At the start of the First World War, there was a mass outpouring of sympathy and charity for the men fighting for Britain. The Royal family were not immune to this and in October 1914, the young Princess Mary, inspired by her visits to hospitals for injured soldiers, wanted to show her support. On October 15th 1914, Mary publicly announced her intentions to provide a gift for ‘every sailor afloat and every soldier at the front’ in a letter sent out from Buckingham Palace.
For many weeks we have all been greatly concerned for the welfare of the sailors and soldiers who are so gallantly fighting our battles by sea and land. Our first consideration has been to meet their more pressing needs, and I have delayed making known wish that has long been in my heart for fear of encroaching on other fund, the claims of which have been more urgent, I want you now to help me to send a Christmas present from the whole nation to every sailor afloat and every solider at the front. On Christmas Eve, when, like shepherds of old they keep watch, doubtless their thoughts will turn to home and loved ones left behind, and perhaps, too, hey will recall days when, as children themselves, they were wont to hang out their stocking wondering what the morrow had in store. I am sure that we should all be happier to feel that we had helped to send our little token of love and sympathy on Christmas morning, something that would be useful and of permanent value, the making of which may be the means of providing employment in trades adversely affected by the war. Could there be anything more likely to hearten them in their struggle than a present received straight from home on Christmas Day? Please will you help me? Mary’
By the 20th October 1914, the fund had received over £12,000 in donations. The following week this amount had risen to £31,000. By the time the fund was closed in 1920, £162,591 12s 5d had been donated. This money was used to create over 2.5 million gift boxes for soldiers, sailors, nurses and other people involved in the war effort at Christmas 1914.
The Gift Box and the contents
Things began to progress quickly. The next decision to be taken was what should be included in the boxes, and how they should look. The final design for the boxes was provided by Messrs Adshead and Ramsay. The boxes were five inches long, 3 and a quarter wide and one and a quarter deep, with a hinged lid. In the centre of the lid is an image of Princess Mary, surrounded by a wreath, with two Princess Mary ‘M’ monograms beside this. Inscribed on a cartouche at the top of the box are the words Imperium Britannicum, a reference to Britain’s imperial power. In other cartouches, around the edge of the box are the names of Britain’s allies in the First World War; Belgium, France, Servia, Montenegro, Russia and Japan. At the bottom is inscribed Christmas 1914.
Most gift boxes contained smoking paraphernalia. The standard box contained a pipe, one ounce of tobacco, a lighter and twenty monogrammed cigarettes, along with a Christmas card from the royal family, and a picture of Princess Mary.
People began to point out that there should also be a gift made available to those who did not smoke, and to Ghurkhas fighting for the British, many of whose religion did not allow smoking.
For non-smokers, an alternative box was arranged. Inside these boxes, instead of cigarettes the men found a pencil, with a case made to look like a bullet, a pack of sweets, and, again, the Royal family Christmas card and picture of Princess Mary.
Indian troops, again, got something different. They received a box with a packet of sugar candy, one packet of cigarettes, if their religion allowed, and a small box of spices. Unlike native British troops Indian Ghurkhas were given an allowance, as opposed to rations, so they could buy their own food. These Indian Ghurkhas could use their spices to cook dishes from India which would normally be unavailable when fighting in Europe.
Another special gift box was made up for nurses serving in frontline hospitals. These still contained the Christmas card and Princess Mary picture, which featured in all variations of the box, but contained chocolate, as opposed to sweets and cigarettes.
Most gift boxes were sent in a slightly larger cardboard box, as the photograph of a soldier receiving his shows, as once the standard issue of tobacco and cigarettes was placed in the tin there was little room for much else apart from the greeting card.
Type of Gift Box & ContentsStandard Smokers 1914 (inc. Ghurkhas)
Christmas card, Princess Mary picture,Lighter (sometimes replaced by alt. small present), Pipe, One ounce of Tobacco, Twenty monogrammed Cigarettes.
Standard Non-smokers 1914
Christmas Card, Princess Mary Picture, Bullet casing pencil, Acid tablets, Khaki writing case.
Christmas Card, Princess Mary Picture, Sugar candy, Box of Spices.
Christmas Card, Princess Mary picture, Tin box of spices.
Other Indian Troops 1914
Christmas Card, Princess Mary Picture, Sugar candy, Packed of Cigarettes, Box of spices.
Christmas Card, Princess Mary Picture, Chocolate.
Universal box 1915-1918
New Year’s Card, Pencil.
|Christmas in the trenches 1917|
More than 2,600,000 of Princess Mary’s gift boxes were given to the troops and many were sent on to the families or widows of men killed in action before receiving their boxes. The scheme had been very well meaning, but was perhaps a little overambitious as many men were still waiting for their gift boxes well into 1920.
The “Princess Mary Tins” were gratefully received and it is not uncommon to see medals and other personal positions still kept safely in them almost 100 years after they were handed out.
For some men, such as Private Metcalfe of the Royal West Kent Regiment, the little brass box was much more than a place to keep his tobacco – his tin actually saved his life. In early 1915, Metcalfe was caught in a shrapnel burst and a large fragment hit him in the chest. But instead of entering his body, it was deflected by the brass box.
These Christmas Tins are perhaps one of the most frequently seen reminders of the Great War as they were treasured by their owners and thousands have survived, but very few still contain their original contents.