I had never contemplated joining the Royal British Legion, but I did. As one elderly gentleman said to me in June, a wry grin across his face; “Its where old men get together in dusty clubs, drink warm beer and talk about war stories.” Infact what I discovered at the British Legion’s 90th Birthday celebrations in Manchester was everything but dust, anecdotes and reminisces.
Having turned 90 in 2011, the Royal British Legion was founded out of the horrors of the First World War, alongside a few other organisations which also emerged around that time, to provide WW1 veterans with a focal point of remembrance for the comrades who were lost in the supposed “war to end all others”.
Their return from trench warfare was met with everything but applause. In the 1920’s and 1930’s, alongside unemployment, housing was the other great social problem. “Rows of dismal terraced houses and crumbling cottages”, were the scenes that men came home to. Just months after the Russian Revolution, which ended Russia’s involvement in the First World War and gave birth to the Soviet Union, then British Prime Minister Lloyd George had raised hopes by stating that Britain would provide “homes fit for heroes to live in”.
Even creeping into the 1940’s, George Orwell noted that in parts of Britain there still existed housing conditions where; “You might walk through hundreds of miles of streets, inhabited by miners, every one of whom gets black from head to foot everyday, without ever passing a house in which one could have a bath”.
In July 1948, the Daily Mail told its readers: “On Monday you will wake up in a new Britain, in a state which “takes over its citizens six months before they are born, providing care and free services for their birth, their schooling, sickness, workless days, widowhood and retirement”. The Second World War was a decisive factor in the creation of the Welfare State, as the poverty, unemployment and trauma experienced after the First War had made the nation decide that Britain wasn’t going back to that dark era.
The “sickness” and “workless” days described by the Daily Mail had in many instances less to do with work availability and more to do with the disabilities that soldiers from both conflicts had come home with. Britain recently mourned the loss of its last Great War Veteran. In 1919, ‘Combat Stress’, the Veteran’s Mental Health Society, was formed by the wives, daughters and mothers of British Veterans who had returned from the front line and were living with excruciating conditions such as ‘Shell Shock’, now known as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
At the end of World War One, thousands of men returned to Britain and because of the devastation to their minds, they were confined to War Hospitals. However, the founding mothers of Combat Stress believed that these men could be helped through rehabilitation. This philosophy allowed Combat Stress to also support those returning from Japanese POW camps after the Second World War. Through perseverance and commitment, this organisation has since been able to help over 100,000 British ex-service men and women.
Within weeks of joining the British Legion, I signed myself up to a ‘Pilgrimage of Remembrance’ to France in the first week of August. In the company of just some of the children who had lost their fathers in World War One, we visited over a dozen cemeteries and war memorials. Nothing spoke greater about a collective understanding of our heritage than the imprinted names, dates and regiments of the men who had died.
For those whose fathers were buried in those graves, it was the first time that some had been able to visit their ‘absent’ parent and for others, because of age, it was also to be their last visit. As they laid down their poppy wreaths, in accompaniment to the Exhortation; “They shall grow not old as we that are left grow old”, it were as if the sands of time had been shifted and 90 years of British Legion history fell completely into place.
Hussein Al-alak is a British based journalist and is chairman of the Iraq Solidarity Campaign UK. Hussein is also a member of the Royal British Legion and a mental health advocate for Combat Stress.Tags: Domestic (UK)
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This post was written by Hussein Al-alak