World War One began mid-way through 1914 and was meant to be over by Christmas. When it wasn’t, Princess Mary, daughter of King George V, was worried that the men fighting under her father’s command would feel left out at Christmas.
The Princess created a Christmas Fund, and with the help of thousands of ordinary Britons raised £152,691 for the cause – equal to £15,879,864 today. With that money she created the ‘Princess Mary Box’, a shiny brass tin that contained sweets, tobacco and other gifts for the soldiers. The tins were embossed with the Princess’s profile, the words Christmas 1914, and the place of battle, Belgium, France, Serbia, Montenegro, Russia, or Japan. They measured 13 by 7cm.
Every soldier serving at the front or on a navy ship received this gift. However, with many left out and money left over, eligibility was extended to all who were serving, whether at home or abroad, and to prisoners of war and the next of kin of 1914 casualties. With 2.6 million boxes distributed, many still survive as a reminder of this Christmas past.
On the other side, Kaiser Wilhelm II sent his men pipes, cigars and festive presents, such as mini Christmas trees. The Christian tradition of decorating a tree is thought to have originated in the 16th century with German preacher Martin Luther. It only became popular in Britain after Queen Victoria’s family – who had German roots on both sides – were pictured in an 1848 drawing of ‘The Queen’s Christmas tree at Windsor Castle’.
The picture was published in the Illustrated London News, so many people saw of the happy royal family around their family Christmas tree and were inspired to do similar. In Victorian times, the trees were decorated with candles to represent stars.
When in 1914, the British soldiers south of Ypres saw lights and strange shapes moving in the German trenches, they wondered if there was a night attack coming. It was not until the Germans started to sing Christmas carols that they realised that they were just celebrating with their mini Christmas trees lit with candles.
Back in Wellington, the Wellington Meat Export Company canned plum puddings made with suet. These were excellent for the troops as they lasted for months, so would make it through the two month journey to the front without perishing.
However, not all war fronts were created equal. New Zealanders at the French front could count on getting their parcels. Whereas, those at the Middle East front was less fortunate as no Christmas parcels arrived in 1915. Instead, the New Zealand soldiers relied on the Australians, who generously shared their comfort parcels.
Luckily, Tasmanian women had sent a huge quantity of comfort parcels. These included a plum pudding in a billy, cocoa, cakes, chocolates, potted pastes and sardines – whatever the women thought would go down well. The officers chipped in a bottle of beer. As one soldier put it, they did ‘jolly well’ that Christmas.
The flow of parcels was not one way. Soldiers sent gifts home as well. These items varied but were generally souvenirs that were made by local women close to the fields of battle. Women made all sorts of handcrafts from table runners, cushion covers, banners, and embroidered cards. Ashburton Museum has several examples, including one featuring holly, sent by Doug Tilley to his mother while he was in England during World War One.
On December 24, 1914, the Ashburton Guardian ran an article stating,
“The mail at the front contains an abundance of necessities and clothing and streams of Christmas luxuries. The postal arrangements are splendid”
Just after the Christmas they reported that two and a half million letters and half a million parcels had been received at the front. That number would include many gifts and letters sent from Ashburton.
By Vanessa Coulter
- Typical contents of the Princess Mary Christmas tin, 1914.
- A Dinkum Xmas card from 1917, showing ANZAC soldiers dreaming of Christmas pudding in the steam of their corned beef and crackers.
- An embroidered Christmas card sent by Doug Tilley to his mother while he was in England during World War One. ©Ashburton Museum.