Major George Arthur Howson MC, standing in the centre, with the Officers of 11th (Service) Battalion in 1915.

In Flanders fields the poppies blow

Between the crosses, row on row
That mark our place……
and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below……

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie,
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders Fields.

This most evocative of poems, “In Flanders Fields”, dates back, of course, to the Great War. John McCrae, a Canadian Medical officer, was inspired to write it after presiding over the funeral of a fellow soldier who died in the battle of Ypres in May 1915. The poem was first published in Punch magazine in December that year. Many were hugely inspired into action by the poem, especially the final verse.

These included, at the time, two great women campaigners: Moina Michael, an American, and Anna Guérin, who was French. After the Armistice both started to promote the poppy as the symbol of remembrance with some success, mainly as a means of raising money for the casualties of war in America and France: not just the disabled, but the thousands of widows and orphans too. In September 1921, Guérin came to England and persuaded the then fledgling Royal British Legion to take up her idea of a “Poppy Day”. Initially there was scepticism. But she showed samples of the silk poppies, made in France, and offered to provide an initial batch. The first ever British Remembrance and Poppy day was declared by Earl Haig for 11 November 1921. It was a massive success. The Royal British Legion made £106,000, largely via poppy sales; the equivalent of £5m today. And the poppies sold out.

A key figure in the scaling up of the early work of the Royal British Legion was a little known soldier, Major George Arthur Howson, MC. George, aged 28, found himself serving on the Western Front with the 11th (Service) Battalion Hampshire Regiment in late 1914. He went on to have an impressive war record: recognized for bravery after saving the life of a man who had fallen into the River Somme in 1916, he was also “mentioned in dispatches’ later that year. Then on the 31 July 1917, the first day of the Third Battle of Ypres, he was wounded in action when in command of a party building machine-gun emplacements. His group came under intense aerial bombardment and he suffered multiple shrapnel wounds. He carried on encouraging his troops, stopping only for treatment hours later once the task was complete. For this gallantry and selfless service he was awarded a Military Cross.

After the war Howson committed his life to helping provide employment for disabled veterans. With the assistance of Liverpool MP Jack Cohen, George became founding chairman of the Disabled Society in 1921. The following year, The Royal British Legion realized a need and spotted an opportunity to have the poppies made in England rather than France, and commissioned the Disabled Society to make them. A grant was provided for setting up the very first Poppy Factory in London on the Old Kent Road. Initially just 5 disabled veterans were employed however the factory rapidly expanded to take on 50 more veterans and produced over a million poppies within the first few months. By November 1924 the Poppy Factory had manufactured over 27 million poppies, with all funds going towards The Royal British Legion for the welfare of veterans, especially the disabled and their families.

Although the Royal Hampshire Regiment no longer exists, having amalgamated into the Princess of Wales’s Royal Regiment in 1992, the story of Howson and so very many others from past conflicts live on at the Royal Hampshire Regiment Museum in Winchester and in the other fine Army Museums nearby in Peninsular Barracks.

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