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Princess Mary’s Christmas gift

For millions of people across the globe, tuning in to The Queen’s Christmas Message is a part of their Christmas tradition, and with the internet it is now much easier to view Her Majesty’s broadcast at one’s convenience.

3512139767_5cc3a8ab00_oThe theme of this year’s message (December 2014) was reconciliation, with particular reference to the state of the world 100 years ago as the first of four wartime Christmases was commemorated – read about the The Queen’s broadcast here. Historians still dispute the nature and extent of the Christmas Truce of 1914; despite the popular advert from Sainsbury’s this year, the evidence that a football match broke out between British and German troops, on what must have been an extremely pock-marked no-mans-land, remains scarce. However, The Queen chose another, more personal way to mark the 100th anniversary of that first Christmas of the war. To Her Majesty’s left were two framed photographs and a small tin; a small homage to her paternal grandparents, King George V and Queen Mary, and to their only daughter, Princess Mary; the Princess set up a Christmas Gift Fund to ensure that all of Britain’s servicemen and women were remembered and acknowledged at Christmas.

Princess Victoria Alexandra Alice Mary was just 17 years old when the First World War broke out in 1914. Along with her mother Queen Mary, the future Princess Royal visited wounded soldiers in various hospitals around Britain, and became associated with a number of welfare leagues that were set up to look after the invalidated servicemen and the families of those who had paid the ultimate sacrifice for King and Country. It was only a short time after hostilities began in August 1914 that Princess Mary began thinking of how the troops would fare at Christmas; while some may indeed have believed that the war would be over by Christmas (yet another widely held belief of the First World War that historians contend has been wildly misrepresented), Princess Mary obviously felt that whatever the state of the war, those men and women serving Britain under her father’s colours deserved recognition.

It is thought that Mary’s original plan was to fund the entire project herself, paying for a gift for every British soldier, sailor, and nurse out of her own pocket. Given that over 2.6 million people were ‘wearing the King’s uniform’ by Christmas 1914, this would probably have been beyond her means, so instead she became the patron of a public charity, Princess Mary’s Christmas Gift Fund, which was launched on 14 October 1914. In a letter issued by Buckingham Palace the next day, and signed by the Princess herself, she appealed for public support, saying:

“I want you now to help me to send a Christmas present … to every sailor afloat and every soldier at the front. I am sure that we should all be happier to feel that we had helped to send out little token of love and sympathy on Christmas morning…”    

The fund was a roaring success, with £31,000 contributed in the first two weeks alone. It eventually raised a total of £162,591 12s 5d. Due to the huge production demands priority was given to troops and nurses at the front line, those in hospital or on leave, the widows or parents of those who had died on active service, and the Navy. By Christmas Day over 425,000 gifts had been distributed, with the majority (more than 350,000) going to the men of the British Expeditionary Force.

An example of one of Marys boxes for the troops

An example of one of Marys boxes for the troops

Princess Mary’s Christmas gift included the famous embossed brass box, a pipe and one ounce of pipe tobacco, twenty cigarettes, a tinderbox-type lighter (thought to be safer to send through the post than matches), a Christmas card and a photograph of the Princess – The King and Queen also sent their own Christmas card out to the services. Even 100 years ago there was a vocal anti-smoking lobby, so non-smoking soldiers received the brass box, a packet of acid tablets, a writing case containing pencil, paper and envelopes, and of course the Christmas card and photograph. Indian troops were also catered for: the Gurkhas received an identical gift to the other British troops but Sikhs were given sugar candy and a tin box of spices instead of the tobacco and cigarettes. All other Indian troops received cigarettes and sugar candy, a tin box of spices and the card. Nurses also received the box, but it contained chocolates instead of the tobacco and cigarettes. The actual content of the gifts varied much more than this would imply, as shortages of everything meant that a range of substitutions had to be made. Alternative gifts included cigarette cases, combs, knives, pencil cases made from expended bullets, post cards, purses, scissors, shaving brushes, and tobacco pouches.

Producing enough brass boxes posed the greatest problem to the fund’s committee; almost all of the priority recipients got one by Christmas 1914, but many others waited months – and some of them years – before receiving the box (although they did receive the rest of the gift in a timely manner). Some readers may be interested to learn that a significant delay in the production of later boxes was due to the sinking of RMS Lusitania, which was carrying a vast quantity of brass intended for the makers of the Christmas gift boxes when it was sent to the bottom of the Atlantic by the German U-boat U-20 on 7th May 1915. Of course, this pales into insignificance when set against the nearly 1200 people who died aboard the sunken vessel.

After the war in 1922, Princess Mary married Viscount Lascelles, and had two sons; the 8th Earl of Harewood, David Henry George Lascelles, is her grandson. She had the title of Princess Royal conferred upon her on January 1st 1932 by her father, and was appointed Chief Controller of the Auxiliary Territorial Service, later named the Women’s Royal Army Corps, at the outbreak of World War Two. She died from a heart attack on 28th March 1965, at the age of 67.

In 2005, the charity group uk4u revived the Christmas gift, inspired by Princess Mary’s example. The charity distributes over 20,000 Christmas gift boxes, known as the ‘Square Stocking’, to British service personnel serving overseas or in hospital as a result of injuries received while on serving The Queen and Country.

For more information, or to find out how to contribute to the charity, go to http://www.uk4u.org.

Photos: Library of Congress, David Spender

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