Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—(Mark Lancaster.)
It is a great pleasure, Mrs Riordan, to serve under your chairmanship. We are witnessing today a strange reversal of life, in that I am doing a presentation to the Minister, whom I taught some 20 years ago when he was an officer cadet. It will be interesting to see whether he is as critical of me as I perhaps was of him.
May I begin by declaring three interests—not pecuniary ones—that I have in relation to the subject? The first is that for many years I taught military history at the military academy of Sandhurst and at the staff college, and I wrote or edited several books to do with the British Army and the first world war. Secondly, I am one of two parliamentary commissioners representing the House of Commons on the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. Thirdly, I am a member of the Prime Minister’s advisory board on commemorating the first world war.
We cannot get away from the fact that the first world war is a controversial subject. It was controversial at the time. When the Liberal Government decided to declare war on Germany, following the German invasion of Belgium, several Liberal Ministers resigned from the Cabinet. During the war, there were the conscientious objectors, and those, such as Lord Lansdowne, who wanted at different times to reach a peace settlement.
The subject has also been controversial since then. Many veterans felt that they were betrayed. In the 1960s, during the anniversary of the first world war, an enormous debate went on. Films and programmes such as “Oh! What A Lovely War” and “Blackadder Goes Forth” probably have a bigger impact on public perceptions of Britain and the first world war than all the memoirs and history books, and we can see that today.
The Government are in a difficult position, trying to organise a commemoration that reflects the general feeling of the British public, which is that this is something to commemorate in a positive way. It is about not only remembrance and reconciliation but pride. However, looking in the newspapers, I can see that my old friend Max Hastings has written a story asking whether the Government are sucking up to the Germans—“Don’t mention the war!” That is not true.
I happen to be in the historical camp that believes that Britain was right to go to war in 1914, by the end of which we had beaten imperial Germany. Many Germans of the current generation and German historians agree with that. Equally, a whole group of artists and others, including one Labour MP, wrote to The Guardian expressing an opposite view. They believe that this is all about the worst kind of patriotic interpretation of the first world war. We have two different opinions. It is not up to the Government to lay down the law on this, but we will have a discussion over the next five years, and perhaps the younger generation will engage in it.
With the greatest of respect to the hon. Gentleman, I am not here to debate that. It may well be that at some later date we will have a full-scale debate about commemorating the first world war, either through the Backbench Business Committee or in Government time. I am merely giving two interpretations, and I happen to believe that one of them is correct.
My purpose in introducing this short debate today is to reflect the fact that there has been considerable interest in both Houses in the commemoration. Two of my hon. Friends, here today, have already secured short debates on the subject. On 6 March, my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys (Paul Maynard) introduced a debate entitled, “Youth participation: first world war commemorations”, and, on 13 March, my hon. Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Damian Collins) introduced a debate on the first world war centenary. Folkestone will be one of the commemorative points next August; it was from Folkestone that many tens of thousands of soldiers went by cross-channel steamer to Belgium and France. There have been oral questions and debates in the House of Lords as well.
The Government have outlined a six-year programme of events around the themes of remembrance, youth and education. I do not intend to go into any details, as many colleagues here will be aware of it. The Commonwealth War Graves Commission and the Imperial War museum are central to the commemoration, but I also want to flag up the role of the National Archives, which have hundreds of thousands—if not millions—of documents and photographs relating to the first world war, specifically to the war service of men and women, and a lot of other things such as operational diaries. People now can get easy access to such information.
The importance of the commemoration is not just the fact that the Government are going to set an overview, but that it will be bottom up. It is the work done already over many decades by individuals and local communities who wish to look at the people behind the names, particularly on things such as war memorials. We have a wide range of interest groups such as the Western Front Association and the War Memorials Trust, which have already done very good work—hon. Members will know that from their constituencies.
I apologise for having missed the first sentence or two of the hon. Gentleman’s remarks; I was attending a Delegated Legislation Committee. I am a trustee of the War Memorials Trust and I am pleased to hear him mention its work. In particular, we have the project In Memoriam to ensure that our war memorials are safe and an education programme to ensure that the younger generation understand the matter. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman wants to comment on how important the younger generation is in all this.
The trust does some very good work indeed, and I will come back to it in a minute.
We must take a sensitive and sophisticated approach to the issue. This is about not just the United Kingdom Government and Parliament here, but the devolved Parliament in Scotland, the devolved Assembly in Wales and the devolved Parliament in Northern Ireland.
We also have to take into account the Commonwealth, remembering that in 1914 the British Government declared war on behalf of the empire, and that the participation of the empire is also a sensitive subject. Some 1.6 million men from the Indian sub-continent served in the Indian army—mainly in the middle east, but also in Belgium and France—and tens of thousands of them were killed and injured. The successor states, India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, have ambivalent views about how to commemorate the first world war, not least because many of the soldiers returned to the Indian sub-continent and joined groups that wished to see the end of the Raj.
Finally, there is the international element, which I have briefly touched on. What the Government must do, and I am sure the Minister will comment on this, is integrate what we are doing with what our allies—the French, the Germans, the Turks, the Russians and many other countries—are doing.
It is important to recognise that the commemoration develops over six years and that we need to maintain the momentum. Although the Government have laid down a number of points that we are going to commemorate, such as the death of Nurse Edith Cavell, who was from Norfolk where I was born and live, they also have to consider the legacy. In other words, how do we want this commemoration to be remembered, particularly putting the emphasis on young people? I suggest that we look at things such as education and the strengthening of communities.
For me, the purpose of this short debate is to consider what role Parliament will play in this commemoration and to encourage my fellow parliamentarians to participate in events and advise local communities about them. I fully recognise that many colleagues are already doing that.
I suggest that the parliamentary element should have two themes. The first is to look at the political and constitutional role that Parliament played during the war—in particular, the aspects that resonate today. After all, in 1914 the Liberal Government did not seek Parliament’s permission and have a vote on the declaration of war, which many colleagues will see as having a resonance now. There is the whole business of the key debates that took place here in Parliament. There is also the formation of the two coalitions: the coalition of May 1915, of the Liberals and the Conservatives; and then the Lloyd George coalition of December 1916, which had the Libs under Lloyd George and the Conservatives, with some Labour support.
In addition, there are the elements of legislation that were crucial at the time and that still have a resonance today. The licensing laws that we live with today were brought in at the beginning of the first world war to encourage munitions workers not to get tired and emotional and cut production. The Defence of the Realm Acts brought in massive constraints on civil liberties; the Military Service Acts—in other words, conscription—broke the back of the old Liberal party; and finally the Representation of the People Act 1918 saw for the first time the majority of women, although not all of them, getting the vote.
How does Parliament achieve this commemoration? I suspect that there will be exhibitions, and there will be online information. It is possible that the Speakers of both the Commons and the Lords will arrange a series of lectures and talks. I suggest another idea, which some of my colleagues might think is a little too modern, even for me; it shows that I have a feminine side, of which the loss of my moustache is a further example. The idea is that we could recreate some of the debates I have referred to through the Youth Parliament. Let the Youth Parliament debate the issues that divided the country during the first world war.
It is also conceivable that Parliament could publish a book that would relate to the second element of Parliament and the first world war: the experiences, service and personal losses of Members of both Houses of Parliament—both MPs and peers—and of their staff. I would like to think that we could bring that idea up to date by asking Members of both Houses and their staff to provide information about what happened to their direct ancestors and their families.
Lord Wallace of Saltaire, my hon. Friend, has already started the process in the other House; some Members may have seen a piece that he wrote in The House magazine about four months ago. He discovered some fascinating information about the current generation of peers and peeresses. There are not only direct descendants of Asquith, Haig and Lord Grenfell; there is also the fact, of course, that the House of Lords represents immigrants.
For example, Baroness Henig’s grandfather fought at the battle of Tannenberg on the German side; Lord Dubs’s father was in the Austrian army; and Lord Tugendhat’s father was an Austrian officer on the Italian front. Several members of the Asian community had grandfathers who served in the Indian army during the first world war.
There were also people who never served in the armed forces, and we want to bear that in mind; it is not only the military side that matters. There were the women who were nurses. Lord Prescott said that both his grandfathers continued as miners during the war; effectively, they were in a reserve occupation. There is a lot of interesting work that can be done in that area.
Let us not forget the staff. Work has already been done by the archivists and those on the educational side of Parliament. As an example, I give two small pieces of information. First, it will not surprise Members to know that the majority of Badge Messengers in 1914 were ex-military. The majority of them were either recalled to the colours or—if they were elderly gentlemen—nevertheless went back into uniform to train people. Secondly, they were replaced as messengers in the House of Commons by girl guides. That would have been quite a remarkable change for the 1914 generation.
We should not forget the staff. One member of staff who volunteered was Frederick Silva. He was a waiter in the House of Commons in the refreshment department. He was in the 2nd Battalion, the Rifle Brigade, and was killed in action on 30 September 1917, probably during the third Ypres battle.
Finally, we perhaps want to consider what the impact of the first world war was on the generation in the inter-war and post-war periods; that possibly links in with the intervention made earlier by the hon. Member for Newport West (Paul Flynn). Ramsay MacDonald was vilified because he had not fought during the first world war, but the war experience of Attlee and Macmillan was deep in their souls and resonated in their attitudes to so many things, including social reform and rearmament.
My second theme for this debate, which I will touch on briefly, is to encourage parliamentarians to participate in commemorative events and advise their local communities about them. Many colleagues are already doing that. The Heritage Lottery Fund recently announced that £6 million of funding will be spread over six years, which can be allocated to people who bid either as individuals or as local communities for projects related to heritage. I know that these ideas have been taken up by many parliamentarians. If people visit a few of our colleagues’ websites, they will see that they have flagged that money up.
What more can be done? Colleagues can take an active part in events and consider the specific experience of their own constituency, whether it is in a town, a city or a county. I will briefly give the example not so much of my own constituency of Broadland as of the work that is already being done throughout Norfolk. I have tried to put questions not only to local historians but to the Eastern Daily Press, which is taking a great interest and which I think will participate fully in events. I suggest that Members could relate those questions to any city, county or constituency.
My first question was, “What was Norfolk like in 1914?” It is a very good question for children to ask. Let us cut away all the myths of a golden summer and everything else—what was it like? What were the attitudes, as far as we can tell, of people at that time? We must remember that we are dealing with the first generation of really literate people.
Secondly, what was the impact of men volunteering or being conscripted to the armed forces? There were massive variations. We think of the Kitchener volunteers, but they did not all rush away at first; in Norfolk, they did not go until September or October 1914. Outside the cities, volunteers or conscripts were mainly rural workers and they literally had to get the harvest in. We forget the conscripts. The majority of people serving in the British armed forces by 1918—when we “won” the war—were, in fact, conscripts.
We know that a lot of emphasis will be put on the military experience of soldiers, including their experience of battle and of becoming casualties. However, Members also need to think of the expanding military presence in their locality during world war one; there were training camps and physical defences of one kind or another. We must also consider the experience of women and children, including their loss of a father or a husband—literally, for up to four years, and perhaps permanently. Alternatively, many soldiers returned from the war limbless or suffering from post-traumatic stress, as we would call it now.
We must also consider the impact of refugees and prisoners of war. Norfolk had tens of thousands of Belgian refugees. Also, a lot of German PoWs were working on the land, which is something we always associate with the second world war. There is also the role played by industry and farming. Tens of thousands of women volunteered for work in war industries and on the land. The Women’s Land Army does not date from the second world war—that was when my mother had experience of it—but from the first world war. There was social change, with tens of thousands of young men being billeted in a local area—crime and sex.
There was also politics under the coalition Government. What did it mean in a Member’s locality? How did a Member’s predecessors—if they can be traced—respond to the war, whether they were a Conservative, Labour, Liberal or coalition Liberal? There is also the role of conscientious objectors to consider. Were they badly treated? Were they reflective of their society? The impact of rationing on people must also be considered. Once again, we think of rationing as happening in the second world war.
We must consider hospitals and auxiliary convalescent homes. There was no national health service; there was a limited number of hospitals. In Norfolk, more than 60 schools, private houses and village halls were turned into hospitals, with only local women, who had virtually no experience of nursing, taking things on. That is one of the unsung elements of the first world war that we should commemorate.
Those of us on the east coast suffered the experience of both naval bombardments and air raids. The German navy bombarded ports, such as Great Yarmouth, and a number of towns in Norfolk had air raids. Again, we assume that that happened in the second world war.
The Government have suggested that we name streets after Victoria Cross heroes. It is possible that Harry Daniels, of the Rifle Brigade, a company sergeant-major during the war, who was born in Norfolk and won his VC, may be honoured eventually in his home town of Dereham. Like a lot of working class soldiers in the first world war, he came from a broken family and was a product of the workhouse. We spend a lot of time concentrating on the middle-class poets, but let us not forget the tens of thousands of working men for whom joining the Army was both a food ticket and a way out of social deprivation.
Finally, there is the Armistice and the physical remembrance of the first world war. The hon. Member for Hackney South and Shoreditch (Meg Hillier) is right about looking at war memorials, particularly the people behind the names. A lot of schools are already doing this. Parliament can play an important role in terms of what it wants to remember about the first world war. Many colleagues in both Houses have already started on this work.
I should like to end with a stanza—a short poem—written by somebody who saw the worst and the best of the first world war. We always assume that Rudyard Kipling was the poet of empire. He was an incredibly popular poet at the time and still is today. We think of him glorifying the old British empire and the Raj, but we have to remember, of course, that his only son was killed in 1915 and he was overwhelmed by guilt.
Kipling encouraged his son to join up. When the boy failed because he had bad eyesight, Kipling had a quiet word to make certain that he was commissioned. He never got over that. Kipling played an important role in the remembrance of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, but he wrote a bitter stanza that has a particular resonance for all of us as politicians. Some hon. Members will know it. “A Dead Statesman”:
“I could not dig; I dared not rob:
Therefore I lied to please the mob.
Now all my lies are proved untrue
And I must face the men I slew.
What tale shall serve me here among
Mine angry and defrauded young?”
This is the first time that I have spoken under your chairmanship, Mrs Riordan, and I am sure that it will be a great pleasure to do so.
It is a delight to be here and to hear the authoritative words of the hon. Member for Broadland (Mr Simpson), who secured this debate. I am slightly alarmed that he has shaved off his moustache. The feminisation of politics has given us many great benefits, but Mrs Thatcher never appointed anyone with facial hair. There is great danger if we start to shave off our facial hair: what male appendages might be under threat next?
The first world war is not an occasion to celebrate. I pay tribute to the hon. Gentleman for soothing out some of the jingoistic overtones in the original speech that suggested that we might celebrate the end of that war. I have a different tale to tell, but it is relevant and true, about a young man who volunteered at the age of 15. He was full of optimism and a great patriot, and went to war believing that it was going to lead to dignity, glory and honour. It did not; it led to disease, degradation, bitterness and early death at the age of 43.
That young man was a machine gunner. The belief on both sides was that machine gunners were never taken prisoner, because they were responsible for killing hundreds and possibly thousands of people. He found himself in a machine gun nest—a foxhole—gravely injured, and the others were dead. That was in April 1918, when the Germans broke through on the Messines ridge. His life was saved. He heard a German patrol coming to him and took out his rosary beads to pray, waiting for the bullet to blow out his brains. He could not get out of the hole, where he was identified as a machine gunner because the machine gun was lying across his body. However, he was not shot. The German officer, and two others, carried him across no man’s land and his life was saved. He was ever grateful to the Germans for the rest of his life.
He went there to serve the cause of his country that he loved and to kill the Hun, who were slaughtering Belgian babies. Other small nations had a different army experience at the time. He returned to civilian life and found that he was on a pension. He could not do what he called a man’s job ever again. In the mid-1930s, his pitiful pension was reduced by an ungrateful Government, who changed the reason for his pension from saying that his ill health was attributed to his war wound to saying that it was aggravated by it, although he went in as a perfectly fit 15-year-old.
The man was my father. Bitterness against war is justified in many of his generation. He was not killed by his wounds, but by his war experience. Two of the stories that he and his brothers told me about the war were that they did not have strawberry jam, but they had alcohol and cigarettes in abundance. He died of lung cancer at 43, because he was hopelessly addicted to tobacco. Others were addicted to alcohol, because of the way that alcohol was cynically used, an element that the hon. Member for Broadland did not recall.
We have to look at that war, which resulted in 16 million dead, with 900,000 British dead. Anyone who believes that is a matter for celebration is deeply wrong. The hon. Gentleman quoted Kipling, a great advocate for glory:
“I lied to please the mob.”
Others lied to please the mob. The lesson that we should take from the first world war, which led to the second world war, inevitably, because of what happened at Versailles, is, how do we understand war in our own age, these days?
There is a debate on Thursday on the Iraq war. It will be fascinating to recall the decisions made in this place in 2003, when because of the wishes of one man, we did not pull out of that war, as the Prime Minister was invited to, but went ahead on the basis of a misunderstanding, or possibly a lie. The consequence for this country was 179 dead. That is a hell of a price to pay for one man’s vanity. If we wish to commemorate the true lessons of that war, I suggest we do something that is now forbidden in this House and read out the names of the current war dead from Iraq and Afghanistan. I have done it twice and it is now forbidden. We are not allowed—it is out of order—to read the names of the war dead. We could not possibly do it for those who died in the first world war, who died in their hundreds of thousands, like cattle, but we can at least honour those who have recently died because of our decisions, taken in this House, on Iraq and Helmand, which have resulted in many other deaths.
The great lesson of the first world war was its abject futility and the way it led to unnecessary suffering and death, without solving any of the problems that existed at the time. I am grateful that there has been a change in the Government’s attitude and that they are talking about commemorating the war’s full horrors. That must be our emphasis and our message to young people. We could go back not only to Kipling, but to the other poets who said that we must not repeat
“The old Lie; Dulce et Decorum est
Pro patria mori.”
Let me make two quick comments before I come to what I wanted to say. First, we all owe my hon. Friend the Member for Broadland (Mr Simpson) a debt for initiating the debate. As he knows, my first grown-up job in politics was as research assistant to Maurice Macmillan, which meant I was privileged to spend quite a lot of time at Birch Grove. In my conversations with Harold Macmillan, there was absolutely no doubt that his approach, and that of other political leaders of the time, to Europe, the Common Market and European politics was in large part based on their experience of having gone through two European wars. For people such as Harold Macmillan, it was not just the fact that they had gone through two European wars, but guilt about the fact that they had actually survived—Harold Macmillan was almost the only person from his Grenadier Guards officer cadet group to survive the great war.
To pick up the point made by the hon. Member for Newport West (Paul Flynn), I think we all have family stories about the great war. I had an uncle—Uncle Bob—who was gassed in the first world war and who won the military medal, but I cannot remember him ever uttering a whole sentence, because for the rest of his life he lived with the fact that he had been gassed.
The point I really want to make follows from that made by the hon. Member for Hackney South and Shoreditch (Meg Hillier), and requires me to put on my hat as Second Church Estates Commissioner. As a result of the first world war, there was a need to demonstrate the huge and understandable grief over the loss of the husbands, fathers, sons, brothers and friends who made up the never-ending casualty list from the front line. There are, therefore, now roughly 36,000 memorials to the dead of the great war, reflecting that unprecedented expression of public grief. Not surprisingly, many of those memorials are in churches or within the curtilage of church buildings.
I hope two things will happen between 2014 and 2018. First, I hope every community—every parish, every town and every village—will look to refurbish or restore its war memorials. The recording of names—often simply in alphabetical order, giving no priority in death, because all are equal in death—is an important memorial, and now is the time to ensure that our war memorials are repaired and restored. Some memorials relate to streets or areas, such as those for the Hull pals and the Accrington pals. Others relate to factories, and one will also find memorials at railway stations. Charles Sargeant Jagger, the uncle of Mick Jagger, designed the great memorial in Paddington station, as well as the gunners memorial at Hyde park corner.
The other thing I hope will happen, which my hon. Friend the Member for Broadland alluded to, is that every community will have an opportunity to research the names and histories of those who died.
Another interesting issue is that a lot of names are missing, because the names were haphazardly collected. The War Memorials Trust does not necessarily fund work on this, but it depends on the circumstances; we have seen some great examples of names being added. I am sure the hon. Gentleman would be interested in work being done in education so that local children could seek out some of the names that should have been added, but which were missed off.
That is a good point. One is already seeing work on that. Clive Aslet produced a very good book called “War Memorial”, which is the story of the sacrifice of one village, Lydford, from 1914 to 2003. There are 23 names on the war memorial, and he goes through the histories of all of them in the book. In the preface, he says:
“What I would really like to do for the Centenary of the First World War in 2014 is to set up a project for each village to find out about its own dead. There is so much you could do and it would be a fantastic national and local resource. This book threw up such a richness of material and it really got me up every morning because I became so utterly absorbed by the story of these people’s lives.”
In my constituency, in the village of Deddington, Michael Allbrook and Robert Forsyth have written a history of the parish at war. When war memorials were erected in the early 1920s, it was sufficient for the inscription to include simply a name and an initial, because everybody knew the person. Men of Deddington died in Belgium, Canada, England, France, Germany, Greece, India, Iraq, Israel, Italy, Malaysia, Sicily, Syria and Turkey, where their graves and official memorials can be found, but their histories are at risk of being lost. The book written by the people of Deddington is a reminder of the lives of those men and of the people they were.
The Heritage Lottery Fund is giving £1 million a year over six years until 2019 to help communities mark the centenary of the first world war. I hope people will look to the war memorials and to the names on them, as well as, in some instances, as the hon. Lady said, to those that are not on them, as a starting point for exploring the history and commemorating the lives of people from their communities who took part in the great war.
When I enlisted in the Sussex Yeomanry in 1970, it had a dinner at the Royal Pavilion in Brighton every year before Remembrance day. In 1970, there were still two tables of 1914-18 veterans. When I, as a young man, asked them what made them leave their farms in Sussex—most had never left their farms before going to war—they simply said, “We went to defend our farms.” Edward Thomas was asked why he went to war, and he picked up a sod of English earth and said, “I went to fight for this.” Every one of the people on a war memorial has a story: they were a person; they had a life. I hope that, in commemorating the first world war over the next four years, we will take the opportunity to recall and commemorate the individual lives of every one of those who fell.
Order. At the moment, I do not intend to impose a time limit. If Members can be disciplined in their speeches, I will be able to call all those who want to speak. I will then call the Front Benchers at 10.40 am. If time starts running short, however, I will impose a time limit, with the kind permission of Mr Speaker.
It is a pleasure to speak on this issue. I congratulate the hon. Member for Broadland (Mr Simpson) on bringing it before us for consideration and on the passionate and balanced way he presented his case.
We in Northern Ireland have a close link with our serving personnel. We have a strong history of service, particularly in my constituency. In Northern Ireland, there was no need for conscription, because my forefathers and all those who joined up were volunteers. Those who served chose to do so, and they were proud to do so. We remain proud of the part they played.
Some people might question the relevance of continuing celebrations when there are no veterans of the first world war left, but we learned a great lesson from that war, and it is a lesson that we must never forget. We must ensure that we teach our children our history and instil in them an understanding of what makes them who they are and a pride that they, and we, are British.
We in Northern Ireland all intend to be involved—at least the Unionist MPs, and we will try to persuade some of the other MPs—in introducing into primary schools an educational pack, which will provide some of the facts about the first world war and try to create in children’s minds the importance of the occasion. Through that, we also hope to build upon community relations.
One of the great things that has come out through our peace process has been the recognition of service from both sides of the community, and service from the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland. One thing we wish to do, and will try to do within the commemorations, is to have a twinning type of arrangement between communities in Northern Ireland and communities in the Republic of Ireland. Importantly, that will also build relations.
I want quickly to mention the Bowtown community group association in my constituency, which, alongside other groups in the area, has been actively involved in promoting the importance of the first world war. There are things that we can do as MPs—as elected representatives—with schools and communities, north and south together in the island of Ireland. That is something we will try to build on.
When I think of the first world war, my thoughts automatically turn to the Somme, and in my constituency office opposite our flag is a beautiful framed picture of the Somme, which I think we are proud to see every day. As mayor of Ards borough in a previous life—21 years ago—I had occasion to go to the Somme and visit the battlefields, and I highly commend such a visit because it gives a real flavour of what happened in the first world war and the sacrifice that there was. Many of the gravestones there were of people who were 16. Many of the Ulstermen who joined told lies about their age, saying that they were 18 or 19 when they were 15 or 16—some were even 14. Perhaps there was not as tight a control as there should have been on birth certificates at the time. Those people also sacrificed themselves, and we should always be mindful of that.
We are perhaps proudest of our fight at the Somme, during which the bravery and courage of the Ulstermen has become the stuff of legends. Of nine Victoria Crosses given to British forces in that battle, four were awarded to the 36th Ulster Division. Captain Wilfred Spender of the division’s HQ staff after the battle of the Somme was quoted in the press as saying:
“I am not an Ulsterman but yesterday, the 1st. July, as I followed their amazing attack, I felt that I would rather be an Ulsterman than anything else in the world”.
The final sentences of Captain Wilfred Spender’s account furthered his viewpoint, one that was politically correct at that time for Unionists:
“The Ulster Division has lost more than half the men who attacked and, in doing so, has sacrificed itself for the Empire which has treated them none too well. The much derided Ulster Volunteer Force has won a name which equals any in history. Their devotion, which no doubt has helped the advance elsewhere, deserved the gratitude of the British Empire. It is due to the memory of these brave fellows that their beloved Province shall be fairly treated.”
Those who gave their lives on 1 July at the Somme were volunteers on behalf of the empire, and that is something we must commemorate.
Just on the edge of my constituency we have the Somme centre, which was built specifically to recall the sacrifices of the first world war and to commemorate the fact that—the Minister will be aware of this—the people from the 36th Ulster Division trained within a mile of the centre before they went to the Somme. The Thiepval tower is important, and the Somme centre plays an important role for us. It re-creates the trenches and has many historical artefacts. People can today live the sound, the noise, the horror, the courage and the sacrifice that took place, through what they have at the centre. I believe that it commemorates those things in a great way.
That service to crown and country strongly lives on, and that is the point on which I want to end. Today, 100 years on, the sacrifice of the first world war is still important, for us as parliamentarians and for our soldiers who are out in the field. Every one of us knows soldiers who have given their lives. In my constituency, I am always minded of Channing Day, who died in Afghanistan last year. Badges were sold in her name for Combat Stress—they sold out very quickly, and the next batch is now on sale.
We take pride in doing the right thing, and the right thing is to remember and honour those who fought in the war. The young men who had no idea what they were marching into, the young women who picked up the slack at home and worked the fields and factories, the families who mourned and the new Great Britain that arose after the war, are all reasons to commemorate the first world war in a right and proper way.
As we now look to a century since the war began, it is the right time to ensure that we commemorate in such a fashion that honours our fallen and inspires our children to realise how hard won the fight for freedom truly was. We can never afford to be complacent. I wholeheartedly believe that parliamentarians and Parliament as a whole should be taking the lead in the commemorations. We have a lot to do over the next few years, and we look forward to the process.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Riordan. I will try to be brief. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Broadland (Mr Simpson) on his wide-ranging, informative and certainly thought-provoking contribution. I was attracted to participating in the debate because it refers specifically to how Parliament commemorates world war one.
When I sit in the main Commons Chamber, I always listen with razor-like attention to my colleagues’ eloquent and devastating rhetoric and argument. Rarely does my attention wander, but if my eyes occasionally stray upwards—I hope they do not do so often—they spot the crests that surround the Chamber. I wonder how often we notice that they are there, and how often we think about what they represent, or, more importantly, about the stories of the people that lie behind them. When I am rushing to a Committee meeting or a dining room and I scurry through the Lower Waiting Hall, I do not tend to stop by the book of remembrance, which is often concealed by a policeman. Therein alone is treasure trove of stories. How often, as I dash off to Millbank through Members’ Entrance, do my eyes look up to the war memorial there, and the names on it?
As Members of the House, it is vital that part of our commemoration is of Members themselves and, indeed, of staff, who lost their lives. What links this debate with the Minister’s previous focus is last year’s Olympics. I recall some excellent exhibitions in the House on the connection between the House and the Olympics, on great Olympians who were also Members of the House. A book was even published, which detailed their lives and their contributions. I sincerely hope that Parliament comes up with something similar, to allow us an insight into the lives of Members and staff who lost their lives. My hon. Friend the Member for Broadland gave the example of the waiter in the restaurant.
My second observation draws partly on what the hon. Member for Newport West (Paul Flynn) said about the legacy of world war one. It is all too easy to think that the legacy issue ended in 1939, but I argue that every time we stand up and discuss Syria in the House we are doing so as a consequence of the 1916 Sykes-Picot agreement, which demarcated the middle east and created an explosive cocktail that rumbles on to this day. I believe that the legacy is in the here and now, and I suspect that it has affected many of the great decisions that have been made in this Parliament down the years, including on pioneering social legislation, and the attitudes towards appeasement and what occurred in the lead-up to world war two.
Possibly the most important thing we can do in Parliament to commemorate world war one is not just to base the contributions we stand up to make in the Chamber on the here and now, on what we have read in today’s or yesterday’s newspapers—the fish and chip wrappers of tomorrow; we should also be open to the long perspectives, and at each moment of our lives be open to thinking about what brought us here and the wider issues we are debating. If we do that, our contributions might be more meaningful than they all too often are and my attention might not stray to the many crests that surround the Chamber and could instead be focused more intently on what other Members are saying.
It is great to follow my colleague and friend from Lancashire, my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys (Paul Maynard).
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Broadland (Mr Simpson) on introducing the debate. Like him, I declare an interest. I was a teacher of history for 37 years, but I reassure hon. Members that I could not find my teaching notes last night, so they are saved from that. I will address some of the challenges that have been laid out today.
The legacy of the first world war is not only war memorials, although they are important. In the Fleetwood part of my constituency, we have a memorial park that was built following the war. The friends of the memorial park, and their chairman Les Fletcher, have bid for a grant to get the whole park, including its gates, restored, which may be an opportunity.
Westfield war memorial village in Lancaster was constructed for disabled soldiers with funds raised from private money. If Members look at the official books on Westfield war memorial village, which still houses 189 residents, they might be amused to learn that, apparently, despite the money having been raised, the building of the village, shops and workplaces for disabled ex-soldiers was hindered by the Government, the Ministry of Labour and the trade unions. The village is still shining with people still living there. There are similar things in every constituency.
Like my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys, when I watched the Iraq war—I was not then a Member of this place—I used to scream at the television, “Will these people please read some history?” or “Has anyone picked up the books and actually looked at the background?” Obviously, a standard comment is that people do not learn from history, but they could at least be informed about it.
My hon. Friend mentioned Syria, and I would also pinpoint Bosnia, where the whole shebang happened; it is where the archduke was assassinated. When people stand on that spot in Sarajevo, they think, “What has changed in Bosnia since then?” Four years ago, I met the grand mufti, the senior Muslim cleric, and his first words in the big mosque in Sarajevo were, “This mosque is the Emperor mosque. It was rebuilt by Emperor Franz Joseph, and the last time this country was run properly and efficiently was by the Habsburgs.” I have some sympathy with that. There are national and European lessons that we may need to address during this long centenary.
My other point, again to follow the challenge of my hon. Friend the Member for Broadland, is on the diversity of the troops who went to war. In the words of Baroness Warsi:
“Our boys weren’t just Tommies—they were Tariqs and Tajinders”.
When people go to the war graves, as I did a few months ago, they see the numbers; 140,000 troops from the Indian empire fought on the western front. When people see the Sikh memorials, the Jewish and Christian graves and the Muslim graves facing Mecca, they have respect for the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, which is still reburying people. That is just amazing. Only a few months ago, I saw in the village of Hollebeke the graves of six Chinese people who died as part of the Chinese Labour Corps; a huge wreath had been laid by the Chinese Government.
The centenary we are commemorating has many national and international levels. In our own country, given the diversity and the challenges that it is creating at the moment, we have to bring in every part of Britain’s new communities because they were involved in the first world war; 1.2 million people from the Indian empire fought across Africa, the western front and the middle east.
I found a quote from a Muslim soldier when I was looking at some letters out there—I do not know how one reads it in one sense. He was writing back to his family in the then undivided India, and he put in the letter:
“What better occasion than this to show the loyalty of my family to the British Government?”
What a lesson that is to us today, given what we face. Many Members of Parliament for constituencies that perhaps lack the diversity of our major cities can still ensure that when we are in schools to talk about the first world war and when we are at the memorials, people know that a vast range of soldiers and workers from across the old British empire supported this country and saw us through to the end. That is a lesson that we need to be punching out there, and it is a lesson for all of us today. It still rides strongly and gives us a purpose as Members of Parliament.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Riordan, and it is a pleasure to follow the fascinating contributions of the Members who have spoken in this debate. I particularly congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Broadland (Mr Simpson) on securing this debate and on his fascinating introduction.
We are surrounded by the first world war in the Palace of Westminster, in every community in the country and in Whitehall, which is dominated by the Cenotaph. People cannot escape from the first world war, and in remembering it as we draw closer to the centenary of its outbreak we must remember, as many hon. Members have pointed out in this debate, the incredible change it brought to the lives of almost everyone in the country. We must remember that the first world war touched their lives, and the political consequences of that war affect our lives today, too. We must remember that it was of a scale unimaginable to people before the war. We must remember the stories that came from the war in the history books, the poems and the diaries, which tell of a conflict that cannot be recognised in terms of warfare today. The lives and experiences of the people who went through it are almost impossible for people in a contemporary setting to imagine.
Philip Sassoon, who was Member of Parliament for Hythe during the first world war, visited the site of the battle of Waterloo in 1920. His recollection was that it was “Lilliputian” compared with the western front and that the battle of Waterloo, great and defining as it was, had more in common with the battles of ancient Greece than it had with Neuve-Chapelle or the battle of the Somme. The first world war was something totally new and of an incredible order.
The first world war affected fighting men from across the world who came to Britain to fight on behalf of the empire as British subjects under the King. We must, therefore, consider not only what the significant sites of the first world war meant to the whole country, but to the broader fighting community across the world. My interest has been drawn specifically to the Step Short project in Folkestone, of which I have been chairman for the past six years and which commemorates the role the town played during the first world war.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Broadland mentioned, it was not tens of thousands of men who came through Folkestone during the first world war but tens of millions. Nearly 10 million men came through Folkestone, which was the main port of embarkation to the western front not just for British soldiers but for soldiers from across the world who came to serve. That can be seen marked in the graves at Shorncliffe military cemetery, which is one of the Commonwealth war graves, stationed next to Shorncliffe barracks just outside Folkestone, which was home to tens of thousands of Canadian servicemen. The graves of members of the Chinese Labour Corps who died in the first world war can also be found there. Folkestone, similar to Norfolk, was also home to tens of thousands of Belgian émigrés who came to Britain to escape the advancing German army in the early days of the war in the summer of 1914, so it has an international significance, too.
For me, the important thing about Folkestone is that it touches the experiences of probably almost every fighting family in the country. At some point, their ancestor was in Folkestone during the war, and it is a site that can mean something to people across the country as they consider the centenary of the first world war.
The House of Commons must consider an appropriate way to recognise the sacrifices of families across the country during the war. We must consider where we can create places in the United Kingdom for them to go to try to gain some insight on the life and experience of their ancestors. That is why there is still an incredible, enduring interest in the first world war battlefields in western Europe. The tour operators say that more people make the journeys now than for decades. On any night at the Menin gate at Ypres, one can see large numbers of people gathering to stand and hear the “Last Post” played. Schoolchildren still make battlefield tours of the great cemeteries, such as Tyne Cot and the memorial at Thiepval, to understand what went on.
We should create more opportunities within this country for people to visit similar sites with broad significance. In Folkestone, we have embraced that idea by creating a memorial walk tracing the last steps of the men as they marched from the town down to the harbour where the boats waited to take them to France, and we are raising money to create a new memorial arch to stand over that route, or close to the site where a memorial arch was put up between the wars to mark the silver jubilee of King George V and the coronation of King George VI. It bore the simple message “In our rejoicing, we still remember them.” The road down which the men marched was rededicated after the war as the road of remembrance. As other hon. Members have mentioned, there are physical war memorials listing the names of men who fought, but there are also other memorials that recognise the symbolism of and people’s emotional attachment to significant sites in this country during the first world war.
In Folkestone, as my hon. Friend the Member for Broadland mentioned, we also have air raid sites. The first major air raid on the civilian population carried out by German aircraft in this country was at Folkestone in 1917, on Tontine street. It killed 71 people out of a clear blue sky. There were no air raid sirens and no warnings; it was not something that anyone expected. Many people lived through it, and many have family members who were victims of that attack. The site in Tontine street means something to them.
We can help create memorials, and we can support events as Members of the House of Commons. Folkestone seeks to do so by creating a new memorial arch and a memorial march commemorating the journey to war on the anniversary of the start of the war next August. On 4 August 2014, a series of centenaries will start that will run through the period of the first world war, touching the anniversaries of the major conflicts and battles and building up to the centenary of the armistice.
The major museums are doing a great deal of work to support the first world war centenary, particularly the Imperial War museum, which is creating online resources that anyone in the country can use to pass on the stories of people in their community. I also thank the National Army museum, which has agreed to bring part of its first world war collection out of London to Folkestone for 10 months in 2014-15 while its galleries are being refurbished, and to create an exhibition with the people of Folkestone to tell part of the story of the town during the war, as well as the story of men as they made the journey to war.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Broadland for securing this debate. It is the third debate on the first world war centenary in which I have participated during the past couple of years; I am sure that there will be many more opportunities to discuss it as we get closer to that time. It will be an important series of anniversaries and commemorations, starting on 4 August next year, and will mean a great deal to people across the country.
I did not originally intend to take part in this debate. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Broadland (Mr Simpson), who had the initiative to secure it and who introduced it with his customary gravitas and with information that he doubtless learned during his time at Sandhurst and elsewhere. This has been an absolutely fascinating debate. I have been prompted to take part in it because I have distinguished two themes that I think will be reflected in discussions of the first world war across the nation.
The first was ably outlined by the hon. Member for Newport West (Paul Flynn), to whom I pay tribute. He has made clear his opposition to war and his hatred of it on so many occasions over many years in this place, and he has done so extremely convincingly and with great passion. I might surprise him by saying that I agree with him absolutely. All war is hell. There is no question about it. All war is a disgrace, and it should not occur. How human beings ever thought it up in the first place is hard to imagine. Whether we are talking about people killed in warfare, those who are injured or maimed or those with mental illness as a result, it is an absolute blot on humanity that such things occur. I entirely endorse his hatred of it.
Equally, I agree with the hon. Member for Newport West that most wars occur for all the wrong reasons. We in this place and our ancestors for over 1,000 years have got all wars wrong. Even recent wars, without entering into recent politics, have occurred for all the wrong reasons. They have been ill thought through. As was said about the first world war, lions have been led by donkeys.
Although we should not renege on or stray from that clear theme, it is entirely separate from the one that we have been discussing here, which is how we commemorate those who gave their lives and so much else for their nation. The motto of my own regiment, the Honourable Artillery Company, is “Arma pacis fulcra”, or “Arms are the balance of peace”. Those young boys marched out of the gates of Armoury house in the City of London because they were told to do so by their officers, who were told to do so by the Government. They did so for King and country. They did not set off from Armoury house saying, “I wonder whether this war is right, wrong or indifferent”; they set off because they were acting under orders.
The same applies, incidentally, to those people who have stood on the high street of Royal Wootton Bassett in my constituency on 427 separate occasions during the last few years to pay tribute to the dead bodies returning from Afghanistan and Iraq. The people of Wootton Bassett were not saying that they approved or disapproved of the wars in Iraq or Afghanistan; they had no views on those wars. They took the view that this was not the occasion to enter into the politics of it. They knew that it was right to pay their respects to the soldiers who had given their lives in those wars.
I am grateful. I understand what the hon. Gentleman is saying, although he might find that modern historians are a little kinder to the allied leadership in the run-up to the war than he suggested. As well as the horror and the courage that will be recognised during the national commemoration of the first world war and its outbreak, it is right that Parliament address the complexities of the politics both inside Parliament and inside Government. It was a first and, for the Liberal party, a traumatic experience of coalition politics.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, but I suspect that I absolutely disagree with him. There have been wars for the past 1,000 years, going back to the battle of Sherston in my constituency in 917, when King Athelstan fought off King Canute. Is it right that we in Parliament should consider whether Athelstan was right or wrong to fight that battle with Canute in 917? Of course not. Equally, we should not reinvent the causes of the first world war. That is not a matter for us; it is a matter for historians. We in Parliament must look to the present and the future. Reinventing the thought behind the first world war is not our job at all.
First, again, I agree strongly with the hon. Member for Newport West that all wars are bad. Of course there are lessons to be learned; we are considering whether to sell arms to Syria. We should remember that all wars are bad. Secondly, we should also remember that all wars are badly thought out; that applies today as before. Thirdly, the purpose of today’s debate, leaving aside all the politics and history, is that it is right that we in this place should say to the people to whom we give instructions, “You are doing the right thing. We respect and honour what you do, and we honour the fact that you have given your lives, livelihoods and very often your health or your mental welfare under order from us. It is right that we should pay you respect for doing so.”
I enjoy the occasions when, twice a year, each brigade returning from Afghanistan enters Carriage Gates and we as a Parliament pay our respects to those soldiers. We are not involving them in politics or asking them to endorse our views on Afghanistan; we are thanking them for all that they have done in Afghanistan as soldiers under our orders. That is what we must do with regard to the first world war. Those boys, and a few girls, gave their lives, their livelihoods and their health. We must thank, respect and honour them for what they did for us.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Riordan. I congratulate the hon. Member for Broadland (Mr Simpson) on securing this important debate, and I thank him for the work that he does as a member of the world war one centenary advisory board. I do not think that I had the benefit of his teaching when I was at Sandhurst, although I could be wrong. I agree that Parliament can play an important role and that as parliamentarians, we all have an important role to play in encouraging and supporting activities in our constituencies. I know from my constituency that there is huge interest in the commemoration.
There have been a number of thoughtful contributions to the debate. My hon. Friend the Member for Newport West (Paul Flynn) and the hon. Members for Lancaster and Fleetwood (Eric Ollerenshaw), for Banbury (Sir Tony Baldry), for Strangford (Jim Shannon), for Blackpool North and Cleveleys (Paul Maynard), for Folkestone and Hythe (Damian Collins) and for North Wiltshire (Mr Gray) have all spoken with passion and authority. They spoke with different emphases, but they all agreed that it is important for Parliament to play a leading role in the commemoration. The numbers present to support the debate are a welcome sight, and confirm my belief that the issue brings us together and is one on which we should be united.
I pay tribute to the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, the hon. Member for South West Wiltshire (Dr Murrison), in his role as the Prime Minister’s special representative, for his dedication to the task of assuring an appropriate commemoration. I hope that he will not mind me saying—something that always comes with a degree of qualification—that, for this work, he is a round peg in a round hole. He and the Minister present in the Chamber know, I am sure, that the Opposition will work closely with the Government on the commemoration. We are united in the view that it is important and that it must be done in the right way.
In order to inform the work that we do in this place, it is worth reflecting that most people appreciate the scale of the loss of life in the first world war, although it is still difficult to comprehend. They know something of the 750,000 British soldiers who died, or the 1.5 million who returned home injured, and they might have heard of the 20,000 British soldiers killed on the first day of the Somme or recall Wilfred Owen’s imagery of choking soldiers drowning in a sea of chlorine gas. Sacrifice on such a scale must always be remembered. It must be commemorated.
In Parliament, however, it is important that we remember the first world war for more than the industrialisation of death that followed in its wake. The role of Government and of Parliament therefore is to ensure that the commemoration of the centenary is respectful, thoughtful and reflective, without of course in any way glorifying the nature of the war and the appalling human sacrifice that took place. This is a commemoration, not a celebration.
The first world war was a hugely significant moment in history, important for Britain economically, politically and socially. It was a cause, directly or indirectly, of all the major events of the 20th century. At home, the first world war changed much for Britain, and our reliance on Commonwealth countries for soldiers as well as materials led to a desire for greater independence by nations who no longer wished to be subordinate to the empire. The war also changed the terms of the relationship between England and the other constituent parts of the United Kingdom.
Britain was changed politically and socially for ever. Politically, the end of the war triggered a flight to extremes. Socially, the war gave rise to the lost generation; so many men of marriageable age died that 50% of women remained single in 1931, and 35% of them did not marry while of childbearing age. The conscription of so many men during the war, however, led to an opportunity for women in the workplace, and the importance of that change cannot be underestimated. The other great social change to come from the first world war was of course suffrage. Before the war, neither working men nor women had a vote. The sacrifice of men of all classes, combined with the movement of women into the working world and the campaigns of the suffragists and suffragettes, compelled politicians to change that situation. We should also reflect on that in this place.
The importance of the first world war cannot be counted simply in terms of battlefield casualties or military innovation. There is no doubt about that. From its influence and its timing, it is the single most significant event of the 20th century. As such, it is something we must remember, we must commemorate, we must learn from and we must educate our children about. The centenary is an excellent opportunity to teach younger people about the first world war in a direct and age-appropriate way and to initiate informed discussion about our country and our history. I very much agree with the suggestion of the hon. Member for Broadland that we should invite the Youth Parliament to come to this place and debate those important issues.
As other Members have noted, the Imperial War museum will play a pivotal role in the commemoration and will be opening groundbreaking new galleries at its London site, as well as at its Manchester site. Those efforts will reach a wider audience than ever before and create a legacy for future generations that will hopefully revitalise the way we teach the history of the first world war. In addition to the £9 million already donated, the Heritage Lottery Fund will give £6 million to projects marking the centenary. It provides funds to help local areas and communities explore their history and heritage and to understand the war’s impact on their communities. The lottery money will be crucial to helping local communities in their important commemoration events. Many other organisations will be involved, from the Royal British Legion to the Woodland Trust and many more besides.
There is huge interest around the country in ensuring that in every hamlet, village, town and city—in every corner—we make the most of this national and international period of commemoration. Members throughout the House will take an active part in activities in their constituencies, but above all we must take the opportunity to remember, because only through remembering and through keeping the first world war in the national consciousness will we truly understand its impact on British society and, in so doing, understand what it means to be British. Parliament will seek to play an appropriate role, in conjunction with many others, to ensure that the centenary of the first world war is commemorated in a way that is thoughtful, respectful and befitting of such an important event in our history.
Thank you for chairing the debate, Mrs Riordan. In responding, rather than reading through my prepared speech, I will try to pick up on the various contributions made by hon. Members, commenting on them as appropriate.
The best place to start is by thanking my hon. Friend the Member for Broadland (Mr Simpson), not only for his typically erudite and thoughtful contribution this morning, but for all the work he has already done in and around the commemoration as a member of the advisory group and as a commissioner of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission.
I also give my hon. Friend a probably long-overdue thank you for all the hours of his life he spent trying to educate me when I was in my 20s; he was kind to say it was 20 years ago, but in all honesty I fear it was 20 years plus VAT. As I have got older, I have begun to feel increasingly that if there were a period in my life that I could revisit, it would be then, because understanding the lessons of history allows us to make much better judgments about the present. I wish that I had sat in my hon. Friend’s lectures less exhausted by the various other activities that marked the day at Sandhurst, and better able to listen to the many words of wisdom that he offered then, as he has this morning.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right to talk about the role of the National Archives. The process of discovery that can be facilitated by it for individuals, families and communities will be a key part of the period of remembrance. He could not be more right about the role of our allies in other Commonwealth countries. To be honest, that had not really dawned on me until a visit to Australia, when I was looking at tourism and sporting links post-2012. I took some time out to go around the national war memorial in Canberra, which I was shown by Dr Brendan Nelson. It is engaged in completely revitalising and renewing its galleries, as we are in this country.
I had not realised the extent to which the first world war marked the moment when Australia came together as a nation for the first time. For Australians, the centenary of the war—Gallipoli, in particular—is an extraordinarily important national moment of remembrance and of nationhood. If that is true for Australia, it is true for many other places around the world.
Ensuring that such work is properly co-ordinated and dealt with appropriately is key to the success of commemoration. The body that my hon. Friend is associated with, the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, is central to delivery. My hon. Friend is also right to talk about the effect on the House. The idea of some form of book is excellent, and I hope that he will pursue it with Mr Speaker.
I think back to my hon. Friend’s excellent history of General Percival and the fall of Singapore. It brilliantly brought out the human element of that entire tragedy; something like that, which draws together the experiences of parliamentarians and Members of the House and which we could all read and learn from, would be a fantastic contribution. He is absolutely right to encourage parliamentarians to become involved and to lead this event. I could not agree more with everything he said and I thank him for his contribution.
The hon. Member for Newport West (Paul Flynn) told the powerful story of his father and his post-war fate. The story is tragic and there is no other answer. I assure the hon. Gentleman that the Government’s approach is not to celebrate the war, but to enable a great act of remembrance. No Government of any colour in this country hand down an authorised version of history. We should put the facts before people to educate them and then allow them to remember the event in a way that is fit for them. The hon. Gentleman will have a contribution to make to that like everyone else.
My hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Sir Tony Baldry) spoke about war memorials and his work as the Second Church Estates Commissioner. The issue of war memorials has worried me for many years. In my county, they were put up next to what were then quite small roads, but have now turned into major A roads. Memorials have suffered natural degradation from heavy lorries passing them on the way to Folkestone and other ports of embarkation, and in some places people may want to move them to a place that is more appropriate for acts of remembrance. I think that will be a key part of the commemorations.
I very much enjoyed my hon. Friend’s story about the Sussex Yeomanry. Perhaps I may tell him gently, having joined the armed forces 10 years after him, that one of the great events of the year was always the second world war reunion at Combermere barracks. A young officer could sit at the feet of people who had taken bridges during the second world war by stripping doors off houses and laying them across the fabric of the bridges to get armoured cars across them to secure the other side. Understanding such stories is key.
The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) is always modest about the fact that he served in the Ulster Defence Regiment; I did not realise that until I looked him up in connection with legislation with which we were both involved. I pay tribute to him as a former soldier—particularly that form of service. Any of us who served in Northern Ireland know that soldiering in one’s own community and going back to one’s own home at night still under threat was a very different experience from that of those of us who came to the Province and at least went back to a secure force base afterwards.
I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will play an ongoing role in remembering the UDR’s considerable contribution during the troubles. As much as or perhaps even more than other places in the country, Northern Ireland is synonymous with the public service inherent in service in the armed forces. The war was a key period in Northern Ireland’s history and I am delighted that the hon. Gentleman, with his background, will be on hand to lead and help with the period of remembrance.
My hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys (Paul Maynard) talked about the role played by MPs. Some years ago, I tried to buy a sword that came up for auction at Bonhams. It was supposed to have been the property of the first Member of Parliament to have died in the first world war. I may be on dangerous ground and I will check this story, but I think his name was Edward Boyd. One of his descendants—I think it was his grandson—played a considerable role in Northern Irish politics thereafter. Edward Boyd had been in the armed services in the 1880s and served in the South African campaign. He left the armed services and was elected to Parliament in 1910. He rejoined at the start of the first world war but was wiped out in a matter of minutes. He survived for only five or 10 minutes in the first campaign in which he took part. I will ensure that I research his story more closely.
My hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood (Eric Ollerenshaw), another historian who gave us the benefit of that dimension, spoke absolutely correctly about the link between international communities—the Commonwealth, which played such an important part—and existing local communities in this country. He is absolutely right that it will be a powerful moment throughout communities in this country when people link with their forebears and engage in an act of remembrance.
My hon. Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Damian Collins) referred to the Step Short project, and we have been here before. I cannot move in Kent without talking about it, and I notice that it has started to appear on national briefing sheets, so he has done a splendid job in bringing it to everyone’s attention. It is a remarkable that 10 million soldiers embarked for the front through Folkestone.
I was amused by my hon. Friend’s remark about Philip Sassoon, one of his predecessors, and his comment that the battle of Waterloo was like many battles of ancient Greece. When I had returned from the first Gulf war, someone deconstructed the tank tactics there and they were remarkably similar to those employed by Hannibal with elephants at the battle of Cannae thousands of years before. There is an indication that in military affairs everything changes and nothing changes much.
My hon. Friend made a powerful point about the role of museums and particularly the National Army museum. I have always thought that we underestimate the role of local museums, and my hon. Friend the Member for Broadland touched on the importance of local communities’ remembrance. Local museums throughout the country will put on first world war-centric exhibitions that will allow people to discover what their communities were like at the outbreak of war. They will play an important role in that.
My hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire (Mr Gray), who is also a former soldier, talked about the importance of respect and of honouring those who served in the armed forces as a result of decisions made here. That is a key part of the educational role.
I thank the hon. Member for Barnsley Central (Dan Jarvis), who speaks for the Opposition and is also a former soldier, for his confirmation of the Opposition’s support and his commitment to ensure that the remembrance takes place in the right way. He talked about the importance of that. Since becoming involved, I have become aware from some people I have spoken to of a slight concern that there is no central theme. If there is one, it is not celebration—I hope that that puts the hon. Gentleman’s mind at rest—but remembrance. That is exactly what this is about, and historically it is what Remembrance Sunday has been about. “Remembrance” is the word that sums it up.
The Government have laid out three themes for the commemoration: remembrance, youth and education. Two strands that have come through clearly this morning are remembrance and the important concept of service. The Government’s role is to identify and lead the key national acts of remembrance, but after that to provide a framework so that local communities—I put Parliament in that bracket—can find ways of remembering the anniversary that are appropriate for them.
I am sure that the phrase “to allow a thousand flowers to bloom underneath it” is correct. Some excellent suggestions have been made today and I hope that for all of us it will be the start of a period of exploration and discovery that leads to an appropriate act of remembrance of this great national event.