The Princess Mary 1914 Christmas Gift Box
The Princess Mary 1914 Christmas Gift Box was a brass box that was intended as a Christmas present for ‘every sailor afloat and every soldier at the front’ in the Great War on Christmas Day 1914. This ‘gift from the nation’ was called after Princess Mary, the seventeen year old daughter of King George V and Queen Mary, whose original idea it was.
However the scale of the project was such that a ‘Sailors & Soldiers Christmas Fund’ was established to invite monetary contributions from the public. The response to the sincerity and earnestness of the young Princess’ personal appeal was such that the original idea was extended to include all those serving, either at home or abroad. Due to the phenomenal response from the public the fund was in surplus. Thus distribution criteria were able to be extended to meet the increasing demand with many service people feeling they had been ‘left out’. Eventually all who were serving whether at home or abroad, prisoners of war and the next of kin of 1914 casualties would receive the gift box; eventually over 2,600,000 people were to benefit from the widened eligibility.
The gift was a brass box (silver for the officer class – plus ça change!) which featured a relief portrait of the young Princess flanked by a double monogram as well as reliefs referring to the allied Nations.
The gift initially included an embossed brass box, one ounce of pipe tobacco, twenty cigarettes, a pipe, a tinder lighter, Christmas card and photograph (packet of acid tablets, a khaki writing case containing bullet pencil, paper for boys and/or non-smokers in place of tobacco items). Provision was also made for the religious and dietary sensibilities of Indian troops. Given the vastly expanded constituency for the gift recipients it was impossible to manufacture, supply and distribute the gifts by Christmas Day 1914 to those other than troops serving at the front – later recipients who only got their gift in 1915 received a New Year 2015 card instead of a Christmas 2014 card. In fact so vast was the task of getting the items to over 2,600,000 people that some only received their gifts after the Armistice in 1918!
Obviously there was a strain on the availability of brass during wartime and arrangements were made for the supply of some 45 tonnes of brass strip from the United States of America, which at that time, May 1915, had still not entered the war. The ship used to transport the shipment was none other than the RMS Lusitania, which was torpedoed 18 km off the Old Head of Kinsale and inside the war zone as declared by the Germans. While it might have been a stretch to justify the sinking of an ocean liner with the loss of 1,198 lives on the basis that it was carrying 45 tonnes of brass strip for the ‘war effort’ it was subsequently learned that the ocean liner did have a substantial cargo of munitions on board.
Apart from the fact that so many were distributed, another reason so many still exist is testament to the quality of brass and workmanship that went to make up each box – at least those made earlier in the war – subsequent boxes were made of inferior metal plated alloy. Consequently those were not as treasured as the earlier issue which were relatively airtight and as such were useful for keepsakes, photographs, papers, etc., long after their original contents were gone.
It is estimated that fifty or so Kilmurry men saw service in the Great War. In his book Kilmurry 1915-1918: The War Years (Cork: self-published, 2015) local historian Michael Galvin has recorded their service and the fact that at least 14 perished in the war.
Generally recruitment numbers in rural areas was less than those in urban areas the general trend was that rural recruitment tended to be mostly farmer’s sons, although Kilmurry Parish had quite a high percentage of recruits from local gentry families. As Michael states in his book, whatever the various reasons or motivations that sent these young men to war there was no doubting their raw courage.
One of the 14 who never returned home was a Shandangan man, John Barry, a Royal Navy sailor who lost his life in a submarine explosion in the North Sea on St. Stephen Day, Christmas 1915.
While the particular provenance of the brass box (one of the earlier brass embossed ones) exhibited in the Independence Museum Kilmurry collection is unknown, it is quite likely that it belonged to one of the Kilmurry men who served.