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Royal British Legion still giving support in hard times

By Toby Neal | Features | Published:

Some have seen war, many have seen hardship, but in almost 100 years they have never been up against an enemy quite like this.

A parade in Shrewsbury in 1964.

It was on May 14 and 15, 1921, that the British Legion was born – the Royal title did not come until much later – and ever since then it has been looking after those who served their country, and their families.

Founded on looking out for each other and providing support; those are very much the themes which underlie the Royal British Legion's response to the current coronavirus crisis.

Yet there is a sad consequence of the restrictions in that veterans who pass on can no longer be honoured with a final farewell from RBL standard bearers.

Let's turn the clock back to those beginnings, which came in the aftermath of the Great War.

In cities, towns, and villages, war memorials were being dedicated to remember those who had given their lives.

Yet there was also a desire to honour the memory of the dead through giving help and support to the living.

Those who survived the conflict and hoped to return to a land fit for heroes were to be disappointed, and sometimes bitter at their treatment and miserly pensions. Some even threw their medals away.

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Around 1.75 million had some kind of disability and on top of the appalling death toll among those who served were the widows, children, and bereaved parents.

The creation of the Royal British Legion was largely the brainchild Lance Bombardier Tom Lister, a Lancastrian, who had himself been injured in the conflict, along with Field Marshal Earl Haig.

A number of ex-servicemen's organisations had been formed as a result of the First World War.

Lister himself was a member of the British National Federation of Discharged and Demobilized Sailors and Soldiers.

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He thought that if the Government wasn't going to do anything to improve the lives of ex-servicemen, he would do something himself. His work to bring the various organisations together as one body made him a national figure.

The poppy is the legion's symbol and the Poppy Appeal its major fundraiser.

A unity conference was held at Queen's Hall in Langham Place, London, on the weekend of May 14 and 15, 1921.

Four became one. Out of the National Association of Discharged Sailors and Soldiers (1916); British National Federation of Discharged and Demobilised Sailors and Soldiers (1917); Comrades of The Great War (1917); and Officers' Association (1920), rose the British Legion.

On Sunday, May 15, 1921, at the Cenotaph, the shrine to the fallen, the ex-servicemen sealed their agreement. Lister became the first chairman of the new British Legion. Haig was president.

Its symbol was the poppy. The first Poppy Day was held in Britain on November 11, 1921, and raised £106,000.

While having royal patronage from its founding in 1921, the British Legion received its "Royal" title on May 29, 1971, for its golden anniversary.

Today the charity supports serving and former service personnel and their families, and its work is as relevant as ever as, although we are this year commemorating the end of the last world war, there have been plenty of nasty conflicts since then involving British service personnel.

Among the legion's major projects has been the Battle Back Centre at Lilleshall, established in 2011 to support the wounded from the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts.

New chairman of Shropshire Royal British Legion is 55-year-old Ian Williams, who was in the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers for 23 years, and is currently on furlough from his job fixing cherry pickers and scissor lifts.

"I've never spent this length of time away from work," says Ian, who is also president of Ellesmere branch.

Olympic gymnast Beth Tweddle officially opens the Battle Back Centre.

"As an organisation, with the restrictions brought about by Covid, our welfare visits to the vulnerable clients have had to stop, but we have a telephone buddy system going and the helpline is still up and running."

The number is 0808 802 8080.

"As a branch and as a county I have asked all chairmen and committees to keep in touch where they can with members of their branch and anybody they know in their area who is vulnerable or needing help."

Meetings are being held using social media.

"With the restrictions our standard bearers have not been able to go out for funerals."

At the moment, he says, things are "awkward," with among the impacts being the cancelling of this weekend's annual RBL conference at Southport.

But despite everything, among veterans young and old, there is, he says, a "get-on-and-do attitude."

And despite the lockdown and the restrictions, he has been able to get feedback on how they are coping.

"Some are happy enough. They're getting on with it – but they do miss their cups of tea in the cafes."

Toby Neal

By Toby Neal
Feature Writer

A journalist in Shropshire for 40 years, mainly writes features and columns, especially about aspects of Shropshire history. Lives in Telford and is based at the Ketley headquarters.

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