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A princess’s gift to a soldier

Sunday, December 22, 2013
Back in Times
One of the 1914 Christmas tins showing the embossing and image of Princess Mary on the lid—from the Angelo Bissessarsingh Collection.

Christmas is a time for family and friends and is largely associated with goodwill and much festivity. For many others, however, the day is mundane and it is even grimmer for the soldier at war. 


On June 28, 1914, a very tense peace between the great realms of Europe was destroyed when Archduke Franz-Ferdinand and his wife, the Countess Sophie, were assassinated in Bosnia. The Archduke was the heir to the powerful Austro-Hungarian dominion. His death precipitated the commencement of hostilities which snowballed into outright war. Great Britain (of which T&T was then a colony) was sucked into the fray. 


The Colonial Government in T&T immediately plunged into the war effort—Trinidad being strategically vital due to its oil resources. Training began at the St James Barracks and Queen’s Park Savannah for volunteers to head to the front. The subjects in Trinidad donated money to purchase an ambulance for joint use by St John’s Ambulance and the British Red Cross. Sir George Le Hunte, Governor of T&T commented in the Legislative Council thus:


“The subjects of His Majesty in this colony are showing their love and fidelity for the crown by giving of themselves to ensure that our soldiers in the trenches need not fear for themselves.”


The Great War was one of the last which was fought without a large mechanical slant and soldiers were exposed to the horrors of the trenches along the Western Front. 


The trenches were hell on earth, being miles of deep, muddy ditches behind fences of barbed wire that offered no protection from the constant rain and biting chill. 


Moreover, if soldiers were to move forward in an offensive sortie, they would have to leap out and run towards enemy lines only to be cut down by machine gun fire. In the trenches there was no protection either and more often than not, the living were forced to sleep near the putrefying remains of the dead who had been killed by mustard gas or mortar fire. 


From across the British Empire, nearly half a million men were sent to fight and the casualties were heavy. The Christmas of 1914 was certainly a dismal affair since so many were dying, and in Buckingham Palace, the young Princess Mary, daughter of King George V, decided that a bit of cheer for the brave warriors in the king’s uniform was necessary. Her father visited Trinidad once in 1880 as a teenaged midshipman, the HMS Bacchante called at these shores. 


He and his brother, Prince Albert, visited several places and planted two poui trees in the yard of St Stephen’s Anglican Church with the name of the village being changed from Mission to Princes Town to mark the occasion. Across the colonies, advertisements were placed appealing for contributions to a Sailors’ and Soldiers’ Christmas Fund. The liberal donations poured in from rich and poor alike.


The Christmas present of the princess was a small brass box five inches long by four inches wide and little more than an inch deep. The tin was durable enough to be taken into the field and was meant to contain part of a gift which varied according to receiver. 


For the smoker there was a parcel of tobacco, 20 cigarettes, a lighter and a pipe. Non-smokers got a packet of antacid tablets, a writing case, paper and pencil. All boxes were supplied with a Christmas card and a photo of Princess Mary. On the lid there was a relief image of the princess while ‘Imperium Britannicum,’ with a sword and scabbard either side, was stamped across the top. The bottom bore the words ‘Christmas 1914,’ while in the corners were the names of the allied countries: Belgium, Japan, Montenegro and Servia; France and Russia .


Because brass was needed for ammunition casings, the supply was limited and this affected the manufacture and distribution of the boxes and contents which was done by the army commissariat. 


Some were delivered in 1915 and yet others by 1916. Soldiers lying wounded in hospitals were not forgotten nor were the widows, orphans and sorrowing parents of those who had fallen. Over two million boxes costing a staggering two hundred thousand pounds were eventually distributed by the time the war ended. 


It would be difficult to appreciate now, the value of this small gift to the soldiers who had given life and limb to fight for a cause. The boxes became treasured souvenirs after the war, and several survive as heirlooms in Trinidad families whose ancestors shed blood in the trenches of Europe nearly a century ago. 


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