Monday 2 November 2015

Good things come in Small Packages

With the outbreak of war in August 1914, many men - eager for adventure - enlisted for service and soon found themselves in uniform at the front lines in Europe. As the war's early months passed, it became obvious that the conflict would not end quickly. Those who expected a bit of adventure and a swift return home were faced with the reality of a long and brutal war stretching ahead of them.  
As Christmas approached, many longed to send messages of love and support to those at the front. Stepping forward to make those wishes a reality was Princess Mary, the 17-year-old daughter of King George V.
In October 1914, she approached the British government with a proposal to create "Her Royal Highness the Princess Mary's Sailors' and Soldiers' Fund".  Its purpose - to solicit donations from the 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. 

A committee was formed to implement the princess's plan; it was decided that the gift would be an embossed brass box containing a number of small items and would be delivered to every individual wearing "the King's uniform" at the front lines on Christmas Day 1914. 
Princess Mary appealed to citizens and the response was overwhelming - almost £170 000 raised in the initial appeal, prompting the Committee to widen eligibility to all British and Imperial military personnel - an estimated two million service men and women, including an unknown soldier from Kings County who brought his gift box home at the war's end.

The brass box has a cover design with Princess Mary's silhouette and monogram in the center, with the names of the various "Allied Powers" embossed around its edges - the British Empire ("Imperium Britannicum"), Japan, Russia, Montenegro, Serbia ("Servia"), France and Belgium.  The words "Christmas 1914" are embossed below the Princess's silhouette. 
Interestingly, two basic sets of gifts were available inside the treasure box. "Smokers" received one ounce of tobacco, a packet of cigarettes wrapped in yellow, monogrammed paper, and a lighter. "Non-smokers" received a packet of acid tablets, a khaki writing case, and a lead "bullet" pencil. Nurses received chocolates (arguably the best choice of all).  Each of the boxes contained a picture of Princess Mary and a Christmas card.  The date 1914 and the words "With Best Wishes for a Happy Christmas and a Victorious New Year from the Princess Mary and Friends at Home" were printed beneath Princess's monogram.

A total of 2.5 million gift boxes were distributed.  Many recipients used the empty tins to carry small personal items throughout the war. The volume distributed ensured that the "Princess Mary Christmas box" became the most common keepsake among soldiers.

A wonderful counterpoint to this regal gift is found in a letter from our museum archives, dated September 30, 1916. Private Percy Berry writes home to his cousin Sadie Campbell of Sussex. His letter details his anguish at the miserable state of home made goodies from Kings County when they finally arrive overseas. Cakes and treats lovingly prepared by hands at home often arrived smashed, spoiled - or didn't arrive at all. It turns out, not every gift to the front came carefully wrapped in a brass package!

A huge thank you to Patrick Crossman for recording the following letter! 

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