Over six million men from Great Britain served during the First World War. When ‘the war to end wars’ was finally over, more than 1.75 million of the surviving troops returned home with a disability, half of them permanently disabled. The economy was in free-fall, and by 1921 there were two million unemployed, many of them men who had so recently served their country on bloody battlefields far from home. Life was hard for the men, and for families whose loved ones had come back from the war changed, or had not come back at all. Widows and orphans, parents who lost the sons who may have been the bread-winner of the family, wives and children of the disabled who could no longer provide for them. The physical conflict was over, but its legacy endured.
In an effort to help those suffering hardship, four national organisations which had been created at the end of the war joined together to create The British Legion on 15th May 1921. These groups were
- The Comrades of The Great War
- The British National Federation of Discharged and Demobilized Sailors and Soldiers
- The National Association of Discharged Sailors and Soldiers
- The Officers’ Association
One of the founders of the British Legion was Field Marshal Haig who had commanded the British forces at Passchendaele and the Battle of the Somme and who was President of the British Legion until his death in 1928. The British Legion was granted a Royal Charter in 1925, becoming the Royal British Legion, and links with the Royal family of the United Kingdom continue today.
The Royal British Legion is a charitable organisation which provides financial, social and emotional support to former and current members of the British Armed Forces, as well as their families and dependants. Every year they make around 300,000 friendship and welfare visits and help tens of thousands with their War Disablement Pension cases. Their work includes everything from research into issues affecting the health of servicemen and women (e.g., Gulf War Syndrome) to support for service personnel as they move from the military to civilian life. The support given by the Royal British Legion is costly, and their main fund-raising comes from the sale of artificial poppies in the run-up to Remembrance Sunday (the closest Sunday to 11th November, recognising the day on which the First World War ended).
The very first Poppy Appeal took place in 1921, with the poppies selling-out almost over-night and raising over £106,000, which was a large sum 100 years ago. The money raised was used to help veterans of the First World War with housing and employment. No-one in the United Kingdom today could fail to recognise the distinctive poppy, but how many of us know its history?
During the First World War much of the fighting was trench warfare in Western Europe with troops bogged down in mud and filth, constantly bombarded by the enemy. The landscape, once woodland and farmer’s fields, became a desolate landscape of mud and craters where little grew. Yet amongst the destruction, in the miles of mud, one thing seemed to thrive – Flanders poppies. The bright red of their petals seemed somehow symbolic of the blood which had been shed, and the sight of these flowers prompted Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae, a Canadian doctor, to write his now famous poem ‘In Flanders’s Fields’ after learning of the death of a friend. This poem, in turn, inspired an American academic, Moina Michael, to campaign for the poppy to be used as a symbol of remembrance in the US, the UK, Canada and Australia.
In 1921, Frenchwoman Anna Guerin persuaded Earl Haig to adopt the poppy as a symbol, and nine million were sold that first year. The sale was such a resounding success that a factory was set up to produce the poppies in future years. Now around 40 million are sold by volunteers every year in the UK. There is a separate factory in Scotland which produces a slightly different version of the poppy there (with four petals and no leaves).
In the past everyone would stop what they were doing at 11am on the 11th of November to observe one minute of silence in remembrance of those who had died during the war. The modern world does not always allow people this time of reflection, but in the UK the closest Sunday to 11th November is always Remembrance Sunday, where parades and services are held. On the preceding Saturday night, the Royal British Legion holds a ‘Festival Of Remembrance’ in the Royal Albert Hall, London. This Festival is always attended by senior members of the British royal family, and involves a parade of servicemen and women, representatives of youth organisation and uniformed civilian services, and culminates in an act of remembrance in which the petals of thousands of poppies fall on the assembly below.
The Royal British Legion began in the years after the end of ‘the war to end all wars’ and continues to work for the well-being of those who have served in the numerous wars which have happened since. One hundred years after its founding the Royal British Legion is needed now just as much as it ever was then.
You can find out more about the work of the Royal British Legion over the last 100 years here
Here are more of my posts on Remembrance:
The Tomb on the Unknown Warrior
Cemeteries of the First World War
The Graves at Mersa Matruh (The Desert Rats of North Africa)
In Flanders’ fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place: and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
We are the dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders’ fields.
Take up our quarrel with the foe;
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high,
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders’ Fields.