FOR MANY people, buying a paper poppy in the run-up to Remembrance Sunday has become an almost automatic gesture, something we do every year just because we should.

But how many people stop to think about what that habit means, how the tradition started, where the money goes and who benefits from it?

For those who run the annual Poppy Appeal, there’s another question: how can they keep it going in the future when those with direct links to the wars which inspired it finally die out?

Of course, the Poppy Appeal was inspired by the First World War and the last of those who served in the armed forces from that time died before the 100th anniversary of its declaration could be commemorated.

The last living veteran in the world was recorded as Florence Green, a British citizen who served in the Women’s Royal Air Force as an officers’ mess steward, at RAF Marham, after joining up in September 1918. She died on February 4, 2012, at the age of 110.

The last combat veteran was British-born Claude Choles, who served in the Royal Navy and who died in May 2011, also aged 110. And the last veteran who served in the trenches was 111-year-old Harry Patch, who died in July 2009.

Despite their deaths, the ongoing WW1 commemorations which began in 2014 managed to reignite public interest in the Poppy Appeal, which raises about half of the funds needed for the welfare work carried out by its organisers, the Royal British Legion, every year.

It is not widely known that the first British Poppy Appeal did not, in fact, come about until 1921, the year the Legion was founded.

Poppies were first suggested as a symbol of remembrance by Miss Moina Michael, in the USA, in November 1918, and adopted by the American Legion in 1920 - although there are accounts of artificial poppies being sold to raise funds in South Shields, for prisoners of war, and at the Sleights Red Cross Hospital, near Whitby, for its war effort in 1916.

They had been the subject of a poem by a Canadian army doctor, Lieutenant-Colonel John McCrae, who wrote it after presiding over the funeral of a friend after the second Battle of Ypres.

In it, he talked about how the red poppies grew over the graves of fallen soldiers, inspiring hope and urging the living to carry on.

This symbol officially came to Britain in August 1921, when a French woman, Madame Anna Guerin introduced her poppies to the British Legion. It was considered that the next appropriate occasion for a poppy-linked appeal would be Armistice Day (November 11) and so the first Poppy Appeal was created.

Madame Guerin’s red silk poppies were a huge success, raising more than £106,000 which was spent to help WW1 veterans find work and housing.

The following year, the Poppy Factory was set up employing disabled ex-servicemen to create the poppies to be sold for the appeal. It still produces millions of them each year.

In 2016, the Appeal generated £47.6 million with more than 300,000 volunteers taking to the streets to help.

Despite that, the Bradford branch of the British Legion has so far struggled to find enough poppy sellers for this year’s appeal.

Branch chairman Colin Robinson said an appeal earlier in the year for more volunteers had been unsuccessful which meant it would be up to the charity’s “dedicated core” to go out across the district selling poppies and delivering donation boxes.

“Unfortunately, not many people come forward to help,” he said. “We are all not getting any younger and are finding it harder to fill spots in supermarkets or delivering boxes.

“There may be some gaps in supermarkets because we don’t have the bodies, so we would appreciate any help from people, even if it’s just one or two hours sitting in a supermarket.”

His comments were echoed in Keighley, where the branch has been trying to recruit new members, particularly younger ones.

Branch secretary Jackie McGinnis told the Telegraph & Argus that membership had dwindled from more than 100 six or seven years ago to just 60 now.

"As people have got older, that figure has fallen,” she said. "Unfortunately, the Royal British Legion is seen by many as 'an old men's' organisation, but that stereotype is just not true.

"We have a number of female members in the branch, and you do not have to be former or current service personnel to join – I'm not! Also, we would like to see younger people in particular come forward. There is even a free, youth membership for under-18s."

And it’s not just about shaking tins: The Legion says there are lots of opportunities for people over 16 to help with office tasks such as responding to calls and e-mails requesting poppies and collection boxes, or from people wanting to volunteer, counting and banking the money collected, organising stock ahead of the appeal and (for those aged over 17 with their own cars) delivering and picking up collection boxes.

The Legion’s work is vitally important, with the estimated 6.6 million members of the armed forces living in the UK more likely than the general population to be out of work, suffering financial problems, having unpaid caring responsibilities and suffering from health issues that limit their activity.

It provides lifelong support for veterans and their families through care homes, dementia support, medical funds, centres for respite breaks, help with debt and financial emergencies through advice, grants and loans and it even runs a handyman service to help with small household repairs and adaptations.

It also helps those currently serving with jobs and career advice when they leave, financial support and a raft of services to help them deal with injury and personal recovery as well as providing breaks for families.

Over and above its charity work, the Royal British Legion campaigns on behalf of veterans and the armed forces community over issues such as Gulf War illnesses, injury compensation and employment for ex-servicemen.

The Poppy Appeal is about far more than simply marking November 11 each year, important though that is. Its work goes on day in, day out, changing for the better the lives of those who have served, or continue to serve, our country in a military capacity and their families.

Surely that’s also worth remembering when we pin on our poppies?

* For more information on volunteering see