This year marks the centenary of the Royal British Legion. This blog written by Katherine Emery, Assistant Archives Officer, will be looking at the early years of the Legion, especially the support towards disabled ex-servicemen.
The Legion was originally founded on 15 May 1921 by Tom Lister and Field Marshal Earl Haig. It began as a merger of four different organisations, all with a similar purpose. These four organisations were: The National Association of Discharged Sailors and Soldiers, The British National Federation of Discharged and Demobilized Sailors and Soldiers, The Comrades of The Great War, and The Officers' Association. The Legion only received its ‘Royal’ title on its 50th anniversary, before this it was simply referred to as ‘The British Legion’. The British Legion was established to care for those who had suffered either financially or with their health because of military service during the First World War and to support their dependents such as spouses and children.
Before the British Legion
The British Legion advocated for the rights of ex-servicemen. Before this, ex-servicemen had found it difficult to have their voices heard. Most of the time politicians were speaking for them or over them. Without having an umbrella organisation lobbying for them it was difficult to make their opinions known.
For example, this quote from a Hansard debate dating back to 1886, brings forth the case of Isaac Hempton. Isaac was a disabled ex-serviceman who had served 21 years in the army and been awarded medals for Crimean and Indian service.
“he is now absolutely unable to engage in any occupation for the support of his wife and family; and, if, considering his long service and good records, the Commissioners will be prepared to consider his claims for an increase of pension?”
Matthew Kenny, 22 March 1886, Army Pensions – Case Of Isaac Hempton, Hansard Debate
The Secretary of State, however, did not take responsibility, stating that it did not come “within the consideration of the Commissioners”. After the First World War, 1.75 million of those who returned suffered some kind of disability, half of which were permanent. By March 1920 over 200,000 ex-servicemen were unemployed in England alone, surviving on out-of-work donations. About 20,000 of these were disabled ex-servicemen.
British Legion and Parliament
The early work of the Legion can be seen in our collections through mentions and discussions in debates or committees. But also, through Earl Haig himself or others from the organisation sending letters of inquiry to committees, government departments or specific MPs.
Much of these are focused on pensions and employment for ex-servicemen, especially disabled ex-servicemen. Many ex-servicemen returned from war jobless. Some disabled ex-servicemen were no longer able to return to their pre-war employment because of the nature of their injuries. The British Legion called for more training and employment for ex-servicemen.
The British Legion can be seen to be actively lobbying Parliament from the very beginning of their establishment. For example, this questionnaire sent from the British Legion from November 1922, asks questions relating to ex-servicemen pensions and employment. The questions included “Will you support the policy of no reductions of disability pension?” and “Will you support the policy that the Pensions Issue Office should be staffed by ex-service men and ex-service women?”. These questionnaires from the Legion did receive detailed replies from the government, taking their concerns seriously, answering questions and providing assurances to their requests.
Not only were they asking the government questions but also held them accountable for their actions and lobbying on behalf of ex-servicemen. For example, this letter in our collection from the British Legion from October 1922, details their concern at the alleged abolition of the Pension Ministry. According to the Legion, the work of the Ministry was only half done, with 900,000 disabled ex-servicemen still waiting to be administered. If this work was to be passed on to a different Ministry or Department, it would wreck the work already done and the ex-servicemen needing this service would find “themselves and their problems as of only secondary importance.”
British Legion Presence in Debates
You can also see the British Legion’s influence in Hansard debates, as they were often brought up when matters around ex-servicemen are discussed. The British Legion seem to be considered as an authority on these topics, with questions often being asked whether they had been consulted for certain bills relating to ex-servicemen, pensions, disability, and employment. Also mentioning the endorsement or disapproval of the British Legion around these topics and proposed bills, making their opinions known and elevating the voices and concerns of ex-servicemen.
“Both the ex-service men, and the British Legion, which specially represents ex-service men, have had this matter under consideration and have endorsed the attitude I have adopted.”
Stephen Walsh, 4 March 1924, War Office, Hansard Debate
“MALONE: Is the right hon. Gentleman aware than in many cases the decisions are come to in opposition to the highest medical authority and are purely matters of opinion. Will he reconsider the whole system which is causing injustice to thousands of ex-service men all over the country?
TRYON: I am not prepared to make any change in the system of tribunals, asked for by ex-service men, which is generally accepted as just.
MALONE: Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that many branches of the British Legion do not agree with him?”
Cecil Malone and Major Tryon, 5 July 1928, Disability Pensions, Hansard Debate
The Remembrance Day Poppy Appeal is the most well-known and recognisable fundraiser in the UK. It was originally known as the Haig Appeal after the organisation’s founder and President Earl Haig. The first appeal was held in the first year of the organisations founding on 11 November 1921. The poppies were initially organised by Frenchwoman Anna Guérin and produced in France. The first Poppy Appeal was a tremendous success, completely selling out, and raising over £106,000.
You can see the origins of the now well established traditions around the appeal in this letter from Earl Haig to the Duke of Bedford in June 1922. After the success of the first poppy appeal, Haig suggests that it become an annual event and proposes Remembrance Day as “the most appropriate day” for it to be held.
Soon a poppy factory was established in London in 1922, but there was so much demand for supplies, poppies were not reaching Scotland. So, Lady Haig established a second poppy factory in Edinburgh in 1926. Both factories employed disabled ex-servicemen and still do to this day.
British Legion website: https://www.britishlegion.org.uk/