By year's end, the thoughts of family and relatives at home naturally focused on the welfare of their distant loved ones in uniform. As the traditional Christmas season was fast approaching, many longed to send messages of love and support to their sons and daughters, brothers and sisters, husbands and wives now embroiled in the greatest military conflict of modern times.
In October 1914, a young member of the British Royal Family made a suggestion that perfectly captured this public sentiment. Princess Mary, the 17-year-old daughter of King George V and Queen Mary, approached the British government with a proposal to create "Her Royal Highness the Princess Mary's Sailors' and Soldiers' Fund". Its purpose was to solicit donations from the general public, with the goal of ensuring that "every Sailor afloat and every Soldier at the front" received a Christmas present from "home" on December 25, 1914.
|Her Royal Highness Princess Mary (c. 1926)|
The initial public response was overwhelming - almost 170 000 British pounds were raised in the initial appeal, prompting the Committee to widen eligibility to all British and Imperial military personnel - an estimated 2 620 019 service men and women! As it was not possible to deliver gifts to such a large number by December 25, 1914, the Committee created three classes of qualified recipients to whom the boxes would be delivered in order of priority.
Class "A" consisted of all naval personnel and troops at the Front, as well as wounded soldiers in hospital, men on furlough, prisoners of war (their gifts were held in reserve), nurses serving at the Front, and widows and parents of soldiers killed in action. Class "B" included all British, colonial and Indian troops serving outside the British Isles and not provided for in Class "A". Finally, Class "C" included all troops stationed in Britain. Gifts were to be delivered to all personnel in Class "A" before, on or shortly after Christmas Day 1914. Individuals in Classes "B" and "C" would receive their gifts - containing a "Happy New Year" card in lieu of a Christmas greeting - sometime during or after January 1915.
To help raise the required funds, Princess Mary published a letter in British and colonial newspapers in early November 1914, making the following appeal: "I want you all to help me send a Christmas present from the whole nation to every sailor afloat and every soldier at the Front". Citizens were encouraged to send their donations to HRH the Princess Mary, Buckingham Palace, S. W. in envelopes marked "Sailors and Soldiers Christmas Fund".
|Gift Box Silhouette of Princess Mary|
(Pte. James Leo McDonald's Christmas 1914 box)
|Pte. James Leo McDonald's Christmas 1914 box|
|Tobacco & Cigarettes in Gift Box|
|"Bullet" pencil and writing paper|
|"Bullet" pencil, card and photograph of Princess Mary|
A total of 2.5 million gift boxes were distributed during and after the war. After consuming its contents, many servicemen and women used the empty tins to carry small personal items throughout the war, making the "Princess Mary Christmas box" the most common "Great War" keepsake among soldiers of the British Empire. All of this blossomed from a young Princess's wishes to brighten the first Christmas at war for thousands of British military personnel - a truly remarkable story.
Mary, Princess Royal and Countess of Harewood. Wikipedia.
The Princess Mary Christmas Gift. Website of the Parish of Kinnethmont, Aberdeenshire, Scotland. Available online.
Princess Mary's 1914 Christmas Gift. Mainland Arms and Militaria Gun Shows. Available online.
Tin - Princess Mary's Christmas Gift 1914. Museum Victoria, Australia. Available online.
Pte. James Leo McDonald's Christmas 1914 box courtesy of his son, Sylvester MacDonald. Photographs of this box courtesy of Bonnie McGrath.