My first post this year was about my maternal grandparents who were married on 24 January 1920, three weeks after my Granddad returned from India. He had been away with the Army ten and a half years, and they had not seen each other since he went away shortly after proposing to the young lady who would be my grandmother. By the end of 2020 their first child, my uncle, was born.
I’ve been thinking about them a lot, recently: all those years my grandparents never got to be together. I suspect the hardest times were when my Granddad’s Regiment was posted to yet another exotic location with no home leave at all, and when he wrote each time to his fiancée to tell her his homecoming would be delayed yet again. That and Christmas, when he would have loved to be with her and his family. In a strange echo of the past, their son would write from India at Christmas 1945 to say how fed up he was to be delayed in India after the end of the Second World War, instead of being back home.
Back in 1914, when it was still thought the war would be over quickly, seventeen year-old Princess Mary wanted to send every soldier and sailor involved in the war effort a personal gift for Christmas. ‘Her Royal Highness the Princess Mary’s Sailors’ and Soldiers’ Fund‘ was created, and donations were invited from the general public. In a letter released by Buckingham Palace early in November 1914 and published in British and colonial newspapers, the princess wrote:
“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. Could there be anything more likely to hearten them in their struggle than a present received straight from home on Christmas Day?
Please will you help me?”
The gift was to be a small embossed brass box containing a number of small items. Most contained one ounce of pipe tobacco, twenty cigarettes, a pipe, a tinder lighter, Christmas card and a photograph of the Princess. For the non-smokers the brass box contained a packet of acid tablets, a khaki writing case with pencil, paper and envelopes, and the Christmas card and photograph. Boxes for the nurses contained the card and chocolate.
The response to the appeal was overwhelming. The cost of purchasing sufficient quantities of the gift box for 145,000 sailors and 350,000 soldiers was estimated at £55,000 – £60,000, but the appeal raised £162,591 12s 5d, meaning the gift could be sent to all British and Imperial service men and women: about 2,620,019 in all. The gift boxes were to be delivered in three waves: First all naval personnel and troops at the Front were to receive theirs before, on or shortly after Christmas Day. Wounded soldiers in hospital, men on furlough, prisoners of war (whose gifts were held in reserve) and nurses serving at the Front were also included in this first wave, as were widows and parents of soldiers killed in action. The wording on the card was ‘With Best Wishes for a Happy Christmas and a Victorious New Year from the Princess Mary and Friends at Home’
The second wave included all other British, colonial and Indian troops serving outside the British Isles; and finally in the third wave, all troops stationed in Britain. Second and third wave recipients were to receive their gifts during or shortly after January 1915 – although in reality some had to wait much longer than that. For them, the wording was amended to ‘With Best Wishes for a Victorious New Year from the Princess Mary and Friends at Home’. The front of the card bore the Princess’s monogram, with the year 1914 for the first wave and 1915 for the rest.
Princess Mary’s plan to give the service men and women ‘something that would be useful and of permanent value’ was a great success. The empty brass box was light and air-tight, but also of quite sturdy construction. It could be used to carry and keep safe small personal items such as money, tobacco and photographs throughout the rest of the war. Many of them, my Granddad included, treasured it for the rest of their lives. That’s his (now mine) you see photographed here, together with the original card from Princess Mary that indicates he received his in India as part of the second wave: it’s dated 1915 and bears the ‘Victorious New Year’ greeting.
As for the ‘Victorious New Year’, well that was a little longer coming…
You can read more about the Princess Mary Gift Fund Box, and see photograhs of some with the original contents, on the Imperial War Museum website, and on the Netley Military Cemetery website. They are a lot more sparkly than mine. I decided not to clean it.
On that note, thoughts return to 2020, and to the present Christmas. As I write this, here in the UK hundreds of lorries are backing up at the ports; European hauliers, with no food and few facilities, are unlikely to make it home to be with their families for Christmas; and many people’s already scaled-down plans have been dashed following emergency measures announced after a mutation of the COVID-19 virus. Wherever in the world you are, and whatever changes from your usual festive arrangements you’ve had to make, I wish you a Safe and Peaceful Christmas and a Happy and Healthy New Year for us all.