Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Mr. McAvoy.)
Many tragic stories have emerged from the two world wars of 1914 to 1918 and 1939 to 1945. Unbelievable numbers from the British Commonwealth and other men and women from across the world were lost in these conflicts. In my opinion, they were all people of great courage who were willing to put their lives on the line for this country and for freedom from tyranny.
This is the tragic story of James Smith—Jimmy to his friends—who was born in 1891 at 77 Noble street, which today is in my constituency, and whose mother, Elizabeth, died just after he was born. He was brought up by his devoted maternal aunt, Eliza, and his uncle John in Great Lever in my constituency. Relatives John—known as Jack—and Freda Hargreaves live in Great Lever today. Jack’s mother was Jimmy Smith’s cousin. Jimmy’s story was brought to me by Charles Sandbach and Bill Miles, who are interested in military history and who are campaigning to have Jimmy Smith’s name added to the Bolton roll of honour, which is kept in the ceremonial entrance to Bolton town hall.
As my hon. Friend knows, the same individuals have been involved in getting the name of someone from my constituency on a roll in that hall. He was 27 years old, and died in 1917, and it was not until the work that these people did in identifying where he came from and his family background that that soldier’s name was proudly was put on the war memorial.
I am grateful for that intervention; it is a story that has been told to me. Indeed, these two gentleman who are interested in military history made a one-hour film about a solider—not like the one I am talking about this evening—who went through the tragedies of world war one. It is a brilliant film that ought to have a wider showing than it has hitherto.
We want Jimmy to be remembered, along with his comrades, every year on Remembrance day. Jimmy was Charles Sandbach’s paternal grandmother’s uncle and Charles initially sought the help of my friend Councillor Frank White, former Member of Parliament for Bury and Radcliffe, who is currently president of the Bolton United Veteran’s Association, formed in 1906 before the British Legion was established, the second of many such associations to be formed that still exist today.
Private James Smith was the subject of a play, “Early One Morning”, written by Bolton playwright Les Smith and presented at the Octagon theatre in Bolton, with its first performance on 22 October 1998 to mark the 80th anniversary of the armistice. James Smith initially enlisted in the 1st Battalion Lancashire Fusiliers in 1910, just before his 19th birthday, to escape the grinding poverty in which he lived at that time. Although he hardly knew his father James William Smith, who remarried, Jimmy enlisted using his father’s address in Noble street.
2022 Private James Smith trained in Egypt, then served in Karachi, India, before being recalled when world war one was declared. Among his many horrific experiences of that war was the Lancashire landing on W beach at Gallipoli on the morning of 25 April 1915, when his battalion stormed a cliff bristling with Turkish machine guns. No fewer than six of his comrades won Victoria crosses before breakfast—still an all-time record for such awards. In scaling and taking that cliff, half the battalion were lost on that day.
After enduring the rest of that nightmare campaign, Private James Smith was evacuated in 1916 to France, where he joined volunteers in the 15th Battalion Lancashire Fusiliers, known as the Salford pals. With one good conduct badge at that time, he was soon in the thick of the action again and gained a second good conduct badge. Such were the losses on the Somme that infantrymen were regularly transferred from one regiment to another, and Jimmy was transferred to the 17th Battalion King’s Liverpool Regiment, known as the 1st Liverpool pals, on 26 June 1917, with the rank of lance corporal. He almost lost his life in France on the Somme when, on 11 October 1916, a massive German artillery shell buried him alive on the Transloy ridge, with bits of his friends around him, and shrapnel created a large deep wound on his right shoulder. According to his sister, it was big enough to put a fist in. Fortunately, he was rescued and taken home to Townleys hospital in Bolton, but in a very poor mental and physical state from which he never recovered. The shocks and horrors of the battles that he had seen had damaged him to such an extent that he was clearly unfit for further service. Those who served with him were well aware of his condition. Today, we would recognise that Jimmy Smith was suffering from serious post-traumatic stress disorder. No such condition was recognised in the great war, and it was believed that soldiers could recover from shell shock of that kind.
Just 10 days after he returned to the front line, and clearly under a great deal of stress, Jimmy Smith volunteered to give up his stripe and became 52929 Private James Smith. Six days later, he left his post without orders. On 29 December 1916, Jimmy found himself before a field general court martial for a breach of military discipline. He was ordered to do 90 days’ field punishment number one and lost one of his good conduct badges. On 15 July 1917, just before the battle of Passchendaele in the Ypres salient, he found himself before a field general court martial for a second time for going absent without leave. He was only 26 years old.
We believe that the court recognised that Private James Smith was in no condition to fight. It spared him a death sentence on that second occasion and ordered him again to do 90 days’ field punishment number one, and he lost his second good conduct badge. Unfortunately, the Army never allowed Jimmy to complete that sentence, because the 17th Battalion King’s Liverpool Regiment found itself at the Pilckem ridge, north of the famous town of Ypres. By that time, Jimmy Smith was so unwell that he could not function properly at the front, and his comrades knew it. They tried to ensure that he was given light duties, possibly out of the trenches, but to no avail.
On 30 July 1917, on the eve of the battle of Pilckem ridge, Jimmy had a breakdown and deserted his post without orders again. At 11 pm, he was seen 5 miles from the front, wandering about in the town of Poperinghe, where he was arrested. A doctor at a dressing station declared him fit for duty, and Jimmy was charged with desertion. While detained in the military cells at Poperinghe town hall, Jimmy was ordered to undertake a two-hour drill. He refused to march and was also charged with disobedience. That was the beginning of the end of Private James Smith. The plain fact is that at that time he should have not been in action but serving his third punishment.
On 22 August 1917, Jimmy found himself before a field general court martial for the third time in seven months. Major Watson, Lieutenant Pierce and Lieutenant Collins came to a unanimous verdict of guilty on both charges. At his trial, he was unrepresented, no defence witnesses were called and he never spoke a word. Jimmy accepted his fate without fear as he was sentenced to death. The court was well aware of his medical history and could have decided to transfer him to the Labour Corps, but no; instead, it decided to make an example of an experienced regular soldier, clearly suffering from serious shell shock having experienced horrors in several battles. The brigadier confirmed sentence on 22 August, the divisional commander on 28 August and the commander-in-chief Field Marshal Haig on 2 September.
Early on the morning of 5 September, a small patrol of soldiers from Jimmy’s own unit entered a barn at Kemmel Château in Belgium to clean their weapons prior to re-engagement with the enemy. They were told that, first, they had a special duty to perform, and they were taken outside into a courtyard where they found their friend, Jimmy Smith, blindfolded and tied to an execution chair in front of a wall, with a white target pinned to his tunic, just above his heart. Protesting furiously to the commanding officer, the 12-man firing squad—11 privates and a non-commissioned officer—was summarily ordered to execute Jimmy. The lads aimed and fired, the majority deliberately missing the target. However, Jimmy was wounded, the chair was knocked over and he lay writhing in agony on the ground.
The young officer in charge of the firing squad was shaking like a leaf, but he knew now that he had to finish Jimmy off by putting a bullet through his brain with his Webley pistol. He lost his nerve, however, and could not fire the pistol in his hand as Jimmy continued to writhe in agony on the ground.
One of Jimmy’s friends, 23643 Private Richard Blundell, who hailed from Everton in Liverpool, was then ordered by the commanding officer to take the Webley pistol and kill Jimmy. Jimmy’s death was recorded on that day at 5.51 am. The 12 members of the firing squad were given 10 days’ leave after that tragic event in the heat of battle. That was unusual.
Richard Blundell died in Liverpool 70 years later in February 1989, when he was well into his 90s. As he fell in and out of consciousness, his son William heard him utter the words, “What a way to get leave.” Eventually the story that I have just told about Jimmy’s execution emerged, and Richard Blundell’s final request to his son was to seek forgiveness from Jimmy Smith’s family for what he had done. His action on that morning in September 1917 had clearly been on his mind for 70 years. It was the first time that his family can recall his speaking of his experiences in the great war. The author of a book on the Liverpool pals had tried unsuccessfully to interview him about his experiences. In my view, Dickie Blundell also faced a life sentence, perhaps worse than the fate of Private James Smith—we will never know.
For a long time after the great war of 1914-18, shame hung over the families of soldiers such as Private James Smith and their names were not added to those of their comrades on our war memorials or rolls of honour, or written into our books of remembrance. However, Mrs. Freda Hargreaves has told me that her family felt no shame and that they proudly owned a photograph of Jimmy, which stood over the mantelpiece for many years after the war ended.
After a long campaign, the Labour Government pardoned those soldiers who were shot at dawn, like Private James Smith in 1917. An amendment to the Armed Forces Bill was introduced in the autumn of 2006 to pardon 306 soldiers, and the measure received Royal Assent on 8 November 2006. I am pleased that several colleagues who played an important role in bringing that about are present in the Chamber, and I thank them for being here.
However, Private James Smith’s name has still not been added to the book of remembrance in Bolton town hall, and I hope that my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary believes that it now should be. I believe that Jimmy Smith was the only soldier from Bolton to be shot at dawn in the great war. At least today we have recognised him for what he obviously was—by no means a coward, but an extremely brave soldier who was made seriously ill by his traumatic experiences in several battles in the great war. He is buried in the military cemetery at Kemmel Château in Belgium in grave M.25. On the grave are the words, “Gone but not forgotten”. I hope that he will always be remembered by the people of Bolton and that his bravery will finally be recognised. In a different way, he also paid the ultimate price for the rest of us. He, too, laid down his life for our freedom, albeit in a different way.
As a footnote, I can tell my hon. Friend that tomorrow evening I expect that Bolton council will agree to add Private James Smith’s name to the roll of honour, and that a ceremony will be held later this year. We have suggested that an appropriate date would be 27 June, which is armed services day.
Bolton council has let it be known that it is prepared to add any other names to its roll of honour that have been missing to date for any reason. I hope that my hon. Friend agrees that all local authorities should be encouraged to follow suit.
I was not aware of the subject of the debate until about 20 minutes ago. I heard the opening words of my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, South-East (Dr. Iddon) as I left the Chamber, and came back precisely to identify myself with his comments.
I was the Minister who reopened the subject in 1997-98, and I remember it well. In all my years in Government and in the nine posts that I held, I cannot think of any more heart-wrenching task that I took on or was given to me. I personally examined about half the 306 cases, and I am eternally grateful to the officials who went through them, including my military adviser at the time, Simon Gillespie, who sat up, night after night, going through individual cases.
I will not rehearse some of the heart-breaking stories, but I will say this. First, recognising the suffering undergone by those who were executed at dawn and their families is in no way to minimise the equal sacrifices of those who went over the top. I believe that they were all victims. Secondly—this is the only respect in which I differ slightly from my hon. Friend—we should not issue a carte blanche condemnation of the military hierarchy. The truth is that there were some 30,000 cases that could have qualified for a death sentence, but 90 per cent. of those concerned did not receive one. Of the 3,000 who did, 90 per cent. of those sentences were commuted by the military hierarchy. The records were destroyed, I think in 1924. However, it is extremely likely that the reason why those 2,700 sentences were commuted and only 306 individuals were condemned to death—that is a large number, however, because it is 306 tragedies—is, I believe, although I cannot prove this because the evidence has gone, probably that in many cases the medical and the mental condition of the person who had been sentenced to death was recognised.
Perhaps I phrased my comment wrongly. It was not meant as a vicarious criticism of my hon. Friend; it was about whether people recognised shellshock or post-traumatic stress, or whatever it was at the time. I believe that many people did, albeit not because of medical evidence, but because of their personal experience. I think that that is why 2,700 death sentences out of those 3,000 cases were eventually commuted.
Having said those two things, I do not think that there is any doubt that each case was a tragedy. I said earlier that I would not mention any of them, but two stick in my mind. The first involved a young boy in his teens whose last words were: “Don’t tell my mother.” Facing an execution squad, he could think only of the effect that it would have, not on him, when the bullets landed, but on his mother, when the word reached home. The second case was this. At the back of one of the files that I went through, I found, as latterly I found in my father’s file—he fought in the second world war—a little bit for the soldier’s will. Soldiers could leave all their worldly possessions in their wills. I recall that the total possessions of one of the soldiers who was executed were the three days’ wages that he was owed up to the day of his execution, which he left to his fiancée in Northern Ireland. Such cases deeply moved me.
I was told on the highest legal advice at the time—I can say that now that I am not a Minister—that I could not give a legal pardon. As it was explained to me, I understand that it is impossible to give such a pardon, first, because there were no surviving witnesses, and secondly, because there was no real evidence to overturn a duly arrived at verdict. Thirdly, of those 306 people, even if there had been sufficient evidence in the numerous pages of brown foolscap paper—often they were not transcripts, but summary records of what had happened in the field general courts martial—we would have had to test perhaps 14 cases and left those in the remaining 280 to 290 cases re-condemned. I took the decision at the time that we could not give a legal pardon, but that we should go as far as we could. I will return to that in a second.
I was very grateful to get a second chance at the Ministry of Defence some years later, when I returned as Secretary of State for Defence. During the interval between being Armed Forces Minister and being Secretary of State, I discovered that New Zealand had apparently managed to accomplish that which I had been told was impossible in Britain. Naturally, and in my normal delicate fashion, I interviewed some of my officials who were still there about why that which we had found impossible had been found possible elsewhere. We re-opened the inquiry, and I am glad to say that my successor, my right hon. Friend the Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Des Browne), did a great deal of work on the matter as Defence Secretary. The result is as is known.
The reason that I am supporting my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, South-East tonight is that even at the first stage, in 1998, when we were saying that there was no legal pardon available—I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay) was deeply disappointed by that—I said that, although I found it impossible to give a legal pardon, we would redefine “pardon” as something other than a legality, and say that, in the eyes of all humanity in this country, those people who had suffered such a terrible fate would indeed be pardoned, in substance if not in legality. Subsequently, of course, we were able to add a legal pardon to that.
At that time, I did three things simultaneously. The first was to say that, as those people had been pardoned, their names should be added back into the books, and on to the memorials and cenotaphs. Secondly, I said that they should be recognised as victims of the great war, just as everyone else who had fallen in that war was recognised. In that way, their relatives would have a cloud lifted from them. Thirdly—although it was hardly noticed at the time—I announced the abolition of the death penalty in the British armed forces, which was enacted by the next Armed Forces Bill. Yet, some 10 years later, some of those names have apparently not been added back in that way.
I hope that what my hon. Friend said tonight was true, and that the case of Jimmy Smith is about to be rectified by having his name added back on to the memorials. I hope, moreover, that that will be an example for other councils and authorities throughout the country, and that they will now recognise what has been recognised over two stages in Parliament, over 10 years—namely, that the names should be added back and that the families involved should have no shame.
Having been a Minister, I now have this rare opportunity to say thank you to those who pricked the conscience of Ministers and cajoled, persuaded, drove and whipped them into line. That includes several Members who are here tonight. There cannot be many more worthwhile causes to which they could have applied their minds throughout that period, and I am delighted to be here tonight, no longer as a Minister, but as someone who is part of a group who fully support what my hon. Friend is asking for.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, South-East (Dr. Iddon) on his debate. I mean it from the bottom of my heart when I say that he has written a page in Bolton’s history tonight. One thing that emerged from the campaign to grant pardons, which lasted 14 years in this place, was the fact that this part of British history had been suppressed, and not explained. I believe that history has to be written with clarity and precision, and that includes the parts with which the establishment are unhappy and uncomfortable.
One of the delights of getting the pardons in 2006 was the fact that so many of our countrymen and women—and school students in particular—had learned more about the first world war as a result of the campaign. Through my hon. Friend, I want to congratulate Bolton council on its initiative. I have visited the town hall at Poperinghe, where this soldier’s first trial took place, on many occasions, and I have seen a post of execution there. Many people were executed in Poperinghe town hall’s courtyard. I have also been to Kemmel. I hope that those on Bolton council, and many of the schools there, will take that short trip across to Belgium, so that people can reflect on this soldier and the many others from the Bolton area who lie buried in sacred territory there.
I have a great deal of respect for my hon. Friend, especially regarding the campaign we are discussing tonight. He might like to know that I intend to send this speech to the secondary schools in my constituency, so that they are made aware of a little part of their history.
I think that that is a wonderful initiative, and I know that other Members of Parliament will want to follow suit in according respect to soldiers with roots in their constituency.
The Minister of State and his predecessor went to great lengths to mark the 90th anniversary of the Armistice—and they did so very successfully, as three veterans were in attendance. That means that this is not ancient history: those people, living beings from the great conflict, were actually there. My follow-up point—my hon. Friend’s contribution this evening endorses it—is that just as the American civil war has become a part of the American psyche, so has the first world war become part of ours. The conflict in which the soldier we have commemorated tonight took part represents a seminal moment in our history. When this soldier went to war, there were cavalry participating and many of the combating forces wore bright uniforms; yet by the end of the war, we had seen weapons of mass destruction and bombers. At the same time, there was tremendous social change with the extension of women’s suffrage and greater popular representation in this place after the war.
We cannot, therefore, overdo this issue. My hon. Friend has reinforced the importance of the first world war tonight—it is something we need to understand and we need to reflect more on the brave soldiers who fought just like the soldier from Bolton—so I would encourage the Minister to do more to widen access to information about world war one and to encourage school students to study it, to reflect on it and to commemorate the brave struggle of men who did their very best on behalf of their country in this most awful conflict, which still has its resonance today.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, South-East (Dr. Iddon) on securing tonight’s debate to highlight the tragic story of Private James Smith and on his campaign to press for the local authorities in Bolton to add this soldier’s name to their book of remembrance. I also thank my right hon. Friend the Member for Airdrie and Shotts (John Reid) for his contribution and I pay tribute to his involvement in the process of finally getting pardons for these individuals. I pay tribute also to my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay) for his tenacious campaign to secure the pardons. I know that he worked closely with an old constituent of mine from when I was a member of Newcastle city council—John Hipkin from Walkergate in Newcastle, who wrote a book and was unrelenting in his campaign to secure the pardons.
In 1998, on the 80th anniversary of the Armistice, the poet laureate, Andrew Motion, wrote:
“Those guns may have fallen silent eighty years ago, but their echoes neither die nor even fade away”.
I reflected on those words when, on the 90th anniversary last November, we witnessed a very moving ceremony at the Cenotaph at which the three surviving UK-resident veterans of world war one laid wreaths to commemorate those who lost their lives in that great war. Sadly, one of them has passed away since that commemoration.
There are few alive today who have personal memories of those who marched away to war, but never came back. However, across the UK, millions of men, women and—as my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock said—children shared that poignant moment through the medium of television, and nowadays through the internet. I reinforce his point about ensuring that these tragic events are not forgotten and that future generations learn from them.
Clearly, the first world war is part of the UK’s culture, which is not surprising. It represented war on an industrial scale, and I do not think that any family in any community throughout the United Kingdom was untouched. My office in the Sacriston community centre contains a list of names of the fallen in the small mining village of Sacriston. Anyone who looks at the list and notes the number of individuals who fell in that small community will appreciate that it must have had a devastating impact, which I do not think we can imagine in modern times.
We must not forget the events of that time. My hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, South-East has done two things tonight. Obviously he has raised a very important case, but, as the hon. Member for Thurrock said, he has not only put on record his tribute to this individual but raised a wider issue, and I thank him for that.
A part of my job that I find fascinating is the history of my Department, and the living history with which we are dealing today.
Speaking of living history, a constituent of mine, John Patterson, flew on 37 bombing missions in the second world war and ended the war flying around Africa with Lord Mountbatten. He now visits schools to explain exactly what things were like during the war: real live history. I do not know whether we have a checklist of such people who are still alive and can tell real stories, right up to this moment, including people who are serving in Afghanistan and Iraq. As a local Member of Parliament, I have no way of contacting those people. A checklist would preserve the memory of people who have been in combat, and allow some contact with those who are currently in combat.
Order. I have no desire to take anything away from the valued work that those individuals have done, but I think the hon. Gentleman will have noted the title of tonight’s Adjournment debate. Perhaps he will be able to raise his point with the Minister on another occasion.
I will of course follow your guidance, Madam Deputy Speaker, but my hon. Friend has raised an interesting point. My hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, South-East said that he would send copies of the report of tonight’s debate to schools, with the aim of communicating the facts to future generations, and my hon. Friend the Member for Livingston (Mr. Devine) has spoken of veterans visiting schools to pass on their memories.
In Fromelles in northern France, the graves of 400 British and Australian soldiers were recently discovered. A project is now under way, involving the Australian Government and the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, to recover, identify where possible and rebury those remains in the first newly created CWGC cemetery since the second world war. That has stimulated a great deal of interest, not just in this country but, according to my Australian counterparts, in Australia as well.
Increased participation not just in the educational projects that have been mentioned tonight but in genealogy means that many relatives are researching their family histories and uncovering facts surrounding their forebears for the first time. Some of those discoveries have been disturbing, revealing executions during the first world war.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, South-East pointed out, some of the relatives knew the circumstances of their loved ones’ deaths, and certainly did not see them as a cause for shame or any stain on the character of their families. However, I hope that the granting of the statutory pardon in November 2006 has ensured that relatives who did feel shame have experienced some relief, and have recognised that no shame attaches to any of the individuals who were executed or their families. The stigma of dishonour should have been well and truly lifted.
Those executions were tragic episodes, but as the hon. Member for Thurrock pointed out, they must be set against the unprecedented scale of the slaughter during the first world war. Granting the pardon may have little meaning for the individual men, but to the individual families it has meant a great deal.
Thankfully, public perception has changed. That is why, when we introduced the pardon in 2006, it was broadly welcomed by most individuals, although I recognise the strong disagreements that there have been about the issue over many years.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, South-East has said, Private Smith is officially commemorated by his headstone in Kemmel Chateau military cemetery. His name also appears on the Commonwealth War Graves Commission “Debt of Honour” register. Additionally, symbolic wooden stakes are set around the “Shot at Dawn” memorial at the National Memorial Arboretum near Lichfield, Staffordshire. Those bear the names of British or Commonwealth servicemen executed during the first world war. I was privileged in January to visit that memorial. I recommend that hon. Members who have not had a chance visit the National Memorial Arboretum. The “Shot at Dawn” memorial is a simple but moving memorial. Private Smith is among those individuals who are commemorated there.
The Cenotaph, the nation's war memorial, bears only the inscription “The Glorious Dead” and the dates of the two world wars. No distinction is made in respect of race, gender, colour, creed, or place or circumstances of death of those whom it commemorates. So, too, in the thousands of cemeteries and memorials across the world, without distinction, the Commonwealth War Graves Commission officially commemorates all the men and women who died in the service of Britain and her empire during the first world war. Many do not appreciate that, from the outset, those who were executed by firing squad were commemorated equally with their comrades who died in other circumstances during the first world war. The commission provided identical graves and appropriate headstones for their graves. Some of those graves were lost later.
While commending any initiative that commemorates the sacrifices of those who served in Her Majesty’s armed forces, it is important to understand that, beyond the official commemoration to mark a serviceman's final resting place, the Government do not have responsibility for either the funding or maintenance of many memorials such as the one at Bolton town hall. As my hon. Friend and many hon. Members know, there are around 70,000 war memorials in the United Kingdom and they take a wide variety of forms, including books, to which my hon. Friend referred, windows, lichgates, playing fields and buildings—even hospitals, chapels and community halls.
I know that the names of many of those executed men have already been added to many local war memorials as a result of local pressure or family initiatives. I think that that is appropriate; those individuals should be added to those local memorials. I fully support the inclusion of Private Smith's name in his local book of remembrance and I am very pleased to hear that Bolton council will agree tomorrow to add Private James Smith's name to that roll of honour. It is a fitting tribute that his name will be added to the roll of honour. My hon. Friend has paid him a great tribute tonight by speaking about him many years after his death and by putting him on the record of the House, so that future generations can not only read the debate but ensure that we do not forget about brave individuals such as Private Smith.
Question put and agreed to.