Yorkshire's Royal British Legion volunteers on why the Poppy Appeal is vital on its 100th anniversary

It is 100 years since the Royal British Legion’s Poppy Appeal was founded – but last year it suffered. John Blow talks to Yorkshire veterans about why they volunteer.

Cheryl Jones in Brinsworth. Picture: Simon Hulme.

The glint of seven gold and silver medals can be seen on the jacket of Cheryl Jones, a veteran who served for more than two decades in the Army, as she collects cash for poppies.

But the generosity of strangers, passing by in the local supermarket and sometimes dropping fivers into her pot, is what makes her proud today.

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She is out in Rotherham most days at the moment raising funds ahead of tomorrow’s Armistice Day and Remembrance Sunday.

Ron Moffett MBE, a Poppy Appeal organiser for the Royal British Legion for Rotherhan West, stood looking at the Wall of Remembrance at Rotherham Market. Picture: Gary Longbottom.

Volunteers say this year’s Royal British Legion Poppy Appeal – on its 100th anniversary – may be its most important after the shortfall in cash which resulted from the pandemic.

Miss Jones, 53, who served in Bosnia, Afghanistan, Iraq and Northern Ireland, puts it quite simply: “The message I would like to send out this year is that as we emerge out of this awful situation that the whole world has experienced together, just like the two world wars, there are so many people out there that need our help and the funds we raise will help so much.”

The poppy has come to symbolise the country’s respect for British troops who have served and continue to do so and is such a focal point of the nation’s Remembrance rituals that it may surprise some that it would never have been the emblem it is without two women from overseas.

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This in turn inspired American humanitarian, Moina Michael, who bought poppies to sell to her friends to raise money for servicemen in need after the First World War. The idea was adopted by the British Legion in 1921, when it ordered a million poppies from teacher Anna Guérin in France – who in that September had arrived in Liverpool and set out for London with a similar idea – with a further eight million to be manufactured in Britain. They sold out.

One hundred years on, around 40 million poppies are distributed by 40,000 Royal British Legion volunteers each year. However, while the Poppy Appeal raised £50m in 2019, this dropped to £30m last year amid the pandemic and has a target this year of £45m.

Miss Jones and fellow volunteers raised some £20,000 in the east of Rotherham alone last year. A veteran of 22 years, she joined the Women’s Royal Army Corps (WRAC) as a Private in 1988, and after it was disbanded in 1992 she was with the Royal Logistic Corps, where Privates were known as Sappers.

She eventually rose to become a Warrant Officer Class 2 and among her seven medals is one for Long Service and Good Conduct.

But sport was also an important part of her military career – one of her highlights was racing against Dame Kelly Holmes in a 400m relay in Germany and winning before she became an Olympic gold medallist.

There were testing times, too. “I served in many campaigns such as Afghanistan, Iraq, Bosnia and Northern Ireland, often fearing that I would never survive to return home,” she says. “Thankfully I did.”

After leaving the forces 12 years ago, she set up her own pet sitting and dog walking business, but its fortunes faded amid the pandemic. “I lost my business due to the pandemic and it never recovered. I received no financial help from the Government, I was one of three million taxpayers that fell through the gaps, I am currently unemployed.” Selling poppies gives her “a worth and great satisfaction that you are helping others”.

She got involved when, about four years ago, she was running a tombola at a gala in Brinsworth to raise funds for the WRAC Association. A woman from the Royal British Legion, Sally, introduced Miss Jones to her husband, Rotherham West organiser Ron Moffett MBE. She eventually became involved with the Poppy Appeal herself and didn’t hesitate when asked to take over as organiser for Rotherham East’s operation in 2020.

“As a member of the Royal British Legion I am so grateful for the volunteers that help with this amazing cause,” she says.

“Every day I am blown away with the generosity and very grateful to the people of Rotherham for their continued support of both the Poppy Appeal and remembering those who gave so much in conflicts.”

Mr Moffett also served for 22 years, but in the Royal Army Ordnance Corps and rose to become a Warrant Officer Class 1 – the highest rank possible for a non-commissioned officer – and Conductor, also one of the most senior appointments in the British Army. For his logistical support in Operation Granby – the 1991 Gulf War – he received his MBE from the Queen 30 years ago on his 40th birthday.

“It was one of the things in my life that I’ll probably never forget,” says Mr Moffett, 70, of Rawmarsh. “It was wonderful. We had a really good day out, we were looked after.

“She was just her usual self, absolutely brilliant – she knew where I was from, what I did and why I got the medal and everything.”

He adds: “I’m still wearing my medal today, actually. It was funny because my father...he wasn’t an educated man, but I’d never known him be so proud of me as when I told him the day I was getting my medal. He was just a different man with me after that, for some reason or other.”

After coming out of the forces, Mr and Mrs Moffett – who married in 1974, when he was a Private and she a Lance Corporal, and had three boys – had an employment agency for 12 years before moving to Rotherham in 2003. He has been involved in the Legion for decades.

“Today, it’s more difficult than ever because we’ve got soldiers who’ve got all kinds of problems,” he says. “It’s not just one problem they normally have. To get to the root of the problem you’ve got to find out what’s really wrong.

“If they come to the Legion with a debt problem, the Legion may be able to help them out with that, and then you find out that there’s something underlying. You didn’t just get into debt because you got into debt, there was probably something else – they couldn’t work, they were ill, they had post-traumatic stress. And so the Legion tries to help in all ways, any way possible – if we can get them back into work, if we can give them a respite if they’re a carer, we get them that. So it’s multifunctional.”

Younger members of the military have also been doing their bit to help the appeal

Chelsie Cookson, 29, a leading hand in the Navy who is from Featherstone in Yorkshire, has been among the volunteers selling poppies in Leeds and also took part in the city’s recent 5km Poppy Run.

She has seen how the Royal British Legion has helped service personnel, when a friend was able to get legal support from the organisation.

“I think it’s really important for people to support it, especially with everything going on,” she says.

The appeal supports those who are still serving and those who have recently served.

“I think that’s a thing people forget about,” she says.

The organisation also runs six care homes, five with specialist support for those living with dementia. Mr Moffett says: “I think this year’s appeal is probably – not just because it’s 100 years – more important because for the last year, we’ve suffered.”

Referencing the millions of pounds lost last year, he says “we don’t want that to reflect on what we do for the veterans and the military community. So, obviously, if we can grab some of that back this year, we’d be doing fantastic.”