The secrets of my grandfather’s life are held in a box — a 1914 Princess Mary gift box. It’s just a simple brass box. Weathered, dented, tarnished. But to me it is precious because this box saved his life. Which meant this box, in a way, saved my mum’s, mine and my daughter’s lives too.
The embossed brass box was a gift from Princess Mary to my grandfather, one of hundreds of thousands of such boxes given to British soldiers serving on the front in World War I. Its lid is decorated with a portrait of Princess Mary (then the 17-year-old daughter of King George V and Queen Mary), surrounded by a laurel wreath and an “M” on either side. At the top of the box it reads “Imperium Britannicum” with a sword and scabbard on either side. “Christmas 1914” is embossed at the bottom of the lid. In the corners are the names of the Allies: Belgium, Servia, Montenegro and Japan. France and Russia are at each side. This box though, has something more: a bullet hole.
I never really knew my grandfather that well. My only memories of him are from when I was very young, and we would go visit my mum’s parents in England. I do know he was very gruff, perhaps even angry at times. My mum disliked him, as I suppose a daughter can grow to dislike her father. Although as he was dying, she returned often to England to care for him, and later too to take care of his estate (what little was left of it) after he died. She rarely spoke of him after he passed, other than to give me her father’s brass box. “He wanted you to have this,” was all she said.
I wish I knew more about him. Save for a few family photos I still have, and the 1914 Princess Mary gift box, it is only the fading memory snapshots of brief moments spent with him that I have to hold onto now.
“You are his grandson for certain,” my mum told me once, recounting how at age three I had stood between my grandfather and my grandmother, hands on hips, staring up at him and shouting, “Don’t you talk to my grandmum like that!” Apparently, my grandfather was not liking how my grandmother was shucking the peas for the evening supper and started screaming at her. I have no recollection of the event other than what my mum told me. My grandfather, now faced with an angry, determined three-year-old, stopped dead in his tracks, fists clenched, staring down at me. And then he spun about and left the house.
My grandfather used to like to take me for morning walks, though he certainly gave my mum more reasons to dislike him as a result. No matter the weather, he insisted that I wear shorts. And then he would stride along beside me on the path, holding my hand, making me march in the weeds, through the stinging nettles and brambles and thorns. I remember the searing pain and burning welts and him saying simply, “You need to stop crying and learn to ignore pain.” It was, I am sure, his way of trying to ensure I was going to be tough enough to survive in the violent world he had come to know. My mum simply saw him as an unlovable man. But it was also my grandfather who would take me to buy ice cream from the local shop and indulged my boyish imagination by, ironically, playing games of war in the backyard of his home with me.
Sadly, I didn’t think enough to ask my mum more about my grandfather before she passed away. So, I am left with only those few photographs and memories — and the brass box he bequeathed me.
I had seen the box just one time before, when I was seven or eight. Perhaps in my rummaging about my grandparent’s room, I discovered it. Or perhaps he brought it out for me to see. I do remember sitting on his knee, looking at it, marveling at the bullet holes as only a young boy can. I couldn’t grasp the deeper meaning of the box or its contents then. I only remember listening to my grandfather describe the box and talk about the bits and pieces inside as I fingered each of them with curiosity and wondered aloud about this and that.
The German coin was discovered on a battlefield – perhaps fallen from a pocket of one of the many soldiers that died around him each day. The rosary was given to him by a dying French soldier. The organ pipes were from a French cathedral that was blown up. The bullet hole happened as he was shot while leading a charge out of the trenches, knocking him backward a bit, but not stopping him. He kept fighting, realizing at one point the bullet, instead of finding his heart where it was aimed, had ricocheted from the box down into his foot. And he talked about pouring blood out of his boot several times during the battle. Perhaps it was because I was so taken by the box, by his stories, that he decided I would appreciate having it when he was gone.
I wish I knew more about my grandfather. I wish the box and pieces of the battlefields he collected inside of it could talk. One thing I am absolutely sure of though. Whoever my grandfather was before 1914, the war forever changed him and the course of his life.
I have also come to understand that the items inside my grandfather’s brass box are not random. The rosary, coins, and cathedral pipes each represent a piece of his soul that was shot, blown up, stabbed, slashed, and burned until the pain was so great, he could no longer feel a thing. The gift from Princess Mary saved his life, but the war destroyed him. He kept all of that in a box until he died.
Now, as I gaze inside, the secrets in my grandfather’s box keep whispering to me. I just wish I could understand the words.
HITT Tip: You can view a 1914 Princess Mary Gift Box at the Imperial War Museum in London. To learn more about the history of the Princess Mary Gift Fund 1914 read this article from the Imperial War Museum. The United Kingdom’s national war memorial is located at Whitehall in Westminster, London. It is called the Cenotaph and it plays host to the annual Remembrance Service every November. The Remembrance Service is held on the Sunday nearest to November 11 at 11 a.m. every year to commemorate British and Commonwealth servicemen and women who died in both World War I and World War II.