POST WAR CHALLENGES
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.
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.
RECOGNISING THE SACRIFICES MADE
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.
To support our vital work: