Photos: Tony Gough, the Horsham Times and the Australian War Memorial

For 100 years, Victorians have generously donated their time and money towards the annual RSL Poppy Appeal. And with the Appeal’s centennial anniversary this year, it’s an appropriate time to reflect on its evolution, ongoing relevance, importance, and the tireless efforts behind each Appeal.

It’s comforting to think that a century ago, veteran welfare was a priority, much like it is now.

Almost 100 years ago to the day, The Horsham Times reported on the outstanding work conducted by the local Sub-Branch for the first official Poppy Day Appeal, as it was known then.

“In response to the appeal for helpers in the sale of poppies made by Mr. R. Brodribb, the secretary of the local branch of the R.S.S.I.L.A. (Returned Sailors and Soldiers Imperial League of Australia), three ladies gave their services…and they did very good business, disposing of 700 out of the allotment of 1000 that were sent here.”

Sally Bertram’s family have been in Horsham in Victoria’s west for more than 80 years, with strong ties to the local Sub-Branch, which also so happens to celebrate its 100th year this year.

Her grandfather, Robert Edward Charles, served in WW1 and was one of the Sub-Branches early President’s in the 1930s.

“I remember talking to mum and she said Grandpa was always doing something to encourage people to get involved in raising money for the veterans.”

Peter Smith, OAM, has been RSL Victoria’s Fundraising Manager since 2008. He served with the Army for nearly 25 years and is passionate about the fundraising cause.

"I think the acknowledgement of the centenary of the Poppy Appeal is important by and of itself, but it also causes us to have a bit of a think and reflection about how long we’ve actually been doing this. Probably more important, is realising that the public of Victoria has been supporting veteran welfare for such a long time."

Peter Smith OAM

Top left: Horsham RSL Volunteer, Sally Bertram. Top Right: An artificial poppy sold by the Australian Returned Soldiers and Sailors Imperial League (the forerunner to the RSL) in 1921. Centre: RSL Victoria's Fundraising Manager, Peter Smith OAM.

Now, as Remembrance Day approaches, he and a dedicated team of RSL staff and volunteers across the state are gearing up for the milestone Poppy Appeal.

Sally Bertram is the Coordinator of the Horsham RSL Military History and Heritage Library, as well as the Appeals Officer.

"I have big boxes at my front door filled with Poppy Appeal stock waiting. I might put things out a little earlier this year. When you open up [from lockdown] you put things out real quick!"

Sally Bertram

She says the Horsham and surrounding communities are very supportive, with local businesses, schools and the public doing their utmost to support veterans.

“I just organise a group of people and they come in and help a lot with the Appeal, packing and sorting. And then there’s a few other core members that always turn up every session and they go out to sell. We also have people from two other towns who come each year to get Appeals boxes to raise funds for our veterans.”

While there were veteran fundraising efforts prior to 1921, much research suggests the official Poppy Appeal began in 1921, when the forerunner to the RSL, The Australian Returned Soldiers and Sailors Imperial League first sold poppies for Armistice Day.

Just days before the armistice, the secretary of the American YMCA, Moina Michael, read John McCrae’s legendary poem In Flanders Field.

She was so moved by it she decided to wear a red poppy as a personal commemorative ritual.

Inspired, the French YMCA secretary Anna Guérun, began to sell poppies to raise funds for war widows, orphans, veterans and their families.

The poppy became an international symbol of sacrifice and loss.

When it all began in 1921, the League imported a million silk poppies that were made in French orphanages.

Each poppy was sold for a shilling, with the money divvied up between French children in need, the League’s welfare work and the League’s national coffer.

The Poppy Appeal continues to contribute significantly to the annual fundraising work of the RSL.

Now, there is an array of merchandise that can be purchased for as little as two dollars, all the way through to 50 dollars, including key rings, pens and elaborate metal poppy badges. This year also features the specially commissioned centenary badge, which showcases the poppy in its four stages of life.

“Sometimes, people are so generous they don’t even want a token or a badge, they just want to give money. People will hand over 50 dollar notes or whatever and say it’s just a donation,” says Sally Bertram from the Horsham RSL.

RSL Victoria’s new centenary badge showcases the poppy in its four stages of life.
RSL Victoria’s new centenary badge showcases the poppy in its four stages of life.

Jeff Jackson is the Compensation and Welfare Support Manager for RSL Victoria.

He says all money raised goes directly to current and ex-serving members of the Australian and Allied Defence Forces and their dependents, with the RSL able to provide a broad range of services, tailored to individual needs.

“Urgent dental treatment, reading glasses, welfare like food, clothes for kids for school, books for kids, and then there are other parts like rent assistance, preventing homelessness, we help with car registration, things like that.”

Top right: RSL Victoria Compensation and Welfare Support Manager, Jeff Jackson OAM. Top right: RSL Victoria’s 2021 badge stock. Centre: Warehouse Supervisor, Tia Nicholson and warehouse support, Ben Ahearn packing Poppy Appeal stock to be shipped to RSL Sub-Branches across Australia.

"Funds raised by the Poppy Appeal and other appeals go to funding our permanent team of Advocates, a service to veterans to enable them to access their rightful entitlements."

Jeff Jackson OAM

Much like the ways in which the RSL has evolved to meet the current and changing needs of veterans and their dependents, so has the Poppy Appeal become a modern marketing campaign, embracing new trends and technology, like QR codes and cashless donations.

However, what remains the same is what is at its core – support for veterans.

Despite the rise of government agencies, ex-service organisations and the not-for-profit sector, Peter Smith says the Poppy Appeal is as important, if not more so, than it’s ever been.

"I fundamentally hold the view that our veterans and our veteran families importantly, have given great service to the nation, irrespective of their length of service, the type of service, the location of their service. If they’ve put the uniform on in the service of this country, they deserve the support of the country."

Peter Smith OAM

Peter Smith OAM holding a 2021 poppy appeal tray
Peter Smith OAM holding a 2021 poppy appeal tray

"We understand times are tough for everyone. If you’ve got the capacity to give, please give generously knowing that your gift will change a veterans life."

Peter Smith OAM