Our 100-year Royal Charter Anniversary
Surviving the First World War was just the beginning for those who fought. Returning home meant facing new challenges: finding work in a near-bankrupt economy and pulling a life back together amidst the ruins of a war-weary land.
As we acknowledge 100 years of the OA’s Royal Charter, we reflect on the circumstances that brought the OA into existence.
London, 1918: Big Ben rang out for the first time in four years and jubilant crowds gathered to celebrate the end of the “War to End all Wars.”
The Great War had seen enormous changes to the nature of warfare. The tactics used and the deployment of heavy artillery led to large-scale losses, with attacks on mainland Britain bringing the war closer to home than earlier conflicts ever did. The introduction of conscription, home casualties and the scale of loss meant that few families remained untouched by the war effort. The idea of sacrifice for a greater good was widely promoted and Britain gave its best, as witnessed by the surge in war memorials across the land.
These changes brought about a shift in British society: the great family estates began to be broken up and new generations of officers rose through the ranks. Men with little formal education, who nonetheless demonstrated their ability to lead when called upon, entered the ranks of officers. Numbers swelled, and by the end of the war in 1918, some 10,000 ordinary men had been commissioned.
Recognising the sacrifices made
Mass demobilisation into a damaged economy led to widespread and visible hardships, recognised by the Government with the provision of an early form of unemployment benefit. Yet commissioned officers were excluded from this payment and unlike officers of the pre-war generation, they did not have private means to fall back on. Many ordinary men who had sacrificed so much for their country, were left destitute, along with their families.
The earliest military charities were founded in the 19th century and their number grew during the First World War, but none sought to support officers. Field Marshal Earl Haig had witnessed first-hand a real need among former officers and was determined to do something about it.
The Officers’ Association was launched in January 1920 by Earl Haig, Admiral of the Fleet Earl Beatty and Air Marshal Sir Hugh Trenchard. They made clear that the Association would assist in the formation of a united organisation to take care of the interests of all who had served, irrespective of rank.
Support for all ranks
Subsequently, when the British Legion was formed a year later, six OA representatives sat on its National Executive committee with the OA handing over its Appeals Department and its Great War Remembrance League subscription list (established by Earl Haig). The OA also made a cash donation to support the administrative costs of set-up. In return, the OA received a share of funds raised by the Legion which contributed to the operating costs of the OA (ending in 2023).
From the OA’s beginnings, the Royal Family had taken a close interest in the Association’s work: King George V, Queen Mary and the Princess Royal attending a fund-raising Garden Fete in 1920, with the King’s Aunt Princess Louise making a rare public appearance. His Majesty became the first patron of the OA, a role graciously accepted by all his son and then his granddaughter, Queen Elizabeth II. Various members of the Royal Family have become life members, including, in 1948, Her Majesty the Queen as Duchess of Edinburgh and the Duke of Edinburgh. The Prince of Wales, the future Duke of Windsor, took particular interest in the employment of former officers which has remained key to the OA’s activities. In February 1921 it was calculated that two thirds of the UK’s one million unemployed were ex-servicemen.
Jobs for officers
Earl Haig’s aim had always been “to go to the root of the problem and solve it, not by continual payments to men who are out of work but by finding work for them and, by putting them in jobs and businesses.” He therefore asked Government, Local Authorities, companies and private employers for their “active assistance to open the gates of useful employment to these men to whose past exertions we owe our liberties if not our lives.” Nonetheless, in 1921, the OA assisted 24,221 cases financially; this number dropped to 18,340 the following year, but soon the effects of the Great Depression were being felt across the nation and were particularly acute for those with war wounds, both seen and unseen, and the widows, children and dependants of the war dead. The Charity which Earl Haig had anticipated being needed for just a few years came under increasing demand. Then came World War II and a new generation of those deserving of support on a return to civilian life. 1952 saw the highest level of cases administered by the OA since 1927.
The Association’s governing document, its Royal Charter, was amended at the end of the Second World War to ensure assistance could be provided to women officers and their dependants. The OA had always taken an active interest in pensions payable to former servicemen, but the cumulative effect of two world wars made the issue of retired pay and pensions even more pressing and the OA formed a specific committee to provide advice and to lobby Government, co-operating closely with the then Officers’ Pensions Society.
Since 1945, conflicts involving UK Forces have thankfully been on a smaller scale, but there have only been two years when a British serviceman was not killed on operations. To this day, the demand for support and assistance continues but the nature of the need has changed. Medical and technological advances, particularly since the Falklands conflict, mean more servicemen are able to survive their injuries. This may make their needs more complex as, while possibly suffering from life-changing injuries, there is a greater expectation that they should still be able to play a full and fulfilling role in society. Different charities now deal with specific needs.
The OA today
The terms of its founding Royal Charter means that the OA exists to assist former commissioned officers and their dependants. We believe those who have served, and their families should have someone who understands their background and individual needs, especially in difficult times. We provide practical support and guidance to former officers and their dependants, working with military charities and other charitable organisations to access available funds to improve lives.
While the challenges of the employment market today are not as bleak as they were in the 1920s, transitioning from military to civilian employment is still a challenge. Today, the OA proudly champions the training, skills and abilities of officer talent to meet the demands of business and an ever-changing society.
Our history, ethos, and values as a charity working with officer job seekers gives us the credibility and insight to design recruitment strategies that work for a broad section of employers. Increasingly, we are seeing employers actively recruiting ex-military personnel, recognising the inherent value of their skill sets and abilities.
The aim of the OA is to ensure all those who have served can find their rightful place in civilian society, finding sustainable employment in roles that recognise their skills and experience – a fitting tribute to the work of the founding fathers of the charity over 100 years ago.
If you would like to know more about our work or would like to donate to the OA, please visit: www.officersassociation.org.uk