The British Army has always concentrated on musketry, which has been at the basis of all its training. We have always had the highest standards, such as was indicated by the letter sent by an East African soldier in the 1914–18 war who was in an isolated post in no sort of contact with the enemy, but who wrote: “Sir, I have the honour to report that I am surrounded by 300 Germans. Please expedite the arrival of one Service rifle, mark III, and 300 rounds of ammunition.

James Hutchison MP relating an anecdote about the British Army’s marksmanship during a Parliamentary debate on the adoption of the FN FAL by the British army.  Hutchinson had served during both World Wars and in 1944 had been parachuted into occupied France to act as SOE liaison with the French Resistance. 



Princess Mary’s Christmas Gift

In late 1914, Princess Mary began a campaign to raise funds to send all British and Imperial troops a small gift for Christmas.  On October 14th, the 17 year old Princess Mary launched her appeal writing:

‘I have delayed making known a wish that has long been in my heart for fear of encroaching on other funds, the claims of which have been more urgent. I want you now to help me to send a Christmas present from the whole nation to every sailor afloat and every soldier at the Front.  On Christmas Eve when, like the shepherds of old, they keep their watch, doubtless their thoughts will turn to home . . . I am sure that we should all be the happier to feel that we had helped to send our little token of love and sympathy . . . 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.’

The ’Princess Mary’s Christmas Gift Fund’ quickly became the post popular Christmas fund and the public call for donations eventually yielded an astonishing £162,591 12s 5d this staggering sum equals roughly £7,500,000 today. 

Princess Mary (source)

The gift box was designed by Adshead and Ramsey, it included a 5 by 3 ½ inch by 1 ¼ inches deep embossed brass box with Princess Mary’s profile in the centre surrounded by the names of Britain’s allies including Serbia, Russia, Japan and France and the words ‘Christmas 1914’ at the bottom of the lid (see image #1).  The contents of the box varied as the box was to be given to over 1 million men from all over the empire.  The primary gift for British and Imperial troops from Australia, Canada and South Africa and the Gurkhas would include: a Christmas card, a picture of Princess Mary, a lighter, a pipe, one ounce of tobacco and a packet of twenty cigarettes or two packets of cigarettes.

However, the committee responsible for the gift boxes realised that not all men smoked and that other minority troops would not appreciate the same gifts for various religious and cultural reasons.  As such there was an impressive amount of variation between the gifts.   Non-smokers were to receive the Christmas card, picture of Princess Mary, a .303 cartridge shaped pencil, some acid tablets (vitamin C tablets) and a khaki writing case which contained paper and envelopes.  

Indian troops of different religions receive a number of variations of the gift.  Sikhs were given a box of spices and some sugared candies instead of the pipe and tobacco.  Bhistis (from Northern British India) received a larger box of spices while other Indian troops were given a packet of cigarettes, candy and spices.  Nurses were also given the gift box and they received chocolate in place of the tobacco.

Christmas card from the 1914 gift box (source)

A dozen British companies were involved in supplying the Christmas gift with firms including HarrodsAsprey & Co Ltd,  De La Rue & Co and tobacco companies.  However, even with all of these companies involved some orders were unable to be met in the short space of time and some men received alternate gifts such as tobacco pouches, shaving brushes & combs, scissors, packets of postcards, pocket knives and cigarette cases.

It was initially planned to only give front line troops the gift however, the large amount of money raised meant that every man in uniform regardless of where he was serving was able to be given the present. This meant just under three million soldiers, sailors and nurses were to be given the gift box.   Priority was given to all troops on active service in Europe and at sea, second priority went to those serving in other theatres while finally all other uniformed personnel serving at home in Britain were given last priority.

1915 New Years Card (source)

By late December 426,724 gifts had been distributed with the remaining groups beginning to receive theirs during January 1915.  The sheer magnitude of providing three million gifts meant that some troops were still receiving theirs in 1916.  The troops receiving their gifts after Christmas 1914 were given a simpler 'universal box’ which included a New Year’s Card and a Pencil (see card above).  After 1914, the making of the gift boxes became increasingly difficult as tobacco became harder to come by and the brass used to make the boxes was needed for cartridge and shell cases.  In 1915, an order for brass was made in the US with one shipment being sent on the Lusitania, it was lost when the ship was torpedoed in May 1915.

The box was gratefully received by most men, the tobacco and other gifts were welcome comforts at the front.  In a war which had been expected to be over by Christmas a gift from home showing the public and monarchy’s appreciation for their efforts was greatly appreciated. Many soldiers used the boxes to store letters received from home, or other personal effects such as notebooks or photographs.  Others kept the pipes and other gifts, smoked the tobacco and sent the their tins home to their families.  


Image One Source

Image Two Source

Image Three Source

Image Four Source 

'Princess Mary’s Gift to the Troops, Christmas 1914’ IWM (source)

'About the Christmas Gift Fund’ (source)