World War I, which began at the end of July 1914, was originally planned by its participants as a brief conflict. Soldiers and Officers truly believed to return home to Christmas. However, the time passed and none of the opponents was going to give up. By the end of the year it was clear that Christmas in the trenches cannot be avoided. In this situation the patriotic home front, still believed in a quick victory, should keep the soldiers fighting spirit.
In early October, the 17-year-old Princess Mary, the eldest daughter of the King of the United Kingdom George V, announced her desire to give every sailor at sea and every soldier in the trench a gift, that will remind home. She was going to pay for the campaign herself. However, the research showed that even a princess cannot afford such expenses. The solution was found in the establishment of a special public «Soldiers and sailors Christmas Fund», named after Mary, which was supposed to collect the necessary amount. From the very beginning, the Princess took an active part in fundraising, having addressed her compatriots with the following words:
«I would like you to help me send a Christmas present from the entire nation to every sailor at sea and every soldier at the front. I am sure we would be happy if we felt that we could send our sight of love and solidarity on Christmas morning. A present, which would be useful and could provide employment for people whose well-being has been undermined by the war. Could it be something more appropriate than a present received straight from home for Christmas to cheer them in the war? Please, help me».
Two weeks later, on October 18, 1914, «The Sunday Times» a long list of people who donated. More than 160 thousand pounds Sterling was received – an impressive amount for that time. Most of this money was given by ordinary people from all over the United Kingdom. There was much more money than it was required for gifts to the active army in France and Flanders. So, it was decided to expand the program to «everyone who wears British uniform on Christmas». Even for those who were on the home front, to Sisters of Mercy, relatives of dead soldiers, as well as captives – the last should receive gifts after repatriation.
The packing of Princess Mary's gift consisted of a box with an embossed pattern on the lid, stamped from lacquered brass sheet. The size was 5 × 3.25 × 1.25 inches. In the center of the lid was a medallion with a profile of Princess, accompanied by two of her monograms. In the upper part of the composition, there was the Latin inscription «IMPERIUM BRITANNICUM», in the lower — «CHRISTMAS 1914». On the sides and corners of the box lid in Latin were listed allies of the United Kingdom at that time: France, Russia, Belgium, Japan, Serbia, and Montenegro. All this splendor was complemented by laurel branches, swords, banners, and dreadnought noses cutting the wave. There is information that some of the boxes for Officers were made of silver.
At that time, smoking was widespread, and the boxes supposed to consist of a pack of 20 cigarettes, an ounce of pipe tobacco, a pipe, and a lighter, accompanied by a greeting card and a portrait of Princess. However, the committee responsible for gift distribution heard well-founded concerns that this content would not be suitable for everyone.
Another problem was related to the inability to staff the gifts quickly and simultaneously and deliver them in time. As a result, the recipients, in the best traditions of the British bureaucracy, were divided into three classes and several categories.
The «A» class, which was supposed to receive gifts on Christmas or the day before (about 426,000 people), included sailors of the Royal Navy, soldiers of Expeditionary Force on the continent, injured in hospitals, vacationers, captives, front-line nurses, as well as widows and parents of victims. At the same time, non-smokers and minors should have received the same box, but with lemon dragee, sets of writing materials (case, pencil, writing paper, envelopes) along with the same Christmas card and a photo of Princess. The frontline nurses received chocolate and a postcard. Differences from the standard «tobacco» set often led to the fact that the items did not fit in the box and were handed out separately.
Indian soldiers were especially problematic. It was decided that the Gurkhas would receive the same gift as the British, the Sikhs — sweets, spices and a Christmas card, the Bhishti Muslims — spices and a postcard, all other Indian troops — a pack of cigarettes, sweets, spices and a postcard.
Class «B» included all British, colonial, and Indian troops serving outside the British Isles that are not in class «A». Class «C» included all troops in the British Isles. Their gifts were more modest than those for the frontline soldiers and included only a greeting card, as well as a pencil stylized to resemble a Lee-Enfield rifle cartridge. It was put in the shell and added a tip, look like a bullet. Gifts of «B» and «C» categories were distributed after Christmas 1914, and in fact — before the end of the war and even after it. In total, more than 2,600,000 gifts were sent, and the Princess Mary`s Christmas Fund finally closed in 1920.
It is interesting to know that problems of The United Kingdom with strategically important rolled brass used for stamping boxes led to the purchase of rolled products in the United States, which was not yet involved in the war. However, 45 tons of purchased brass went down with the liner «Lusitania», sunk by German submarine on May 7, 1915 off the coast of Ireland. As a result, the later made boxes were much worser quality than the first ones. They often contained tobacco pouches, shaving kits, hairbrushes, card sets, knives, scissors, cigarette cases, and wallets.
Despite its simplicity and cheapness, Princess Mary's gifts were very popular among soldiers. Having used the contents, soldiers used strong and tightly closed boxes to keep various small items, and after the end of the war they kept money, documents, military awards, and other relics in them. Having received gifts, many soldiers immediately sent them to their wives and children. In many British families, darkened brass boxes with a princess profile are kept as a reminder memory of the husbands and fathers who died during the First World War.
The popularity of «Mary's Tin» is proved by the fact that even modern copies of a brass box are widely spread as souvenirs. However, a remake can always be identified by a thinner metal and a loose lid.