Colonel John McCrae, a Canadian academic turned volunteer medical officer, was treating the appalling casualties of the second battle of Ypres.
He found time to write a poem, with memorable imagery about poppies growing in Flanders fields, and sent it anonymously to Punch, which printed it immediately in heavy, black funereal type.
It was reprinted round the world. In Athens, Georgia, in the United States, Moina Michael, a worker with the American YMCA, read it and was moved enough to resolve to wear a poppy for evermore.
In Britain, Earl Haig, commander in chief for most of the war, was setting up the British Legion, to bring together the different ex-servicemen's groups that had formed at the end of the war. Much needed doing. In the year of its formation, 1921, it was estimated that over a quarter of the two million ex-servicemen were unemployed, and ex-officers could be seen begging in London's Oxford Street.
Madame Guerin, a French YMCA worker and friend of Moina Michael, visited the newly-formed Legion with samples of artificial poppies she had manufactured. The idea of a 'Poppy Day', marking the anniversary of the Armistice, was accepted immediately. On 11 November 1921, the British Legion raised pounds 106,000 selling poppies.
The money from the early years went on providing employment and assistance for ex- servicepeople: the following year five disabled ex-servicemen started producing the poppies from a workshop in the Old Kent Road. Today 172 people, mainly disabled, turn out 38 million poppies from a factory in Richmond, Surrey or from their homes (they also produce 400,000 remembrance crosses and 100,000 wreaths). The poppy, symbol of sleep or death since classical times, has endured remarkably as the 20th century's symbol of remembrance. The annual UK appeal produced a record pounds 13m last year, less in real terms than was raised in the Thirties, when the total approached pounds 18m by 1992 values, but as good as any figure since the Sixties. The sum had slumped to around pounds 10m in today's terms at the end of the Seventies, but leapt by nearly a million in 1982, the year of the Falklands War.
Last year's total ranks the organisation 27th among fund- raising organisations in the country. It makes it the largest of the host of ex-servicepeople's charities, which collectively raise about pounds 45m a year, ranking them with organisations for the elderly and those providing care for the terminally ill.
The British Legion has 20,000 members, but it estimates that between 16 and 18 million people are eligible to be helped by it, as former servicepeople or their dependents. Even if the numbers in British forces do not rise again, demand will not ease on the organisation until those who did National Service in the Fifties and early Sixties have disappeared - around the year 2010.
The Legion (Royal British since 1971), spends the bulk of its income, pounds 16.4m, on welfare grants and the running of its various residential homes and employment services. Providing a pensions and advice service costs a further pounds 13.5m. Its industrial side provides jobs for the disabled in manufacture not just of poppies but also road signs and textiles. Increasingly, money is being spent on the retraining of servicepeople made redundant by cuts in the armed forces and assistance in helping them set up businesses.
It used to be more militant. For years the Legion fought the Government over the provision of pensions to servicepeople and to change the law to make employers take on disabled people.
In 1938 the British Legion Volunteer Police Force was formed. After consultation with Adolf Hitler, it was ready to take 10,000 First World War veterans to Germany's border with Czechoslovakia in an effort to defuse the Sudetenland crisis. But the Munich agreement intervened.
Colonel McCrae died of wounds in a Normandy hospital in May 1918. His last words were from his poem: 'Tell them this: If ye break faith with us who die we shall not sleep.'
Opinions, page 25
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