I beg to move,
That this House has considered the work of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Streeter, and to see the Under-Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, my right hon. Friend the Member for Bexleyheath and Crayford (Mr Evennett) in his place, replacing my hon. Friend the Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Tracey Crouch), who is away on maternity leave.
The aim of this short debate is to draw to the attention of colleagues and the public the work of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. Apart from the maintenance of war cemeteries and memorials of two world wars, the commission is crucial to all the commemorative ceremonies for the first world war. I should declare an interest at the outset: I am one of two parliamentary commissioners represented on the commission. The other is the hon. Member for North Durham (Mr Jones), who is in the Chamber and hopes to catch your eye, Mr Streeter.
In many respects, we are enclosed by history. Today, for example, at this very moment 76 years ago, the Labour party, meeting in conference, was deciding whether or not to support Winston Churchill as the leader of a coalition Government. One can imagine the atmosphere among parliamentary colleagues on 10 May 1940, with Nazi armies invading the low countries and France. We are here to look at another anniversary. Almost 99 years ago, on 21 May 1917, the Imperial War Graves Commission, as it was called then, received its royal charter, which established its remit and gave it sole responsibility for graves and memorials to the then dead of the imperial British forces in the first world war.
Nothing was preordained about the establishment of what became the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. Its creation was largely the work of a formidable, motivated man called Fabian Ware—a man who had been working with Lord Milner in South Africa, who was an intellectual, who became editor of The Morning Post and who had a wide range of friends and contacts in the British establishment. In 1914, too old to serve, Ware commanded an ambulance unit in France and became aware of the sheer numbers of casualties, on a scale that Britain had never faced before. The British armed forces lost approximately 3,500 men at the battle of Waterloo —one of our biggest losses. We had suffered about 80,000 casualties by Christmas 1914.
Ware was concerned about what was going to happen to the dead, and he persuaded the general headquarters of the British armed forces in 1915 to establish the Graves Registration Commission, which he was to run. He made certain that the dead were buried or commemorated as near as possible to the battlefields where they fell and, most significantly, not repatriated. There was enormous pressure, particularly from the parents or families of reasonably wealthy people, to bring—where they could be found—the bodies of their sons, husbands or cousins back home. That was going to be impossible on such a scale. He was only too aware that many of the dead, when they could be found, had no means of identity whatsoever.
During the course of the first world war, and in the establishment of the royal charter, Ware negotiated with allied and enemy countries for land where the dead were to be buried. Most significantly of all, he established that there was going to be no distinction by rank. Crudely speaking, pre-Victorian army officers got individual burials; other ranks were dumped in a great big pit. The only distinction was going to be by religion—Christian, Jewish or Islamic. That would be marked on the headstone. Of course, those of the Islamic faith would have their own cemeteries carefully laid out.
There was a lot of opposition to that, mainly from the families, and there were heated debates here in Parliament at the end of the first world war. Ware outmanoeuvred them all. In the establishment of what we all know now as the cemeteries and memorials that are so distinguishable for the British and Commonwealth experience, he used a whole series of distinguished experts: Edward Lutyens; Herbert Baker; Reginald Blomfield; Rudyard Kipling, who had lost a son, Jack, and was deeply traumatised, and who established much of the terminology of the commemoration; and Gertrude Jekyll, who advised on the landscaping and the gardens.
The final thing I will say about Ware is that he placed a great deal of emphasis on the fact that it was the Imperial—we would now say Commonwealth—War Graves Commission. It was not just about the British; it was about the Australians, the New Zealanders, the Canadians, the South Africans and, above all, the Indians, who made the biggest commitment to our cause in two world wars. I am part of the commission, and our work today is supported by member Governments of Australia, Canada, India, New Zealand, South Africa and, above all, the United Kingdom. Each of those countries contributes a sum in proportion to the number of graves it has. The United Kingdom contributes 78%, which comes from the budget of the Ministry of Defence. The annual budget is approximately £70 million, which works out at roughly £40 per commemoration per annum.
I pay tribute to the dedication and commitment of the commission’s approximately 1,300 staff—most of them gardeners and masons, and most of them locally employed—who care for this vast range of memorials and gardens. Many of them are the second or third generation who have worked for the commission. Many of them continued to maintain those sites under the most appalling difficulties in the second world war, and more recently in war zones. I will come to that in a minute.
The work of the commission is vast. We commemorate 1.7 million individuals and maintain their graves and memorials at more than 23,000 locations in 154 countries across the globe. That is a vast scale. We also have to pay tribute to the host countries. Some, such as Belgium and France, willingly gave land. Others are the inheritors of the old British and French empires. We have to imagine, at times, how we would feel if we had vast cemeteries within our constituencies of Egyptian, Iraqi or Nigerian graves from a war that had been fought over our territory. There is an important sensitivity here.
My right hon. Friend rightly references the symbolism and sensitivity of some of those cemeteries. There is also the extraordinary Commonwealth war graves cemetery in Gaza, which I think I am right in saying has been tended by the same Palestinian family since it was put up, now presumably almost 80 years ago. It contains Christian, Muslim, Jewish and even Hindu memorials. It occupies a large amount of land in a tiny place that is very short of space. During Operation Cast Lead, an Israeli tank broke through the walls and damaged some grave stones. Eventually, construction materials were allowed back there, and the first thing they were used for was the reparation of those grave stones. It is a great testament to the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, which he serves so well.
I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention, which leads on to the fact that, even as we speak, the commission is working in Iraq—it used to be able to work in Syria—rebuilding cemeteries that have been destroyed by either war or ISIL/Daesh extremists, who see them merely as symbols of Christian occupation.
Indeed—if I may use what the Army used to call a visual aid—I have two photographs taken in Beirut. The first, from the 1980s, is of the cemetery almost completely destroyed; the second is of the cemetery lovingly rebuilt to the previous standard. We should remember, as I am sure all colleagues do, that at the end of the day we are dealing with individuals, either with a known grave or with their names on a giant memorial like those at Ypres or Thiepval. The memorials are for the families and also, now, for people who merely have an interest—I know that many colleagues are fascinated by the people behind the names.
We should also remember—in the words of Michael Caine, not a lot of people know this—that more than 300,000 Commonwealth servicemen and women who died in the two world wars are commemorated here in the United Kingdom. Their 170,000 graves are to be found at over 13,000 locations. In addition, some 130,000 missing Navy, Merchant Navy and Air Force casualties are commemorated on the great memorials at Chatham, Plymouth, Portsmouth, Tower Hill and Runnymede. A forgotten element is that nearly 30,000 men and women of the Merchant Navy, unsung heroes and heroines, were killed. Most naval people, of course, have no known grave.
May I commend the work of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission at Shorncliffe military cemetery just outside Folkestone? It contains the graves of 550 servicemen. Of those, 471 are from the first world war and 300 are the graves of Canadian servicemen. The Canadians’ sacrifice is commemorated by the people of Folkestone on Canada day every year.
My hon. Friend makes a very good point. The old military historian in me makes me think that the Canadians are the least boastful of the British empire and Commonwealth contributors to the two world wars. We tend to forget that one in four members of Bomber Command were Canadians and that most British Army battalions in Normandy had Canadian officers and NCOs on loan because we were so short of experienced people.
Here the commission is trying to do a lot of education through local communities and schools. Many of the 130,000 people who are remembered in the United Kingdom are not in major cemeteries. Sometimes they are at the end of a municipal cemetery, but many are in the cemeteries of largely Church of England graveyards. For example, my county, Norfolk, has 471 graves from two world wars and my market town of Reepham has three graves, two from 1918 of Reepham-born soldiers, who probably died from Spanish influenza, and one from 1941 of an RAF volunteer reserve sergeant from Great Yarmouth.
I commend the commission, which, over the last five or six years, has established a really superb website, which is idiot-proof. I am an analogue man, as my son frequently reminds me, but I can use it. People can look there for individuals and locations, and it is possible for colleagues who are interested to trace people who may be buried in their constituencies.
The commission is supported by the United Kingdom Government. I pay tribute to the Department for Culture, Media and Sport. We have to work closely with the Department to help to deliver on many of the anniversaries—for example, the Jutland anniversary at the end of this month and that of the battle of the Somme at the enormous memorial at Thiepval at the beginning of July. The commission provides equal support to our Commonwealth friends in Australia and New Zealand who served at Gallipoli, our Canadian friends who served at Vimy ridge and our Indian friends who served on the western front.
The commission goes out of its way to provide a high-level service all year round. Because people are impressed by the quality of that service, maintaining it is very arduous. People expect to go to a cemetery and to see the lawns beautifully tended with all the horticulture laid out. There is a massive programme to replace some 12,000 individual gravestones a year as they are degraded by wind, weather, sand and sometimes military action.
We will shortly remember two big battles. One is Jutland at the end of this month. The memorials to Jutland are on land, although the overwhelming majority of seamen who died went down with their ships. Some were injured and brought to the United Kingdom but died in hospital. There is the memorial at Thiepval for the battle of the Somme. The ceremonies on 1 July are but the entrée—the battle lasted another three to four months. It is symbolic because that was the day people think the British Army suffered its greatest losses: some 19,000 men were killed in action and another nearly 40,000 wounded. In fact, we suffered worse casualties on 21 March 1918 when the Germans broke through, but that has been lost as part of our memory.
When people go to look at the Somme cemeteries, as many colleagues have, they know it is not just about the individuals who are buried there; it is about the reflection of British and empire society at the time. People look at the regimental cap badges and the memorials to the Canadians, the Australians and the New Zealanders. The overwhelming number of soldiers who served on the Somme were volunteers, either pre-war regulars or Territorials. A number, not all, were in pals battalions. They were recruited from factories and businesses in Sheffield, Exeter, Glasgow and Liverpool and wore those parochial British badges with great honour. It is important that the commission delivers the best quality of remembrance at the commemorations, recognising that its cemeteries and memorials are usually the centrepiece for the commemorations that follow.
The commission is doing a lot of continuous work dealing with what we call the memories of forgotten soldiers, particularly and rightly, the role of the Indian armed forces in two world wars. A pilot project, “India Remembers”, is important not only in its own right but because we are only too well aware that young people under 18 may not know what happened. I remember the first world war, not that I was there; my two grandfathers talked to me about it. However, if you are 18, it is as far away as the wars of the roses. We must recognise that many children from the Indian subcontinent whose parents now live in the United Kingdom are detached from the contribution of the Indian armed forces in two world wars, not least because those forces were seen as much as a weapon of repression as armed forces defending democracy. A lot of work is rightly going into recognising that the Commonwealth War Graves Commission does not take a view on the interpretation of history. It tries to present the facts and the opportunities for others to look at.
Behind every headstone and name on a memorial is a person. I was lucky enough, in the early 1970s, to be able to go on visits with first world war veterans and then, in the late ’70s, ’80s and ’90s, with second world war veterans. When I was working with the British Army, it used battlefield tours—or, as they were known, bottlefield tours—as a teaching method. One that I have never forgotten was to Normandy in 1995-96, when we took a whole series of middle-ranking young, thrusting Army officers on a battlefield study of the breakout from Normandy. We had two veterans with us. Major Bill Close, MC, was a pre-war private soldier, commissioned on the field of battle, who participated in Operation Goodwood, the attempt to break out through the German lines at Caen. At the time of the visit, he was aged about 88. Also with us was Oberstleutnant Freiherr Hans von Luck, who had been commanding a Panzer Grenadier regiment and trying to kill Bill Close outside Caen.
The most moving aspect was when we took those two old gentlemen, first, to the British Commonwealth War Graves Commission cemetery. Bill Close stood in front of the graves of his tank crew, who had been brewed up—11 tanks were brewed up under him in the course of the second world war—and we could see that he was looking not at gravestones, but at men’s faces. Half an hour later, we went to the German cemetery, where Hans von Luck stood in front of the grave of his adjutant, whose wedding he had been to in Paris; he was recalled to arms when the allies attacked. Once again, he was looking at that.
I therefore commend the work of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. Frequently, its staff are the worker bees. I know that they are appreciated by hundreds of thousands of our fellow citizens, but I thought it right and proper that we should draw attention to the work of the commission at this time of anniversaries.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Streeter. I refer the House to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests and my position as chair of the Public and Commercial Services Union parliamentary group.
I join the right hon. Member for Broadland (Mr Simpson) in praising the work of the employees of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, but I also want to touch on some current issues. As the right hon. Gentleman said, the commission cares for the graves of 1.7 million casualties of the first and second world wars in cemeteries and memorials at more than 23,000 locations in more than 150 countries; two of them are in my constituency of Glasgow South West. It employs just over 1,300 staff worldwide, and approximately 250 of those are on UK-based contracts. I understand that negotiations are ongoing with the Ministry of Defence to include non-war-related graves in the work of the commission.
The staff of the commission take pride in attending to the war graves. It is not just a job, but a way of life—a vocation. Many are from families who have worked for the commission for generations, and many spend their whole working lives in the service of the commission. Jobs at the commission range from gardeners, maintenance people and stonemasons to administrators, supervisors, managers, archivists and historians. It is not uncommon for staff to progress through a variety of those roles in the course of their career, retraining and adapting as necessary to the needs of the job. There is often a large element of foreign travel; indeed, the work often entails working and living abroad for years and even decades. That requires staff to uproot families and learn new languages in order to adjust. That can also have a financial impact if spouses are unable to pursue careers as a result.
Salaries at the commission have been very modest. That was recognised in the recent global grading and pay review, which found a need to uprate salaries. Although that is welcome, it nevertheless reflects the fact that salaries over the years have not been commensurate with the job. However, despite some of the sacrifices, staff at the commission remain committed to delivering a high level of service. Most recently, the first world war commemorations, as touched on by the right hon. Member for Broadland, have required staff to work over and above their normal commitments. However, that commitment has, in the view of many staff, not been rewarded.
Long-serving staff have seen the closure of the final salary pension scheme in April 2016 and a dramatic reduction in their pensions as a result. Trade unions are in the midst of pay negotiations with the Commonwealth War Graves Commission and argue that staff should get an enhanced pay offer to take into account the special circumstance that staff have been put in this year. The Public and Commercial Services Union requested that the CEO of the commission meet Ministers to make that case, and the union offered to lend assistance by attending the meeting. That offer and suggestion has been dismissed by the commission.
Considering the considerable loyalty and commitment of staff, the downgrading of their pensions and the extra pension contributions that they will be paying this year, it had been hoped that they would receive a decent pay offer as some form of compensation. Instead, it seems that the Commonwealth War Graves Commission is relying on, and exploiting, the good will of staff.
To recognise the special nature of the job, the loyalty of staff and the financial sacrifices that staff have made over the years, the commission had a final salary pension scheme, ensuring financial security in retirement for staff who had spent their lives in dedicated service to the commission. The terms of the scheme were good, with a low employee contribution, a spouse’s pension, a death in service benefit and lump sums based on final salary; it was a 40/60ths scheme. That reflected the fact that the pension had traditionally been one of the most important conditions of service, recognising years of dedication and loyalty.
The effects on the staff of the decision to close the final salary scheme should not be underestimated. Long-serving staff have put up with great sacrifice and disturbance to their family lives, such as having to move to foreign countries. Spouses and partners have often been unable to have careers as a result. The pension that staff accrue should recognise that.
Approximately 60% of those affected by the changes are 50 years old or over and likely to retire in the next 10 years. Staff within a few years of retirement now have little time to adjust their financial planning for retirement, as the alternative group pension plan will not deliver anything like the benefits of the final salary scheme. The closure of that scheme will cause significant detriment to the future pensions of UK-based staff and will cause considerable unrest among employees at a time when all employees are working hard to further enhance the reputation of the commission with the work on the 1914-18 centenary commemorations. That approach of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission seems to have been mirrored in recent pay talks, in which it has been unwilling to stand up for its staff and request additional funding from the Ministry of Defence.
My view, like that of the right hon. Member for Broadland, who spoke very eloquently about the work of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, is that its employees do tremendous work. I hope that today the commission will reflect on the views of the staff and address the issues of pay and pensions.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Streeter. I congratulate the right hon. Member for Broadland (Mr Simpson) on securing the debate. I declare an interest as one of the two parliamentary commissioners for the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. Holding that post is a great honour. The right hon. Gentleman has described not only the detailed work that this organisation does, but the high esteem in which it is held by the public. It is clear that today the Commonwealth War Graves Commission is a national institution that people recognise, not only for its high standards but for the dedicated work that it does in commemorating the 1.7 million individuals who lost their lives in the two world wars.
That was not always the case. Like many British institutions, this organisation came into being almost by accident, as the right hon. Gentleman said, thanks to the determination and, I think, ferocity of Fabian Ware. This work was not being done at the time. It was clear at the beginning of the first world war that the War Office, as it was in those days, had not thought about what it would do with the casualties that would be left on battlefields across the world. It was only because of Ware’s dedication and the fact that he took it into his own hands to record the sites of the graves that the process began, in that the Government then decided that they needed a grave registration commission to take care of those graves and note where they were. Ware was an incredible individual who was determined to ensure not only that people had a lasting resting place but that the families could visit those graves in future years. Clearly, his contacts with the then Prince of Wales helped to secure the commission’s royal charter in 1917. It did not stop there.
Today, the proposal for a Commonwealth War Graves Commission—in those days, it was the Imperial War Graves Commission—would be straightforward. However, I draw hon. Members’ attention to the debate in the House on 4 May 1920, when an order was laid to agree the funding for the new Imperial War Graves Commission. Remarkably, it was actually opposed by some hon. Members, including the Conservative Member for Holborn, Sir James Remnant, who moved an amendment to reduce the amount by £5 to ensure that the debate took place.
There were two issues. One issue, as the right hon. Member for Broadland mentioned, was the great debate about whether the remains of the dead should be brought home. Sir James Remnant said:
“The dead are certainly not the property of the State or of any particular regiment; the dead belong to their own relations, and anything that savours of interfering with that right is bound to create opposition among the inhabitants certainly of our own Empire.”
At the same time, some local newspapers said that the state was nationalising death.
The other great debate was whether the relatives should be allowed to put their own memorials up in the Commonwealth cemeteries. Sir James Remnant’s argument was that families should be allowed, if they wished, to put their own memorials up, rather than having one imposed by the state. He said that
“the relations of the dead should have the right, within properly defined limits, as to size, taste, design, expense, and even of material to be used, to erect what headstones they like as representative of the personality of the individual, and as a personal tribute of affection to their own dead.”—[Official Report, 4 May 1920; Vol. 128, c. 1930.]
That would have led to quite some controversy.
In the same debate, Herbert Asquith, who lost his son Raymond in 1916, said:
“These men, be they officers or rank and file, who fell, died with the same courage and the same devotion and for the same cause, and they should have their names and their services perpetuated by the same memorial.”—[Official Report, 4 May 1920; Vol. 128, c. 1947.]
That goes to the root cause of a very clever idea that Ware came up with: that no one should get a bigger or different memorial because they were of higher rank or their family were able to pay.
The best example of that in this country must be Hollybrook memorial in Southampton, which is a memorial to those who have no known grave or were lost at sea. It includes the 823 members of the South African Native Labour Corps, who were lost when the SS Mendi sank just off the Isle of Wight following a collision with a steam packet ship. Alongside those names is the name of Field Marshal Lord Kitchener, who was lost at Scapa Flow in 1916. The memorial, which I visited a few years ago, includes that long list of 823 names alongside that of Lord Kitchener. That sums up the commission’s approach that there is no special treatment for rank.
I have the great honour of being on the commission, and it is something of a tradition in my constituency to be a commissioner. One of my predecessors was Jack Lawson, the Member of Parliament for Chester-le-Street—now in my constituency—from 1919 to 1949. He was on the original Imperial War Graves Commission. Like a lot of people who were involved in the early work of the commission, he was directly affected by the great war as his younger brother, William, was killed in 1916 and was buried at the Chester Farm cemetery in Belgium.
The work of the commission is complex, with a variety of sites in about 23,000 locations across 150 countries. Everyone sees and is rightly proud of the cemeteries in Belgium and northern France, but the standard everywhere in the world is the same, whether it is France, Belgium, Gaza or Egypt. A few years ago, I had the privilege of going to the jungles of Papua New Guinea, where there is a beautiful cemetery, and others are located in Sri Lanka. Ensuring that standards are maintained is incredibly difficult but they are, and that is down to the dedication of those who work for the commission. They ensure not only that standards are maintained, but that the ethos of the commission, which was laid down in its early charter, is maintained for future generations.
When I was a Minister in the Ministry of Defence, I was honoured to be involved in the delivery of the newest commission cemetery at Fromelles in France, which opened in 2010. That showed that the work of the commission never really stops because we are still discovering casualties around the world. I pay tribute to the men and women who work for the Ministry of Defence in the casualty recognition department. They go to great lengths to ensure that, where possible, we can identify casualties. That is not always possible, but the commission says that it is important that the names of as many casualties as possible are recorded in perpetuity.
Everyone knows the fantastic cemeteries of northern France, but many people do not realise that half the commission’s sites are in the UK. The commission is trying to ensure that they get recognition so that people know that they are in local communities and local cemeteries and that, whether they are commission headstones or private memorials, they are maintained by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission.
I urge hon. Members to visit some of the sites. The commission has a programme to put up green signs so that people know where the sites are located. The next phase, which will happen next year, is to get volunteers to help people with identification and to assist them when they visit. The work goes on. People should visit their local cemeteries and take school groups. The commission does important work not only on the first world war, but on the second world war. School groups are showing a great interest and the commission is rightly putting a great emphasis on education and awareness. I urge everybody to visit the commission’s excellent website if they want to know more about its work.
The hon. Member for Glasgow South West (Chris Stephens) has previously raised the issues he mentioned today. I chair the remunerations committee of the commission, and I have said that he can meet the head of personnel and others at the commission to discuss those issues. Decisions on pensions issues are difficult. Similar decisions have had to be taken by trade unions, including the Public and Commercial Services Union. I, along with the other commissioners, recognise the valuable work that all our staff do—not just in this country, but internationally.
The centenary of the commission is in 2017. It will be important not just to look back on the work that has taken place over the past century, but to look forward to ensure that we maintain the graves and memorials. We must ensure that the legacy and memory of the individuals who died in defence of the freedoms that we take for granted in this country are not lost for future generations.
As always, it is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Mr Streeter. I congratulate the right hon. Member for Broadland (Mr Simpson) on securing this debate. I hope that my short contribution will go some way to meeting his objective of recognising the Commonwealth War Graves Commission’s valuable contribution to upholding the memory of those who died in the service of their country during the two world wars and other conflicts.
Appropriately commemorating those who died in service, the majority of whom were younger than most parliamentarians, is the least that we can do, and I pay tribute to the commission’s staff, who work so tirelessly in maintaining the cemeteries and memorials. The scale of their work, as everyone knows, is enormous, with memorials situated in more than 23,000 locations in 154 countries, commemorating more than 1.7 million members of the Commonwealth forces who died. It is testament to the expertise and professionalism of the staff that those memorials are kept in such good condition.
More than 1,275 sites are maintained by Commonwealth War Graves Commission staff in Scotland alone, and there are eight such cemeteries in my constituency of West Dunbartonshire to mark those from my community who died during conflict. The local community has a strong and deep link to those cemeteries and memorials, and it regularly pays tribute to the members who lost their lives, and to their families, either through official engagements or through personal moments of reflection.
The sheer numbers of those killed during the conflicts brings home the horrifying fact that every family would have been affected by loss and that every community would have lost generations. Such loss not only has a psychological impact; the physical loss of so many young people led to the decimation of local communities. Ensuring that the memorials are properly maintained not only is a mark of respect to the fallen but provides a lasting historical legacy for generations to come. It is only through providing future generations with a connection to the past and to the impact of war that we can hope that they will never experience the trauma of war.
When discussing the impact of war and how we can learn from the past, it is also fundamentally important to remember the civilians who lost their lives, as well as the service personnel who died on active duty. In this Parliament I was recently given the honour of marking the 75th anniversary of the Clydebank blitz and of commemorating the 528 people who lost their lives over two nights. It was the first time that the Clydebank blitz had been acknowledged in this place, and through such events future generations are given a more rounded education of where we have come from and where we are going.
We must always look to link the past with the present. I hope that this debate will go some way to raising awareness of the remit and dedication of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission to provide a long-lasting legacy for the fallen. With that in mind, I welcome the commission’s work and its attempts to engage with local communities, thus ensuring that schools and community groups across these islands physically visit the memorials. Although that is important, I am impressed by the commission’s efforts to engage beyond the physical memorials by using new technology and applications on its website to educate children and to keep up with the new generation.
I pay tribute once more to the staff of the commission for their invaluable work. They are the guardians of the past, for which we should be eternally grateful.
I congratulate the right hon. Member for Broadland (Mr Simpson) on his graphic and detailed presentation of the case, which we appreciate. The Commonwealth War Graves Commission is as relevant now as it was when it was founded, which is testimony to the hard work and determination of those involved.
Neither a soldier nor a politician, the commission’s founder, Sir Fabian Ware, was, at 45, too old to fight, but he became the commander of a mobile unit of that fabulous organisation, the British Red Cross. Saddened by the sheer number of casualties, he felt driven to find a way to ensure that the final resting places of the dead would not be lost forever. His vision chimed with the times and has continued to this day. Under his dynamic leadership, his unit began recording and caring for all the graves it could find, and by 1915 its work was officially recognised by the War Office and incorporated into the British Army as the Graves Registration Commission. That work continues today, and Sir Fabian Ware’s vision is now a reality. The initial aim of ensuring that the final resting places of the dead would not be lost forever has been successful.
As others have said, the Commonwealth War Graves Commission does a staggering amount of work, and it has some 23,000 memorials and cemeteries in 154 countries, making it a truly global organisation. In my constituency of Strangford, we have between 60 and 70 graves that are looked after by the commission. I went around the graves with one of the commission’s officers to see its work. A young British Army soldier who died in the 1916 uprising is buried in Greyabbey, and another young soldier from the first world war, Pritchards, was lying in an unattended grave. The commission will look after graves, but it needs the permission of the families. We need to ensure that Ware’s vision can continue to be fulfilled and that war graves are maintained and looked after from Strangford to South Georgia. From the Menin Gate and the Thiepval memorial to the India Gate in Delhi and the Helles memorial in Turkey, the commission tends some of the most iconic architectural structures in the world. From tiny cemeteries containing just a handful of graves to the Tyne Cot cemetery in Belgium, where there are 11,000 burials, the commission ensures that the memory of all those who perished is preserved with the utmost respect.
The commission cares for the cemeteries as a whole, so conservation and reconstruction can, and often does, involve teams from different disciplines. It is not just a matter of tending graves; it is much, much more than that—horticulture, headstone carving and manufacture, and the architectural maintenance teams. They are people with skills, love, affection and commitment to their job. The cemeteries are the sum of their individual parts, and teamwork at all levels helps to maintain their overall appearance.
Even the most durable materials require maintenance, especially when they are used in constructions that are nearly 100 years old. Climate change, pollution and vandalism all take their toll. The background information mentions deliberate vandalism in places such as Libya, Iraq and Beirut, and the commission has made it its business to reinstate those graveyards, as the right hon. Member for Broadland said. Structural renovation projects can involve anything from reroofing buildings to drainage systems. Headstones, memorials and sculptures are kept in good order by a regular cycle of maintenance—a lot of good work is done. To ensure that the quality of materials and the craftsmanship remain a priority, the commission employs specialist masons and runs its own workshops, in which many of the replacement headstones are made.
Barry Edwards, the commission’s architect, was asked to construct a brand-new cemetery at Fromelles to take the remains of 250 Australian and British servicemen who lost their lives at the battle of Fromelles in July 1916. It is amazing to think that, a century on, the commission is still making a difference in the proper remembrance of those who lost their lives in the first world war.
With gardeners and horticultural experts working in 154 countries, the commission has an enviable track record of innovation and expertise. More than half of the 1,750 acres of ground under the commission’s control is given over to fine horticulture, making maintenance a year-round task for its 900 gardeners. That might mean bringing seeds from Nepal to use in Gurkha cemeteries, or bringing maples from Canada for Dieppe. Even in horticulture, the commission goes the extra mile to ensure that each nation’s war dead are remembered properly.
Today, the work continues to the highest standard with the restoration of the Thiepval memorial. I have seen the memorial and remember it well. It is a fitting tribute to the fallen of the Somme. I could not conclude my speech without mentioning the Somme, which means so much to Ulster men and women because of their ancestors’ sacrifice. It is always good to remember that the 36th (Ulster) Division fought alongside the 10th and 16th (Irish) Divisions, when it was the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland. The battle of the Somme resonates. Many streets and many Orange lodges across the Province are named after the battle. The banner of my lodge depicts the battle of the Somme too. This year, the battle’s centenary will be commemorated across Northern Ireland, and people from all community backgrounds in the Province have connections to the battle. As a Unionist of Ulster, I find it hard to think of something more deeply embedded in our psyche as a people than the Somme, which is seen by many as the people’s blood sacrifice in the pursuit of our self-determination.
The final stage of repointing on the Thiepval memorial has been done, and pointing work has started on the natural stone. The new coping stones and stone garlands are being repointed with a specific mortar that is close to the colour of the stone. The memorial is now equipped with a new distribution board for all the new electrical installation, and work continues on the top roof. It has been waterproofed to ensure that it is watertight.
On 15 March, the new flags flew again on top of the memorial. To mark the occasion, Lieutenant Colonel Kian Murphy, representing both France and the UK, rendered the military salute. The next step is placing the British and French crowns on top of the flag poles and cleaning the memorial from top to bottom. It will not be long before we see the final result. We commend the Commonwealth War Graves Commission for all that it has done for its workers and staff, and for commemorating battles of many years ago, particularly the battle of the Somme.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Streeter. I am grateful to the right hon. Member for Broadland (Mr Simpson) for securing this important debate. If his mission was to mark the work of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission and to educate, he has certainly done his job as far as I am concerned. I have learned a great deal already.
It is almost 100 years since the commission was established, as we have discussed, in 1917 as the Imperial War Graves Commission. The work of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission is as important now as it ever was. Preserving with such expertise and attention to detail the memory of the 1.7 million people who died during two world wars is a huge task, and we could not wish for a more effective organisation to take on the role.
The founding principles of the commission in 1917 are also as valuable today as they were then. They are fourfold:
“Each of the dead should be commemorated by name on the headstone or memorial; headstones and memorials should be permanent; headstones should be uniform; there should be no distinction made on account of military or civil rank, race or creed”.
It is a testament to the foresight of those who set up the commission in the first place, as many right hon. and hon. Members have discussed, that those principles are enduring and relevant today.
Should the remains of military personnel be found that are not from either of the two world wars, responsibility for arranging a military funeral lies with the Ministry of Defence. However, personnel remains from the first or second world war are the responsibility of the commission. Further to funeral and burial proceedings, the commission maintains graves and memorials in about 23,000 locations in 154 countries around the globe, which demonstrates the enormous scale of the work that the organisation undertakes.
In Scotland alone, the commission cares for around 1,300 individual sites, ranging from local authority-run sites to churchyards of all religious denominations and to military cemeteries owned by the commission. The commission also plays a part in formulating policy relevant to its role: for example, it was represented recently in the Scottish Government’s evidence-gathering sessions for the Burial and Cremation (Scotland) Bill. The commission offered an extremely valuable perspective, based on its experience and expertise, during the passage of the Bill.
Scotland, alongside many other nations throughout Europe and around the globe, suffered a devastating loss of life during the first and second world wars. It is worth reflecting that before the establishment of the commission, there was no organised effort to maintain the graves of war dead, at least in this country, and certainly not those of ordinary servicemen, as has been noted. The work done by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission ensures, quite rightly, that all service personnel killed in the first and second world wars are commemorated appropriately, irrespective of rank, title or social standing.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that we owe the Commonwealth War Graves Commission a debt of gratitude not only for honouring the dead but for helping to maintain a poignant reminder of the appalling cost of war?
I agree. I am coming on to comments reflecting exactly that point, so I am grateful for that intervention.
As a permanent tribute to the fallen men and women who served their country and community and who paid the ultimate price in doing so, it is important that we maintain our war memorials and graves appropriately. The condition in which they are kept should always reflect the respect and dignity that they deserve. Just two years ago, we began commemorating the centenary of the outbreak of the first world war. The then Scottish First Minister, my right hon. Friend the Member for Gordon (Alex Salmond), announced Scottish Government funding for war memorial restoration across Scotland. More than £100,000 was granted to 10 separate memorials, including one in my constituency—the war memorial in the city centre—which was given £30,000 for reparation work. Prior to the allocation of those funds, the cenotaph was in need of considerable remedial work, which I am pleased to say was completed thanks to that funding.
Last year, as the newly elected Member of Parliament for Stirling, I took part in a Remembrance Day service and a wreath-laying ceremony at that same cenotaph. War memorials such as the one in my constituency, as well as individual graves, are hugely instrumental in educating future generations about the sacrifices that previous generations made to secure the freedoms that we take for granted. It is important that we commend the excellent work of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission and highlight the need to ensure the appropriate upkeep of cenotaphs across the country, not to celebrate conflicts but to remember the casualties and the sacrifices made. A check of the Commonwealth War Grave Commission’s website informs me that in my constituency, there are more than 240 war graves, each commemorating an individual from the Stirling area who fell in one of the two world wars. One of the larger cemeteries in my constituency, Ballengeich, is the final resting place of 58 such individuals.
Although I have made much mention of my constituency, it is important to recognise the valuable work carried out in this area across the whole UK and globally. Six member Governments form the Commonwealth War Graves Commission: Australia, Canada, India, New Zealand, South Africa and the United Kingdom. We should commend the fact that the UK has consistently committed the largest proportion of funding to allow the commission to undertake its valuable work. All other member Governments also make a financial contribution directly to the commission, and non-member Commonwealth nations often contribute to the cause by maintaining war graves in their own nations, as many Members have noted. Such international co-operation demonstrates the rightly determined support for the cause of commemorating our war dead. I am grateful for the opportunity to speak in this debate.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Streeter. I commend the right hon. Member for Broadland (Mr Simpson) for securing this important debate and for his interesting opening speech. It is timely, given that so many of us are focusing on the events of a century ago and on the immense sacrifices made by so many around the world in the two great wars of the last century, among other conflicts that have secured the freedoms that we take so much for granted today. It has been interesting to hear about the personal links that remain. Like the right hon. Gentleman, I have a grandfather, Ed Oswald, who made a contribution in the Royal Navy during the second world war. Such circumstances make this matter very personal for many of us.
We in the Scottish National party believe firmly that the Government should continue their support for the commission so it can continue to meet its important obligations and objectives. We fully support and commend the commission’s work. As my hon. Friend the Member for Stirling (Steven Paterson) said, it is only right that people who died while serving in our armed forces are commemorated properly, and that there is a lasting historical legacy as well as a memorial for the generations coming after. The work of the commission is also important in highlighting to those who choose to serve today that we recognise and understand the dangers inherent in the job that they sign up to do.
Scotland, the UK and nations around the world suffered devastating losses of life in the world wars. I spent many hours as an undergraduate studying those particular wars, but no matter how dispassionately and academically one tried to look at what happened, it was and remains impossible to be anything other than devastated by those young lives lost and wasted by the thousand upon thousand. The only thing that we can do now is remember those who were lost and learn the lessons from the conflicts in which they perished. The Commonwealth War Graves Commission plays a vital role in allowing us to do so.
I was interested to read on the Commonwealth War Graves Commission website—I echo hon. Members’ comments about its excellence—significant reference to the Scottish national war memorial. Although the memorial is not owned by the commission, it is clear that there are strong links and a unity of purpose between those organisations that the names of each person killed in each specific locality during the first world war should be remembered forever.
I was fortunate to visit the Scottish national war memorial recently and see the care taken to remember each individual person and commemorate their life. People are named individually, and it is a peaceful, beautiful and fitting memorial. On the way out, there is a statue titled “Reveille” commemorating the end of war and symbolically looking forward to a new peaceful dawn. I was struck by that beautiful representation of the importance of looking forward peacefully as a means of remembering the fallen. I have a picture of it in my office. It sends a powerful message of remembrance.
I join the hon. Member for North Durham (Mr Jones) in commending the dedication of the founder of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, Fabian Ware. A century has passed since the commission’s inception. Clearly, the 1,300 staff of the commission have cared tirelessly for the cemeteries and memorials of those who died in the two world wars. It bears repeating that the commission is working in a staggering 23,000 locations, in no fewer than 154 countries, to commemorate all those men and women of the Commonwealth forces who died. The scale of that work really is immense and the work involved in managing it must be recognised.
As the right hon. Member for Broadland noted, under its royal charter obligations, the commission is responsible not only for the care and commemoration of the graves and memorials of the members of the Commonwealth armed forces who died, but for the protection of their remains in perpetuity, where their final resting place is known. The commission commemorates those with no known grave on stand-alone memorials, such as screen walls erected in burial grounds and elsewhere. Casualties interred in common graves may not always have a headstone marking the grave, but in that case they will be commemorated appropriately, away from the burial location.
The commission continues to develop and progress its work in remembering those who have fallen, with appeals still going out today using the latest social media and web technology, as opposed to the very immediate personal appeals made at the time. I know that, because the commission office, which is not far from my own constituency, at Gartmore parish church, is still looking for the relatives of soldiers who perished a century ago, including Private James Cameron of the King’s Own Scottish Borderers, who died in June 1917, and Private James Graham of the Gordon Highlanders, who died in June 1918. That kind of dedication to remembering those who lost their lives is clear; it is what the commission is all about.
It is heartening that the commission is embracing technology. It is using apps and its excellent website very effectively to engage with schools and community groups to encourage them to visit the memorials, so as to bring this particular aspect of history much closer to people individually.
We have heard that legislation allows the commission to ensure that war graves and memorials are protected as far as possible. The commission clearly spends significant time inspecting and maintaining war graves via its own maintenance teams. It is a huge undertaking. There are over 100,000 war memorials in the UK. The commission currently cares for approximately 21,000 graves and memorials in more than 1,200 sites across Scotland, whether they are local cemeteries, churchyards, dedicated military cemeteries, or single graves in burial grounds.
I would be surprised if anyone here has not seen graves cared for by the commission. I remember as a child visiting Shanwell cemetery in Carnoustie and looking at the beautifully kept Commonwealth war graves. In my travels around my constituency, I see that there are Commonwealth war graves in cemeteries in Barrhead, Eaglesham and Newton Mearns, marking the sacrifice of young men and young women—and there are graves of young women, among those of the young men, who were also cut down in their prime.
Last year, it was an honour to attend many memorial services around East Renfrewshire. As well as attending the opening of an outstanding community-funded war memorial at Neilston, I was privileged to march with the Jewish veterans in Newton Mearns and to meet a veteran in Barrhead, of whom I have spoken in this House before, and who cycled to Clydebank from Barrhead during the blitz to put out the fires there. That is the kind of sacrifice that people were prepared to make and that we should commemorate.
As the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) noted, the commission’s current Living Memory initiative, to encourage people to visit the sites in their local areas and learn more about the stories of those who are buried there, will undoubtedly lead to greater knowledge and understanding of those who died and the circumstances of their deaths. These graves and memorials can help people to connect with those who were involved in past conflicts, as well as giving us a local connection, a real human connection with history, and, as my hon. Friend the Member for Stirling said, a desire to learn very important lessons from the past.
The commission also tends a number of architectural structures, from the imposing India Gate in Delhi to tiny cemeteries containing just a handful of graves. It does that work around the globe, ensuring that the sacrifices of the very brave servicemen and women from countries all around the world are noted and remembered. I was very pleased to see a feature on the commission website highlighting service personnel from Canada, South Africa and India, among other countries. I am very pleased to hear of the ongoing work of the commission in relation to Indian families who may have connections to our service personnel in the past.
From the trenches of the western front to the deserts of Mesopotamia, over 1.1 million Indian soldiers served in the first world war. By November 1918, over 60,000 men from the subcontinent—who were diverse in culture, language and faith—had given their lives. In death, these men were treated according to their respective religions. As the right hon. Member for Broadland indicated, while Muslim soldiers were buried and their graves marked by headstones, the remains of Sikh and Hindu soldiers were cremated, with their ashes being scattered and their names engraved on cremation memorials around the globe.
In Eritrea, nearly 1,000 Commonwealth war dead from the second world war are buried or commemorated. The hon. Member for North Durham spoke of the astonishing range of locations all over the world. As we have heard, the member Governments that make up the commission reflect that kind of geographical diversity and the truly global nature of the conflicts that the commission commemorates. Those Governments contribute proportionately to the commission.
Clearly, there are ongoing discussions about whether to transfer the responsibility for the maintenance of war graves of military personnel who have been buried in the UK since 1948 from the commission to the Ministry of Defence. The key point is that these graves must be maintained and looked after properly, and that there is a clear responsibility for doing so. It is important that the Government continue their support of the commission and that discussions are facilitated in order that these obligations and objectives can be met.
Like the right hon. Member for Broadland, we on the Scottish National party Benches pay tribute to the very hard work undertaken by the commission’s staff in the UK and across the globe, who maintain the commission’s reputation for providing such a high standard of maintenance. He also made valuable points about the contribution of so many countries, where so many of these graves lie, and I agree with that.
Order. The hon. Lady has had her 10 minutes.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship this afternoon, Mr Streeter.
It is vital that we remember, and that is what today’s debate is all about; indeed, it is what the Commonwealth War Graves Commission is all about. I thank the right hon. Member for Broadland (Mr Simpson) for securing this debate. This has been a very informative debate, with contributions from across the House about the importance of the commission’s work. That work is not only about maintaining the graves that we have heard so much about today, but about the way that the commission is taking history into the 21st century, by using web technology to help us look through our past and consider our own history, and of course so that we can take that knowledge and pass it on to the next generation. It is vital that we remember, and in particular that we remember the lives that were given for our freedom.
Of course, the Commonwealth War Graves Commission does phenomenal work. This year, we are remembering the losses in Jutland and, as we have already heard, the losses in the battle of the Somme in July 1916. The commission’s work continues day in and day out, and we must acknowledge it.
I am very grateful for the opportunity to contribute to this debate and, of course, very grateful for the work of the commissioners, including that of my hon. Friend the Member for North Durham (Mr Jones). The contributions this afternoon have really reflected the importance of the commission’s work.
Maintaining and upgrading 23,000 cemeteries and memorials across 154 countries is no mean feat. That work includes replacing around 20,000 graves a year. Of course, there is also the important work of building on 100 years of record-keeping. It is important that we recognise the outstanding work that the commission does, and of course quality is at the forefront of all that work.
That work can only be achieved because of the total dedication of the 1,300 people who work across the world for the commission. Many of them work here in the UK but others are employed to provide vital skills and services right across the globe. Of course, the commission’s work is dedicated to the memory of the 1,700,000 men and—as we have heard today—women from across the Commonwealth who were killed. The commission’s staff work so hard to maintain the highest standards, but above that to maintain the memory and dignity of each young life that was lost—and it was predominantly young lives that were lost. The staff keep alive the memory of those who were lost, gathering more information and historical knowledge over time, to share that collective memory and collective story that speak of a Europe that was once divided against itself. They ensure that that is never forgotten.
Although we often recall less peaceful times at formal ceremonies at the memorials and cemeteries, it is the individual care that the staff show to the families and friends of the lost that causes them to stand out. They enable people to move on but also to cherish their memories. When people walk into one of the commission’s many cemeteries—as I have on a number of occasions—scan the thousands of pristine graves and start to read the names, ages and ranks of those who fell, they are taken on a journey of sacrifice: the sacrifice of parents and families, of their children and of the many young who gave their lives. It is a reminder to us, and to all who hold power—not least in this place—that our responsibility to their legacy is to find political solutions, no matter how difficult that is, to the challenges we face in our globe today.
The commission does not just keep history alive, it presents the past in such a way that we will never forget. As the commission reaches 100 years next year, we must mark its excellent work, as the right hon. Member for Broadland reminded us. But the commission is not just an organisation; it is the sum of its many parts. By that I mean the dedicated staff, many of whom have spent all their working lives there—indeed, for some of those I met, generations of their families had worked in the organisation—and make the commission what it is. Nevertheless, they look to us to provide them with the support they need when their terms and conditions and pay need to be addressed, and it would be remiss of me not to raise that today.
I have met the trade unions—the Public and Commercial Services Union, Unite and Prospect—and I must declare an interest as secretary of the Unite group here in Parliament and as a former national official of that union. I have also met the commission’s staff and have listened closely to the issues they have raised, and I know that they want their voice to be heard in this place this afternoon.
We believe that deals can be brokered, to give the workforce greater morale. We know that there have been difficult discussions about pensions and that pension schemes have been challenged, but the staff have outstanding questions about what happened and it is only right that we look to find solutions to the challenges that they have identified.
May I make the offer to my hon. Friend that I have already made to the hon. Member for Glasgow South West (Chris Stephens), that if she wants to meet the commission’s management to talk about personnel, I can certainly facilitate that?
I thank my hon. Friend for that offer and I will certainly follow it up with him.
Commission staff have outstanding questions about their pensions, but that takes us on to the issues that are pertinent—particularly this week—regarding their pay. Over time, the staff have accepted lower rates of pay and less favourable terms and conditions—that came out in the Towers Watson global grading and pay review—and we have heard about the inconveniences to family life, whether that is taking children out of their schools or spouses not being able to have a career because of moves. The value of the jobs was also recognised in the review—for instance, the learning of a foreign language, not superficially but in a way that means being able to negotiate deals, employ staff and manage contracts. The staff’s dedication, and the quality and standard of their work, means that they should be remunerated at an appropriate rate. That is what the review says. Public sector workers are seeing a 1% increase in their pay but the commission is offering half that to its staff. We should seriously look at what the deals mean for the staff and ensure, as we enter this time when staff are working over and above what is expected of them so that the public can remember and commemorate 100 years since the battles of the first world war, that the staff’s battles today are well recognised and that staff are remunerated appropriately.
Labour wants a clear win-win solution and we believe that one can be found. I therefore urge the commissioners present and the Minister to find such a solution. We must remember that the staff are public servants and want to give the best they can, and the respect we show them will, therefore, be reflected in the excellence of their work.
As we move towards its 100th year next year, it is vital to ensure that the commission’s work and its vision for the future—building on Fabian Ware’s initial vision—is strong, including the commitment not only of its staff but of the public, in the way that it celebrates what has been achieved, and also to ensure that it continues to remember the ultimate price paid by the 1,700,000 people whose graves it cares for day in, day out, around the globe.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Streeter. I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Broadland (Mr Simpson) on securing this important debate to highlight the work of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission and on his excellent and informative speech.
It is opportune to have such a debate when this year we are commemorating several important battles of the first world war, including those of the Somme and Jutland. I am grateful for all the contributions this afternoon, but I particularly acknowledge the speech of the hon. Member for North Durham (Mr Jones) and his service as a war graves commissioner.
I agree with all who have spoken that the CWGC does excellent work in ensuring that the 1.7 million people who died in the two world wars will never be forgotten. For 99 years it has worked around the world to commemorate those who gave their lives, by ensuring that their bodies are at rest in cemeteries and that those with no known grave are remembered on memorials. The CWGC cares for cemeteries and memorials at 23,000 locations in 154 countries across the globe. The CWGC’s important work in ensuring that individuals who gave their lives are always remembered throughout the Commonwealth, and in Europe and across the world, is to be commended.
The CWGC is one of the Government’s key partners in our first world war centenary commemorations. This year we are working with it on our two national events, to mark the centenaries of Jutland and the Somme. The battle of Jutland was the largest naval battle of the war. The CWGC commemorates more than 6,000 Royal Navy sailors who lost their lives in that battle, be that in war graves across the UK and Scandinavia or at memorials with the names of thousands of sailors whose bodies were never recovered.
My grandfather, Clyde Turner, served on HMS Malaya during the battle, so I have a strong association with the commemoration. He occasionally spoke about his experiences as a stoker and subsequently as a chief petty officer. He was a career naval man, and a real influence on me in my early years. He died in 1966, and I still hold his memory dear. I am pleased, therefore, to be the Minister for the first world war centenary at this time and I look forward to attending the commemorative events in Orkney on 31 May and meeting other descendants of those who served at Jutland.
To mark the centenary of the battle of Jutland, a number of events are taking place at CWGC sites. These include the event at Queensferry cemetery in West Lothian on 28 May, and national events on 31 May at St Magnus cathedral and Lyness Royal Naval cemetery. There are also Royal Navy events at the Chatham, Portsmouth and Plymouth naval memorials, and other events at Esbjerg new cemetery in Denmark, Fredrikstad military cemetery in Norway and Kviberg cemetery in Sweden.
On 1 July, we will commemorate the bloodiest battle of the first world war: the battle of the Somme. Fought between July and November 1916, the battle affected millions of people across the Commonwealth. Some 150,000 Commonwealth servicemen lie buried in 250 military and 150 civilian cemeteries on the Somme, and there are six memorials to the missing that commemorate by name more than 100,000 whose graves are not known. I recently went to France and visited the Somme battlefields and the many cemeteries—all beautifully maintained and cared for by the CWGC. I put on record my appreciation for the work done, and I thank those who gave me a tremendous guided tour of the battlefields. I found the trip very moving.
I apologise for not being here for the start of the debate. I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Broadland (Mr Simpson) on bringing it forward. Does the Minister agree that one of the biggest tributes that we pay to our fallen is the sheer quality of the work that the Commonwealth War Graves Commission does, as evidenced by its workshop in Arras? Its metalwork, stonemasonry and carpentry are second to none. Does he share my hope that, in 100 years’ time, that level of workmanship will have endured?
I totally agree. We commend the work that has been done and its quality. While my hon. Friend is here, I would like to say—I am glad to see him in his place—that I am grateful for the excellent work he has done and continues to do as the Prime Minister’s special representative for the centenary commemoration of the first world war.
On 30 June—the anniversary of the eve of the battle—a service will take place at Westminster Abbey, to be attended by Her Majesty the Queen. That will be followed by an all-night vigil around the tomb of the unknown warrior. On 30 June there will also be a military vigil in France at the Thiepval memorial to the missing. Vigils will also take place in Scotland at the Scottish national war memorial in Edinburgh castle, in Wales at the national war memorial in Cardiff, and in Northern Ireland at Clandeboye and Helen’s Tower in County Down.
On 1 July—the centenary of the first day of the battle of the Somme—a national commemorative service will be held at the Thiepval memorial. The service will reflect the story of the whole battle, capturing the scale and reach of the conflict and the impact it had on all the lives of all communities throughout the UK and France and other Commonwealth countries. It will be attended by around 10,000 guests, including members of the royal family, heads of state, senior politicians, representatives from all the nations involved and some 8,000 members of the public.
Manchester will be the centre of national commemorations in the UK. There will be a wreath-laying ceremony at the city’s Cenotaph, a parade through the city featuring military bands and representatives of the battalions who were present at the Somme and a commemorative service at Manchester cathedral. There will also be cultural and educational events at the city’s Heaton Park. There will be a two-day experience field which more than 1,300 school children will visit to learn about life at the Somme and on the home front. CWGC is supporting the event and helping people to reconnect with their past. There will be a free concert in the evening featuring a national children’s choir, film, dance and the Halle orchestra performing the works of George Butterworth, a young English composer most famous for “The Banks of Green Willow” and who died on the Somme. I am delighted that more than 13,000 people have already signed up to attend the concert, but some free tickets are still available.
We are encouraging communities across the UK to hold acts of remembrance on 30 June and 1 July in a way that feels appropriate. On 5 April, together with the Royal British Legion, we launched online guides providing information about holding commemorative events. An online map was also made available for event organisers to publish details of their commemorations. I am pleased that nearly 30 events have already been listed, ranging from a vigil at Holbeck cemetery near Leeds to school groups visiting High Wycombe cemetery in Buckinghamshire to learn about those who fought at the Somme and are buried in the cemetery. Many of these events will take place at CWGC sites. I urge and advise communities planning to commemorate this important centenary to add their details to the map on the Government website.
We remember that the battle lasted 141 days, up to 18 November. There will be a daily service of remembrance at the Thiepval memorial hosted by the Royal British Legion and the CWGC throughout the 141 days. A range of events will also take place at CWGC cemeteries across the region throughout the period. Regimental associations, communities and descendants can therefore participate on a day particularly significant to them, and they should check the CWGC website, which contains the relevant information.
I also mention the recently launched CWGC Living Memory campaign. More than 300,000 Commonwealth servicemen and women who died in the two world wars are commemorated in the UK. In fact, one is never more than 3 miles from a war grave anywhere in the country. Many graves lie in local cemeteries, and CWGC has launched the campaign, which calls on communities to rediscover their local site and remember the lives of those within the graves. The project encourages people, whether young or old, to discover and learn about war graves and their heritage. It is particularly important that the young learn through education about the sacrifices and events of the first world war.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Broadland mentioned those who are buried in British churchyards. In my constituency, Private William White was buried in the churchyard of St Paulinus in Crayford. He was wounded at Ypres. He came back. He was a Crayford man. Sadly, he died at home from his injuries. That is an example of how we should commemorate in local communities individuals who served. It is a wonderful project that the CWGC wants people to get involved with. I encourage everyone to locate war graves near them and to learn about those who lost their lives.
I again thank all those who contributed today, in particular because it is an important commemoration and an important time to give thanks for the work of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. In particular, I thank my right hon. Friend for securing the debate and for all his work, which benefits from his knowledge and experience as a historian. As a Commonwealth war graves commissioner and a member of the DCMS first world war advisory group, his knowledge and advice have been and remain invaluable. I conclude by paying tribute to all those who lost their lives in or were affected by the two world wars. I also pay tribute to the dedicated staff who do such a fantastic job at the CWGC. As we heard, many of them are gardeners, stonemasons, administrators and the rest. Together, they ensure that those who died will never be forgotten.
I thank my right hon. Friend the Minister for the way he wound up this debate. Like him, I thank all colleagues who participated. I merely remind colleagues that I brought this debate forward to put front and centre the role and work of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission in providing so much of the backdrop and front of stage for many of the commemorations of the first world war.
I also secured the debate to emphasise that it is the Commonwealth War Graves Commission—the Commonwealth countries that are members have a view and make a contribution; it is not an outpost of the Ministry of Defence. We have a budget, and like all budgets it is under enormous stress and strain. There is an understandable reluctance among all the contributing countries to make a bigger contribution. Two colleagues expressed concerns about staff pay and conditions, and I hope the invitation from the hon. Member for North Durham (Mr Jones) will be taken up. He has done so much hard work in this area.
I am very grateful to all who participated in this debate. I am sure that the staff of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission will thank them for their tribute, not least because colleagues from all the nations of the United Kingdom have contributed. In their different ways, they want to commemorate their communities and their communities’ roles in both world wars. I think it has been a fitting tribute.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the work of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission.