The First World War Galleries and Christmas Gifts in 1914


Crowds cheer outside Buckingham Palace upon the declaration of war on Germany, August 1914.

When the First World War broke out in 1914, soldiers across Europe marched off to fight.  They were enthusiastically supported by people back home, who hoped their nation would win a swift victory.  Most British people wanted to do something to help win the war.  Britain’s volunteer army rapidly filled up.  Within eight weeks of war, 750,000 willing recruits had joined up.

A British Army recruitment poster, encouraging men from all walks of life to become soldiers. Image © IWM (Art.IWM PST 0318)

But what about those who couldn’t join the Army in 1914?  Women were not allowed.  Unfit volunteers were turned away.  IWM London’s new First World War Galleries will show just some of the different ways these civilians found to support their country.

Organisations like the YMCA sent volunteers to the fighting fronts to work in canteens.  At home, people dug into their pockets to donate to one of thousands of new war charities, set up to help everything from prisoners of war, wounded soldiers to military horses.

A Christmas gift from the British Grocers’ Federation to ‘our fighting heroes’. Image © IWM (EPH 9387)

114 million morale-boosting parcels were sent by the Army Postal Service from its London depot.  Families were responsible for most of the gifts.   Others were distributed by charities and organisations.  Chocolate, sweets, books, cigarettes, and socks were just some of the creature comforts which soldiers loved to receive, no more so than at Christmas time.

Arguably, the most famous Christmas gift of the war came from the Royal Family.  King George V had officially sanctioned Britain’s declaration of war against his cousin Kaiser Wilhelm II’s Germany.  As the festive season approached in 1914, his seventeen year-old daughter, Princess Mary, thought of a way to help.  She issued an appeal, imploring “I want you all to help me send a Christmas present from the whole nation to every sailor afloat and every soldier at the Front…”

The contents of a smoker’s-class Princess Mary Gift Box, which contained tobacco, cigarettes, a Christmas card, a photo of Princess Mary, and the King and Queen. Image © IWM (EPH 1992)

This plea was met with huge enthusiasm.  Enough donations poured in to produce half a million ornate brass boxes.  These were sent out for Christmas Day 1914.  Each contained a card and a gift.  Most were of the smoker’s ‘Class A’ type, containing cigarettes and tobacco.  Smoking was a widespread habit at the time.  But there was a (much less popular) alternative, containing writing materials – paper and pencil.

When the new First World War Galleries open, you will be able to see, up close, examples of these gifts.   They capture an extraordinary moment in time.  In 1914, millions of British men, women and children – and princesses – found their own ways to support their nation’s cause.

  1. Patricia Finnegan says: December 5, 20137:26 pm

    Greetings! I visited the IWM London in November 2010, with special attention given to the First World War Galleries. (I am an American.) I was very impressed then with the exhibits on display! And the rest of the Museum was fantastic, too! All the best with the renovations leading up to the First World War Centenary next summer!!

    • David says: December 9, 20139:24 am

      Hi Patricia – thanks for your kind review, glad to hear you enjoyed your last visit. Hope you’re able to visit us when the new First World War Galleries open next summer!



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