‘My grandfather would be proud of Legion’s work’
The man who helped created the Royal British Legion would have mixed feelings to see the charity is so in evidence today, according to his granddaughter.
Field Marshal Earl Haig would be pleased at the “wonderful” work done by the RBL but saddened that so much help is needed, says Sarah Lopes.
“He was a modest man, but he would be proud to see what the Royal British Legion does. He would be happy that there is such public support for servicemen and women, but he would be saddened that there is such a such a problem,” said Mrs Lopes, who is the Devon County President of the RBL.
Earl Haig commanded the British Expeditionary Force (BEF), the UK armies on the Western Front.
After retiring from military service, he devoted his life to the welfare of ex-servicemen. He pushed for the amalgamation of support organisations, into the British Legion, which was founded in June 1921, insisting that there should not be a separate charity for officers. The title “Royal” was added 50 years later in 1971.
His death in 1928 led to a huge outpouring of grief, which dwarfed that after Princess Diana died nearly 70 years later. More than a million people lined the streets of London at his funeral. The service in Westminster Abbey was one of the earliest state occasions broadcast by the BBC.
Earl Haig’s work for servicemen and their families was taken up by Mrs Lopes’ grandmother, Dorothy. She started the poppy factory in Edinburgh – his home city – that provided work for disabled servicemen, with sales of the paper flowers bringing in badly needed funds for the legion.
Today the factory produces about five million poppies a year.
“His legacy is very strong,” said Mrs Lopes, 65, of Yealmpton near Plymouth. “He was a national hero after the war and had the freedom of cities everywhere. He did so much. His Haig Fund became the Poppy Appeal.
However, opinions later changed about the field mar- shal, first in the inter-war years and then in the 1960s, as he became regarded as one of the “donkeys” who led the “lions” in what was seen as senseless slaughter in the attritional First World War battles.
In turn that view is being revisited by many historians today who argue that he and other generals were having to create new tactics and react to mechanised war.
He is credited as the man responsible for the Hundreds Days Push, a series of successful battles – arguably the greatest in British military history – that led to victory in 1918.
“I think he was harshly
‘He did so much. His Haig Fund became the Poppy Appeal’
treated. The BEF had to fill the gaps after France lost so many. He had to stop Germany. The numbers killed in those awful battles were terrible, but what alternative was there – to withdraw and allow Germany to invade us?
“He was a cavalry officer. There had never been a war like it, with those machine guns and the huge scale of the battles. Wellington commanded an army of 67,000 men. Haig had over one million.
“He did move with the times, he and the other generals. He adapted with tanks and aeroplanes.”
Mrs Lopes has made visits to the First World War battlefields and cemeteries in France and Belgium. She represented the Haig family there earlier this year at the RBL’s GP90 commemoration – the 90th anniversary of the Great Pilgrimage of 1928 which itself marked 10 years since the start of the Hundreds Days Push.
She will be in Exeter tomorrow for the services at the city’s war memorial and in the cathedral.
“I think that my grandfather would be very proud at the work of the British Legion.
“He felt so strongly about the disabled and wounded veterans. From the Somme  onwards he saw the men coming back and fought hard for mil- itary men to get pensions – many of them could not work and they had nothing. It was awful.
“We don’t seem to learn. The same problems come up again. We saw it again when the people came home from Iraq and Afghanistan, when Help for Heroes was set up. They do such good work and that has led to even more support for the Royal British Legion.
“My grandfather would be very proud that the organisation he set up is still here, trying alleviate problems, but sad that those same problems are still here.”
Sarah Lopes with a portrait of her grandfather, Earl Haig
The memorial at the village of Northlew
Above, remembrance at the Cathedral Green, Exeter. Bill Donney, a former Royal Navy submariner