Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Princess Mary's Christmas Gift

Our Little Token

Contributed by: Kimball Worcester, Assistant Editor

The first winter of the Great War saw two events that sustain one's hope in the potential for good even in times of dire conflict. One event was the spontaneous Christmas truce on the Western Front, primarily between British and German forces. The other was the spontaneous generosity of a 17-year-old girl, Princess Mary, only daughter of King George V and Queen Mary. Her intention was to provide a Christmas gift for every person serving in the King's uniform, both abroad and on the home front. Her wish was fulfilled to an astounding degree and created one of the most touching mementos of the war. Princess Mary's Christmas Gift Fund was announced on 15 October 1914. The Princess had wanted to underwrite it herself from her allowance, but it was decided by the inaugural committee, headed by the Duke of Devonshire, that a public subscription was the better source for funding. The response was enormously positive and generous. Ultimately £200,000 was raised by a nation eager to respond to the Princess's plea:

"I want you now to help me to send a Christmas present from the whole of the nation 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 our little token of love and sympathy on Christmas morning, 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 ... Please will you help me?" 

The gift itself was a brass box, a tin with a hinged lid that measures 5" x 3 3/8" x 1 1/8". The lid bears a left-profile portrait of the Princess, with her initial "M" on either side of the portrait. The seven Allies of the time are represented: embossed at the corners are Belgium, Japan, Montenegro, and Servia, and at the sides are France and Russia. "Imperium Britannicum" holds place of honor above Princess Mary's portrait, and "Christmas 1914" balances the center beneath her portrait. Within the box were several gifts that were distributed thus:

  • Smokers received tobacco, a packet of cigarettes, a tinder, and a pipe; a photo of Princess Mary and a Christmas card from her.

  • Non-smokers received a bullet pencil in a .303 cartridge, the photo and Christmas card, a khaki writing case, and a packet of acid tablets.

  • Nurses received chocolates in their box, along with the photo and card.

  • The various Indian servicemen received gifts in accordance with their dietary and/or religious observances, often sweets and spices instead of tobacco.

By Christmas of 1914, approximately 355,000 boxes had been distributed. Given the extensive fronts across the globe, it took well into 1916 to distribute all the boxes to those entitled to them; during that time war widows were included in the recipients. Ultimately, 2.5 million boxes were made, filled, and given out. Many were carefully sent home from the front as keepsakes.

Princess Mary continued her connection with the armed services throughout her life (1897-1965), becoming colonel-in-chief of the Royal Scots (1918) and of the Royal Signal Corps (1935) in addition to several Commonwealth corps and regiments. The legacy of the Princess Mary box is a genuine testament to her spirit of public service.


  1. While overseas it was common to receive a "care" package from ones family, but when a holiday parcel is from the citizens back home it is emotional. I recall where at Christmas every member of our battalion received a parcel from an Omaha, Nebraska group, not a Princess, but nice people, showing us in a tumultuous time that there were those back home that cared. They took the time, they bore the expense. I do remember a little note and a nail clipper, the other items I have since forgotten.

  2. I hope that you won't mind me making contact. I am one of a small group of volunteers researching the lives of men named on our local war memorial. I was wondering if you would mind very much if I used your image of the Gift Tin to illustrate one of the biographies, please. The biographies of the men will go into a very limited edition book, which will be presented to the local library, council and archives. We also hope to put the resources online through the archives services. I can assure you that there is no commercial aspect to the project, it is purely to honour the memory of the men who died, and to keep their memory alive. We would, of course, acknowledge your ownership of the image with your chosen wording.
    Many thanks for your consideration, Jacky

    1. Jacky please feel free to use all of our material for educational purposes. MH

    2. You ar a star! Many thanks ;)