The Royal British Legion: the next century
The charity seeks to emphasise its role in welfare rather than remembrance as it seeks to become relevant to a younger generation
AS buglers played The Last Post at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month on the 100th anniversary of the end of World War One, communications professionals could be forgiven for asking what the Royal British Legion does next.
After all, 11 November 2018 represented not only the highest profile Remembrance Day in recent memory, with US president Donald Trump and Russian prime minister Vladimir Putin attending the international armistice commemoration in Paris, but the culmination of four years of planned events to mark key stages of the war.
This year, a ceremony on 28 March in Victoria, London marked the centenary of General Ferdinand Foch’s appointment as supreme allied commander on the Western Front while a French service on 8 August commemorated the centenary of the Battle of Amiens.
Services of remembrance were held on 11 November at London’s Cenotaph, Westminster Abbey, Glasgow, Cardiff, Belfast and St Symphorien military cemetery near Mons, Belgium, where the war began and its first and last casualties lie.
Bells rang out as they did at the end of the war, with 1,400 church bell ringers – the number lost during the war – recruited specially, while 888,246 ceramic poppies were displayed tumbling from the Imperial War Museum’s sites in London and Manchester.
On 32 British beaches, huge sand portraits of war heroes were created and The Wound in Time, a poem penned by Poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy, was recited by individuals, families and communities beside these Pages of the Sea memorials, which were devised by film director Danny Boyle.
So, what happened on 12 November when the centenary events were over? Rebecca Warren, head of public relations at the Royal British Legion, admits that the question crossed her own mind.
‘Speaking personally having worked through the entire period of the war centenary commemorations, yes it did feel like something very significant had come to a close,’ she says.
‘As I stood on Whitehall watching Germany’s president lay a wreath at this year’s service at the Cenotaph, where we organise the march past by 10,000 veterans, I was highly aware of it being a very historic moment.’
However, certain answers present themselves immediately. Firstly, the Royal British Legion did not organise all the aforementioned events. Its remit is limited to England, Wales and Northern Ireland and international remembrance events are also usually more Government-led.
The Department for Digital Culture Media and Sport (DCMS) organised the UK church bellringing, while other bodies such as 14-18 Now, an organisation backed by National Lottery and DCMS funding, co-ordinated Pages of the Sea and other artistic events such as Peter Jackson’s They Shall Not Grow Old film.
Secondly, the Royal British Legion now has its own anniversary to plan for in 2021, the centenary of its formation through the merger of four associations founded between 1916 and 1920 to look after war personnel and their families.
And most centrally for the organisation, it has a wider image problem to address in ensuring that its role in the annual Poppy Appeal and annual remembrance do not obscure its key mission to support the welfare of former military personnel. Warren, who has been at the RBL for nine years, working in a ten-strong team of marketing, public relations and communications professionals, says the planning for the war’s anniversary period started in 2012.
‘We looked to do a lot of stakeholder and partnership work, bringing remembrance work to new audiences,’ she says. ‘With the Poppies in the Moat project at the Tower of London in 2014, for example, the event was the brainchild of Historic Royal Palaces, but we were one of six charities that the proceeds were donated to and we also had to give our permission for poppies to be used in certain ways for fundraising by those organisations.
‘There’s a fine line there because the public thinks that money from everything connected to poppies comes to the Royal British Legion but it is certainly not always the case. We had collaborative working groups with the other organisations about how we spoke about that project to the public. I don’t think in anyone’s wildest imagination we realised how extraordinarily popular Poppies in the Moat would be.’
Then there was the Centenary Poppy Campaign, organised by the Royal British Legion with the Heritage Lottery Fund which encouraged people to plant poppy seeds. It was launched at 10 Downing Street by the then- Prime Minister David Cameron, though Warren has been back several times and reports that the plants unfortunately have not flourished.
There’s a perception that if you look at the old Legion, it is older white men in berets and medals. That’s not really what the Legion is about
Warren was also a member of a First World War commemorative communications working group run by the DCMS to co-ordinate remembrance efforts. Then there was The Great Pilgrimage 90, an August event in Ypres, Belgium, marking the 90th anniversary of the 1928 efforts to take 10,000 war widows and veterans on the tour of First World War battlegrounds and graves.
‘We took 2,000 of our members back to Ypres and had a parade with 1,000 standards and a service at the Menin Gate,’ says Warren. ‘It was really extraordinary.’
From August to Remembrance Day this year, the Royal British Legion ran its Thank You movement, launched with corporate partners including Marks & Spencer, Sainsbury’s, Cadbury and sporting organisations such as the Football Association, Rugby Football Union and English Cricket Board, to thank the entire First World War generation.
‘The aim was to get people to think about the legacy of the four years of mainly really remembering the war dead,’ says Warren. ‘This was about honouring not just those that served on the front line or those who gave the ultimate sacrifice but the women on the home front going to work in the factories, the children who contributed to the war effort, the Commonwealth, the artists and also the pioneers of medical and technological innovations that came out of the war.
‘We thought it was the right time to slightly change that tone and think about what it was all for and what legacy we have today in the modern world.’
The Royal British Legion worked with the British Future think tank on Remember Together, a project bringing together disparate communities and connecting people from different faiths and backgrounds.
‘I think there’s a perception that if you look at the old Legion, it is older white men in berets and medals,’ comments Warren. ‘That’s not really what the Legion is about. Of course, there are traditional elements that we would never leave behind or move on from. But we also look at how remembrance can change to reflect modern-day Britain.’
Today, the Royal British Legion has 257,000 members, 1,350 direct employees and another 150 workers at affiliated bodies. Open since the 1970s to women and non-military members as well as traditional male services personnel, it has its headquarters on London’s Borough High Street, 16 regional offices, six care homes, four ‘break’ centres that give holidays to services families and a recovery centre and the National Memorial Arboretum in the Midlands.
It also works with sister charities Poppy Scotland and Legion Scotland, which have their own organisational staff, and the Poppy Factory charity in Richmond, London, an employment charity for disabled veterans which makes paper poppies.
Warren says it is important to remember that the Royal British Legion was born as a welfare organisation, rather than primarily one about remembrance. ‘Over time, people have probably come to know us for remembrance, more than for our welfare role,’ she remarks. ‘But, going into 2019, it is really about making sure that people understand what the Royal British Legion does for currently-serving personnel and their families and for today’s veterans.
‘We’re one of the most trusted charity brands in the UK, which is a fantastic position to be in but we want people to understand what is the core of us as a charity and to keep that relevant. Our focus is making sure that we are relevant across generations to young people, as well as our older, more traditional supporters.
It’s about asking what the armed forces community needs of us today and how do we best meet those needs
‘I think everyone in military communications understands that a younger audience wants to know what your cause is and why it’s relevant to them and they will scrutinise that. For us there’s a huge drive to be really transparent and to reach that audience with our messaging.’
There are more commemorative events to plan. The 75th anniversary of D-Day takes place on 6 June and the Royal British Legion is working in partnership with the Ministry of Defence to deliver events in Normandy. Specifically, the charity is chartering a cruise liner from shipping group Fred Olsen, travelling from Portsmouth to Normandy, offering accommodation for 300 veterans
‘We’re conscious that everyone will be five years older than the last commemoration we held, and the veterans will be very frail, so it’s about making sure they are really well looked after,’ says Warren. ‘We want to make sure they can all get there without any financial burden.’
Even more sensitively, the Royal British Legion will mark August’s 50-year anniversary of the beginning of Operation Banner, the longest operation in British military history, which ran in Northern Ireland from 1969 to 2007, with a service at the National Memorial Arboretum.
‘Obviously it is politically sensitive, and it will be for some time, but we know it’s our role to mark the contribution of services personnel to that operation. Given that it was the longest operation, there’s a huge number of veterans and serving personnel that contributed to it,’ she says.
‘It does give us challenges as a communicator recognising the huge sensitivities around it but it is the right thing to do to have an event to recognise peoples’ service.’
The Royal British Legion also gets involved with the Invictus Games, which takes a rest internationally next year but resumes in The Hague in 2020. The charity is supporting friends and families of British personnel who want to go to a domestic Invictus in Sheffield in 2019. Co-ordinating all these efforts is a five-year plan that takes the charity to 2021 and work will commence soon on a plan for beyond that period.
‘It’s about asking what the armed forces community needs of us today and how do we best meet those needs?’ says Warren. ‘Across the wider piece, it’s about how we can put the beneficiaries and individuals at the heart of what we do and make sure they’re connected to all the services that holistically help solve whatever challenges they’re facing. Our agenda is making the charity fit for purpose for the next 100 years.’