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THE ROYAL BRITISH LEGION - an unofficial view


The British Legion is known as a charitable organisation, which looks after the interests of ex-servicemen and women, as well as caring for many of them in homes and providing work in sheltered workshops for those who are disabled. Its image is the red poppy, sold to raise funds for its work at Remembrance time. The Remembrance ceremonies are a prime time for the British Legion to promote its work, to tug at our collective heartstrings - up to now an effective advertising campaign with a brilliant logo. (Though it is increasingly failing to persuade those who do not remember the world wars - the average of our care reflected in giving to this particular ex-service charity - and there are many others - is 20p.) The Legion is undoubtedly an effective pressure group and does good work in caring for people who would otherwise be neglected and forgotten. But if we are to understand the hostility the white poppy has evoked, we must understand that the British Legion also conceives of itself as a national institution with a role to play in national and international life. It is intimately linked with the state, a rare 'trade union' that has Royal patronage, and is dependent for its continued existence on recruits from within the armed forces, and on support from government. The Legion has a more complex history than many realise, and different strands within the organisation pull it sometimes in different directions. In 1989 it became abundantly clear which strand was uppermost, with the objectionable advertising campaign trading on fear and using the photomontage image of Nazis invading Britain - marching in front of the Houses of Parliament, and of a typical English pub - the Rose and Crown, no less. The advertisements played on fear to extract money - they spoke of 'our armed forces' standing between us and oblivion.

'They gave their all to stop the seemingly unstoppable. Hundreds of thousands gave their lives. The poppy is their symbol.' At a time when the Berlin Wall was coming down and 'peace' was apparently breaking out in Europe, the use of this imagery and misleading advertising showed that the British Legion were firmly aligning themselves with support for the policies of the British state and its armed forces, as does their annual military ceremony of nostalgia, the Festival of Remembrance. Not everyone in the Legion was comfortable with such advertising, and they acknowledged it was 'controversial'. Because the other strand within the Legion is a strand of thought which reaches out the hand of friendship across nations, which acknowledges that its Royal Charter imposes 'a clearly defined obligation upon our organisation to work for peace'.

It is helpful to explore the origins of the British Legion in order to understand these conflicting pressures within the organisation. Towards the end of the First World War those in power began to worry about the prospect of millions of men being demobilised onto the streets. 'All these vast numbers had been taught for years how to kill; how to punch a bayonet into the vital organs; how to smash the brains out with a mace; how to make and throw bombs as if they were no more than snowballs. All of them had been through a mill of prolonged inconceivable pressures,' said Churchill and What would happen when four million men were 'consciously released from the iron discipline of war, from the inexorable compulsions of what they believed to be a righteous cause.' 'If these armies were seduced from the standards of duty and patriotism, there was no power which could even have attempted to withstand them.' (The World Crisis - the Aftermath)

He articulates the establishment's fear that the soldiers, when demobilised, could be dangerous to the very establishment that created them. Their wish for jobs, housing and was not 'noble' and 'valiant', or heroic, when the state had no further use for them.

Released into a society that was unprepared for them, with no jobs or pensions arranged, some ex-servicemen did start to riot and mutiny in 1919. Concern about the variety of ex-servicemen's groups, several with strong links to opposition political parties, led to the formation of the British Legion as the united organisation which the Establishment could more easily control. It undoubtedly also made it a powerful and effective pressure group on behalf of the servicemen in obtaining their rights. But by the 1930s it had become part of the establishment. In The Official History of the British Legion, Graham Wootton says: 'There had been people in high places in 1920-21 who feared the emergence of an independent ex-service movement...By 1933 the Legion had shown that there was nothing to fear; it was as moderate in outlook as it was restrained in its demands.' The rank and file did not 'realise the extent to which the Legion had become part of the general governmental process'. By 1945 it was a recognised national institution.

After the horrors of the First World War, ex-servicemen on all sides believed they had a role in peace making. They hoped that by 'smoking the pipe of peace' together, they could prevent war ever happening again. They had been through the same terrible experiences, which they felt only they could understand. They seemed to have more in common with each other whatever their nationality, than with the world of those who had not known the grim reality of the trenches. Ex-service organisations in allied countries set up international groupings such as FIDAC, the Federations Interalliee des Ancien Combattants, and in 1924 the Peace Alliance of German Ex-service Men wrote to them saying: 'We stretch out the hand of brotherhood to you, reaching beyond all frontiers, in the hope that thereby we shall advance together without prejudice, against the most terrible burden from which humanity can suffer - war. The motto of our fellowship, which sums up our heartfelt desire, is expressed in the words 'No More War'.

In the 1920s, the British Legion supported the League of Nations and following the Locarno Pact believed the climate was right for making contacts with ex-enemy countries. They made contacts with both German and Austrian groups of ex-servicemen, and actively campaigned for them to be admitted to the international organisations. They felt this policy was in the national interest by preventing war - and up till 1939 tried to maintain contact in the hope of averting the approaching disaster. In 1937, Colonel Crossfield spoke of the British Legion policy, when in Germany, saying: 'Whatever political differences may arise between our two countries...please never forget that your comrades of the British Legion will always cherish feelings of deep regard and admiration for you men who did your duty with such bravery and such sacrifice in the terrible slaughter of the Great War'...'Through the comradeship of men who know what war is, we must work together for a better understanding between the countries which took part in the war and thus help our respective statesmen in their work for peace. Above all we must instil into the minds of the rising generation that while they must love their own country first and foremost and always be ready to defend it, that is no reason why they should hate other countries! They must learn too that war is in the highest degree cruel. Who is there in any nation who wants another Verdun, another Somme, or another Passchendaele, another gigantic orgy of hate and passion which makes justice and right thinking fly to the four corners of the world?'

The Legion's historian is charitable about the naivety that produced these attitudes, recognising their pro-German impulses but playing down any possibility of Fascist infiltration. He believes they failed to understand the nature of modern nationalism. Such political innocence, and belief that reconciliation can take place when basic injustices and structural violence remain, is not confined to the British Legion.
But this misreading of the international situation by the British Legion left it open to abuse by others for propaganda purposes and led it into some very strange company indeed, even leading to an endorsement from Hitler himself: 'most appreciative of the initiative of the British Legion, whose activities he has always followed and supported with great sympathy.' Not many know that a British Legion delegation visited Hitler, had a quiet family supper with Himmler, and a guided tour of Dachau concentration camp in 1935. Though they were warned by the Foreign Office about the propaganda they would meet (the visit being arranged by Ribbentrop), while critical of some aspects, they returned convinced that Germany was pacific, and believing the explanation for the concentration camps - that they were for subversives and irreclaimable criminals. When some, including Jewish members of the Legion, protested, they were told: 'We cannot condone many things that happen in these countries, but their domestic affairs are not our business. Our business is to try to create something that will help the peace of the world.'

The public endorsement of contacts with Germany by the British Legion's patron, the Prince of Wales, upset the King and many in the Foreign Office, as well as giving misleading signals to Hitler. Yet in 1938, with the knowledge of the British Government, the British Legion even offered to supply 10,000 Legionaries to act as neutral observers to supervise the transfer of Czech territory to Germany - and they were ready to set sail, but the Munich agreement did away with the need for them. These attempts at active intervention at the international level were hastily reversed with the outbreak of war. The Legion then offered 'to place the whole of its “resources, energies and influence” at the disposal of the State - possibly as a Home Defence Force.’ This offer was rejected, thus preventing the Legion becoming a paramilitary force. Having burnt their fingers so badly with their contacts with Germany, they now had to prove their loyalty to the British state - an estimated 70% of them did participate in national civil defence duties at the outbreak of the Second World War. Friendship with ex-servicemen in ‘enemy countries’ was put on the back burner.

This political role of the British Legion in the pursuit of peace has since then been understandably less visible. Yet they are part of the World Veterans Federation today, and involved in working out detailed peace aims with other groups - this time, not only the veterans, but the victims too. The Second World Meeting of War Veterans, Resistants, and War Victims, meeting in Vienna on 1-3 December 1986 (International Year of Peace) passed a long list of proposals for ‘Disarmament and a World of Security, Peace, Freedom and Solidarity’.

The final document of this meeting is one that many peace groups could endorse, indeed might have produced themselves - ‘...war can solve nothing’ - some peace groups might have balked at that; or ‘The staggering and ruinous accumulation of weapons, by fostering reciprocal fear and mistrust, far from ensuring the independence and integrity of States, is increasing the danger of conflicts.’

It’s hard to judge the political complexion of the meeting which produced this document but it appears to lack a radical dimension. There is, for example, no indication that individuals have any part to play in the peace process nor any sort of responsibility for war.

People who have fought in war, and particularly those who have been at the ‘sharp end’ rather than the cooks and clerks, know only too well what a pointless madness war is. Apart from a few gung-ho types the majority - afraid and unwilling - would much rather be somewhere else. At issue is not people’s fear or courage but the mechanisms which binds them, which makes them put up with such lunacy, which make them kill strangers - people like them. More fundamentally it is about a social system, which elevates killing as a noble deed. The British Legion in its official form rather than its individual membership and the official Remembrance ceremonies rather than all the participants are a yearly promotion of the dominant belief that being armed to the teeth is not only necessary but desirable.

The Legion shall exist to perpetuate in the civil life of the Commonwealth and the World the principles for which the Nation stands, to inculcate a sense of loyalty to the Crown, Community and Nation, to promote unity amongst all classes, to make right the master of might, to secure peace and goodwill on earth, to safeguard and transmit to posterity the principles of justice, freedom and democracy and to consecrate and sanctify our comradeship by our devotion to mutual service and helpfulness.

Following a widespread public debate in the media, dubbed as ‘The war of the poppies’ the British Legion attempted to justify its view that the red poppy and remembrance are for peace.

In its magazine, following the controversy it stressed its charter which ‘defines obligations upon our organisation to work for peace’. It is worth remembering, that these days, everybody is for peace and millions have killed and died in its name. Military actions are called ‘peacekeeping', army recruiting posters invite people to join in the ‘peacework’ and perhaps soon the Ministry of Defence, formerly the War Office, may soon be renamed the Ministry of Peace.

‘Only by remembering and teaching the lessons of the past can there be hope for the future.’ The unasked question is: what lessons? ‘Lessons’ are at best subjective opinions and it is these subjective opinions that the White Poppy challenges. In contrast to the lessons the Legion wishes us to learn - duty and nobility of dying for one’s country and Sovereign - the White Poppy invites us to consider that solving problems by brute force is not only ineffective but also runs counter to most systems of morality. In war morality is the second casualty after truth.

The Legion exists to ‘inculcate a sense of loyalty to the Crown...and Nation’. Here is the heart of a deep rooted fundamentalism which puts loyalty to an almost metaphysical concept - the Crown - above loyalty and responsibility to our fellow human beings. A loyalty which is abused and evoked in the interests of the few at the cost of the many.

The White Poppy challenges, not the Legion's motives, but its assumptions. It asks us to throw away our blinkers and rose-tinted glasses through which preparation for war is seen as a prerequisite for peace.



Peace Pledge Union 1 Peace Passage London N7 0BT Britain