THIS year’s Remembrance Day commemorations will be like no others before.

For the first time in two years, the sacrifices made over decades during conflicts will be marked by large public gatherings - prohibited last year due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

But for those volunteers behind the annual commemorations, which are universally recognisable by the poppy symbol, this year is even more poignant.

Many of those volunteers, belonging to the Royal British Legion charity, are marking 100 years since the organisation’s inception.

Colchester’s branch is one of those and its president Fred Woolhouse, 83, reflected on what makes the Royal British Legion such an important part in history and in supporting the forces going forward.

The annual Poppy Appeal was launched last week and runs until Remembrance Sunday, this weekend.

“During the poppy season, everybody seems to get involved and they all come along and help.

Standards - flags at Colchester United’s ground for the launch of this year’s Poppy Appeal in the town

Standards - flags at Colchester United’s ground for the launch of this year’s Poppy Appeal in the town

“There is a lot of camaraderie, people who don’t normally come to branch meetings come along,” said Fred, who has taken on the role of leading the centenary commemorations in Colchester this year.

Traditionally volunteers are seen in the two-week period out in public with their trademark red collection tins, raising what adds up to thousands of pounds for the appeal.

Recently in Colchester, funds helped to buy food for an ex-serving soldier’s family and for a veteran’s bathroom to be upgraded to suit their accessibility needs.

However, just days into the launch last year, collections were halted by the Legion’s national bosses in response to concerns over increasing Covid cases, following months of no face-to-face meetings being able to take place either.

Fred said: “We had set up a committee meeting in January 2020, had meetings in February and March where we set out all our objectives [for the centenary] but weren’t able to meet after that because all our meetings were banned.”

Updated - the war memorial in Castle Park, Colchester

Updated - the war memorial in Castle Park, Colchester

Despite last year’s halt to Poppy Appeal collections, the Colchester branch still raised an impressive £35,000.

In 2019, before Covid struck, the Colchester branch raised more than £85,000.

This year, however, Fred has set the target of raising £100,000 and is confident that can be achieved.

The target represents £1,000 for each of the branch’s 100 years. About a third of the charity’s income comes from the appeal.

“I would be extremely proud if we managed that £100,000 - that’s the last of my three objectives from the centenary committee,” he said.

Other goals achieved by the branch include adding a plaque to a commemorative stone in Castle Park, Colchester, in May, to mark the branch’s centenary.

Fred also researched and wrote a booklet about the branch’s history.

Dedicated - Fred Woolhouse, president of the Colchester branch of the Royal British Legion

Dedicated - Fred Woolhouse, president of the Colchester branch of the Royal British Legion

He continued: “Although people don’t realise it, there are still many ex-service families and serving families who are genuinely in need. They need help for recruitment if they have come out of the Army. There can be a case of families breaking up and the soldier is looked after but the wife is not, she might want to go back to her family and we would pay her costs, for example.

“There is a whole range of services we provide and the significance of the legion is unlike most charities. It is a membership-based organisation so we have an annual subscription which goes a long way to meet the running costs, so most of the money we raise can be spent helping people in need.

“If you go back the First World War, the country was bankrupt, all those jobs had gone, there was no Welfare State, no NHS, nothing like that, so they were really destitute. Little groups started up to try to raise money and eventually formed the Royal British Legion.”

Fred’s research described howthe legion was officially formed on August 11, 1921.

The establishment of the Royal British Legion was a result of the amalgamation of four separate national organisations which had grown out of the First World War.

Little is known of the early history of the branch as there are few records from the early years.

On Armistice Day in 1921, the first Poppy Appeal in Colchester raised £322.

Although Colchester is one of Britain’s leading Garrison towns, the Colchester branch of the Royal British Legion does not have a permanent headquarters for members.

In recent years, meetings were held at the St Giles Masonic Centre or Belle Vue Social Club, but none since early last year because of Covid-19.

Fred, who lives in Colchester with his wife of 59 years, Helga, has been a member of the branch for nearly 20 years. He joined the Army before his 18th birthday, having worked as a butcher for the Co-op in his home city of Manchester.

Fred served for 23 years in the Royal Army Service Corps in a career which took him all over the world.

Jackie Mason, secretary of the Colchester branch, joined Fred to launch this year’s appeal and explained her role.

“For me it is about ordering stock ready for when the appeal starts and I have a team of distributors - people that volunteer.”

Jackie said these volunteers take Poppy Appeal packs to schools and businesses to go on sale. They return to each of these venues when the appeal finishes to collect the donation tins and cash is counted up. A third trip is made by the volunteers to hand deliver a thank you card.

Jackie, who is retired, said she was so glad to be able to be back out in public collecting again.

“It means so much to me. Even just this morning a man asked to buy a car poppy and he was putting a £10 note in and said I needn’t give him change. That’s how much he wanted to give.”

Today the Colchester branch has around 170 members.

To find out more or to volunteer, email