The terrible human cost of the First World War (1914 to 1918) left nearly 900,000 British and Commonwealth soldiers, sailors and airmen dead. Around 1.75 million came home with some level of disability, whether physical or psychological.
The Commander-in-Chief of the British Army, Field Marshal Douglas Haig, had long been concerned about the future welfare of veterans – disabled and able-bodied.
The mix of trilbys and bowler hats indicates their probable original pre-war status as office staff, rather than manual workers. In the aftermath of the war, with the country burdened by huge debts and production plummeting, around two million people of all backgrounds were unemployed. One in three was an ex-serviceman.
By the end of the war, there were four existing rival organisations helping ex-service personnel. But Haig saw that there was a pressing need for one single large organisation to represent and support those who had sacrificed so much, as well as acting as a campaigning body, holding the government to account.
The four organisations finally acknowledged that they would need to be officially united as one institution to be effective. On Sunday 15 May 1921, a representative from each of the four societies marched to the Cenotaph, symbolically laying four wreaths bearing their respective badges.
The Legion is the only military charity that has branches and members (220,000). The branches have always been social centres, as well as providing welfare support. By November 1921, within six months of its founding, 2,500 branches had been established. By the 1950s, there were 4,750.
Today the number is again 2,500, including in the Commonwealth and elsewhere. A British Legion Women’s Section was formed in July 1921 and has always had a royal Patron. Today their Patron is the Queen.
That moment was the genesis of the British Legion, a military charity providing a lifelong duty of care – financial, social, emotional, medical and employment – to Armed Forces’ veterans and their families, regardless of rank, religion or political affiliation. The Legion, the national champion for remembrance, is best known by the public for its annual fund-raising drive – the Poppy Appeal.
The Legion’s first President was Earl Haig.
The early days of the Royal British Legion
The task the fledgling British Legion set itself after the First World War, to support hardship cases and promote self-help, was enormous.
There were nearly 250,000 total or partial amputees. Men had facial disfigurement or had been blinded. Others suffered from deafness, tuberculosis or lung damage caused by poison gas. There were thousands of cases of shell shock from the horrors of warfare (diagnosed today as post-traumatic stress disorder). There were widows and orphans and other dependents.
In addition, the post-war years brought mass unemployment as the once economically-dominant Britain, burdened by war debt, now had serious commercial rivals abroad. Millions needed help. The Legion urgently had to raise funds.
For seven years after the launch of the Legion, until his sudden untimely death from heart failure in 1928, Earl Haig toured Britain with Lady Dorothy Haig – visiting branches, opening hospitals, making speeches – tirelessly championing the needs of ex-servicemen and their families, boosting the profile of the Legion and helping raise money.
Key to fund-raising was Haig’s launching of the first Poppy Day Appeal, on the third anniversary of Armistice Day, 11 November 1921. The poppy quickly became the instantly recognisable and eloquent emblem of the British Legion, symbolic of sacrifice, remembrance and peace – and a huge financial success for the Legion.
The British Legion and the poppy
The use of the poppy as a symbol is thought to have originated from Canadian
John McCrae’s May 1915 poem, ‘In Flanders Fields.’ It begins with the words:
‘In Flanders fields the poppies blow, Between the crosses, row on row…’
Blood-red poppies were a common sight, especially on the battlefields of the
Western Front, flourishing in the chalky churned up earth.
Anna Guérin, a lecturer and humanitarian, had moved to America from France
when the First World War broke out, running a charity there to fund-raise for
people made destitute by war, energetically promoting her work by using the
poppy as a symbol. She also held Poppy Days in several states, before turning her
attention to Europe.
Guérin wanted the Allies to sell poppies made by French widows and orphans,
both as an act of remembrance and to raise funds to support dependents of the
dead and those who survived.
This highly experienced fund-raiser, well-versed in working with women volunteers, arrived in Britain in September 1921, intent on getting the newly-formed British Legion to adopt her idea. Crucially, she offered to fund and manufacture a million poppies in France.
After initial scepticism on some fronts, Earl Haig was persuaded, announcing on 6 October 1921 that 11 November would henceforth be known as ‘Poppy Day’. It would also be ‘Remembrance Day’ (known too as Armistice Day and, after the Second World War, Remembrance Sunday), with the traditional National Service of Remembrance held at the Cenotaph and a two minute silence at 11am. The latter fell out of use after the Second World War and was reinstated in 1996 by then-Prime Minister John Major.
As well as Guérin’s one million poppies, the Legion commissioned eight million of its own to be manufactured in Britain. The black button in the centre of the poppy was originally stamped ‘Haig’s Fund’. This was changed in 1994 to ‘Poppy Appeal.’
The poppy caught the public’s imagination. By the end of 1921, the Poppy Day Appeal’s sale of the nine million poppies had raised today’s equivalent of over £5 million. The funds were used to help with housing and employment.
The Poppy Factory
Building on this success, the Legion established its own Poppy Factory in 1922 in the Old Kent Road. It was founded by Major George Howson, awarded the Military Cross in the First World War, whose vision was to employ war-disabled veterans. Veterans here made 30 million poppies for the 1922 Poppy Day Appeal.
By 1924, larger premises were needed and the Factory moved to Richmond employing 190 ex-servicemen. Accommodation was built near the factory for its workers.
The Legion’s remembrance poppies and wreaths and assorted poppy memorabilia are still made today at Richmond – 4.5 million poppies out of a total of 31.5 million a year.
Poppies are also mass produced in a factory in Aylesford, Kent, the location of the Royal British Legion Village. The village was founded after the First World War to help injured veterans back into society.
It is now a thriving community with nursing care, housing, social activities, and employment for several hundred members of the Armed Forces through the British Legion Industries, who manufacture products including road and rail signs. The village has also been the headquarters of the Poppy Appeal since 1972.
The Field of Remembrance
The Field of Remembrance, with its hundreds of little wooden markers – crosses and those of other faiths – each bearing a poppy and a personal tribute to a fallen member of the Armed Forces, has become an annual event in October and November at the Abbey and elsewhere in Britain. At this time of year, the Legion ensures poppy wreaths are laid on every war memorial in the country.
The British Legion Post-Second World War
384,000 members of the British Armed Forces died in the Second World War (1939 to 1945), along with nearly 70,000 civilians. 4.6 million British Service personnel were demobbed, among them around 300,000 veterans returned home disabled – physically or psychologically.
As well as initiatives, including establishing hospitals, care facilities and convalescence homes, the Legion’s focus post-war was on getting veterans back into work. They also pressurised the government to ensure employers were fulfilling the substance of the 1944 Disabled Persons (Employment) Act, which included taking on a minimum of 3% disabled workers. The Legion had campaigned hard for this Act, as well as for decent war pensions – something it continues to do today.
In response to the mass unemployment of the post-First World War years, the Legion had supported ex-servicemen by offering loans to set up small businesses, such as window-cleaning, boot repairing, chimney-sweeping or to start a shop. These continued up to 1950, five years after the end of the Second World War.
Following the war, the Legion also provided training in specialist trades. For example, after his discharge Sean Connery, above, joined a British Legion employment scheme to help the young and disabled – retraining as a French polisher.
Among other employment initiatives, the Legion ran the London Taxi School which, from 1928, trained over 5,000 men to become black cab drivers via the ‘Knowledge’. The School finally closed in 1995.
Today, the Legion still provides grants to pay for training or equipment, as well as career advice, to support the transition from Armed Forces roles to civilian life and work.
The Legion faces new challenges in the 1960 and 70s
The Legion’s voice was virtually drowned out by the anti-war protests and unrest of the 1960s and 1970s, when America was in turmoil fighting the Vietnam War (1955 to 1975). The world was convulsed by the threat of nuclear war, and Britain was embroiled in the sectarian battles of Northern Ireland (‘The Troubles’), with soldiers sent there from 1969 to 2007.
The younger generation born after the Second World War knew little of the trauma and complexities of global conflict. Their view was that any support for the Armed Services glorified war. All they wanted was peace – something the British Legion itself has always strived for right from its inception.
Resurgence of public support for the Legion
The British Legion marked its golden anniversary in May 1971, by receiving the Royal title. A re-dedication service took place at Westminster Abbey in the presence of the Queen.
In the next decades, the conflicts of the late 20th/early 21st century – including the Falklands War (1982), Gulf War (1991), Iraq War (2003 to 2011) and Afghanistan (2001 to 2021) – rekindled public respect for the Armed Services and renewed support for the Legion’s work.
But, as well as fatalities, these and other conflicts also led to thousands of injuries in the Armed Forces, including illness and psychological conditions, such as Gulf War Syndrome, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). These problems acted as a catalyst for the Legion to support the Armed Forces in new ways.
The Legion funded the state-of-the-art Trauma Gym, above, where veterans with complex injuries focus on regaining mobility and independence.
In addition, the Royal British Legion wholly funded the Battle Back Centre, Lilleshall, Shropshire. The centre offers adaptive sports and adventure training for veterans with disabilities – wheelchair basketball, mountain biking, archery, climbing, caving – along with support for those who are struggling psychologically.
Across its history in Britain and elsewhere, the Legion has always been involved in commemorative acts of remembrance, pilgrimages to past scenes of conflict, as well as creative initiatives.
In 1997, it wanted to encourage more people to wear a poppy, especially the young. In an eye-catching move, the Spice Girls joined forces with Dame Vera Lynn to launch the Poppy Appeal. It received blanket coverage in the national press and takings from the Appeal that year reached over £17 million pounds, £1 million more than the year before.
The NMA is the national centre for remembrance, with 400 memorials set in a woodland landscape of 150 acres. It honours those who have served and sacrificed, including of members of the Armed Forces, the police and fire services, as well as civilians and voluntary bodies.
The Legion took over the running of the NMA in 2004 as part of its family of charities which includes Poppyscotland. Bringing organisational skills and financial support that ensured that the Armed Forces Memorial was built. The Memorial was dedicated in 2007 and visitor numbers subsequently grew to over 300,000 a year.
The centenary of the First World War in 2014 brought the Legion and its Poppy Appeal into even sharper public focus, as many commemorations and events took place across Britain, and elsewhere, along with thousands of hours of related programming on TV and radio.
One of the most high profile events was an art installation at the Tower of London. 888,246 hand-made ceramic poppies on long metal spikes were planted in the moat by over 20,000 volunteers, each commemorating a British or Commonwealth Armed Forces’ loss of life in the First World War. The last poppy was placed in the ground on 11 November 2014. The installation was visited by around five million people from all around the globe.
The poppies were later sold for £25 each, many to members of the public. The money raised was divided between the various military charities, with £23 million going to the Royal British Legion.
Over the Royal British Legion’s 100 year history, it has remained steadfast and true to its original guiding principles – support for veterans and their families, campaigning on their behalf, and remembrance.
It has continued to campaign hard. In 2011, for example, the Legion succeeded in persuading the government to pass the Covenant of the Armed Forces Act, landmark legislation that ensures injured members of the Armed Forces would be properly compensated and supported.
The Legion also adapts and responds to changing circumstances, often behind the scenes, such as during the COVID-19 pandemic, giving nearly £600,000 to those in the Armed Forces’ family struggling with debt.
‘Lest we forget’ – Rudyard Kipling.
Written by Nicky Hughes.
- The Royal British Legion
- ‘We Are The Legion: The Royal British Legion at 100’ by Julia Summers. Published Profile Editions.
- Forgotten Heroes of the First World War
- Hidden in Plain Sight: Echoes of the First World War