Christmas on the Front Line
Itâ€™s difficult to imagine what Christmas day was like in 1914 for soldiers on the front lines in countries like France, Belgium and Germany. We know that the horrors of war didnâ€™t stop, that fighting continued in many parts and that the unofficial truces were opportunities to bury the dead. But weâ€™ve also heard stories of carols sung across the trenches and football games, and we know that during that Christmas â€“ and Christmases for years afterward â€“ soldiers received a small but very special gift.
At the behest of the Princess Mary, the only daughter of King George V (and aunt of Queen Elizabeth II), a fund was created to finance and arrange the creation and distribution of a gift for every soldier fighting for Britain. By the year 1920 more than 2 million soldiers had received a box. This example from the Imperial War Museumâ€™s collection was received by a soldier serving in Egypt and is digitised as part of Adam Matthewâ€™s resource The First World War.
Princess Mary's Gift Fund 1914 Box, Class A Smokers. Image Â© Imperial War Museums. Click the image to access this document in the collection.
The contents of the Princess Mary Gift Fund box depended on the recipient, but most commonly housed tobacco, stationary or sweets, as well as photographs of the royal family and a Christmas card in an embossed tin. The contents and simplicity of this item speaks volumes to the experience of soldiers; smoking was a socialising occupation for men passing long days of inaction, writing was another of few small pleasures, and a metal box that could fit in a pocket and protect food and scant possessions was coveted.
Examining the physicality of the digitised object itself reveals further connotations. Above the engraved profile of Mary and between two swords are the words Imperium Britannica, and the names of allies line the edges, including France, Belgium and perhaps more surprisingly Russia and Japan. While reinforcing the power of the empire, the message is one of being surrounded by support.
With objects like these to explore, we donâ€™t have to imagine at least a small part of a soldierâ€™s Christmas. We know men held these gift boxes in their hands and kept them safe in coat pockets. We know they smoked the cigarettes and the pipe tobacco in the long hours of nothing to do, and perhaps found some comfort or felt less estranged.
Other image credits: Image of Princess Mary in VAD uniform from the cover of The Daily Mirror, 16th July 1918 Â© Mirrorpix.