‘HRH the Princess Mary’s Christmas Fund’ was launched on 14 October and soon captured the public imagination raising £162,591 12s 5d to ensure that every person ‘wearing the King’s uniform on Christmas Day 1914’ received a Christmas present; this amounted to 2,620,091 servicemen and women.
The gifts took the form of embossed tins containing small treats aimed at boosting morale. All boxes contained a photograph of the princess and a Christmas card, but then a variety of contents were selected to cater for different recipients; most boxes contained 1 oz of tobacco and 20 cigarettes, but alternative boxes for non-smokers were also produced containing writing paper and a bullet pencil. An effort was also made to tailor the contents to the dietary restrictions of various religious groups fighting under the British flag. The Gurkhas were to receive the same gift as the British troops; for Sikhs the box was filled with sweets and spices; for all other Indian troops the box had a packet of cigarettes, sweets and spices. Authorised camp followers, grouped under the title ‘Bhistis’, were to receive a box of spices. All the aforesaid gifts were deemed unsuitable for nurses serving at the Front who were instead offered the box and a packet of chocolate.
The large number of people who were to receive the gift rendered it impossible to manufacture, supply and distribute the gifts by Christmas Day 1914. So whilst most troops serving in France and in the Navy received their gifts by Christmas Day, other members of the British forces received theirs later accompanied by a Happy New Year card.
The logistics of producing over 2 million brass tins were also very complex. Brass was a valued metal for the war effort, and sources were scarce. Large quantities were bought from America, but the bulk of an order to be used in the manufacture of the tins sank with the RMS Lusitania when she was torpedoed off the coast of Ireland on 7 May 1915.
Having used or consumed the contents, servicemen and women often used the tins to carry other small items, which ensured the survival of a relatively large number of these unique containers. One such tin came into the Library’s possession and is currently on display in the Long Room as part of the exhibition ‘manage to exist and try and be cheerful’ mounted to commemorate the anniversary of WWI.