Veterans organisation faces fight for survival

Members of the Duns Branch Royal British Legion Scotland commemorate VE Day
Members of the Duns Branch Royal British Legion Scotland commemorate VE Day

ROYAL British Legion Scotland branches in Berwickshire may be struggling to keep their clubrooms running, Eyemouth closed two years ago and the Duns premises look likely to go the same way, but the branches themselves still remain intact and 90 years on since its start the British Legion still plays an important role in the lives of many ex-servicemen and women.

There are 4,140 RBLS members in the 14 Borders branches but the number of RBLS clubs has fallen to six and that number could soon by five if Duns members vote in favour of the proposed closure when they meet on Monday, July 11.

The RBLS Founders Day ceremony which is staged at Dryburgh Abbey.

The RBLS Founders Day ceremony which is staged at Dryburgh Abbey.

All British Legion branches across the world - from Tomintoul to Tokyo - started at St Cuthbert’s Church on Edinburgh’s Lothian Road, when Douglas Haig finally managed to bring together several warring pressure groups and united them under one social organisation on June 18, 1921.

Two months later Earl Haig then went on to found another British Legion in London, causing outrage north of the border and although the two groups have long since reconciled they never amalgamated. Ninety years on the Royal British Legion Scotland (RBLS) currently has 200 branches and 44,000 members while its sister organisation based in London (The Royal British Legion) has 380,000 members in 2,800 branches across the world.

“Unlike The Royal British Legion, the RBLS is not a grant making body - that was left to the Earl Haig Fund Poppy Appeal - but has always served its community and furthered the ex-Service cause,” explained Neil Griffiths, of the RBLS.

“It is a grand claim but the RBLS has improved the lot of the individual, the community and, ultimately, the country. It is seen as a unique force for good, whose longevity is no accident.

“Though the Legion’s birth was fiery, born from war and grievance, social clubs were soon established through the main activity remained the giving of individual advice and campaigning on behalf of the ex-service community.

“In the years to 1937, 1.5 million claims cases were handled by the RBLS. That is to say, nearly every family in Scotland received the Legion’s help and it quickly established itself as the main voice for the ex-service population. Pensions advice and tribunal representation continue today and remain free to all ex-service people and their families whether Legionnaires or not.

“In recent years the Legion has campaigned successfully on a wide range of issues, including the removal of income tax on war widows’ pensions, pardons for those executed in World War I and compensation for Japanese prisoners of war.

“That British servicemen and women have been involved in conflicts in every year since 1945 has meant that demands upon ex-service charities have remained very high. And if there is ever a group likely to support them - or send comfort parcels to the troops - it is the RBLS.

“Though famous for public events, the RBLS’s heart is in the local community. It is here that the Legion works its subtlest but most powerful, uniting the community and extending comradeship.

“It is not possible for a successful organisation to flourish by standing still and the legion is no exception. Though the qualities that established the Legion still remain (service to the community, charity, commemoration and the duty to remind the public as to the debt of honour to the fallen), the organisation has never been frightened of change.

“The Legion reminds us that we are not alone; we have responsibilities and they can be met more easily if we do it together. And it can be fun that way too. The 90th anniversary calls for plenty of celebration. Happy birthday Royal British Legion Scotland.”

Scottish Borders Council convener, Alasdair Hutton is also vice president of the Borders area for the Legion.

He explained: “After the First and Second World Wars you had huge numbers of people coming out of the services all at the same time. They needed places they could go and mix with people who understood what they had been through.

“Since 1945 there had been smaller-scale conflicts such as Aden, Korea, Northern Ireland, the Falklands, the Gulf Wars and now Afghanistan, but people coming out of the services after having served in these places are coming home in ones and twos as they leave and there is not that mass shared experience of comradeship.”