Current Events, Special Days and Historic Anniversaries Brought to Life by Teddy Bears, Pandas and Other Cuddly Creatures


by Elspeth

Today is Remembrance Day when we remember all those who have given their lives for the freedom we enjoy today. The date was chosen because, in 1918, it was at 11am on the 11th day of the 11th month that Germany signed an armistice agreement ending the First World War.

Two years ago, my husband and I were in Londonon 11th November and joined the crowds in Trafalgar Square for the Silence in the Square at 11 o’clock.  I’d taken along a little teddy dressed in a First World War uniform and was delighted when four young army cadets agreed to be photographed with him.  After leaving Trafalgar Square, we made our way along Whitehall to the Cenotaph to see the hundreds of poppy wreaths we had watched being laid on television on Remembrance Sunday.  The one that really intrigued us was from The Amalgamation of Racing Pigeons laid in memory of all the pigeons which were used to carry messages of vital importance during the war. 

We then headed for Westminster Abbey where a service was being held to remember all those who had served in the First World War.  Shortly after taking our position in front of the Field of Remembrance, Prime Minister Gordon Brown and his wife Sarah passed within a few feet of us as they inspected the thousands of crosses placed in memory of all those who had fought and died in countless conflicts.    

Once the dignitaries had left, members of the public were allowed into the Field of Remembrance which was an extremely moving experience.  The most poignant moment of the day for me was when I placed a cross in the section assigned to the Indian Army in memory of my father, Major Alan P. Young, who served in India with the 6th Rajputana Rifles during the Second World War and, in 1946, was awarded the M.B.E. for his distinguished war service. 

Using teddy bears in my Remembrance Day window in no way trivialises the occasion as, during the First World War, they played a vital dual role – inspiring and keeping safe those involved in action on foreign fields and comforting loved ones left at home.  Particularly popular were little fully jointed teddies, made in golden mohair and patriotic red, white and blue, often given to soldiers as good luck mascots, their upturned faces allowing them to peek out of a uniform pocket.  Larger military bears, dressed in contemporary uniforms of the various allied forces, were also all the rage, some going to the Front inside rucksacks, but most providing comfort to families left behind.

With the outbreak of the Second World War, production of teddy bears almost ceased as raw materials were in short supply and factories concentrated on the war effort.  However, some manufacturers started to use cheaper materials, including Chiltern who produced a charismatic Home Guard Sergeant, made entirely from velveteen except for his head and paws which were mohair.  Once again, teddies accompanied servicemen into battle, like Sneezy, a miniature teddy given to Ted Able by his mother in 1941, who proved to be the perfect good luck charm as both returned home safely, staying together until Ted’s death in 1991, aged 81.   

Teddy bears also helped to reassure British children living in a climate of bereavement, chaos and fear.  When Operation Pied Piper, (the codename for the evacuation of city children to the safety of the countryside and overseas), began on 1st September 1939, crowds of children, labels tied to their coats and often clutching a cherished teddy, were soon a common sight at railway stations across Britain.  Even when the evacuation of teddies bears was frowned upon by the authorities, many children still managed to smuggle their best friends to safety inside their gas mask cases which were often decorated with mohair teddy heads and appliquéd bodies.  The ursine design ensured that this vital equipment was never forgotten as no child would ever leave a teddy in danger!

Two years ago was doubly special as not only did it mark The Royal British Legion’s 90th anniversary, but there was also a once-in-a-lifetime Remembrance Day when, at 11am on the 11th day of the 11th month of 2011 –, the country fell silent as we remembered those who had laid down their lives that we might be free.   

The Royal British Legion was founded to help the servicemen of the First World War and their families who had fallen on hard times.  Many, having left the mud of the trenches behind, returned home only to discover that, despite their heroism, the ‘land fit for heroes’ that Prime Minister Lloyd George had promised them did not exist.  Over six million men fought in the Great War – 725,000 never returned and, of those who did come back, 1.75 million suffered some kind of disability with half of these permanently disabled.  Without the British Legion many families would have been destitute.

The tradition of an annual Two Minute Silence in memory of the fallen had already been established by the time the Legion was formed on 15th May 1921.  The first ever Poppy Appeal was launched that same year, the emblem inspired by John McCrae’s poem, In Flanders’ Fields, written in 1915 about the fragile flowers that blossomed on the bloody battlefields of Belgium and northern France.  Not knowing if the appeal would be successful, the British Legion ordered only nine million poppies.  However, the public’s response exceeded all expectations and, although the poppies were on sale for an official price of threepence, soon single petals were selling for an astonishing £5, while a basket of poppies auctioned at Christies raised nearly £500.

Queen Mary asked that poppy sellers come to Buckingham Palace but, on hearing that poppies were in short supply, she bought only two.  In fact, supplies had completely sold out by the end of the first day.  The first appeal raised £106,000 (roughly equivalent to £30 million today).  That first year, the poppies were made in France but, by the following year, a Poppy Factory had been established in the UK.  This had two benefits as, not only did it keep costs down (the second Poppy Appeal raised £204,000), but it also employed disabled ex-servicemen to make the poppies. 

In the 1960s, the familiar single poppy was introduced and, instead of paying a set amount, people could donate what they wanted.  The British Legion were granted ‘Royal’ status in 1971 and, ten years later, they extended their membership to serving members of Her Majesty’s Forces, as well as to ex-service personnel.  This year alone, disabled ex-service personnel made 12 million poppies at The Poppy Factory which also makes the wreathes and crosses which are laid at services all over the UK on Remembrance Day and the petals which are released from the ceiling of the Albert Hall during the two-minutes silence, each petal representing a life lost in conflict. 

Every year, The Bears in the Windows remember the enormous courage and sacrifice of those men and women who have died in two World Wars and in conflicts since, as well as their ursine ancestors who protected and brought comfort to countless people during the dark days of war.  Two years ago, the numbers 90 and 11 featured prominently in the windows and, for the first time, I recreated the Field of Remembrance at Westminster Abbey. This year, as well as the Field of Remembrance, in a second window, there’s a little bear paying tribute to his fallen comrades and in a third are representatives of the armed forces, both of today and yesterday, with my Merrythought Poppy bear leading The Bears in the Windows tribute to those who laid down their lives that we might be free.

It’s important that we never forget and, by wearing a poppy, we are showing our thanks and respect for all those who have died for their country in some faraway battlefield.    




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