In 1914 many men and women were facing Christmas away from their loved ones whilst serving in the armed forces or nursing overseas. The western front was frozen in the harsh grip of winter and the navy were experiencing the mounting terror of the German U-Boat campaign. Meanwhile, medical staff were being confronted with horrific injuries the like of which many of them had never encountered before.
Against all this a simple Christmas present may seem a very small gesture, but if the worth of a gift can be determined by how long it is treasured afterwards then the Princess Mary Christmas Gift was a small gesture that made a large impact.
In the October of 1914 the 17 year old princess, only daughter of King George V, had formed the idea of sending a gift to all those serving in the war and had mounted a huge public campaign to raise the necessary funds. In her appeal she wrote:
"Could there be anything more likely to hearten them in their struggle than a present received straight from home on Christmas Day?"
Of course given the sheer number of people eligible for the gifts, and the difficulties of wartime production, it became obvious by the end of November that they were not going to be able to deliver them all on or by Christmas Day itself. In order to prioritise, recipients were split in to three classes:
Class A: The Navy (including minesweepers and dockyard officials), troops at the Front, the wounded in hospitals and men on furlough, prisoners and men interned (for whom the gift was reserved), members of the French Mission with the Expeditionary Force, nurses at the Front and the widows or parents of those who had been killed.
Class B: All British, Colonial and Indian troops serving outside the British Isles (but exclusive of those provided for in Class A).
Class C: All troops in the British Isles
Class A were to receive the gift on or near Christmas Day, the gifts for classes B and C were then distributed in the New Year. According to the committee’s records 426,724 gifts were distributed that Christmas, a mammoth undertaking even in peace time.
On the Western Front items from these tins were traded and shared with other forces, including the German forces during the now legendary Christmas truce. The tins themselves though were often carefully preserved and many good examples exist to this day. You can see the one above, originally received by Sergeant George Richards of the King's Liverpool Regiment, on display in From Waterfront to Western Front in The People's Republic gallery at the Museum of Liverpool. Merseyside Maritime Museum also has a couple of these tins in their collections and you can read more about them in the Maritime Christmas blog post.
Accession number LIVKR2002.7.4