until the end of time as we know it there will likely be war without end.
I have done my time in Iraq at Christmas on the Syrian-Iraqi Border with our Marine advisors and their Iraqis. Since returning home have thought often of those that remain in harm’s way as well as those soldiers, sailors, Marines and airmen, American and from other nations that have spent Christmas on the front lines. Some of these events are absolutely serious while others display some of the “light” moments that occur even in the most terrible of manmade tragedies.
In American history we can look back to 1776, of course we could go back further but 1776 just sounds better. On Christmas of 1776 George Washington took his Continental Army across the Delaware to attack the British garrison at Trenton. Actually it was a bunch of hung over Hessians who after Christmas dinner on the 24th failed to post a guard but it was an American victory. In 1777 Washington and his Army had a rather miserable Christmas at Valley Forge where they spent the winter freezing their asses off and getting drilled into a proper military force by Baron Von Steuben.
While not a battle in the true sense of the word the Cadets at West Point wrote their own Christmas legend in the Eggnog Riot of 1826 when the Cadets in a bit of holiday revelry had a bit too much Eggnog and a fair amount of Whiskey and behaved in a manner frowned upon by the Academy administration. Needless to say that many of the Cadets spent the Christmas chapel services in a hung over state with a fair number eventually being tossed from the Academy for their trouble.
In 1837 the U.S. Army was defeated at the Battle of Lake Okeechobee by the Seminole Nation, not a Merry Christmas at all. In 1862 the Army of the Potomac and Army of Northern Virginia faced each other across the Rappahannock River after the Battle of Fredericksburg while to the south in Hilton Head South Carolina 40,000 people watched Union troops play baseball some uttering the cry of many later baseball fans “Damn Yankees.” In 1864 the Army of the Potomac and Army of Northern Virginia faced each other again in the miserable trenches of Petersburg while General William Tecumseh Sherman enjoyed Christmas in Savannah Georgia after cutting a swath of destruction from Atlanta to the sea. He presents the city to Lincoln who simply says “nice, but I really wanted Richmond.”
Napoleon had something to celebrate on December 25th 1801 after surviving an assassination attempt on Christmas Eve and 1809 he was celebrating his divorce from Empress Josephine which had occurred on the 21st.
Meanwhile in Europe the 1914 “Christmas Truce” began between British and German troops and threatened to undo all the hard work of those that made the First World War possible. Thereafter the High Commands of both sides ensured that such frivolity never happened again.
U.S. Soldiers and Anti-Tank Gun at the Battle of the Bulge
World War II brought much suffering in 1941 after Pearl Harbor the Japanese forced the surrender of Hong Kong and its British garrison while two days later the Soviets launched their counterattack at Moscow against Hitler’s Wehrmacht and the British were retaking Benghazi from the Afrika Corps. A year later the Americans were clearing Guadalcanal of the Japanese and the Red Army was engaged in a climactic battle against the encircled German 6th Army at Stalingrad. At Stalingrad a German Physician named Kurt Reuber who is also a Lutheran minister draws “The Madonna of Stalingrad.”
The drawing which was taken out of Stalingrad by one of the last German officers to be evacuated now hangs in the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church in Berlin. Reuber would draw another in 1943 while in a Soviet POW camp in which he would die in less than a month after that Christmas. Reuber wrote:
“I wondered for a long while what I should paint, and in the end I decided on a Madonna, or mother and child. I have turned my hole in the frozen mud into a studio. The space is too small for me to be able to see the picture properly, so I climb on to a stool and look down at it from above, to get the perspective right. Everything is repeatedly knocked over, and my pencils vanish into the mud. There is nothing to lean my big picture of the Madonna against, except a sloping, home-made table past which I can just manage to squeeze. There are no proper materials and I have used a Russian map for paper. But I wish I could tell you how absorbed I have been painting my Madonna, and how much it means to me.”
“The picture looks like this: the mother’s head and the child’s lean toward each other, and a large cloak enfolds them both. It is intended to symbolize ‘security’ and ‘mother love.’ I remembered the words of St.John: light, life, and love. What more can I add? I wanted to suggest these three things in the homely and common vision of a mother with her child and the security that they represent.”
In 1943 the Marines were battling the Japanese at New Britain while the Red Army was involved in its winter offensive against the Wehrmacht. In 1944 the Russians were advancing in Hungary, the Americans were engaged in a desperate battle with the Germans in the Ardennes with the German 2nd Panzer Division running out of gas 4 miles from the Meuse River and were destroyed by the American 2nd Armored Division. In the Pacific McArthur’s forces were battling the Japanese in the Philippines.
French Chaplain and Soldiers in Indochina
In the years following the Second World War Christmas was celebrated even while armies continued to engage in combat to the death. Christmas of 1950 was celebrated in Korea as the last American forces were withdrawn from the North following the Chinese intervention which the 1st Marine Division chewed up numerous Red Chinese divisions while fighting its way out of the Chosin Reservoir. In the following years a stalemate along the front brought no end to the war and In French Indo-China the French garrison of Dien Bien Phu celebrated Christmas in primitive fashion unaware that General Giap was already marshalling his forces to cut them off and then destroy them shortly after Easter of 1954. In 1964 the U.S. commits to the war in Vietnam and for the next 9 years American Soldiers, Marines, Sailors and Airmen will battle the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong with Marines fighting the North at Khe Sanh during Christmas of 1967.
Christmas on the Syrian Border with USMC Advisors
In the years after Vietnam American troops would spend Christmas in the Desert of Saudi Arabia preparing for Operation Desert Storm in 1990, in Somalia the following year and in the Balkans. After September 11th 2001 U.S. Forces spent their first of at least 10 Christmas’s in Afghanistan and in 2003 begin the first for at least 8 Christmas’s in Iraq.
Today Americans serve around the world far away from home fighting the war against Al Qaeda and its confederates and some will die even on this most Holy of Days while for others it will be their last Christmas.
Please keep them and all who serve now as well as those that served in the past, those that remain and those that have died in your prayers.
One response to “Christmas at the Front 1776-2010”
A simple response – Amen, Padre.