It was to be the most poignant tribute of all to the 888,246 British and colonial soldiers who lost their lives in the First World War – their places taken in countless churches, schools and village halls across the land by ghostly silhouettes.
But the name given to the initiative, There But Not There, has proved as apposite to the money it was supposed to raise for charity, as to the warriors themselves.
Of the £4m that has taken to date from the sales of the cut-out representations, more than £800,000 has gone in VAT, with the figure set to increase as demand ramps up in the final weeks before the centenary of the armistice next month.
Yesterday, as he gathered alongside 33 Chelsea Pensioners, 24 serving personnel from across all three services, and nine veterans, who stood pointedly among 33 6ft silhouettes in the grounds of London’s Royal Chelsea Hospital, the former head of the Army, General Lord Dannatt, implored the Chancellor, Philip Hammond, to take a leaf out of his predecessor George Osborne’s book and waive the tax bill.
The charity Remembered is behind the sale of the Tommy statues. The money will go to Royal Foundation, The Commonwealth War Graves Commission, Walking With The Wounded, Combat Stress, Help For Heroes and a veterans housing project in Plymouth.
Gen Dannatt said Mr Hammond had a choice between a good news story and a bad one.
“It looks like the institutional organisation that is going to benefit most from this campaign is Her Majesty’s Treasury if they choose to retain the VAT,” he said.
“George Osborne set a good precedent in 2014 by waiving the VAT for the poppies in the moat in the Tower of London.
“I think Philip Hammond will actually realise a similar gesture would be good.”
A petition has also been set up by Rowley Gregg, director of Remembered, calling for the return of the VAT from the sales. It has garnered more than 107,000 signatures in a few days.
Mr Gregg, an Army veteran who was awarded the Military Cross for his actions in Afghanistan in 2009, said charity merchandise for a non-profit organisation should not be charged at the same rate as a profit-making one.
“Why wouldn’t the Chancellor want to back this campaign and show the Government’s support in something that has really touched the public’s hearts?” he said.
More than 2,500 of the 6ft Tommy figures and some 77,000 of the smaller, 10in versions have been sold so far. But while there has been a huge uptake from individuals and community groups, it was revealed in August that only a third of councils across the country had installed one of the statues.
Gen Dannatt had written personally to every local authority leader, asking them to back the project, but many had reportedly ignored him.
Similar initiatives involving cardboard soldiers to represent those who fell, are underway in parts of Yorkshire. In the Hambleton district, locals have made a “trail” of 100 cutouts which will be placed in groups of 20 in the market towns of Northallerton, Thirsk, Bedale, Easingwold and Stokesley.
At Bridlington Priory Church, life-size cardboard silhouettes of the 335 local men and boys who fell in the First World War have been made by members of the congregation, some of whose relatives are recorded on the church war memorial. Each silhouette is labelled with a name, age, rank and regiment.