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Bishop Martin Seeley reflects of the 100th anniversary of the Royal British Legion

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One of the most important roles the Royal British Legion plays in the life of the nation is calling on us to remember the service and sacrifice made by our armed forces during the last 100 years.

Last week I had the privilege of preaching for the Suffolk service of thanksgiving, at the cathedral in Bury St Edmunds, for the centenary of the Royal British Legion.

It was a very moving occasion, with representatives from the branches across our county.

The Right Rev Martin Seeley, Bishop of St Edmundsbury and Ipswich
The Right Rev Martin Seeley, Bishop of St Edmundsbury and Ipswich

Suffolk had been involved at the start of the legion and by the end of 1921 there were 12 branches in Suffolk stretching from Newmarket to Lowestoft.

One hundred years on Suffolk has a vast network of branches which remain to this day committed to the original purpose of providing help and support to members of the armed forces community and their families.

It is through those branches, not least here, in Suffolk, that the care for forces personnel and their families has been continued to this day.

Helping in the most practical ways, ensuring that care, equipment, and facilities are there for ex-service personnel and families in need has been the enduring activity of the Royal British Legion.

The organisation has always recognised it has an enduring commitment to all those who seek its help and the commitment is lifelong to every member of the armed forces, from the moment they receive a single day’s pay.

It can often be the case that a person may not need to call on the Royal British Legion until well after they leave the armed forces but in any eventuality, the commitment still stands.

The sheer scale of the suffering ex-service personnel had endured and their families suffered had produced a concerted and united effort to care for them as a result of service in the Armed Forces during The Great War.

Unemployment had reached a staggering two million people by 1921 and poverty and hardship were common experiences for many.

Despite the conditions, the founders of the legion would not be deterred from their commitment to help others.

One hundred years on, it is easy to forget the challenges and risks the original supporters of the British Legion faced. The first poppy appeal was launched in a period of serious economic depression.

This was in 1921, the year the British Legion was founded – it would be just four more years before it received a Royal charter – and raised over £106,000.

This was a really vast sum of money at the time equivalent to more than £5 million today, raised in the midst of post-war national financial straits.

The fundraising efforts grew year on year, and the famous Flanders poppy would become an enduring symbol of remembrance, sacrifice and hope.

The success of the poppy appeal and the work of the Royal British Legion was built, as now, upon the determined effort of thousands of these members and volunteers.

Sir Frederick Lister, who was instrumental as one of the founders and served as the first chairman remarked in those early days of 1921 ‘the part the British Legion will play in the nation will be decided by the branches of the Legion’.

Through its work with schools and in the quiet dignity of the many Acts of Remembrance that happen across the country, as well as the great Festival of Remembrance in the Albert Hall, the Royal British Legion has passed on to successive generations the ideal expressed in the Royal British Legion’s own motto of ‘Service before self’ – calling all of us, in whatever forms we can, to service and compassion.

And it is striking to me that in the course of my ministry of more than 40 years awareness and observance of Acts of Remembrance and what they represent seems to have steadily increased, thanks in no small part to the work of the Royal British Legion.

We have learned through this pandemic once again that it is our care for one another, our loving our neighbours near and far that really matters, that really does make the world go round, and that reflects the will of the God who made us all.

The Royal British Legion here in Suffolk lives out that commitment to care for others year after year, and I wish it well for the years to come.

Let’s all make sure we give it special support in this its centenary year, and all follow its inspirational ethos of caring for one another.

-- The Right Rev Martin Seeley is the Bishop of St Edmundsbury and Ipswich

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