When I was between the ages of 15 and 17, my family lived in France. One day in the flea markets outside Paris, I found a little brass box that bore my initials, MM, as well as a woman’s head in profile. The inscription above the head read, “Imperium Britannicum” and below that, “Christmas 1914.” The names of Britain’s WWI allies were printed around the perimeter: France, Russia, Belgium, Serbia, Monte Negro, and Japan.
I bought the box – I don’t remember how much it cost – and have always kept little treasures inside. Thanks to the internet, I discovered what it really is: a Princess Mary Box, one of 400,000 gift boxes sent to British troops on the western front in time for Christmas 98 years ago. The campaign to distribute the presents was led by Mary, the seventeen year old daughter of King George V.
In December, 1914, the first world war was four months old. The German invasion of France had been stopped at the Marne that fall. Both sides dug in for the winter, confident of a breakthrough in the spring that would end the war. The first trenches were hastily dug, with no provision for drainage. The winter was wet and cold, and the men spent their days knee deep in freezing water, with no way to get warm.
As Christmas neared, gifts began to arrive, which lifted the spirits of the troops. According to firstworldwar.com, the men of the British Expeditionary Force got plum puddings and:
“Princess Mary boxes”; a metal case engraved with an outline of George V’s daughter and filled with chocolates and butterscotch, cigarettes and tobacco, a picture card of Princess Mary and a facsimile of George V’s greeting to the troops, “May God protect you and bring you safe home.”
The Germans got presents too, like meerschaum pipes, food, and small Christmas trees which they attached to the top of the trenches. A British Daily Telegraph correspondent reported that somehow the Germans slipped a chocolate cake into one section of the British lines, along with a request for a cease-fire that evening for a concert. The British agreed and sent gifts of tobacco in return.
That night, at 7:30, the German’s lit candles. They raised their heads above the trenches and began to sing. Later they called to the British to join in. One Tommy yelled, “I’d rather die than sing in German.” “It would kill us if you tried,” came the reply.
The British line stretched south from Ypres for 27 miles. In some places, the trenches were only 30 yards apart. Towns and fields and other reminders of civilian life had not yet been completely destroyed. Every soldier stuck in the freezing mud longed for home and knew their foes did too. The rain stopped on Christmas Eve. The day was clear, and that night as they joined in Christmas carols, soldiers in ones and twos, then in groups, climbed out of the ground to greet each other in no man’s land.
In some places, the shooting never stopped, but in others the truce extended through Christmas day and beyond. The men played soccer, traded uniform buttons and other souvenirs. Barbers offered haircuts and shaves for free. When the British high command, a safe 27 miles behind the lines, heard of the truce, they were outraged and issued stern orders forbidding fraternization. Most field commanders on both sides ignored such orders.
Though in a few spots, things stayed quiet through New Year’s, in most places the truce ended when Christmas was over. Captain J.C. Dunn, medical officer of the Royal Welch Fusiliers, recorded how the war started up again:
“At 8.30 [on Christmas night] I fired three shots in the air and put up a flag with ‘Merry Christmas’ on it, and I climbed on the parapet. He [the Germans] put up a sheet with ‘Thank you’ on it, and the German Captain appeared on the parapet. We both bowed and saluted and got down into our respective trenches, and he fired two shots in the air, and the War was on again.”
The story was squelched in the British papers until an account ran in the New York Times on December 31. Word then spread around the world. Nothing like it on that scale happened again. Bombardments were ordered on future Christmas Eve’s to prevent it, and after the slaughter of 1916 and the introduction of poison gas, opposing troops grew more bitter toward each other.
I look at the Princess Mary Box and wonder about the soldier who opened it almost a century ago. If the box turned up in a French flea market, I doubt that he made it home – many sent to the front in 1914 did not. The brass of the box still shines. It must have reflected lantern light in trenches and the flare of matches as the men lit up cigarettes sent from home.
It’s nice to know how closely connected the box is with the Christmas truce, a moment in history that has always held a haunting fascination for me. Cynics claim the lull in fighting was used by both sides to spy out each other’s defenses. I am not convinced. People do not remember spying operations 100 years later, and the truce has never been forgotten. As the men sang “Silent Night” in both languages, many in no man’s land must have truly experienced the peace of the holy day.
Firstworldwar.com concludes it’s account of the truce by saying: “Perhaps this is the most important legacy of the Christmas Truce today. In our age of uncertainty, it comforting to believe, regardless of the real reasoning and motives, that soldiers and officers told to hate, loathe and kill, could still lower their guns and extend the hand of goodwill, peace, love and Christmas cheer.”
The text on this cross left near Ypres in 1999 reads, “1914 – The Khaki Chum’s Christmas Truce – 1999 – 85 Years – Lest We Forget.”