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Jul. 10, 2020 | Friday
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History Unveiled: The roots of NOTL's Legion
Gen. Charles M. Nelles was the first president of the Royal Canadian Legion Branch 124. (Brittany Carter/Niagara Now)

This is the first of two parts

It was November 25, 1925, that the Royal Canadian Legion was founded by veterans of the First World War who pushed for a national organization. The purpose of such an organization was to preserve and honour the memory of all who served in the Canadian Forces.

Prior to the establishment of the Legion, there were various service clubs that had been established by veterans throughout many communities. By 1926, many of these veterans’ groups started to amalgamate and become part of the Royal Canadian Legion.

In 1928, the Niagara Veterans Association here in NOTL joined the new national organization and was called Branch 124 of the Royal Canadian Legion.

On April 26, 1928, the first meeting of Branch 124 was held in the Masonic Hall on King Street. Thirty-one First World War veterans were in attendance. An election was held and the first president of Branch 124 was Gen. Charles M. Nelles. The first elected committee were; A.J. McClellan – first vice-president; Dr. A.B. Greenwood – second vice-president; D.A.R. Rodgers – secretary/treasurer; E.W. Field, R.L Griffith and I. Lavell – executive members.

Membership of Branch 124 followed the national standards which included the following: all people who had served in the Canadian military; RCMP; provincial and municipal police forces; Royal Canadian Army, air and sea cadets; and direct relatives of veterans.

During the first year of Branch 124 new members were recruited and all veterans who served in the military prior to 1885 were made honorary members. In later years, “social members” were accepted if three active members sponsored them and a two-thirds majority vote by members was given. The social membership cost $5 per year, while a regular membership cost $2 annually.

The Imperial Order of the Daughters of the Empire (IODE) soon became affiliated with the different legions and that included the branch here in Niagara. Women had also served during the First World War and were permitted to join the legion but were not allowed to participate in any bar activities.

The IODE was first established in Fredericton, N.B., in 1900. Its prime purpose was to support Canadian Forces departing Canada to fight with the Empire Forces in South Africa.

The IODE would raise funds, clothing and food to be sent over to Canadian soldiers. One such fundraiser was their “Rose Day,” where small paper roses were sold to support veterans and children of veterans. In 1901, the headquarters for the IODE was moved to Toronto.

As the Royal Canadian Legion evolved, so too did the working relationship between the Legion and the IODE. Eventually the two worked together with the most successful fund-raising campaign being the poppy sales.

It was the Great War Veterans Association in Canada that adopted the poppy as a symbol of remembrance on July 5, 1924. And much like the Rose Day funds, poppy sales went to assist veterans and their families.

By 1928, Branch 124 and the local IODE had co-ordinated their efforts with the sale of poppies. Proceeds from poppy sales even to this day go to the local legions to support veterans and outreach programs in the community.

The branch was growing and needed more permanent quarters. The first year saw meetings held in the Masonic Hall and even the mayor’s office. But it was time to find new quarters. In 1930, Branch 124 rented the Curtis House at 175 Victoria St. This new place facilitated the Legion meetings and even a few social gatherings.

On Nov. 11, 1930, at 11 a.m. the first memorial service was held at the cenotaph in town (A.K.A. the clock tower). In past years many memorial services were held at different times of the year, depending on the community.

However, in 1931, through the efforts of the Royal Canadian Legion and with the support of the branches, the Canadian government set aside Nov. 11 at 11 a.m. as the official day and time of remembrance of all war veterans.

Branch 124 here in Niagara-on-the-Lake organizes the remembrance celebrations. Wreaths are purchased and guests are invited.

The 809 Newark Air Cadets Squadron (of Virgil) are in attendance; the lord mayor, town councillors, representation from the local police force and fire departments, Legion members, veterans and the public are all invited to attend. It’s a tradition that has carried on for eight decades now.

Part two: The NOTL Legion in modern times.

More Niagara’s History Unveiled articles about the past of Niagara-on-the-Lake are available at: www.niagaranow.com

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