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

Wednesday, December 27, 2017

A Roads Classic: 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. I'm the proud owner of one of these boxes, which I found in an old junk shop in Barnstaple, Devon, many years ago :-))

  2. Nice! I have one as well, with her photo in it!

  3. I'm grateful to have three of them: one an Ebay purchase and two as gifts.

  4. I think I would have liked the “Non-Smoker one”; I wonder, though, what the acid tablets were used for? I guess indigestion would be an issue, what with Bully Beef and all, but I would think it to be a malady that spread over all the four box categories. I know the British to have been keen on another acid, but that was a good 50 years following. These boxes look quite nice, I can see how they are a valuable keepsake from this period.

  5. I have one. It was my grandads tin. It has the card inside. He served on the Somme and to me it’s a priceless link to the past.