On a dry but chilly evening in Yorkshire last week, Cheryl Jones sold her last poppy of the season. A veteran of the Royal Logistic Corps who served in Iraq, Afghanistan and Bosnia, Jones has volunteered for the Royal British Legion in her hometown of Rotherham every November for a decade, and this year was tasked with organising the local Poppy Appeal. The pandemic had cast doubt over the annual fundraising event, but in late October, to the relief of local residents, Jones, 52, spent 12 days behind stalls at her local Tesco and Morrisons, persuading shoppers to part with their change – armed, of course, with a full-face visor, hand sanitiser and “Keep your distance” signs, in this strangest of Remembrance seasons.
“It was amazing,” she remembers. “The response from the public was, ‘Oh my goodness, it’s so good to see you, we didn’t think we’d see you this year.’ And the generosity blew me away.”
But then came Boris Johnson’s announcement of a second lockdown in England. On Wednesday evening, Jones was forced to pack away her collection tins and wave goodbye to her volunteers.
It is the first time the Legion has cancelled face-to-face poppy sales since the charity’s inception in 1921, when Field Marshal Earl Haig decided to use proceeds from the red flower to fund practical help for the hundreds of thousands of British soldiers who had returned from the trenches with horrific, life-destroying injuries, as well as the widows and dependants of the 886,000 who never made it back. The choice of the poppy was inspired by the war poet Colonel John McCrae, professor of Medicine at McGill University in Montreal, who immortalised the words: “In Flanders’ fields the poppies blow / Between the crosses, row on row.” Even at the nadir of the Blitz in November 1940, the collection went ahead.
“It was a little bizarre and sad because of what we’d built up,” says Jones. “[But] there’s not a great deal we can do. We’ve got to keep people safe.”
Lockdown makes this year’s collection a logistical impossibility, say Legion officials, who have also cancelled face to face collections in Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland, even though those countries enjoy looser lockdown rules. The Legion is instead urging people to download a “digital poppy” from its website, or to display poppies in their windows. The collapse in footfall through shops and train stations had already brought a dramatic fall in the casual, spur-of-the-moment donations that make up the bulk of the £50 million raised by the Poppy Appeal each year. Some local organisers now worry they will only raise half of their usual funds, meaning less support for wounded veterans.
“This will be the first time in the history of the Poppy Appeal that our volunteers will be unable to carry out face-to-face collections anywhere across the UK,” says Charles Byrne, the Legion’s director. “The loss of that activity could run into millions of pounds in fundraising, which means online donations are crucial.”
And nobody is more disappointed than veteran volunteers, many of whom decided to continue selling poppies right up until the instruction was given to stop. It is particularly frustrating, they say, because many have faced far scarier threats than Covid-19. Cheryl Jones, for example, remembers the sounds of warplanes roaring overhead during her six-month tour of Iraq, where she delivered post to troops on the frontline. Her communication with friends and family was restricted – just as it was in lockdown, she says, when she delivered meals to her sister’s driveway, and found it upsetting not to be able to hug friends or family.
Bernard Spragg, 76, an RAF veteran, and Simon Orchard, 50, who served in Kosovo and Bosnia with the Parachute Regiment, as well as Northern Ireland, braved the elements – and the pandemic – to sell poppies for their Legion branch near the seafront at Burnham-on-Sea, Somerset.
“The things people faced in the theatres of war are a lot worse than Covid,” Spragg says. “I owe it to the men and women who came back with injuries, we’ve got to look after them. They’ve given us an awful lot.”
Fellow veteran John Crosby, 82, who organises Burnham’s appeal, added: “I’m not worried about Covid. I take my precautions: face mask, gloves, keep my distance, wash my hands regularly.”
The announcement of the new lockdown last weekend brought days of frantic phone calls between committee members, as they raced around the town to collect the 400 or so poppy boxes from shops before restrictions came into effect. “It took us by surprise,” Orchard remembers. “The appeal was considerably slower than previous years but we managed to get everything on track and we were seeing considerable generosity. Then there was a call and we were stopped dead in our tracks. The worst-case scenario was we wouldn’t be able to access the money until after lockdown – the money needed to be in and accounted for.”
The restrictions also mean the halting of weekly Legion coffee mornings that have become a social staple for veterans in the town.
“There’s a lot of disappointment,” says Cheryl Jones. “I don’t think we’ll ever be able to make up for what we’ve lost this year. But we’re resilient people – we’ll brush ourselves off and think of the next thing, looking forward to 2021, when we can get back out in the community.”
To buy a digital poppy, visit the Legion Poppy Shop