THE First World War was supposed to be the war to end all wars and those who fought in it were told they were to return to a country fit for heroes.
Neither, of course, was to prove to the case and those ex-service personnel lucky enough to survive the carnage of the Somme, Ypres, Passchendaele and Verdun were faced with another bitter struggle when they returned to Britain.
More than six million people had served in the war, of whom about one million died. Of those who did survive, 1.75 million suffered a disability and could not work. They had relatives who were often financially dependant on them – and there was the widow trying to feed, clothe and educate her children.
David Bell takes up the story. “In the aftermath of the First World War, the families of those who died and those who came home injured were left destitute. They were unemployed, without food, accommodation or money. Nowhere was worse than the North East because it already had its problems of social deprivation before the war.
“The there was the flu epidemic of 1918-19 which claimed hundreds of thousands of lives.”
Help from the authorities was virtually non-existent so people began to help themselves. “What began to happen in towns and cities was a small number of organisations were set up to help, providing things like soup kitchens, but they were walking against the tide.
“The government was in disarray, local government was in disarray, the whole country was in a complete mess.”
The British economy was in the doldrums and by 1921 there were two million unemployed; the government seemed either unwilling or unable to help.
Field Marshal Douglas Haig, Commander-in-Chief of the British forces in the First World War, was enraged and tried to put pressure on the government to make adequate provision for those who had served.
Then a certain Lance Bombardier Tom Lister from Lancashire, who was invalided out of the war in 1916, took up the challenge of raising funds to buy tables and beds.
He convinced landlords to let their dilapidated buildings to ex-service personnel and war widows on the condition that he would see to the repairs and he persuaded Burtons to supply suits for men to attend interviews. Lister also organised men into groups and requisitioned old drill halls to be used as soup kitchens. Earl Haig then persuaded the leaders of these groups and other associations to come together and discuss the issue of consolidation.
At the resulting Unity Conference held at Queens Hall on Saturday, May 14, 1921, 700 delegates attended. Forty- nine different names for a new organisation were suggested but after a vote the British Legion was chosen.
The Legion’s new leaders took stock of the huge challenge ahead of them in alleviating the suffering.
Its main purpose was straightforward: to care for those who had suffered as result of service in the Armed Forces in the Great War, whether through their own service or through that of a husband, father or son. The suffering took many forms: the effect of a war wound on a man’s ability to earn a living and support his family; or a war widow’s struggle to give her children an education.
In addition they set out to remind the nation of the human cost of war and to strive for a peaceful world.
By the time the Legion was formed, the tradition of a two-minute silence to remember the dead had already been established.
But in 1921, on November 11, the first Poppy Day was held. It was inspired by the poem In Flanders Fields, written by Canadian John McCrae.
Some of the bloodiest fighting took place in the Flanders and Picardy regions of Belgium and northern France. The poppy was the only thing which grew in the aftermath of the complete devastation. McCrae, a doctor serving there with the Canadian Armed Forces, was deeply inspired and moved by what he saw and wrote his poem.
People wanted to remember those who had given their lives for peace and freedom. An American woman, Moina Michael, inspired by John McCrae’s poem, began selling poppies to friends to raise money for the ex-service community. And so the tradition began.
The first appeal raised £106,000 – nearly £30m in today’s terms.
In 1922, Major George Howson, a young infantry officer, formed the Disabled Society, to help disabled ex-servicemen and women from the First World War.
Howson suggested to the Legion that members of the Disabled Society could make poppies and the Poppy Factory was subsequently founded in Richmond in 1922. The original poppy was designed so that workers with a disability could easily assemble it and this principle remains today.
The British Legion was granted royal status in 1971, and extended their membership to serving members of Her Majesty’s Forces, as well as ex-service personnel, in 1981.
It’s still going strong today and demand for its services is as great as when it was first founded. Its Northumbria HQ – which covers the area from the Tweed to the Tees – is based in Hebburn, South Tyneside, while there are 42 branches throughout the region. After the British Legion was originally set up in May 1921, a branch in Corbridge, Northumberland, was opened the following month, closely followed by one in Forest Hall, Newcastle.
Not surprisingly, as the North East region is the second biggest recruitment ground for the forces behind Scotland, there is much demand here for help from the Royal British Legion.
Fortunately, the region is about the most generous in the country when donating to the RBL which is a charity and receives no grants or aid.
In the North East alone £1m was raised in last year’s Poppy Appeal – the highest ever – which all goes towards the national yearly running costs of about £70m or £1.4m a week.
David Bell, 62, county secretary for Northumbria RBL, said: “We’re dealing with the same problems as when it started as we’ve had numerous conflicts since the First World War.
“While beneficiaries from the First World War have died, we are still dealing with those from the Second World War, Korea, Suez, Cyprus, the Balkans, Iraq and, of course, Afghanistan.”
The RBL provides, among other things, cash for those in need, aid to ex-service personnel families, help to set up businesses, aid to the long-term sick, outreach work for those who have struggled to cope in civvy street and ended up in prison and job training.
The care – or lack of it – which the British government provides for ex- service personnel has always been a sore point but of late it has leapt to the top of the political agenda, not least because in Opposition David Cameron said his party would enshrine the Military Covenant in law.
David explained: “It’s supposed to say once someone joins up and fights for their country, then the country will look after them and their families until the day they die – which is owed to them because of the sacrifices they make.”
Now as head of the coalition Government, while saying he would honour his pledge, Mr Cameron has been a bit vague about what his intentions are.
“The situation needs clarifying,” said David.
He added: “In an ideal world the Royal British Legion wouldn’t be needed. But we don’t live in an ideal world.”