The common refrain when talking about the outbreak of the First World War, is the belief that it would be over by Christmas, however by December 1914 the armies were establishing the miles of trenches and there was no sign of peace.
At home there was widespread sympathy for the men away fighting. In November 1914 an advertisement was placed in national newspapers inviting monetary contributions for the ‘Sailors and Soldiers Christmas Fund’.
This fund had been created by the 17-year-old Princess Mary, the only daughter of King George V, with the aim of providing everyone wearing the King’s uniform, and those serving overseas on Christmas Day 1914, with a ‘gift from the nation’.
Princess Mary had at first thought to provide the gifts through her own personal allowance, however, this was though to be impractical, and so it was suggested to add her name to a national fund.
It was decided the gift would be presented in an embossed brass tin, based on a design by Messrs Adshead and Ramsay. Four firms worked together and 498,000 boxes were made, at a cost of 6 1/4d per box.
The original idea was to provide one gift, which consisted of an ounce of pipe tobacco, twenty cigarettes, a pipe, a tinder lighter, Christmas card and photograph. However, it was soon felt that a non-smokers gift should be made available to include a packet of acid tablets, a khaki writing case containing pencil, paper and envelopes, as well as the Christmas card and photograph of the Princess.
In addition special boxes were created for Colonial forces; Gurkhas were to receive the same gift as the British troops; Sikhs a box filled with sugar candy, a tin box of spices and the Christmas card; all other Indian troops, the box with a packet of cigarettes and sugar candy, a tin box of spices and the card. All of these boxes were thought unsuitable for nurses serving at the front and so they were to receive a packet of chocolate and a Christmas card.
By November 1914 demand soon started to outstrip supply, an expansion of the scheme meant that 2,620,019 persons became eligible. Men serving in the Navy and men and women on the front line were to be prioritised to receive their gift by Christmas.
The other recipients received their gifts in 1915, but due to the sheer number of men involved, the contents were reduced to the brass box, a New Year’s card and a pencil.
In total, on Christmas Day 1914, 355,716 gifts were sent to the British Expeditionary Force, 66,168 to men at home, either on Furlough or sick leave, and 1,390 to members of the nursing services. By the close of the fund in 1920 almost £200,000 had been donated.
These examples are all from the collections held at the Somerset Heritage Centre.