The Royal British Legion at 100: The evolution of remembrance

How has Remembrance evolved over the last century in the hundred years since the Royal British Legion began a leading role in how the nation remembers those who made the ultimate sacrifice?

Our inclination to honour our war dead has not faded since the first Remembrance Day was observed in 1919 throughout the British Commonwealth, following the mass casualties of the First World War, but what has maintained the public mood for a national commemoration?

This is among the themes examined by author Julie Summers whose new book ‘We Are The Legion’ documents the rich history of the Royal British Legion as the charity, founded in 1921, celebrates its centenary. 

The author Julie Summers focuses on some of her favourite discoveries about the military charity, including the history of the iconic red poppy, as well as the importance of employment support for veterans and how the RBL supports wounded, injured and sick personnel.

She also examines The Legion’s past, present and future. 

To mark the RBL’s 100 years of supporting the UK’s armed forces and leading the nation in Remembrance, BFBS, the Forces Station, has been speaking to the author about some of the most engaging moments in the charity’s history with a special series of reports by broadcaster Jade Callaway. 

Here, we present the second part of the series and take a look at the RBL’s role in the evolution of Remembrance, the early beginnings of which are intertwined with the building of the Cenotaph war memorial in Westminster, London: 

What Is The History Behind Remembrance Day? 

We have the founder of The Royal British Legion Field Marshal Douglas Haig to thank for how Britain and the Commonwealth remember it’s war dead today. 

He was a pall bearer at the Unknown Warrior’s funeral service in 1920, and was inspired to never let the nation forget the sacrifices made by the fallen while walking past the Cenotaph in Whitehall. 

Meaning 'empty tomb' in Greek, the Cenotaph represents the incomprehensible loss of life during the First World War.  

More than one million men from Great Britain and the British Empire died during the Great War. 

That alone is an astonishing number to digest but when you add the impact the death of those men would have had on their families, the devastation is almost unbearable. 

The loved ones of the men who remained where they died in the trenches in France, had no grave to visit and no headstone to lovingly look after. 

Commemorations at the Cenotaph on Armistice Day 2020 111120 CREDIT PA_0
Credit: PA Images

The Making Of The Cenotaph 

Prime Minister David Lloyd George asked one of the most significant architectural minds of the time - Sir Edwin Lutyens – to design a structure for the Victory Parade in London to celebrate Peace Day on July 19, 1919. He had already started sketching ideas and so was able to create a temporary structure out of plaster and wood that was only intended to stand for a week. Julie said: 

“It was so popular with the public that ... they lobbied the government to make it a permanent feature.” 

The permanent Cenotaph that is still visited by millions wanting to pay their respects each year, was built using Portland stone and unveiled by His Majesty King George V at 11am on the second anniversary of the Armistice, November 11, 1920. Julie said: 

“In 1920 there was a very moving service when the Unknown Warrior went past the Cenotaph on a gun carriage with full military honours and he was buried in Westminster Abbey. 

“And the following year, Earl Haig, who had been one of the pallbearers decided that what was required was a formal service that would take place every year.

"That service was created and curated by Haig in his position as President of the British Legion as it was then.” 

Field Marshal Douglas Haig Founder of Royal British Legion Credit RBL

What Is Remembrance? 

Remembrance is a way by which we honour those who serve in the armed forces to defend the nation and our way of life. 

We remember and honour those who gave their lives during the First and Second World Wars, but also those who have died in all conflicts and operations ever since.

We Will Remember Them 

They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:  

Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.  

At the going down of the sun and in the morning  

We will remember them. 

For The Fallen Poem Academic And Poet Laurence Binyon Graphic Credit BFBS

The well-known fourth stanza from ‘For The Fallen’, a poignant poem often recited during Remembrance services, was written by academic and poet Laurence Binyon in Cornwall in September 1914. At the time of writing the now world-renowned and much-loved poem, he was 45 and therefore too old to enlist so, he volunteered as a hospital orderly instead. 

He was so moved by the devastatingly high number of casualties from what was known then as The Great War, that he put pen to paper to express his and the nation’s grief.

Once described by Rudyard Kipling as "the most beautiful expression of sorrow in the English language", the poem is recited at every Remembrance Sunday, strengthening our determination to never forget the servicemen and women who made the ultimate sacrifice in conflict. 

The British Legion Album Book Credit The Royal British Legion

Will Remembrance Day Fade Away? 

Remembrance, as we know it today, is something that has lasted for more than a century. There is no one still alive who fought in the First World War and yet we still keep those men in our minds on Remembrance Day. Why is this?

Julie is confident it is because The Royal British Legion has always been so adept at changing with the times. She said: 

“One of the reasons why Remembrance is still relevant today is because of The Legion’s fleetness of foot. 

“In 1927, the Daily Express suggested a big get together of veterans at the Royal Albert Hall, by all accounts very emotional, very beautiful but quite out of control.

"So, the next year, Colonel Heath who was the General Secretary of the Royal British Legion, took charge of The Festival Of Remembrance.” 

Festival Of Remembrance Credit Royal British Legion

Another way The RBL stays relevant is by capturing the minds of all ages and branching out to join forces with other charities focused on keeping the memory of the fallen alive.

The National Memorial Arboretum (NMA) in Staffordshire is part of the Royal British Legion, but a separate legal body. The NMA's mission is threefold and vital in ensuring Remembrance continues to be considered of the utmost importance. The charity strives to ensure: ​​​​​​

  • The unique contribution of those who have served and sacrificed is never forgotten 
  • The baton of Remembrance is passed on through the generations 
  • There is a year-round space to celebrate lives lived and commemorate lives lost 

The NMA holds events designed for all ages, and have a packed events calendar just for children this summer. Visitors have the opportunity to go on a self-led walking trail back to Stick Man’s family tree.

The book the walk is based on, ‘Stick Man’ by Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffer, tells the tale of a stick who gets used by humans to entertain their dog, or added into a nest by a swan taking him further and further away from his family.

Combining this much-loved children's story with a visit to the NMA helps bring Remembrance to life in the minds of the next generation, ensuring the fallen will be remembered for decades to come.

'We Are The Legion' is available to buy now from the Poppy Shop.

Cover Image: The Royal British Legion