25 November 2014

Gifts to soldiers in the WW1 trenches, from the royal family

Princess Mary  (1897–1965), Princess Royal and later Countess of Harewood, was the third child and only daughter of King George V and Queen Mary, and granddaughter of King Edward VII.

The Sailors and Soldiers Christmas Fund was inaugurated by 17 year old Princess Mary in October 1914 to pro­vide a gift to every service­man, soon after the Great War broke out. The idea was the initiative of Princess Mary herself, so she organised a public appeal which raised the funds to ensure that every sailor afloat and every sold­ier at the front received a Christ­­mas present. Due to the strong pub­lic support for the gift, which saw £163,000 raised, the eligib­ility for the gift was widened to include every person wearing the King's uniform on Christmas Day 1914.

The majority of gifts were for smok­ers and comprised an ornate embos­sed brass box containing tob­acco, cigarettes, a pipe and lighter, Christmas card and a photograph of Prin­cess Mary. For non-smokers writing paper and a silvered pencil were provided. For Indian troops sweets and spices were given instead of, or as well as cigarettes. 

Soldier receiving his gift from Princess Mary
Photo credit: Daily Mail

After Christmas 1914 a surplus of funds enabled the scheme to be extended. A simpler gift was given out to all other servicemen, con­sisting of a pencil in a cartridge case, cigarettes, tobacco and New Year card. In total 426,000 of these tins were eventually distributed to members of the British, Colonial and Indian Armed Forces in late 1914 or early 1915. And as the number of grieving parents, widows and orphans went up. it was decided that widows and bereaved parents should also be included as legitimate recipients.

I imagine the lads, lonely scared and away from home for the first time, found great comfort from the small luxury goods. I also think receiving a thank you photo of a young, lovely princess would have meant more to the soldiers than a photo of an elderly, grumpy looking king.

In total, there were some 2.6 million service people in the British, Colonial and Indian forces, and 2.5 million gift boxes were event­ually made. But not all gifts reached their intended recipients as soon as they hoped. Perhaps this was because the Cunard ocean liner RMS Lusitania was sunk in May 1915, losing large quantities of brass.

The Museum of Victoria’s Princess Mary box was made of brass (37 mm in height and 125 mm wide) with a hinged lid. The lid had embossed decoration: in the centre Princess Mary's head was in profile, surrounded by a wreath and the letter M twice. In each corner of the lid was the name of a British ally; the top horizontal edge of the lid was decorated with a bayonet and scabbard; along bottom edge a plaque bearing Christmas 1914 with the bow of a Dreadnought each side; each vertical edge was adorned with three crossed flags with a disc in front bearing France and Russia.

Brass box. The two packages (tobacco and cigarettes) fitted into the tin with just enough room for the pencil in between.
photo credit: Imperial War Museum 

The card read “With best wishes for a Happy Christmas and a vict­or­ious New Year, from the Princess Mary and friends at home”. When the card had been read and the cigarettes consumed, servicemen in the front lines could then used the tins to carry other small items that were precious to them.

Throughout the 4.5 years of the Great War, young Princess Mary visited hospitals and welfare organisations with her mother, assist­ing with projects to give comfort to British servicemen and help to their families. Her public duties reflected her particular concerns i.e nursing, the Girl Guide movement and the Land Girls. She married in 1922.


I imagine that by October 1914, the British Empire armies still thought the war would be over by Christmas. But losses quickly mounted; more than 10,000 were killed, missing or wounded within a month of war breaking out. When Christmas 1914 came and went, thoughts turned towards winter in the trenches. A roaring trade soon developed in gifts for men at the Front, ranging from Fortnum’s hampers (from one to five guineas) and six-shilling silver lighters, a practical present for active service, to simple handkerchiefs, socks and food parcels.

22 November 2014

Daphne du Maurier's Cornwall

I have cited Daphne du Maurier (1907–1989) twice in recent blog posts. Firstly du Maurier was the cousin of the Llewelyn Davies boys, who served as JM Barrie's inspiration for the characters in the play Peter Pan. Secondly Justine Picardie is the author of four books, including the book on the Ritz Hotel that I reviewed; her most recent novel was about Daphne du Maurier.

Now I want to concentrate on Daphne du Maurier in her own landscape. She was born in London to an artistic, theatrical and literary family. I have no doubt that her close family members helped her in estab­lish­ing her literary career, but if she had stayed in London for the rest of her life, her novels and plays would have looked very different.

Of her c25 novels, short story collections and plays written between 1930 and 1980, I have only read a handful Jamaica Inn (1936), Rebecca (1938) and My Cousin Rachel (1951) so I will be particularly influenced by Jessica Tooze’s analysis of the books I have NOT read .

Ferryside, Fowey
bought by the du Maurier family in 1926

It is said about many authors that their ability to recreate a sense of place is an important part of their writing. Nowhere is that more meaningful than in Du Maurier’s writing where places were as important as people; her places could be considered characters in their own right.

Du Maurier was a young woman of 19 when she visited Cornwall for the first time and fell in love with the sea, boats, cliffs, harbours, inns and cottages. She learned to sail and fish with the best of them! And except for a few invol­un­t­ary moves (eg during war time), she never wanted to live anywhere else. She died in 1989, in Cornwall.

Set in an area of natural maritime beauty, Du Maurier settled in the town of Fowey (called Foy) which lies along the estuary fac­ing a deep water harbour. The old town has old Geor­gian and Victorian buildings, but it was a cliff side cottage that captured her attention. Promptly named Ferryside in 1926, the cottage was her centre of peace and magic as she wandered around the Cornish countryside.

I have seen Menabilly i.e Manderley from Daphne du Maurier’s novel Rebecca. The grey stone Georgian mansion hidden behind trees was memorable, but it was the long track down to the sea through “tumbled woods, trailing ivy and tangled undergrowth” that captured her imag­ination! The track was indeed dark, but hardly menacing.

Boats on the River Fowey

Perhaps the menacing aspect came from Du Maurier’s knowledge about ship­wrecks along the coast. Or from her knowledge of smuggling. One day she was riding on Bodmin Moor near Fowey and lost in a thick fog, she came across the Jamaica Inn Temperance Hotel. This hotel had been a stop for stage and mail coaches en route to London. Her novel Jamaica Inn (1936) captured the forbidding bleakness of the moor, allegedly one of the most haunted places for smugglers and travellers in the entire country.

Du Maurier's novels were never really Romances since there were few happy endings. And critics have suggested that even her own brand of Romanticism sat incongruously with her books’ moodiness and sinister overtones.

In her short stor­ies, she wrote even less romantically! In fact she used horror as the main theme eg The Birds, Don't Look Now, The Apple Tree and The Blue Lenses.

Sometimes the stories were set in the same geographic area, but in different centuries. The King's General (1946), for example, was set in the two English Civil Wars. The novel Mary Anne (1954) was the story of her great-great-grandmother Mary Anne Clarke; from 1803-1808, Mary Anne had been the mistress of Frederick Aug­us­tus Duke of York, a son of King George III. The Glass-Blowers (1963) traced the du Maurier family’s very real French ancestry. The book gave a colourful description of the French Revolution, before the family moved from France to England.

My Cousin Rachel is full of recognisable Cornwall. Today visitors are invited to go on a My Cousin Rachel Walk that tours the Barton land near Fowey and explores the region, just as the characters in the book did. The long walk affords amazing coastal views, the farmyards, Tregaminion Chapel, Menabilly, Polridmouth and St Catherine's Castle.

the old coaching house, Jamaica Inn

Needless to say, Fowey has thanked its most famous resident at the town’s Literary Centre. Visitors can examine the small exhibition and the film about Daphne du Maurier’s life, and come to their own conclusions about how her novels were shaped by this part of Cornwall.

18 November 2014

Remembering Ruhleben prisoner of war camp, Berlin 1914-8

Of course prisoners of war and interned civilians are going to try to keep themselves busy and productive, throughout the years of their captivity. Otherwise they would go insane from mind­-numbing boredom, even before they had the chance to die from starvation or disease.

In 1940 the British government rounded up 75,000 German, Aust­rian and Italian aliens across the UK. Within 6 months, war time tribunals across the country had individually summoned and examined 64,000 aliens, including c1,000 teenage lads. Some of these men were in the armed forces and arrested while on parade. They were taken first to police cells, and then to prison, usually on the Isle of Man.

The German-speakers of Onchan camp (Isle of Man)  were a scholarly lot. There were 121 artists & writers, 113 scientists & teach­ers, 68 lawyers, 67 engineers, 38 physicians, 22 post-grad­uate scientists, 19 clerics & 12 dentists. Theor­etical physicist Walter Kohn, who later won the Nobel Prize in Chem­istry, and expressionist artist Kurt Schwitters, were interned guests of His Maj­es­ty’s govern­ment. As were Sir Nikolaus Pevsner, Lord Weidenfeld, Sir Ch­arles Forte, Prof Geoffrey Elton and RW Tiny Rowland. At the other end of the social scale, but just as important to the British economy, were 103 agricultural work­ers. This was not your usual police round up of uneducated, unemployed louts.

Detainees were subject to dehumanising treatment from officials, but discussions between the prisoners was tolerated and the opportunity for education and entertain­ment emerged. Each Isle of Man camp had its own youth group, organising its own debating society and music sessions. A camp university was led by refug­ee academics who arr­anged lectures and English classes. Every evening hundreds of internees, each carrying his chair to one of the lectures, pursued knowledge and kept depression at bay. Eventually the internees could take part in local farm work, run their own camp newspapers, and set up internal businesses and run an inter-camp football league. Life in the Isle of Man camps took on a productive and quite scholarly air.

But I had not heard of a similar story in WW1!! .In Nov 1914, an order was issued for all British civilian men in Germany to be arrested and taken to an old racetrack in Berlin. 5,000 men, tourists and workers from Britain and the Empire, ended up in what became known as the Ruhleben  internment camp.

In Ruhleben prison camp near Berlin, internees built a Little Britain
photo credit: BBC News Magazine

The internees slept in the old racing stables, often on straw, with no blankets and barbaric latrines. The first winter was miserable, and internees did die of disease or starvation. But since there were 26,000 German nationals interned in Britain in WW1, the Germans HAD to improve conditions for their British prisoners who were civilians, not prisoners of war. There were still 200 German guards but they stayed on the perimeter, allowing the prisoners a measure of home rule. New barracks were built and rations increased. And a proper community had to develop.

Each barracks established a committee because, to stave off boredom, the interned men needed to be useful. Chess clubs and debating societies were formed, then an orchestra and a theatre. Plays by Ibsen, Shakespeare, Shaw, Sheridan and Wilde were performed and Gilbert and Sullivan operettas were enjoyed. There were also workshops that taught bookbinding, watch-­making and engraving, a lending library established. There were organised sports, including boxing, cricket and league football teams.

A gift of seeds from the Crown Prince of Sweden in mid 1915 seems to have suggested the idea of gardening. Then in late 1916, a letter was posted to the Royal Horticultural Soc­iety’s offices in London. It announced the creation of the “Ruhleben Horticultural Society”, and asked for bulbs and seeds to be sent to Berlin.

But it was not until 1917 that the British internees asked to expand the central part of the racecourse as a large vegetable garden. That year, with help from London's Royal Horticultural Soc­iety, there was also a series of hortic­ultural lectures and exhibitions, with “prizes” awarded for vegetab­les and gardens. Pests were a big problem at first, manure was not available and the soil was quickly transformed into mud. But the men built frames and greenhouse. Eventually the camp was almost self-sufficient in fruit and vegetables. By 1918, there was almost no food left in Germany so the quality of diet inside the prison fence was probably higher than outside.

organised sport at Ruhleben prison camp 
photo credit: Harvard Law Library

If you can believe it, the British class system reasserted itself inside Ruhleben. Public schoolboys quickly set up exclusive clubs, and even paid other internees to act as formally dressed drink waiters. Hanging around with merchant seamen for four years meant that the habit of swearing spread to the middle-class internees, so they needed a period of “quarantine” before returning home post-war.

During and after WW1, the Ruhleben camp was famous in both Britain and Germany. After the Armistice a number of books were published about the internees’ experience at Ruhleben. But as the full horror of the trenches became clearer, the camp was quickly forgotten. Ruhleben might have been beset by bestial conditions, but it was an idyll compared to what was happening at Ypres or the Somme.

Running until Jan 2015, The Gardens and War exhibition is presenting the Ruhleben story in London. The goal of the show is to display the British at their most resourceful, despite horrible war time conditions. This was story of British ingenuity and practical­ity, via pumpkins and onions. 

The story is also told in A History of Ruhleben, written by Joseph Powell and Francis Henry Gribble (published by Nabu Press, 2010). And in “The Other RHS” by Mark Griffiths, published in Country Life 6th August 2014.