In 1914, Britain Gave Presents to Three Million Troops
Princess Mary raised a huge sum of money for the gift tins
by MATTHEW MOSS
On Oct. 14, 1914, Great Britain’s Princess Mary launched a campaign to send all British and Imperial troops a small present for Christmas.
The Princess Mary’s Christmas Gift Fund quickly became the commonwealth’s most popular Christmas fund. The princess’ public call for donations eventually raised an astonishing £162,591 — a sum equaling roughly £7,500,000 today.
No fewer than three million service members received the box.
“I have delayed making known a wish that has long been in my heart for fear of encroaching on other funds, the claims of which have been more urgent,” the 17-year-old princess wrote in her open letter to Britons announcing the effort.
I want you now to help me to send a Christmas present from the whole nation to every sailor afloat and every soldier at the front. On Christmas Eve when, like the shepherds of old, they keep their watch, doubtless their thoughts will turn to home.
I am sure that we should all be the happier to feel that we had helped to send our little token of love and sympathy … something that would be useful and of permanent value and the making of which may be the means of providing employment in trades adversely affected by the war.
Architects Adshead and Ramsey designed the gift box. It included a five-by-3.5-by-1.25-inch embossed brass box with Princess Mary’s profile in the center surrounded by the names of Britain’s allies, including Serbia, Russia, Japan and France and the words “Christmas 1914” on the bottom of the lid.
The contents of the box varied. The primary gift for British and Imperial troops from Australia, Canada and South Africa and the Gurkhas included a Christmas card, a picture of Princess Mary, a lighter, a pipe, one ounce of tobacco and 20 cigarettes.
The committee responsible for the gift boxes realized that not all service members smoked and that other minority troops wouldn’t appreciate the same gifts for various religious and cultural reasons.
As such there was an impressive amount of variation between the gifts. Non-smokers received the Christmas card, a picture of Princess Mary, a pencil shaped like a .303 cartridge, some vitamin C tablets and a khaki writing case containing paper and envelopes.
Sikhs got a box of spices and some sugared candies instead of the pipe and tobacco. Bhistis from northern British India received a larger box of spices, while other Indian troops got a packet of cigarettes, candy and spices. Nurses received the gift box, too, but got chocolate in place of the tobacco.
A dozen British companies were involved in supplying the Christmas gift, including Harrods, Asprey & Co Ltd, De La Rue & Co and various tobacco companies.
Still, demand outran supply and some troops received alternate gifts such as tobacco pouches, shaving brushes and combs, scissors, packets of postcards, pocket knives and cigarette cases.
The initial plan was that only frontline troops would get the princess’ gifts. But the campaign raised enough money the large amount of money raised meant that every man and woman in uniform benefited.
By late December 1914, organizers had distributed 426,724 gifts. The balance went out in January 1915. The sheer magnitude of providing three million gifts meant that some troops were still receiving theirs … in 1916. Troops receiving their gifts after Christmas 1914 received a simpler “universal box” including a New Year’s card and a pencil.
After 1914, filling the gift boxes became increasingly difficult as tobacco and brass supplies dwindled. In 1915, the British government ordered brass from the United States, but it was lost aboard the passenger line Lusitania when the Germans sank the vessel in May 1915.
Many soldiers used the boxes to store letters they received from home or other personal effects such as notebooks or photographs. Others kept the pipes and other gifts, smoked the tobacco and sent the tins home to their families.
Originally published at www.historicalfirearms.info.