Count Down to a Centenary

Two months from now, on 15 May 2021, the Royal British Legion will celebrate its 100th anniversary. Born out of the ashes of the First World War, the Legion was the amalgamation of several ex-Services organisations, all fighting on behalf of those wounded, disabled, widowed or orphaned by war. Over the last century the Legion has become part of the British cultural landscape. Remembrance and the Poppy are its most recognisable features but there is so much more to this great organisation as I discovered while working on a book for its centenary. I am going to celebrate the RBL in a monthly blog leading up to 15th May with a few behind-the-scenes stories.

In October 2019 the Royal British Legion commissioned me to work on a book to be published in May 2021. Of course I had no inkling that I would have to write it under pandemic conditions. When the first lockdown was introduced in March 2020 many people assumed that writers had never had it so good. With no distractions such as travel to book festivals or teaching commitments, we were surely in a uniquely wonderful position to write. Weeks, possibly months of forced isolation stretched ahead – a writer’s dream. As with so many dreams, the reality turned out to be very different. Living in forced isolation was one thing, but being deluged by grim headlines and worse death figures daily, plus the lingering fear of an invisible enemy in our midst, it was far from the utopian quiet that writers crave.

A selection of the Legion’s Journal, bound annually. Note the tiny volumes from the Second World War years thanks to paper rationing

But I had a deadline. The first draft of my book was due to be handed over to the publishers in September. My problem was that from early March I had no access to Haig House in London’s Borough High Street, where the Legion’s archive material is stored. Nor could I get to libraries or Legion branches. Everything would have to be done remotely and that required a radical rethink of my usual working methods. Those who know me well are aware that I am happiest when ferreting around in old paper files, reading last century’s news and talking to archivists whose passion it is to preserve our nation’s memory.

One stroke of luck occurred in late May when it was briefly possible to gain access to Haig House. I was able to procure a number of bound copies of the Legion’s Journal, their monthly magazine, dating back to 1921.

The first British Legion journal, July 1921

I could not have the full set so I was invited to take a stab at the years I thought would be of greatest significance to me. Quite the challenge so I chose 32 volumes between 1921 and 1972 which included anniversary years 1931, 1941, 1951, 1961 and 1971 as well as all the volumes from the Second World War, which were tiny owing to the shortage of paper. There was also an important photograph album from the Legion’s peace visit to Germany in 1935 which I also requested.

The operation to secure this valuable material was undertaken in the form of a heist. My officer son was dispatched to Haig House to collect the journals and was alarmed to be handed a large red album with a swastika on the front. Being inscrutable he did not flinch, but he did express his surprise when he arrived home in Oxford with his precious cargo. With the exception of one or two volumes that might have been useful, these monthly magazines in their beautiful leather bindings, gave me as much information as I could possibly have needed for the potted history of the Legion I had been asked to write.

What I had not expected from the Journals was the rich picture they offered of life in Britain in the immediate aftermath of the First World War, especially for those disabled by their war service. Yet these magazines were far from depressing. They were uplifting. The energy behind the early founders of the Legion was remarkable and the men and women who worked as grass roots level in the branches that sprang up around the country no less so. This was a young man’s organisation. The Legion’s first chairman was in his early thirties, many of the men on branch committees in their twenties. They were not grandees – although Field Marshal Haig and Edward, Prince of Wales gave the leadership clout with the government when needed – they were ordinary men and women who cared passionately about making post-First World War Britain a better place. And help was much needed.

Over 6 million men had served during the First World War, of whom 1.1 million were killed, including 350,000 from overseas, and some 1.75 million wounded. Of that latter number over half were permanently disabled. Widows, orphans, families of the wounded, the disabled and the unemployed all needed the Legion’s support. At that stage, the Legion estimated it had responsibility for up to 20 million people and it relied, in the main, on its volunteer army of members and officers to carry out the welfare help required.

The Royal British Legion is an organisation with a big heart and it has been the joy of writing this book to lift the lid on the myriad ways the Legion has made so many people’s lives better. From facing down the government on pensions and war disability payments to helping veterans with physical and mental health problems the Legion never gives up. It works day in, day out and the work it does really matters. It saves lives.

Over the next weeks and months, you will read and hear a lot about the Royal British Legion as it celebrates its centenary. I am very proud to have been a part of sharing that story, particularly the early years when the vital groundwork was laid. Watch out for my next couple of blogs when I will lift the lid on some of the less well-known aspects of the organisation most of us think of only around Remembrance Sunday.

We Are The Legion will be published by Profile Books, 6 May 2021

The Cost of War

Soldiers in Wrexham

Today is Friday 8 May 2020, the 75th anniversary of the end of the war in Europe. Seventy-five years ago today the costliest war in history was finally drawing to a close, though its end would not come until 15 August 1945 when the Japanese Imperial Army surrendered unconditionally. Costliest in terms of lives – historians estimate 60 million men, women and children, military and civilian, lost their lives. A generation of children had grown up knowing nothing but war as the backdrop to their lives. In Britain, those children at least had more or less enough to eat. In Nazi-occupied Europe whole families were starving while further afield the famine in Bengal cost the lives of 3 million people. Costliest in terms of economic damage – Britain was almost bankrupt as a result of the war. And costliest in terms of its impact on society. Hitler had boasted the German Reich would last for 1,000 years. It went on for 12 long, destructive years but the impact of it has lasted for eight decades and it will go on for many more.

Soldiers from Jamaica

Today we have been celebrating and commemorating those brave men and women who fought for Britain abroad and on the Home Front. We have heard extraordinary stories from veterans, like the Jamaican, Alan Wilmot who flew with air-sea rescue, saving up to 17,000 lives, or Donald Hunter who sailed with the Merchant Navy from the age of 16. There have been tributes from people who were children at the end of the war. Everyone spoke with warmth of their memories of that special day, but few mentioned what had happened after VE Day was over.

The morning of 9th May 1945 was another bank holiday. Britain woke up with a national hangover and probably a few sore heads too. Barbara Cartland, then 44 years of age, summed up the feelings of many of her generation:

‘We were glad, but still our hearts refused to sing, the shadow of war still lay over us in a restriction of freedom, in controls and coupons. We had only to look at our empty larders, empty store cupboards and half empty coal cellars to know war had not receded very far from our daily lives. To practically everyone in Great Britain the war had brought the loss of someone they loved – either man, woman or child – and for many there were crippled bodies or blinded eyes as a legacy from the nights of terror and fire.’

Barbara Cartland The Years of Opportunity 1939-1945
Dame Barbara Cartland in ATS uniform, c. 1942

Twelve years ago I wrote a book called Stranger in the House that looked at the impact of returning servicemen and women on life at home. It was at times a heart-breaking book to research and I wrote several of the stories weeping onto my keyboard. I know that it affects readers too: my friend John wrote to me only this week to say that he has never cried so many times over a book as over that one. Am I sorry? No, not really. These are human stories that needed to be told. We have to understand the cost of war. It is not possible to gloss over the inconvenient truths, the ugly aspect of readjusting to life after war and to imagine that all the veterans are great heroes who shrugged off the impact of what they did and saw. They did not. They could not. Some will never be able to stop the memories coming back. And that applies to young men and women who in the more recent past have taken up arms on behalf of Britain in conflicts all over the world. They cannot be unaffected by what they witness.

At the moment I am writing a book for the Royal British Legion’s centenary in 2021. Once again, I am reminded of the enormous cost of war and the extraordinary efforts that people go to in order to try and alleviate the pain and distress returning service personnel and their families suffer. The story of the Legion is the story of our country’s twentieth and now twenty-first century wars and the impact they have had on our society. The Legion helped to shape Remembrance, it is a peaceful, peace loving organisation and it has a most generous welfare programme. It has fought for pensions, disability rights and widows’ allowances for 99 years and it is not going to be giving up any time soon.

As I work through the research I am reminded, daily, of the terrible situations faced by men coming home from the First World War. 2,300,000 ex-service personnel returned injured or disabled to a Britain that was suffering from an economic decline, that did not have the jobs, housing or welfare for them. The Legion had an enormous job on its hands to help those affected by the war, including hundreds of thousands of widows, orphaned children, the sick, disabled and unemployed. But it set about the task with impressive energy and focus. The Legion changed many things over the first twenty years of its existence and one of those was the way returning men were treated. By 1945 there was a better, more humane system in place. But even they cannot make the nightmares, the feelings of dislocation and the difficulties of settling down as a family go away. That has, eventually, to come from the individuals and their families.

In my most recent book, Dressed for War, the emphasis was on Audrey Withers’ life and on her energy and courage during the darkest days of the 1940s. Yet even in that book there is a major casualty of war. Her star photojournalist, the brilliant, brave and tireless Lee Miller, suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder in the post-war era. She never really recovered her equilibrium. She was one of thousands who suffered, many silently, from the impact of their wartime experiences.

So, without wanting to throw a bucket of cold water on the celebrations around VE 75, I just think it is worth remembering that war has a far-reaching impact on everyone involved.

Hidden Secrets

Poppies of Remembrance at the Thiepval Memorial, Somme © Brian Harris

The build up to Remembrance Day always reminds me of the importance of memories. I’m talking here about national memories as much as personal ones. Two organisations most closely connected in the public’s imagination to memories in this context are the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, who I worked for part-time from 2005 to 2015 and the Royal British Legion, who I will be working for from now until 2021. Both these great bodies focus a significant part of their work on remembering the individual servicemen and women who died in the service of their country. They do much else besides but both have outstanding archives that tell the story of the organisation and the people involved in them.

Menin Gate, Ypres, where over 54,000 names of the missing are recorded © Brian Harris

Having spent all my working life using archives I thought it would be a moment to reflect on the importance of archives and their role in preserving the nation’s memories, the world’s memories in some cases. If I asked anyone to name, say, three archives that would be places to consult when writing about the Second World War they would probably come up with Imperial War Museums, National Archives and the National Army Museum. You might not expect to find anything relevant to that topic in the archives of, for example, Barings Bank or Burberry or even the Met Office. But let me assure you that you can find material in the most unexpected places.

I am a regular visitor to the national collections such as Imperial War Museums and the National Archives but I also enjoy visiting the smaller archives that focus on one single issue, such as the Alpine Club or the Henry Moore Foundation. I did a quick calculation and jotted down the names of 38 archives I have visited in the last few years and I do not think that is close to the total I have consulted one way or another over the course of my working life.

It is hard to have a favourite because all archives are wonderful in their own right but one stands out for me as an experience I will never forget. I was writing The Colonel of Tamarkan, the biography of my grandfather, Brigadier Sir Philip Toosey, who was the senior British officer at the bridge camp over the river Kwai in Thailand. He spent all his working life at Barings Bank in Liverpool bar a few years in the early 1920s. Fortunately he did not live long enough to see it disgraced and then absorbed by ING in 1995. I wrote to bank in the hope that they might have kept personnel files from the Barings’ days and got a response by return to say that they had and I was welcome to visit. I made an appointment and set off with a spring in my step and a notebook and pencil in my bag.

Phil Toosey in Peru, 1935, on business for Barings

I arrived at an enormous glass and concrete building in the city and felt distinctly out of place among so many dark suits coming and going at great speed. The receptionist phoned through to the archives for me and there soon appeared the archivist himself, dressed in a brown tweed suit and wearing reassuringly thick glasses. He ushered me through the atrium and towards a brown domestic-sized door through which I stepped as if into another world. In fact, it was another world. It was an office full of old-fashioned filing cabinets and shelves bulging with books and folders. I was completely enchanted. The old office had apparently been transplanted lock, stock and barrel into the new building.

Toosey, February 1946, six months after being released from captivity and three months after arriving back in Britain

Sure enough the material was as good as the archive promised it should be. An entire personnel file on Toosey, including a fascinating exchange of a dozen or more letters between his boss, the Liverpool Agent for Barings, Alan Tod, and Evelyn Baring in London. So concerned were they for Toosey’s welfare (read mental health in today’s parlance) that they decided what he needed post-war was perspective with which to begin his new life after three years as a prisoner of the Japanese.

They sent him to South America as a roving ambassador for the firm but really with a view to giving him a chance to find his feet again. It worked and he was forever grateful to Barings. So was I. What a treasure trove and so beautifully preserved. On the surface the file had nothing to do with the history of the bank but in reality it had everything to do with it. The bank was run by men, and a very few women, who were individuals with personal history, characters, foibles and in this case, a war record.

Other archives have been equally valuable and nothing is more thrilling than finding something that even the archivist did not know was there. In the Royal Geographical Society I found a piece of paper slipped into the back of a notebook which had not been unfolded for years. Very carefully the archivist and I took it out and read it. It made us laugh. It was a memo sent from camp 3 to camp 2 on Everest in 1924. Written by Edward Shebbeare, one of the support team, it read: ‘I’ve been out on the glacier for hours looking for Beetham. Either he is lost or he is with you. If the latter, he’s a bugger for not letting me know.’

For that book I also found the now famous trunk in the attic that contained all Sandy Irvine’s correspondence from the trek and the mountain from where he was never to return. There were photographs, sketches of his changes to the oxygen sets and, hauntingly for me, the final letter he wrote to his mother on 26th May 1924. The trunk was in a family attic in North Wales and it was the most significant archive find of my life. Until 2018, that was. But that is still under wraps and will be revealed in February when Dressed for War is published.

So when you think about remembrance, or just national memory, spare a thought for the wonderful archivists up and down the country and all over the world who take care of this precious material. If it had not been for organisations understanding the value of keeping material for the future and for archivists cataloguing, preserving and caring for it, the history of our lives would be greatly impoverished. An archive might be kept under a bed (yes, I’ve seen those) or in a cupboard in a private house. It might be in the corner of an office or in an attic. Material might be stored in cellars, attics, barns, stables or in carefully monitored air-conditioned buildings. It is all important and valuable. How this will be kept in the future in this, our digital age, I do not know. But for now I acknowledge archivists at every level because they deserve our gratitude.

These precious diaries are stored in a family collection