|By Bain News Service via Wikimedia Commons|
Spared that day, Private Mike Brabston of the Irish Guards later sustained an eye injury that landed him in the hospital. When he had recovered, he asked the hospital matron to return the little box, with his heartfelt thanks, to the young lady who had sent it to him, The Princess Mary, only daughter of King George V.
Private Brabston’s story is just one of many told by British soldiers and sailors who felt their lives had been saved by their “Princess Mary Box.” Intended to comfort and bring a bit of Christmas joy to the troops during that first holiday season of World War I, the little boxes became real treasures to their owners—it kept personal items safe and dry at sea or in the trenches, became a family heirloom, and even occasionally stopped a bullet.
Princess Mary was only 17 when the war started. Naturally shy, her isolation became complete with the declaration of war. Raised entirely at home, never having attended a school of any sort, Mary’s only friends were her brothers and her maid. But, her older brothers (the future Kings Edward VIII and George VI) were away in the military and her younger brothers were away at school. She worried desperately about all of them, particularly Bertie (later George VI)—on the first night of the war, she had a nightmare that he was killed in a naval battle. With both of her parents overwhelmingly busy, Mary had only her maid, Else Korsukawitz, to confide her fears. Then, Else was sent away. As a German national, she was given the choice of returning to Germany or entering an internment camp—she chose Germany. A heartbroken Mary was alone and had nothing to occupy her.
She decided to escape London and went to the family’s country estate at Sandringham in Norfolk. There, she could spend time with her beloved horses and she could visit with her old nanny, the beloved Lala Bill. Lala instantly recognized the princess’s depression and easily guessed the cause. Lala proposed that Mary do something useful with her time, something that would benefit the war cause.
|By Simon Speed via Wikimedia Commons|
By Christmas, nearly half a million little gifts had been distributed. Most included cigarettes, pipe tobacco and a lighter with a Christmas card from Mary. Nurses received chocolates and Indian soldiers received spices and candy. Some soldiers received pencils and paper. And, every gift came in a little brass box stamped with Mary’s profile and initials. She had asked to have the King’s portrait on the box, but he insisted that his favorite child use her own image. Soon, hundreds of thank you letters began pouring into Buckingham Palace. Today, Princess Mary boxes are highly collectible and can be found all over the world.
The experience transformed the shy and lonely girl into a confident young woman with purpose. Soon, Princess Mary was visiting wounded soldiers in the hospital and engaging in charitable activities—often addressing huge crowds. Within a couple of years, Mary announced that there was still more she could do. At breakfast one morning, she told her mother, “I have decided to become a nurse.”