Veterans’ organisation set to fight for its very survival in the 21st century

Royal British Legion Founders Day, Dryburgh Abbey.
Royal British Legion Founders Day, Dryburgh Abbey.

FROM Hawick to Hong Kong, every single British Legion Branch around the world can trace its genesis to a meeting in St Cuthbert’s Church on Edinburgh’s Lothian Road on June 18, 1921.

It was here that several warring groups united under the leadership of Earl Haig to form a single organisation for ex-servicemen and women.

Royal British Legion

Royal British Legion

The need for such a meeting had become urgently apparent, with things between rival veterans groups actually becoming violent, leading to pitched battles between the various factions on Westminster Bridge and Parliament Square in London.

Unity had become essential. But, inexplicably, in August of that year, the same group under Earl Haig – Britain’s commander on the Western Front in the First World War – founded another British Legion in London.

This sparked outrage north of the border and led to the first group re-naming itself the British Legion (Scotland).

The two organisations may have never amalgamated but today, 90 years on, they work as close allies.

Royal British Legion

Royal British Legion

Nine decades after its birth, the Royal British Legion Scotland has nearly 200 branches and 44,000 members, while its London-based sister, the Royal British Legion (TRBL), has 380,000 members in 2,800 branches across the globe.

Unlike the TRBL, the Royal British Legion Scotland (RBLS) is not a grant-making body – that was left to the then Earl Haig Fund Poppy Appeal (now Poppyscotland) – but has always served both its community and furthered the ex-service cause.

It is a grand claim but the RBLS has improved the lot of the individual, the community and, ultimately, the country. It is seen as a unique force for good whose longevity is no accident.

Though the Legion’s birth was fiery, born from war and grievance, social clubs were soon established, though the main activity remained the giving of individual advice and campaigning on behalf of the ex-service community.

In the years to 1937, one-and-a half million claims were handled by the RBLS (though most were not Legionnaires).

That is to say, nearly every family in Scotland received the Legion’s help and it quickly established itself as the main voice for the ex-service population. Pensions advice and tribunal representation continue today and remain free to all ex-service people and their families whether Legionnaires or not.

However, the Legion in Scotland has not been immune to social change. While it may boast a membership running to 44,000 today, just 16 years ago it stood at 75,000 – so why the decline?

According to the Legion’s Scottish organiser, Neil Griffiths, that collapse in membership came about with the passing away of many of those members who had been of the wartime and National Service generations.

“We knew that collapse was going to happen. But it means we have had to look at down-sizing the organisation as a result,” Neil told TheSouthern this week.

“There will always be a role for us but we are now having to compete against other social networking groups and organisations, and that includes things like pubs.

“How we go about that is the next big challenge facing the Legion. Some of our smaller branches, which perhaps had just five people meeting once a month for a pint and a game of dominoes, have given up and folded.

“That’s now not enough in the way of entertainment for a lot of people, especially the younger ex-servicemen and women.”

In recent years the Legion has campaigned successfully on a wide range of issues, including the removal of income tax on war widows’ pensions, pardons for those executed in the First World War and compensation for former prisoners of war held by the Japanese.

Neil says because British servicemen and women have been involved in conflicts in every year since 1945 that has meant the demands upon ex-service charities have remained high.

And if there is ever a group likely to support them – or send comfort parcels to the troops – it is the RBLS. Fundraising remains an important part of Legion life, be it for Erskine or the Gurkhas, and the Legion’s collection for the Scottish Poppy Appeal remains the charity’s single biggest contribution.

It is not possible for a successful organisation to flourish by standing still and the Legion is no exception. Though the qualities that established the Legion still remain – service to the community, charity, commemoration and the duty to remind the public of the debt of honour to the Fallen – the organisation has never been frightened of change.

Alasdair Hutton is vice-president of the Borders area for the Legion and president of the Kelso branch. A former paratroop major with the Territorial Army, he agrees with Mr Griffiths that social change is at the heart of the challenges facing the organisation in the 21st century.

“Firstly, you have to remember that the clubs and the branches are separate legal entities, although the branches usually own the clubs,” he explained.

“The dilemma facing every branch is how they make themselves relevant in the 21st century. Here at Kelso we have refurbished the club and put in satellite television so members can watch football from all over Europe and as a result the club is thriving.

“The clubs provide a social setting for members, while the branches deal with concerns over welfare. Increasingly, more and more of our memberships in the Borders are not ex-service, but are what are termed ‘associate’ members.”

And he explained: “After the First and Second World Wars you had huge numbers of people coming out of the services all at the same time. They needed places they could go and mix with people who understood what they had been through.

“Since 1945 there have been smaller-scale conflicts such as Korea, Aden, Northern Ireland, the Falklands, the Gulf wars and now Afghanistan, but people coming out of the services after having served in these places are coming home in ones and twos as they leave and there is not that mass shared experience of comradeship.

“So it is a very different situation. Some might say that dwindling membership of such organisations is a good thing as it may signify less conflicts in the world.

“But I am afraid as long as there are human beings there will be the potential for conflict as certain people look to force their will on others, and where there is conflict there will always be a role for organisations such as the Legion.”

z Well-known military historian Trevor Royle will give the address at this year’s RBLS Founder’s Day Service at Dryburgh Abbey, on Sunday, June 19.