The Royal British Legion At 100: How The RBL Helped Disabled Veterans Back To Work After WWI

The Royal British Legion has helped disabled veterans get back into employment since the end of the First World War but how did they do it when more than a million physically and mentally wounded men suddenly returned from war looking for work?  These men had valiantly served their King and country for years but upon returning home found it difficult to find jobs, especially those missing limbs, with facial disfigurements or suffering from shell shock, the term used to describe what we now call Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

How did the Royal British Legion help this new generation of disabled men return to the workplace and boost their pride? 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 how Remembrance has evolved over time 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 third part of the series and take a look at the RBL’s employment support for veterans, which has been a key focus since their formation in the aftermath of The Great War.

How Many Disabled Men Needed Jobs After WWI? 

Julie’s research into the history of The Royal British Legion led her to discover that about 4.5 million men served in the First World War. It is estimated that Britain’s military, and military-related, deaths in the First World War was 757,696. But, as Julie said: 

“Significantly more came back physically or mentally injured by their service so there were about one and three quarter million servicemen who had in some way suffered badly as a result of their war service.” 

The Legion identified a desperate need to help these war-battered men get back into work and set about doing so from the outset in many practical ways. The Legion’s welfare scheme would give veterans looking for employment small grants to help them start businesses or work for themselves. She said: 

“A five pound grant to buy a lorry so a man could become a coal deliverer or a 25 pound grant to set up a business organising fruit and vegetable sales on a market and so forth.”

What Was The King’s National Roll?

There was also The King’s National Roll set up in 1919, which was a list of companies prepared to hire men who had been disabled by war service. Overall, that scheme hired roughly 30,000 men but that still was not enough. In response, The Legion ran a campaign in 1923 which did not shy away from reporting the brutal truth of what the nation needed to do to support the men returning from the trenches. The poster showed war-weary veterans of all different ranks, some with limbs missing, waiting outside what looks like a factory. In bold capital letters is written “Don’t Pity A Disabled Man, Find Him A Job.” Julie said: 

“They knew that nothing is more demoralising for men who’d fought for King and Country than to come back and find themselves unemployed.” 

Knowing how vital it is to find work for those who have returned from war, the Royal British Legion has continuously supported veterans find employment ever since the charity’s early days. Another of The Legion’s successful employment schemes was the London Taxi School which trained former servicemen as London Cabbies after opening its doors in 1928. In Julie’s blog about her research into a century of Royal British Legion history she said: 

“It was particularly popular amongst those with spinal injuries who could not stand for long periods or operate heavy machinery.” 

It was the brainchild of veteran Lieutenant-General Sir Edward Bethune who had seen battle during the Second Anglo-Afghan War, the First and Second Boer Wars, and the First World War. She said: 

“He believed that men who had learned to drive during the war would be suitable students.” 

The idea gained the support of the government when Conservative MP Major Sir Jack Benn Brunel Cohen, who lost both of his legs above the knee at Passchendale, Britain’s most controversial battle, lobbied hard to promote not only opportunities for disabled veterans but also disabled people in general. By the 1960s, around a third of the capital’s taxi drivers were graduates of the school. The Taxi School eventually closed its doors in the 1990s by which time thousands of veterans had learned ‘The Knowledge’ and were qualified to work as London Cabbies. 

The Knowledge Of London Test was introduced in 1865 to establish whether, after years of studying, the testee had achieved an encyclopedic understanding of all the roads in a six-mile radius from Charing Cross. This test is still taken today and ensures that aspiring London taxi drivers, who want to drive the iconic black cab, have a full understanding of London’s intricate road network. In total, 320 routes and landmarks along the way must be committed to memory. 

How Does The Royal British Legion Help Disabled Veterans Today? 

Building on the foundations laid by early volunteers such as Cohen, RBL continues to provide practical employment support today, as Julie said: “If somebody needs some support just to be able to get to an employment interview that’s the kind of little intervention The Legion can do and it can really make a difference. “And then there are certain schemes such as the Poppy Factory where they actively continue to sponsor initiatives getting people back into work.”

Millions of poppies are made by hand every year by former serving personnel, many of whom live with a disability. They make a variety of different types of poppy, from the single ones we buy from poppy sellers on the street to impressive wreaths, made with dozens of the iconic red flowers. Forces News reporter David Sivills-McCann visited the Lady Haig Poppy Factory in 2016 and spoke to veteran Arthur Dyke who told how much pleasure he gained from working there during his time making poppies for more than two decades, adding:

“I love what we do, what we stand for. I love the men, I love the banter.

“I’m very proud … you know at the end of the year all these poppies and wreaths are going to go out ad get money to help servicemen, women and families … it’s just amazing.”