Armistice 100: ‘The Royal British Legion gave me back my life,’ Islington soldier’s debt to armed forces’ charity

Harris Tatakis. Pic: RBL

Harris Tatakis. Pic: RBL - Credit: Archant

The Royal British Legion has been helping veterans and their families for almost 100 years.

Harris in Afghanistan. Pic: RBL

Harris in Afghanistan. Pic: RBL - Credit: Archant

It was set up on May 15, 1921, to look after those who had suffered as a result of the First World War but continues to support servicemen and women.

For ex-Royal Marine Harris Tatakis, born and bred in Islington, the charity helped change his life after he was blown up in Afghanistan.

“It’s fair to say the Legion has given my life back to me,” Mr Tatakis said.

A veteran of conflicts in Kosovo and Iraq, the 41-year-old divorcee was in Helmand province in Afghanistan days away from coming home after a six-month tour of duty.

Harris in Helmand provine in Afghanistan. Pic: RBL

Harris in Helmand provine in Afghanistan. Pic: RBL - Credit: Archant

His return was delayed by 10 days so his unit, 42 Commando, could complete one last mission – clearing the Sangin valley of enemy Taliban fighters.

The life-changing event happened the day Mr Tatakis, who went to Highgate and Campsbourne schools, was originally due to return home.

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He was with two fellow marines when the WMIK land rover they were travelling was catapulted 20 feet in the air after hitting a roadside bomb.

His battered body was thrown 35 metres away. The blast shattered his left leg, shin and ankle. His right foot was broken, both ear drums were ruptured and he suffered brain damage.

The dropping of leaflets by US forces urging Taliban commanders to leave the valley had backfired with fighters laying dozens of improvised explosive devices instead.

Speaking in 2012 he said, “I thought I was dead. I honestly thought I was dead.”

He was flown back to Britain and treated at Selly Oak Hospital, Birmingham, before getting transferred to Headley Court for two years of rehabilitation.

In 2017 he became the first British veteran to be treated with technology that restores hearing loss during sleep, thanks to the Legion.

About 6.7 million people are eligible for help from the organisation, which this year aims to raise £50m in its poppy appeal – an annual campaign, inspired by the war poem In Flanders Fields, which started in 1921 raising £106,000.

Each week the organisation spends about £1.6m supporting and advising veterans and their loved ones.

It was Tom Lister, a lance bombardier, who set up the charity after deciding the government was either unable or unwilling to do anything to improve the lives of ex-servicemen returned from fighting in the First World War.

The suffering was varied and widespread from wounds affecting a man’s ability to earn a living to a war widow struggling to provide for her children.

A drop in employment sparked by the war saw 2 million without work many of whom were men who had served in the armed forces.

A total of 1.75 million returned with a disability, half of whom were permanently disabled.

Lister was so moved by the plight that he took action and the Legion was born.

As the country prepares to commemorate the truce that signalled the end of the First World War’s hostilities, the Legion is taking a lead saying thank you to the generation who served in a national campaign.

It is doing this by encouraging people to take a moment to think of the people who served on the frontline and on the home front including members of the armed forces, nurses, factory workers and conscientious objectors.

The Legion is also reminding people of advances taken as a result of the war ranging from wristwatches – around since the eighteenth century for women but frowned on by men until the 1914-1918 conflict – to zips – about since 1851 but uncommon until the US military adopted them for uniforms.

Its campaign looks at how the war affected English with words entering the language including cushy – from the Hindi for pleasure – and blotto – a French manufacturer of bikes which were notoriously wobbly making it look as if riders were drunk.

For more visit the RBL website.