The war that erupted in Europe in August 1914 was supposed to over by Christmas that year. This confident view did not stop Princess Mary, the only daughter of King George V (he appears on the poster below) and Queen Mary, from initiating a scheme to distribute Christmas gifts to the British forces fighting far from home.
Mary made an eloquent appeal to the public on 15 October in a letter released by Buckingham Palace. In it she asked Britons to help her see that ‘every sailor afloat and every soldier at the front’ received a present. ‘Could there be anything more likely to hearten them in their struggle than a present received straight from home on Christmas?’, she wrote.
(Meanwhile the Main Body of the New Zealand Expeditionary Force was yet to leave for the war, let alone fire a shot in it. The 8500 strong force left on 16 October – shown in the image below.)
Back in London, a committee was set up to help make the Princess’s Christmas wish come true. It embarked on public fundraising – including 7000 appeals made specifically to households with more than five servants.
The gift eventually selected by the committee was an embossed brass box, embellished with the profile of Princess Mary on the lid. It was difficult to manufacture the number of gift box required, as brass was in short supply.
Arranging the contents of the gift boxes also proved to be a challenge. Firstly, there had to be options for both smokers (one ounce of pipe tobacco, twenty cigarettes, a pipe a tinder lighter, Christmas card and photo) and non-smokers (the smoking materials were swapped with a packet of acid tablets, a khaki writing case containing pencil, paper and envelopes). Nurses, who were considered too demure to light up, got chocolate.
Due of the cultural and geographical breadth of the British Empire and its forces, there were also the dietary rules of various religions to take into account. For example, the boxes that Indian Sikhs received contained confectionery and spices. And, because of a general shortage of goods, alternatives including tobacco pouches, bullet pencils in silver cases brushes, knives, and scissors, cigarette cases, were substituted.,
Eventually enough money was raised so that every man ‘wearing the King’s uniform on Christmas Day 1914’ received a gift. The Princess Mary Gift Box in Te Papa’s collection belonged to the distinguished Brigadier General, Charles William Melvill (pictured above). Melvill, a British-born member of the NZ Staff Corps, was in England when war broke out, so he joined a British regiment. This meant that he recieved one of the 426,724 gift boxes that were handed out that Christmas. (Altogether 2.6 million were handed out over the course of the war.)
The members of the NZEF, by December training in Egypt, had to wait until September 1915 to receive theirs – or even later, after they returned home! Their Christmas Day treat was a visit to the pyramids and other wonders of the ancient world.
As it happened, the New Zealand Defence Department still possessed hundreds of gift boxes in the 1920s. No longer needed, the silver pencils in them were sent to Samoa and distributed to men in convalescent homes while, in 1927, the remaining brass boxes were melted down into ingots.