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Issue 501/ 3rd - 9th Sept 2011
The Reluctant Revolutionaries
By Hussein Al-alak
I’d never contemplated joining the Royal British Legion, but I did. As one elderly gentleman said to me in June, a wry grin across his face; “Its where old men get together in dusty clubs, drink warm beer and talk about war stories.” Infact what I discovered at the British Legion’s 90th Birthday celebrations in Manchester, was everything but dust, anecdotes and reminisces.
Having turned 90 in 2011, the British Legion was founded out of the horrors of the First World War, where among a few organizations, which also emerged at that time, was formed to provide those men with a focal point of remembrance, for the comrades who were lost in the supposed “war to end all others”.
The return from trench warfare was met with everything but applause, where in the 1920‘s and 1930‘s, besides unemployment, housing was the greatest social problem. “Rows of dismal terraced houses and crumbling cottages”, were the scenes that men came home to and just months after the Russian Revolution, which ended Russia’s involvement and gave birth to the Soviet Union, then British Prime Minister Lloyd George raised hopes by stating, that Britain would provide “homes fit for heroes to live in”.
Even creeping into the 1940’s, it was George Orwell who noticed, that in parts of Britain, still existed housing conditions where; “You might walk through hundreds of miles of streets, inhabited by miners, every one of whom gets black from head to foot everyday, without ever passing a house in which one could have a bath”.
In July 1948, the Daily Mail told its readers: “On Monday you will wake up in a new Britain, in a state which “takes over” its citizens six months before they are born, providing care and free services for their birth, their schooling, sickness, workless days, widowhood and retirement”. The Second World War was a decisive factor in the creation of the Welfare State, as the poverty, unemployment and trauma experienced after the First War, had made the nation decide that Britain wasn’t going back.
The “sickness” and “workless” days described by the Daily Mail, had in many instances less to do with work availability and more to do with the disabilities that soldiers from both conflicts had come home with. While Britain recently mourned the loss of its last Great War Veteran, in 1919 Combat Stress: the Veteran’s Mental Health Society was formed by the wives, daughters and mothers of British Veterans‘, whose men had returned from the front line of fighting and were living with excruciating conditions such as Shell Shock, or what is now called Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
At the end of World War One, thousands of men returned to Britain and because of the devastation to their minds, were confined in War Hospitals but the founding mothers of Combat Stress believed, that these men could be helped through rehabilitation. This philosophy, after World War Two allowed Combat Stress to also support those returning from Japanese POW camps and through perseverance and commitment, this organization has since been able to help over 100.000 British ex-service men and women.
Within weeks of joining the British Legion, I signed myself up to a
“Pilgrimage of Remembrance” in the first week of August, over in France.
In the company of just some of the children, who had lost their fathers
in World War One, we visited over a dozen cemeteries’ and war memorials.
Nothing spoke greater about a collective understanding of our heritage,
than the imprinted names, dates and regiments of the men who had died.
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