War history: Princess Mary’s wish in 1914 was to spread Christmas cheer to the frontline troops

Her Royal Highness the Princess Royal, Princess Mary, in about 1926

Her Royal Highness the Princess Royal, Princess Mary, in about 1926 - Credit: Archant

Forget Black Friday and Cyber Monday. A century ago, a simple brass tin delivered with the love of a princess was enough to bring joy to personnel spending their first Christmas at war.

One of the 1914 Christmas boxes sent to service personnel

One of the 1914 Christmas boxes sent to service personnel - Credit: Archant

Mike Peters Galloway Travel’s resident military historian, reports on the ‘Mary Box’.

Her Royal Highness the Princess Royal, Princess Mary, was the only daughter of King George V and Queen Mary and she desperately wanted to play her part in supporting the war effort. The princess would get her chance in the autumn of 1914.

With the war rumbling on, both the public and the Government began to accept that the British Expeditionary Force and the Royal Navy would not be coming home victorious by Christmas. As winter approached it now seemed certain that the armed forces of Britain and the Commonwealth would be spending their Christmas at sea or in the frontline. Princess Mary saw her opportunity to do something for those men and women who would be away from home at Christmas.

The Ritz Hotel in Piccadilly, London, was selected as the venue for the launch of “Her Royal Highness the Princess Mary’s Sailors and Soldiers Christmas Fund”. The fund was established on October 14, 1914, and Princess Mary quickly issued an appeal to the public for donations.

One of the 1914 Christmas boxes sent to service personnel

One of the 1914 Christmas boxes sent to service personnel - Credit: Archant

The aim was to deliver a Christmas gift to all sailors and soldiers at the front on Christmas Day – quite a challenge in both financial and logistical terms.

The appeal really struck a chord with the UK population; there was an avalanche of donations. Individuals and communities raised money with flag days, collections and a host of fundraising events at schools, factories, mills and stately homes. By mid-December the fund had amassed £130,000. Donations continued to roll in right up until Christmas, when the total stood at what for the time was a staggering amount: £162,500.

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With such a large amount, the boundaries of the fund were extended beyond those serving in the frontline. Every man and woman wearing the king’s uniform on Christmas Day would now receive a gift. Those entitled were listed and divided into three categories, with priority given to those deployed at sea or nearest the frontline.

This extension significantly increased the numbers involved and created a logistical headache of unprecedented complexity. In fact, in the end, not every entitled person received his or her gift on Christmas Day; it was just too big a challenge for the supply chain of the day.

From the outset, the big question had been: what would the gift be? The idea of a simple pocket-sized brass gift box was arrived at as the most practical present for those living in cramped conditions on board ship or in the trenches.

The contents were to prove a little more complicated; the forces of Britain’s Empire and Commonwealth were a cosmopolitan and exotic mix. Different contents were required for smokers, non-smokers, Christians, Hindus, Sikhs, Muslims, the wounded at home, boy sailors and of course female nurses serving at the front. It was to be a monumental effort that finally produced 2,630,019 Christmas gift boxes for distribution to service personnel around the globe.

The huge quantities and variety of the items packed in the tins make equally interesting reading. The fund issued 710,069 pipes, 44,840 ounces of tobacco, 2,750,000 Christmas cards, 836,470 photographs of the royal family, 18,200 packets of sweets for non-smokers and 5,640lb of mixed spices for Indian troops.

A shortage of brass constrained production to the point that many entitled personnel in the low-priority category were still waiting for their tin in 1916. The producers suffered a significant setback when a large shipment of brass purchased in the US and destined to become tins went down with the Lusitania. In spite of all these problems and delays, production pressed on for years. Prisoners of war or their next of kin received their tin long after Christmas 1914 – they were delivered after the armistice in 1918!

The tins were well received when they were issued to grateful soldiers in the trenches on the Western Front. Many realised they were a unique souvenir of their war and posted them home, or packed them carefully away in their kit to take home on leave.

This desire to save the tins, and the protracted delays in production, has ensured they remain fairly easy to find and are not too expensive to buy. So this month, when you reflect on surviving Black Friday and Cyber Monday, think about Christmas 1914 and those who were grateful to be alive that Christmas Day and how touched they were to receive the contents of a simple brass tin measuring just five inches long, 3.25 inches across and 1.25 inches deep.

Galloway have two guided four-day tours of the Western Front travelling on April 17 and May 1, 2015. Details are available at www.travel-galloway.com or visit a Galloway Travel Centre for information.

For more from Galloways, see our First World War page