For Every Sailor Afloat, Every Soldier at the Front

Princess Mary’s Christmas Gift, 1914

By Peter Doyle

Unicorn Publishing, 2021

How much is there to say about a tin that measures just 13cm by 9cm? It turns out, quite a lot! In fact 287 pages of detail (plus bibliography and endnotes). For this is of course no ordinary tin.

Now I don’t normally start a book review by talking about the pictures, but in this case I will make an exception. If you have read any of Peter Doyle’s other works you will be familiar with the high-quality images that feature in them, and ‘For Every Sailor Afloat’ is no different. The images have been carefully selected – as you would expect there are copious photographs of the tins and their various contents, as well as other relevant contextual images, all in stunning high quality.

That is not to say the written content is any less deserving of praise. The first chapter introduces Princess Mary, before looking at other fundraising initiatives in 1914, the forerunners to the tin (such as the Queen Victoria tin of chocolates sent to troops during the Boer War), and the fundraising effort.

There has been confusion over the years in terms of the eligibility for the tin, and the various contents. Doyle covers these in detail, with three chapters covering the different permutations and dispelling some of the ‘duff history’ that surrounds them.

With the idea of the tin only being announced in October 1914, one of the most fascinating aspects (to me at least) was the logistics surrounding it and how quickly it was designed and produced in time for Christmas 1914. This is even more incredible given that brass was also required for the war effort (i.e. making munitions) and various suppliers could not deliver to the extent that was needed.

Doyle has scoured the records for mentions of the tin and the book covers the reaction to it, with many interesting personal recollections drawn together, and even some instances where the tin was attributed to saving soldiers’ lives. The final chapter looks at the enduring legacy of the tin.

The Princess Mary Christmas gift tin remains a highly sought after and recognizable artefact of the First World War, and Peter Doyle has produced what can be considered the definitive account of this iconic piece of history.

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For Every Sailor Afloat, Every Soldier at the Front: Princess Mary’s Christmas Gift 1914