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First World War Centenary

Volume 560: debated on Wednesday 13 March 2013

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Owen. As this debate is, in part, about remembrance, I wonder whether I might ask the House briefly to join me in remembering the life and public service of Councillor Peter Wood, who was until recently leader of Ashford borough council. Sadly, Peter died earlier this month and his funeral is being held in Ashford today. As well as being leader of the council, he was ward member for the Saxon Shore ward in my constituency.

This is the second time that I have raised such a debate in the House. I held an Adjournment debate in the main Chamber about two and a half years ago. This subject is of great importance to the country and of great significance to my constituency. I should declare an interest: I am chairman of the Step Short first world war charity in Folkestone, which I will mention later.

Many families in this country are touched by the first world war in one way or another, through the service of a relative or ancestor. Fortunately, my family did not lose a family member during that war, but many families were touched in that way. My great grandfather, George Lovell, volunteered when he was 16 and was held back from active service until he was 18, when he was a driver in the Royal Army Service Corps.

Like many hon. Members and millions of people in the country, I took the opportunity at school to take part in tours of first world war battlefields, visiting the great Tyne Cot cemetery at Passchendaele and the extraordinary trenches that remain at Beaumont Hamel, where the Newfoundlanders took such severe losses on the first day of the battle of the Somme.

I attended an interesting event in Parliament on Monday, at which the Prime Minister was joined by the Taoiseach, Enda Kenny, at a meeting where they mentioned that they intend to visit together a first world war battlefield cemetery for British and Irish soldiers who fought and died side by side.

The first world war is of great significance to many people, in respect of memorial and trauma, and of memory of that time. I was touched by a quotation from one of my predecessors as Member of Parliament for the Folkestone and Hythe area, Sir Philip Sassoon, who was MP during the first world war and also the political secretary to Douglas Haig. Sir Philip wrote to a friend during the war, saying,

“would one ever have believed before the war that one could have stood for one single instant the load of pain and anxiety which is now one’s daily breath? I find that although I can study the casualty list without ever seeing a name I know—for all my friends have been killed—yet nevertheless one feels as much for others as for oneself—just a blur of grief: and one wakes every morning feeling one can hardly bear to live through the day.”

It is in many ways almost impossible for us now to understand what it must have been like to live through the first world war and to have seen such terrible losses—people’s friends and family, and those they had grown up with and known all their life—and to understand the terrific social change that took place as a result of that conflict.

Is my hon. Friend aware of the innovation by Greenhithe Royal British Legion branch in my constituency, which came up with the idea of scattering poppy seeds across the region and is selling the seeds? This idea has been endorsed by the Prime Minister. We hope to see, during the commemoration of the centenary of the outbreak of the first world war, fields of red poppies in the local area, which will be a poignant reminder of all the sacrifice.

That excellent project demonstrates the great wealth of interest that there is throughout the country in communities doing their own, different things to mark the centenary of the first world war.

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the worst thing we could do in commemorating the first world war is to repeat what Wilfred Owen called,

“The old Lie: Dulce et Decorum est

Pro patria mori”?

We should remember this as an immense human tragedy, the main consequence of which was the second world war.

The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. The significance of the centenary should not be the celebration of a military victory, for no military victory is final and lasting—certainly not the first world war—but of the sacrifice of millions who fought in the conflict and those who worked on the home front as well, many of whom died. That should challenge us to work and strive not to create the war that will end all wars, but to reach a point where war is no longer necessary. The first world war did not achieve that.

The hon. Gentleman is right: this is not a celebration of victory, but a commemoration of the sacrifice of millions of people. That sacrifice has been written about and debated many times. People have written about the lost generation that was killed during the first world war and about the brilliant lives that were ended. Many Members of Parliament fought and died. The Prime Minister, Herbert Asquith, lost his son, Raymond Asquith.

There is the great sacrifice of the pals regiments, many of which were created by people who worked and lived together and joined up, fighting and dying together. The high death toll in certain communities, famously, in pals regiments such as the Accrington pals, which lost so many during the battle of the Somme, meant that during the second world war we no longer recruited in that way, so that communities did not suffer such terrible losses.

There were incredible losses on the home front as the first world war became more mechanised. On 25 May 1917, an air raid in Folkestone was focused on Tontine street, near the harbour. German planes that had hoped but failed to reach London dropped their bombs before re-crossing the channel. In that single air raid, 71 people were killed, 27 of whom were children. We live in a time of war when modern technology makes the most devastating loss possible at the touch of a button, but such a loss of life on one day at home, away from the battlefield, was a truly shocking occurrence for people who lived through it.

When considering the first world war centenary, we should also remember that this was a global war. The conflict was not isolated in the western front, massive though the losses were in the trenches of France and Belgium. British and Commonwealth armed forces also served at Gallipoli and in Palestine, and we should remember the great role of troops drawn from the empire, particularly the British Indian Army, which sent many hundreds of thousands of men to fight for the British empire, across the world and particularly on the western front. Their stories, which are in many ways protected and preserved by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission around the world, are an important part of the centenary.

I see something every year in my constituency that brings home the sacrifices of the first world war for future generations, today. At the military cemetery at Shorncliffe, on Canada day, school children from local primary schools sit by and place flowers on the graves of the many Canadian soldiers buried there, marking a commitment made by the town at the end of the first world war to the families of those troops to tend their graves. It is touching to see young people only 10 or 11 years old sitting by the grave of someone who was perhaps only 18 when they were killed. That is a great way of bringing home to young people today the sacrifices that people made.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for securing this debate. I refer hon. Members to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests.

The hon. Gentleman rightly talks about the commemorative role that many organisations play. Will he join me in commending the McCraes Battalion Trust in Edinburgh, which built Edinburgh’s only war memorial on the Somme, at Contalmaison? The trust now takes groups of children out there, to ensure that the sacrifice that people in Edinburgh made during the great war is never forgotten.

The hon. Gentleman makes a good point. The project that he mentions sounds excellent, and it touches on an important aspect of the first world war centenary—namely, the work that can be done to preserve memorials. The Government are making funds available, through the Heritage Lottery Fund and English Heritage, to support the restoration of war memorials. In Dover, adjacent to my constituency, there was an excellent project called the Dover war memorial project, in which volunteers, students and children conducted research into the lives of people named on the war memorial. That gave them a real sense of connection and helped them to see that the names carved in the stone belonged to real, living people.

The project led to the rediscovery of Walter Tull, who was born in Folkestone and is commemorated on the Dover memorial. He had the distinction of being the first black officer to be commissioned in the British Army. He was commissioned in the field during the first world war, having previously been the first black outfield player to play professional football in Britain. His story had been forgotten, and it was rediscovered through the project. Such projects are an important way to mark the centenary.

The Heritage Lottery Fund is making funds available for community projects across the country to support remembrance and the education of new generations about the sacrifices of the war. The Prime Minister said in his speech last year at the Imperial War museum that funds were being made available to support schools to send tour parties to the battlefields, so that children could see for themselves the sights of the war. Giving people the opportunity to walk in the soldiers’ footsteps and to gain some understanding of their lives and the sacrifices that they made is an important part of the commemoration process. It is incredible not only that the battlefield tours continue to this day—the battlefields of the western front receive about 500,000 visitors a year from around the world, a great number of whom come from this country—but that they are growing in popularity. Visits to the Menin gate to hear the last post being played and visits to the Somme memorial at Thiepval are growing in number, which shows the huge appetite for them.

I want to talk briefly about the Step Short project in my constituency. Folkestone was a focal point in the war effort, and 10 million servicemen passed through the town during the first world war. It was the major port of embarkation to, and debarkation from, the trenches of the western front. It was home to tens of thousands of refugees from Belgium and tens of thousands more servicemen from Canada, who were based at Shorncliffe barracks just outside the town. Most families in the country will have an ancestor who was in Folkestone at some point during the war.

Some of those people are recorded in the visitors’ books that were kept by two sisters who operated a temporary canteen on the harbour arm, from which they gave free cups of tea and bits of cake to men who boarded the boats. Lloyd George, Churchill, Haig and private soldiers in the Army signed the books, which provide a great living memory of those men’s stories and give us a date, time and place, so that we know where they were at that point during the war. For some men, signing those books may have been their last act on English soil, to which they would never return because they would make the supreme sacrifice in the trenches.

After the first world war, Slope road in Folkestone, which ran from the Leas on the cliff tops in the town down to the harbour, was renamed the road of Remembrance, because it was the road down which so many men marched. As they marched down the steep road with heavy packs on their backs, the command of “step short” was given, which told them to break their steps. Marching downhill on the cobbles, wearing boots and carrying heavy packs must have been quite an exercise even on a dry day, but the soldiers managed it. Folkestone was the last stage in the journey that they made to the trenches.

In the inter-war period, a memorial arch was constructed over the road around the time of the coronation of George VI. On it was written simply, “In our rejoicing, we still remember them.” That sentiment is an important part of the remembrance process, and it reminds us that future generations have an obligation to remember the sacrifices that people made.

Many people had forgotten the story of Folkestone during the first world war, and the community have got together to tell it once more. For the centenary of the outbreak of the war in August 2014, they want to invite the country to Folkestone to be part of that story again. For the past two or three years, we have organised a memorial march along the route that the soldiers took down the road of Remembrance into the harbour. We hold that march on the first Sunday of August each year, close to the anniversary of the outbreak of the war, to remember the story of the men’s departure. People go to the battlefields of France and Flanders to walk in the soldiers’ footsteps, and they can also do that by taking part in the march in Folkestone.

The Prime Minister wrote an article on Remembrance Sunday for The Sunday Telegraph, in which he set out some of the Government’s plans to mark the centenary. Those plans include the great investment in the Imperial War museum, where new first world war galleries will be opening. He also noted that there would be “big outdoor commemorations” to mark the outbreak of the war. In particular, he mentioned the large outdoor event that we are planning in Folkestone, which, he noted, is

“the port where so many left for France.”

We look forward to welcoming people to Folkestone on 4 August 2014. Folkestone is fundraising to place a new memorial arch at the top of the Leas, at the start of the road of Remembrance. People can walk under the arch and remember the soldiers’ journey. That is an important part of the first world war remembrance process. We are also raising money for a visitor centre to tell that story. It is important for future generations to be able to understand that ordinary people—people like them from all over the country, and people from around the world who came to this country to fight on our behalf—made incredible sacrifices during the first world war. It is a story that future generations must tell, and we must give them all the chance to participate in it.

I mentioned earlier the expression “the lost generation”, which is often used to refer to the sacrifice people made during the first world war. I believe that Gertrude Stein originally coined the expression; certainly, Ernest Hemingway credited her with having done so. He used it at the beginning of his book “The Sun Also Rises”, which was published in the early 1920s. In it, he quoted from Ecclesiastes, which in some ways touches on the point made by the hon. Member for Newport West (Paul Flynn):

“One generation passeth away, and another generation cometh; but the earth abideth forever… The sun also ariseth, and the sun goeth down, and hasteth to the place where he arose.”

That reminds us that, in our remembrance, we must also look forward; that each generation has an obligation to defend the freedoms that were fought for in the first world war and to seek peace in the world; and that each is challenged to do that in its own way.

I look forward to hearing from the Minister more about the Government’s plans for the centenary. During the first world war centenary, as we look back and remember, we should also look forward, learning from that terrible period in our history, to how we can work to secure a more peaceful world for future generations.

I welcome you the Chair, Mr Owen. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Damian Collins) on securing the debate. He is not quite my constituency neighbour, but he is pretty close to it, and of course he is a fellow Kent MP. As he spoke, I was reflecting that many of us are familiar with Folkestone. I suspect that the hon. Member for Barnsley Central (Dan Jarvis), who speaks for the Opposition, may have done some training at Shorncliffe camp, as I have. Many of us did our Northern Ireland training there. I did not know about the link with the Canadians, but it is good to hear that that is still celebrated in the way my hon. Friend outlined. I apologise for not being the Under-Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, my hon. Friend the Member for Wantage (Mr Vaizey), who would normally respond to such a debate. He is away at the moment, but I hope that, with my Kent and military connections, my responding to the debate will not be too much of a hurdle. I would like to associate myself with the remarks that my hon. Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe made, most appropriately, about Peter Wood.

Rather than running through a prepared speech, I will pick up some of my hon. Friend’s comments and detail how the Government might support the efforts he is making. Part of the Government’s approach is to set out a general strategy around remembrance, youth and education, and then, in a sense, to encourage a thousand flowers to bloom. The schemes that have been mentioned in Edinburgh and Folkestone are perfect examples of what we hope will happen.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on his chairmanship of the Step Short campaign, which sounds like a fantastic example of what I am talking about. Those of us who have worn Army boots—especially those with studs on the bottom, which soldiers would have worn in those days—will know just how difficult it would have been to march down a hill, especially with a heavy pack and particularly if it was raining, as it often does in Kent at certain times of year. It is fantastic to see that that is being commemorated. I had not really considered that Folkestone was the major port of embarkation, but that was very much the case. I encourage my hon. Friend to keep the Department for Culture, Media and Sport closely informed about the project and to see what we can do to help him and the town as it undertakes those commemorations.

I was struck by my hon. Friend’s remarks about school visits. I think that for many of us who have visited the first world war battlefields, however much we might know about the military, or conflict, their sheer size and scale is what is striking. That strikes me every time I go there. In my regiment three squadrons were wiped out within half an hour, at a place called Zandvoorde ridge. Many regiments will have had similar experiences, and the striking scale of what happened makes it important that later generations should be reminded. My hon. Friend referred to the £5.3 million scheme that will enable a teacher and two pupils from every secondary school to visit a first world war battlefield.

The story of the air raid in Folkestone is a quite well known Kent story, and, as my hon. Friend said, a shocking one. I guess that it may have been the first large-scale air raid of any sort in this country.

It is believed to be the first major civilian air raid, but I should point out that today is the anniversary of a Zeppelin raid in Hartlepool in 1918, which killed eight people.

I stand corrected.

We touched on Shorncliffe camp. I did not know that Walter Tull was born in Folkestone. I think we all know his extraordinary story. Rather encouragingly, when we were in opposition, I visited a community scheme at Tottenham Hotspur as part of black history month—he played initially at Spurs. The area is clearly quite a testing one educationally, and all the children were working on a project about that extraordinary man who, as my hon. Friend said, was born in Folkestone and, having played professional football for Spurs and other clubs, became the first black officer on the western front. I think that he was put up for a military cross towards the end of the war. He is an extraordinary figure, and not the only sporting figure from my hon. Friend’s part of the world. Colin Blythe, the cricketer, who is commemorated at the county ground, was another.

As the Minister has mentioned sporting icons, I wonder whether he has read the wonderful book about McCrae’s battalion. It was born from the Heart of Midlothian football club team, which signed up en masse in 1914, leading tens of thousands of supporters to sign up. Because of that the team lost the championship by a point.

The lovely thing about these debates is the fact that we always learn something new, and that is a wonderful piece of sporting trivia. The hon. Gentleman has reminded me of something important, which I thought might be what he was going to say in his intervention: next year provides us with a unique opportunity north of the border, because of the Commonwealth games. The Department is considering how to make use of the presence of many Commonwealth leaders and athletes in this country to mark the Commonwealth contribution. My hon. Friend has mentioned that, and I freely admit to having been a little slow in picking it up early on when it was being discussed in the Department. We should not be for a moment too parochial about the anniversary. This country must recognise the enormous Commonwealth contribution. I was struck, when I went to Australia just before the Olympics to launch the GREAT campaign—for a weekend, actually; oh joy—by what a seminal moment Gallipoli is for Australians. It was the first time that they came together as a nation to fight for Australia, and Gallipoli is extraordinarily important to them, as places such as Palestine are for other countries.

We have talked a little about the Government’s approach. It is concentrated around remembrance, youth and education. There is £53 million of funding available, including £5.3 million for schools. The Heritage Lottery Fund has open grants of £10 million. The centrepiece of what is happening is of course work being done by the Imperial War museum, and I encourage all hon. Members to become acquainted with that. As I have said, the idea is to set up an umbrella under which other projects can bloom.

Has the Minister had representations from the Scottish Government about their plans? I understand that many hon. Members have made representations to them, as have many of my constituents, about holding commemorative events, but they seem reluctant to do so. The Commonwealth games would seem to be an opportunity, and, if the Minister has not received any representations, will he contact his counterparts in the Scottish Government to encourage them to do what is right for 2014?

Personally, I have not had that conversation, but that is perhaps not surprising, as I am not in day-to-day charge of those matters. However, I have, if not quite daily, then weekly, contact with the Scottish Government, about the Commonwealth games. The matter is a devolved one, so it is down to them, but I think that I would say, on the basis of my decade of military service—and I am sure that the hon. Member for Barnsley Central would agree—that Scotland is the home of some of the proudest and finest regiments in the British Army. They have made an enormous contribution in every conflict that this country has undertaken, in pretty much every combat zone where it has ever fought. I think for most who have memories of the British Army, the earliest ones are of being shouted at by someone with a Scottish voice. I would expect the Scottish Government to treat the occasion in the fashion that it warrants. I will be talking to them about the Commonwealth games, and the hon. Gentleman will have our full support in encouraging them to take the anniversary seriously.

There is a great deal of good work being done by the regimental museums, as part of the centenary commemoration. My right hon. Friend and I have both mentioned the Imperial War museum, which is a central heritage museum, but I also want to mention the regimental museums and the National Army museum. I am particularly grateful that they have decided to bring some of their first world war collections to Folkestone for an exhibition in summer 2014.

Unsurprisingly, I agree with my hon. Friend. He is right to mention the National Army museum. Of course other single service museums and the National Maritime museum have plans, including the use of a boat. I should also be amazed if the Buffs, as they were at the time, did not have a particular Kent-based exhibition, and I would encourage such plans.

One of the documents produced by the Government in anticipation of the commemoration quotes a poem by a young man who rejoices at being alive at such an important historical moment. The poet died within a fortnight of writing it. Can we have an assurance that the commemoration will be marked less with Rupert Brooke and more with Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen?

I take the hon. Gentleman’s point to an extent. The right balance is necessary, and everyone will understand that. I am not in a position now to decide what script, and which poet’s words, will be used, and I would not want to presume to do so. Those are properly decisions for the Imperial War museum, and others, who will make judgments, and whom I trust to get the balance right.

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe, and the other hon. Members who have contributed to the debate, and commend him on the work that is being done in Folkestone. I assure him that the Department and I—on a county basis as a near constituency neighbour—will do all we can to support that work. He has made a strong case for Folkestone to have a unique part in the commemoration, as a major port of embarkation, and I wish him the best of luck with his plans.

Sitting suspended.