I beg to move,
That this House has considered commemoration of the First World War.
It is a great privilege to lead this Government debate during our season of remembrance. I would like to start by paying tribute to Warrant Officer Ian Fisher of 3rd Battalion the Mercian Regiment. His passing brings the events we are debating a little closer, and tragically so. Our thoughts and prayers are with the family, friends and colleagues of a truly remarkable man.
I am pleased that so many colleagues are here in the Chamber today. It shows the extent of the interest in this subject and I hope means that Members will be taking this issue to their constituencies in the years ahead and showing the leadership for which they are renowned and encouraging their communities to get involved in this commemoration. I wish to bring to the attention of right hon. and hon. Members the “Fields of Battle” exhibition, which Mr Speaker was gracious enough to allow to be displayed in Westminster Hall and the opening ceremony of which many colleagues attended on Tuesday. It is an example of how Members can take the great war centenary to their constituencies and expose this at street level to as wide an audience as possible. I commend it to the House.
Is there not also an opportunity for hon. Members to highlight the opportunities, apparent when we go to our remembrance services and are before these memorials that provide a living link with those who lost their lives in our name, to support the War Memorials Trust and the “then and now” funding that aims to re-establish the link between community groups and their memorials and to teach people about the lives lost in our communities? That is important and will ensure that we can register memorials of all shapes and sizes donated by past generations. We need to continue that link in times to come.
My hon. Friend raises a good point and I shall underscore the importance of focusing on the personal and parochial in this commemoration, as that is the link that people have with that period. Using war memorials as the starting point is something I would encourage. I commend all those involved in that endeavour.
I would like to set out the Government’s thinking on the four-year centenary of the first world war and give a flavour of the philosophy underpinning its approach. The great war may be the keystone of our times but our understanding of it is not very good. Polling data suggests that the public know that there was a war in 1914 and have a pretty good idea of who was on what side. They know about mud, trenches and iconic things such as the Christmas truce. Thereafter, it starts to get a bit hazy. Improvement of our grasp of the causes, conduct and consequences of the first world war must be at the heart of the centenary that is about to break upon us.
As the Prime Minister said a year ago when he announced the Government’s framework for the centenary,
“Our first duty is to remember.”
But the question is, what exactly should we be remembering? The remembrance that the Prime Minister was talking about involves so much more than simply bringing to mind experiences that few of us have had or people we have never met. Remembrance is not synonymous with recollection. This Sunday is Remembrance Sunday, not recollection Sunday. It is an opportunity to acknowledge the fallen, while consciously reflecting on the nature of war and resolving to avoid it. That is what we mean by remembrance. We also give thanks that, peace restored, the great majority who served in the first world war did actually return to raise their families—our families—although, let us not forget, that all too many returned with enduring mental or physical infirmity that changed the course of their lives and that of their families to an extent that will never be quantified. That resonates with contemporary conflict, provoking I hope generosity in the 2013 poppy appeal.
The waypoints of the war sear our national consciousness; the Somme, Jutland, Gallipoli, Passchendaele, Loos and Amiens, the last so crucial as the game changer in the course of the war. We must remember that this war was also fought on the home front in the factory and the munitions depot, and by women whose lives would never be the same in a society transformed. We must commemorate this centenary because with the passing in 2009 of Harry Patch, Bill Stone and Henry Allingham, our last tangible links with the first world war are retreating into the shadows.
My hon. Friend is making a powerful speech. Does he share my view that we should commemorate not just British soldiers but soldiers from the Commonwealth countries, particularly soldiers such as Khudadad Khan, the first Indian to be awarded the Victoria Cross, who survived the war?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising that point, which I will develop in my contribution; suffice to say I agree with him wholeheartedly.
The one thing I regret is that I did not ask my grandfather more about the first world war and now, of course, it is far too late. In 1921, we gave a posthumous VC to the unknown soldier in the United States. As we now commemorate 100 years since the beginning of the first world war, is it not appropriate to at least consider awarding a VC to the unknown soldier who lies in Westminster Abbey, as suggested by a constituent, Tony Ormiston, who is an expert on the VC?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for the suggestion. Over the four-year period, there will be plenty of opportunities to mark appropriately those who fell during the great war and those who served and sacrificed. On Monday there will be a delivery of sacred soil from Flanders fields to a memorial garden at the Guards chapel not far from here; a very fitting tribute and one that will bring this country and Belgium—two key players—very much closer together. I hope people will take note of all this, and the whole point is for them to reflect and better understand what happened 100 years ago.
There are those who are asking what the point of it all is, but if we do not do this we risk disconnection from the defining event of our time. There is an opportunity perhaps to balance the “Oh! What a Lovely War”/“Blackadder” take on history that, sadly, has been in the ascendant for the past 50 years. In its place, we will have a richer, deeper and more reflective legacy. But we should acknowledge that some will interpret the centenary in different ways, holding and contributing their own views. Some within that patchwork may discomfort some of us. We may individually or corporately disagree with them but find expression they must. The role of Government in the centenary is to lead, encourage and help make it all happen, while avoiding the temptation to prescribe. It is emphatically not the place of Government in our 21st century liberal democracy to be handing down approved versions of history.
Will the Minister acknowledge that many soldiers from the Irish Republic, as it now is, served during the first world war? The Republic of Ireland is no longer a member of the Commonwealth, of course, but it is important that their sacrifice is part of all this. Will he join me in welcoming the fact that there are seemingly positive discussions with the Government of the Irish Republic to ensure that, in relation to those who won the VC, the paving stones will be laid in counties in the Irish republic? Certainly that good work needs to continue and we welcome it very much.
I am absolutely delighted that the right hon. Gentleman has raised that point. As he would expect, we have spent a great deal of time in debate with Dublin on this matter. As I have been going through this work, it has been something of a revelation to me as I have understood fully the great work that Her Majesty the Queen did when she visited Dublin. Ever since then there has been a huge appetite in both countries to improve the relationship between the two countries, which has been extraordinarily uplifting. Of course the Republic of Ireland is engaged in its decade of commemoration, within which falls the centenary of the great war. I can tell the right hon. Gentleman that I have had extraordinarily positive feedback from Dublin regarding their engagement with this period of shared history and I look forward, as part of the legacy of the centenary, to moving the relationship a little further forward, with all the sensitivities that it of course contains. However, I see this very much as an opportunity and I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for raising that point.
Many of the Irish nationalist Members of this House fought in the war, which they never thought they would be doing, on behalf of the united Great Britain and Ireland, including, most famously perhaps, Willie Redmond. He has a shield in the House, but one Irish nationalist MP who died in active service who does not have a shield is Captain Esmonde. Will the Minister make sure that he gets one?
I suspect that that is a matter for Mr Speaker rather than for me, but I suspect that Mr Speaker will have noted the contribution of the hon. Gentleman. I know that the House itself is working hard to determine what it will do to mark the centenary of the great war and no doubt the hon. Gentleman will be able to reinforce his point with the appropriate authority.
I was pleased to hear the Minister say that the Government will not dictate how we should commemorate the tragedy of the first world war. I hope that, in the promotion of serious discussion on the subject, he will recall the soldiers who died in all theatres of conflict, be they German, Russian, French or British. I also hope that he will recall the significant degree of opposition to the war on both sides, in Germany and in Britain. That, too, is part of our shared history and should be commemorated and discussed.
It is rare for me to agree with the hon. Gentleman, but I agree with him on that point. I note that the Heritage Lottery Fund, which has been at the centre of all this through providing a great deal of the underpinning finance, has recognised that and been making grants accordingly. I hope that the hon. Gentleman approves of that.
I concur with the sentiments expressed about the Irish Government. Is the Minister aware that the Commonwealth War Graves Commission is working closely with the Irish Government to erect headstones in the Republic and that it has been involved in the re-siting of the wall of remembrance at Glasnevin cemetery?
Yes, I have been to Glasnevin recently. The hon. Gentleman is right to highlight that point, because it is a special place in the history of the Republic of Ireland. None of us should underestimate the enormity of the totemic things that are happening around this in Dublin right now. I see that as part of the improvement in relationships that is happening independently of the centenary. I hope that the hon. Gentleman, as a Commonwealth war graves commissioner, will see these events as part of that process.
In the context of the Irish dimension, may I point out that the Royal Irish Rifles also fought at the Somme, with massive losses? The Minister might be interested to know that the first Victoria Cross in the first world war was awarded to someone by the name of Dease, who was at Stonyhurst—the same school that I had the honour of attending—and that its first recipient in the second world war was also from Stonyhurst. Also, in relation to the second world war, I should like to pay tribute to Doug Lakey, who is in the Gallery this afternoon. He was awarded the military medal and he was with my father on the day he was killed in July 1944.
My hon. Friend will be delighted to hear that I did know that, not least because the great-nephew of Lieutenant Dease is a constituent of mine, and he has lost no opportunity to impress upon me the importance of his great uncle. My hon. Friend will also be delighted to hear that on 4 August, the first day of the commemoration, there will be an event at St Symphorien, where Lieutenant Dease is interred. His part in the conflict will certainly be commemorated appropriately, and I am delighted that my hon. Friend has brought him to the attention of the House.
I would like to tell the House what the Government are planning to do over the next four and a half years. First and foremost, and most obviously, there will be national events to capture the moment and set the tone. They will have an identifiably Commonwealth look and feel, reflecting the historical reality. We have been working with our international partners and with the devolved Administrations to that end. A centrepiece of the commemorations will be the reopening of the Imperial War museum in London next year, following the £35 million refurbishment of its first world war galleries. There will be an enduring educational legacy, funded by £5.3 million from the Department for Education and the Department for Communities and Local Government, to enable a programme based on, but not confined to, visits to the battlefields.
The Heritage Lottery Fund will provide at least £15 million, including a £6 million community project fund, to enable young people working in their communities to conserve, explore and share local heritage from the first world war, epitomised by yellowing photos of young men posing stiffly in uniform, possibly for the first and last time. Much of the public interest in the period is personal and parochial, and this will provide a non-threatening entry point to the wider story. There will also be at least £10 million in the programme of cultural events taking place as part of the centenary commemorations over the four-year period.
Work with organisations and across government will continue to generate initiatives that will find and engage people under the umbrella of the centenary partnership. I shall name-check just a few. They include: the centenary poppy partnership between the Royal British Legion and B&Q; the commemoration of great war Victoria Cross recipients at their place of birth; football matches to mark the Christmas truce; mass participation in volunteering in the Remember 100 project; street naming for the centenary to inculcate memory in the heart of our towns and cities; a British adaptation of the excellent Europeana digital archiving initiative, capturing previous memories and artefacts that would otherwise turn to dust; and the National Apprenticeship Service centenary challenge. All this has the common theme of bringing history to life for everyone in all communities, even those that might feel, right now, that this has nothing to do with them.
I am sorry that we do not have more time to debate this important subject this afternoon. Does the Minister recognise the important role that hotels played in the first world war? Many were converted into hospitals, including the Mont Dore hotel, which is now the town hall in Bournemouth. The great estates were also used in that way, including Highclere, which is now better known as Downton Abbey. It will be taking part in the commemorations next year when it will be converted into a first world war hospital for one week, thanks to the work of Lady Carnarvon.
The project that my hon. Friend describes is exactly the sort of thing that will engage people locally. We have to understand that different people will approach the events in different ways. Our overarching aim is to improve understanding of the causes, conduct and consequences of the war, but we really need to do that in ways that people will find approachable and non-threatening. The initiative that he has described will be interesting and inspiring for many, and I certainly look forward to visiting it.
I am afraid that some of our more shouty newspapers are salivating at the prospect of the Government attempting a grotesque impersonation of Basil Fawlty, in which we do not mention the war for fear of upsetting Germany. Disappointingly for those newspapers, the history is untweaked by the Government and will remain so. We are indebted to Sunder Katwala of British Future for commissioning YouGov to inform us of public attitudes to the centenary. The survey found that 77% of the public see it as an opportunity for reconciliation with former enemies. We know from comments made by Harry Patch—the “last Tommy”—in the final years of his life that he would agree with that wholeheartedly. The history stands, but the Government will of course seek reconciliation not only with the former central powers but with partners in Europe and the former empire, wherever we share a complex and nuanced history.
In the context of Germany, will my hon. Friend pay particular attention to the large number of German prisoners of war who died as a result of their wounds while imprisoned in England? Many of them were re-buried in Staffordshire in the 1960s, but there are currently no headstones to commemorate them. Will he look into whether that could be corrected?
My hon. Friend makes an interesting point. Perhaps that is something that we could usefully raise with the German Government, with whom we are of course in contact on these matters, as he would expect. There are Germans interred in the churchyard of Sutton Veny in my constituency, and their resting places are instantly recognisable by the nature of their markers. That is a positive suggestion, and I think that matter could reasonably be addressed with Germany.
Will my hon. Friend give way?
I am going to make some progress, because I am conscious that a lot of right hon. and hon. Members would like to take part in the debate.
It is worth pointing out that the centenary courts controversy. None of us should be under any illusion about that. Indeed, we should welcome it. Opinion is already stretched between those who hold that the war was a futile wasteful tragedy and those who believe it was entirely necessary, notwithstanding the cost, and even that victory was as important in 1918 as it was in 1945. I believe that most of our countrymen going to war in 1914 did so with a firm sense of “doing the right thing”. Anyone familiar with the doctrines of St Thomas Aquinas and St Augustine would have said—and I agree—that our countrymen were marching or sailing to a just war. I know my own grandfather felt that way.
Even as Foreign Secretary Sir Edward Grey was observing lamps going out across Europe that would not be re-lit in his time, the bulk of Britain’s political class, under a Liberal Prime Minister, were confident that resisting a militaristic aggressor in the way proposed satisfied the moral preconditions laid out for a just war. I doubt whether those who stood here in 1914 deserve their reputation as the willing consigners of other men’s sons to hideous death. People should read Hansard for 3 August 1914 and touch those politicians’ agony; they should compare the quality of that pre-conflict debate to ours on Syria in August this year; and they should count off the shields around this Chamber and the names of Members of this House and their sons inscribed in Westminster Hall.
Few of our predecessors in the long expectant summer of 1914 foresaw the consequences or the terrible cost, but finally, after military victory, came political failure—a lesson for all of us who have the privilege and responsibility of sitting here.
I am grateful to the many Members on both sides of the House who have contributed to our preparations and continue to do so. I hope we have set a framework for a fitting centenary—commemoratively, educationally and culturally—that will, with the most profound respect, mark the seminal moment in our modern history for the benefit of all parts of the community, and particularly for the custodians of the legacy: our young people.
It is a pleasure to follow the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, the hon. Member for South West Wiltshire (Dr Murrison), and of course I join him in paying tribute to Warrant Officer Ian Fisher from 3rd Battalion the Mercian Regiment, who tragically lost his life in Afghanistan. It is the responsibility of all of us to ensure that his sacrifice is never forgotten.
It is an honour to open this debate on behalf of the Opposition, and it is heartening to know that there is such widespread interest across the House in the 100th anniversary commemoration of world war one. I look forward to what I know will be a good debate and to the eloquent and no doubt poignant contributions from Members of all parties. It is fitting that we will hear from Members representing every corner of the United Kingdom, expressing their interest in plans for the centenary commemorations and illustrating the huge impact that world war one had on the whole of Britain. Our commemorations here will also be part of what will be a truly global event, which will include contributions from our friends in the Commonwealth and events that are taking place around the world.
Let me take the opportunity at the outset to pay tribute to the Minister for the calm, measured and dedicated way in which he has prepared for the centenary commemorations. We look forward to continuing to work closely with him, with the Government and with all in this House to ensure that world war one is commemorated in a fitting manner.
The Minister has outlined some of the Government’s plans to commemorate the centenary anniversary next year. Aside from the multitude of events that will take place up and down the country, the Government have pledged over £50 million, which will be put towards the centenary anniversary commemorations. The plans include a refurbishment of the world war one galleries at the Imperial War museum; a nationwide scheme that will allow school students from across the country to visit world war one battlefields; community projects funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund and designed to educate young people to conserve, explore and share local heritage of world war one; and a grant from the national heritage memorial fund to support HMS Caroline in Belfast—the last surviving warship from the world war one fleet. We support those plans and will work with the Government to ensure their smooth delivery.
Additionally, a huge number of other organisations are planning their contributions to the commemoration. There are too many to mention by name, but I would like briefly to mention, of course, the First World War Centenary Partnership, led by the Imperial War museum, which will present a programme of cultural events and activities to commemorate the centenary. Also as part of the commemorations, the BBC has commissioned over 1,000 programmes across various platforms, helping to inform and educate the public about the events and the impact of world war one. The Woodland Trust will launch a project in May 2014 to commemorate British and Commonwealth great war heroes through the simple, yet poignant act of planting a tree. I look forward to hearing from Members about how the commemoration will be marked in their constituencies.
As we commemorate the centenary of world war one, there will be those who say we should seek to understand the fundamental question of why Britain went to war in the first instance. A recent poll for British Future asked how much people knew about the war. Its polling showed that 66% of people knew that world war one began in 1914, that 47% knew that the war was in part sparked by the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and that 9% knew that Herbert Asquith was the British Prime Minister at the start of the war.
What polling will not capture, however, is the extent to which the public understand the original motivations for the war. A student of history might conclude that, aside from the strategic rationale, Britain’s motives for entering world war one demonstrated a conscientious effort to uphold international law and a desire to defend smaller, more vulnerable nations. There will be those who will seek to have this informed debate, but there should be no doubt about the profound impact of this war.
Many people may know that between 1914 and 1918, 1.2 million volunteers came from around the globe to serve alongside the allies, answering the call of “Your Empire Needs You”. Many people appreciate the scale of the loss of life that was to follow, and many people know something of the 750,000 British soldiers who died or the 1.5 million soldiers who returned home injured. They may have heard something of the 20,000 British soldiers who were killed on the first day of the Somme or they may recall Wilfred Owen’s imagery of choking soldiers drowning in a sea of chlorine gas. They will also understand that sacrifice on this scale must always be remembered—it must always be commemorated.
It is important to remember world war one for more than just the industrialisation of death that it brought with it. The war paved the way for numerous world events, including, of course, the outbreak of the second world war—events that have ultimately shaped the world we live in today. The war had a profound impact on Britain too, and many countries in the Commonwealth sought independence after it ended. Britain lost its place as the world’s largest investor, and the role of women changed for ever. By 1931, 50% of women remained single, and 35% never married while of childbearing age.
The other great social change that came from world war one involved voting. Before the war, neither working men nor women had votes. The sacrifice of men from all classes, combined with the fact that women were taking on jobs that had previously been seen as a male preserve and with the campaigning of the suffragists and suffragettes, compelled politicians to change the position.
In the light of that, Labour Members consider it essential for us to ensure that the right tone is struck when we are remembering world war one. I believe that we are all clear about the fact that this is not a celebration, but a commemoration. War should never be celebrated; instead, it should be remembered, and we should learn from it. Getting the tone right is therefore imperative. We agree with the Government that there should be no flag-waving, that there should be an absolute right to remember those whose opinions differed, and that there should be no rigid Government narrative. It is right for us to give people the facts, and then to let them conduct their own analyses and form their own judgments.
However, it is important that, as a country, we do not shy away from addressing some of the war’s complications. There is a strong public perception of what it was like, formed partly by war poets and reinforced by the 1960s production of “Oh! What a Lovely War” and television programmes such as “Blackadder Goes Forth”. Those cultural representations stand as powerful and eloquent testimonies to the savagery of world war one, but if they are all that we know of the war, they are poor history.
Those who have been schooled in stories of the “lost generation” may be surprised to learn that the fatality rate in the British forces overall was 12%. That is a terrible figure—and some communities were affected much worse than others—but the figure is not as high as people tend to imagine. Nor are public impressions of daily life during the war always accurate. Blackadder lived for years in a dugout, but in reality infantry battalions spent an average of about one week of every month in the trenches. There were notable exceptions, but they do not disprove the generality of soldiers’ experiences.
I am glad that my hon. Friend has mentioned “Blackadder”, which, although obviously very amusing, constitutes something of a misrepresentation of events during world war one. One example is the idea that senior officers were not part of the action. In fact, nearly 70 generals and major-generals died in action on the western front and in other conflicts.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that important intervention. Let me be clear: I think that “Blackadder” is an excellent programme. It is very funny, and Members in all parts of the House will remember the very moving scene at the end of the series in which Blackadder and others advance into no man’s land. That certainly serves as a powerful testimony to the savagery of world war one. However, my hon. Friend is right to point out that it is not a strictly historical account. I think that the commemorations that will begin next year will give us an opportunity to revisit some of the history, to look carefully at the detail, and, perhaps, to promote a better factual understanding of it.
We believe that, in order to ensure that world war one is remembered and commemorated appropriately and its complications are addressed, those involved in the centenary events should be mindful that—as the Minister rightly pointed out—there will be debates about the history. Some will say that we should go further than the western front. Some of the bloodiest battles may have been fought in western Europe, but battles fought in other parts of the world are also important in the overall context of the war, and it is therefore right for us to recognise the huge contribution of British Empire forces from around the globe.
Some will say that we should address the gap between the “pointless futility” narrative and what soldiers actually believed that they were fighting for, both during and after the war. Today our forces in Afghanistan rightly take pride in the job that they do and the bonds of service that they form, and the same applied to those who fought in world war one. During those years, soldiers fought for much. They fought because of a belief that their country was threatened, but ultimately, when it came down to it, they fought for their regiments, and for the man standing next to them in the trench. If we want to pay proper tribute to the war dead—as I know that we do—and also to those who came through the war, we should seek to remember that.
Some will say—and, as the Minister said, there are clearly sensitivities in this respect—that we should recognise that the British military, along with their allies, defeated Germany militarily in the war, with the final period marking one of the most effective in the history of the British Army. For many decades, historians have pointed to military tactics developing and improving between 1914 and 1918, which eventually enabled the allies to break out from the stalemate of the trenches. Although that is little consolation to those who lost ancestors in the war’s early years, it does explain why there was so much public grief at Haig’s funeral in 1928 from the veterans who had served under his command, surprising though that is to us now. It is important that we get this right and we will work with the Government to ensure that we do so.
Around the country, I have been privileged to meet scores of people and I have seen at first hand the coming together of people and communities. I have seen the passion and the interest that the commemoration has already invoked. In my constituency of Barnsley Central I have been struck by the amount of enthusiasm for the commemorations, led by individuals such as Aubrey Martin-Wells and Goff Griffiths from the central branch of the Royal British Legion. I am sure other Members will echo similar sentiments from their constituencies. I urge Members from across the House and from around the country to continue to encourage and spark debate in their own constituencies, to ensure that their communities come together to commemorate the war.
In my constituency, it is the bravery of the Barnsley Pals who formed the 13th and 14th Battalions of the York and Lancaster Regiment that will be remembered. Both Barnsley Pals battalions were part of the attack on Serre on the first day of the Somme campaign. On that one day, 1 July 1916, the 1st Barnsley Pals lost 275 men, while the 2nd lost 270. It is in such events that the true impact of world war one can be understood—when we think of the countless husbands, fathers, brothers and sons who never came home, and the unassuageable loss suffered by those families and their communities.
My hon. Friend rightly comments on the fathers, husbands, brothers and sons who did not come home, but there were also women who did not come home—women who worked in dressing stations in hospitals that were shelled and women who worked in armaments factories in the UK. We must recognise that a lot of women also lost their lives fighting to ensure victory in the war.
I am very grateful to my hon. Friend for her intervention, because she is absolutely right to highlight the incredibly important role women played in this conflict. That is precisely why we must work together to seek to get the tone of these commemorations right next year—that we come together as a House to reflect and commemorate the broader social change of which she speaks.
In conclusion, there is no doubt that the importance of world war one cannot be counted in terms just of battlefield casualties or military innovation, as my hon. Friend has very eloquently illustrated. By dint of its influence and its timing, and the wider social change it brought about, it is the single most significant event of the 20th century. As such, it is something we must commemorate, we must learn from and we must educate our children about, but above all we must remember, because it is only through remembering that we will truly understand the impact that world war one has had on British society and, in so doing, understand what it means to be British.
All Members will have heard the phrase, “Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori”, often referred to as “the old lie”. Well, it is not glorious to die for your country, but it is now comforting to know that where once there were landscapes of war, there are now landscapes of peace.
With the passing of Florence Green, from King’s Lynn in Norfolk, who served as a mess steward at RAF bases in Marham and Narborough, and who died in February 2012, and with the passing of the world’s last known combat veteran of world war one, Briton Claude Choules, who died in Australia aged 110 in May 2011, and, of course, with the passing of the final three world war one veterans—Bill Stone, Henry Allingham and Harry Patch—who all died in 2009, world war one is no longer a war of memory: it is now a war of history. It is our solemn responsibility to ensure that we remember and honour those men and women who have laid down their lives for our country, and that is what we will do.
Several hon. Members
Order. Before I call hon. Members from the Back Benches, I have to tell the House that in order to give an opportunity to the very large number of Members who wish to speak this afternoon I have had to impose a time limit of six minutes on speeches. Obviously, I will not impose that limit on the first hon. Member to speak, but I know that he will adhere approximately to that length of time. I call Keith Simpson.
Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker. May I first congratulate both Front Benchers on their moving and informative speeches? We are all the sons and daughters of history. I am conscious of the fact that 99 years ago today, on 7 November 1914, the old British Army with the Territorials was dying, literally, in the area of Ypres in Belgium. Both my grandfathers were there—both survived—one in the Royal Flying Corps and one who had volunteered in August 1914 because he could drive, and then found himself in the Army Service Corps. As an old man, he told me that he had not expected to be toting a rifle and bayonet with the infantry, but such was the desperation of the defence that they were needed.
My generation is the lucky generation. I know I do not look it, but I am 64, and I am of the generation that missed a major war. My grandfathers fought in the first world war, and my father and uncles fought in the second world war. I lived through the cold war. However, a younger generation—my son and his friends—might ask why we are commemorating the first world war when we should perhaps be commemorating the revolutionary and Napoleonic wars, which had just as major an impact on history. I suggest that the reason is not least because of the scale of the suffering and involvement, but also because we have an empathy towards the people involved and we can understand them far more. A very literate group of men and women fought, and we have images of them. In addition, the war is still controversial today.
I have to declare an interest, as I have written books about the British Army and the first world war. Along with the hon. Member for North Durham (Mr Jones), who is about to resume his place, I am a parliamentary commissioner on the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. I am also a member of the Prime Minister’s advisory board on commemorating the first world war, along with the right hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Mr Donaldson). What I briefly wish to talk about relates to the fact that, along with Lord Wallace of Saltaire, I am the joint chairman of the parliamentary committee looking at commemorating the first world war.
Why should Parliament commemorate the first world war? It is because there is a political element, a commemorative element, a learning and knowledge element and a personal element. The political one is that to engage young people today, we need to get them to think about the fact that big political issues were being debated before and during the first world war. Let us be under no illusion: Britain was not a peaceful, pastoral, “Downton Abbey” kind of place in the spring of 1914. We were nearly faced with a civil war in Ireland, there were mass industrial disputes and there were major social problems of one kind or another. In some respects, the war prevented domestic violence on a large scale.
We also have to recognise that Parliament did count. Of course, the Prime Minister did not have to come to Parliament to get a vote in support of his declaring war, but he was conscious of taking the temperature. The legislation that Parliament passed during the first world war, some of it pre-dating the war, is still with us today. Examples of that include the setting up of the intelligence and security aspects of British government, and legislation on licensing. The debates on conscription broke the old Liberal party, and debates took place here on whether or not we should seek a negotiated peace. Those things are not just a walk down memory lane; if we face young people today with all that, they will understand the importance of it. That is one thing that the advisory committee is hoping to get Parliament, and, in particular, the Youth Parliament, involved with.
Secondly, let me deal with the commemorative aspects. The hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) made the point that there was no badge here for one former MP who died—
I am sorry. I will make sure that the officials in Parliament take note of that.
That is an important aspect, because large numbers of MPs and peers, and their children, were killed or badly wounded in the first world war and we commemorate them. Let us remember that both Asquith and Bonar Law, the leaders of the two major parties, lost sons in the first world war. It was not an academic war for them. Large numbers of staff served in the first world war. One of the waiters in the House of Commons Dining Room was killed in action in 1917. The war came home literally to this place.
As for the question of learning and knowledge, it is important that we will provide, via websites and the internet, a lot of information about Parliament and the memorials in Parliament that will be available to the public. We will link that to the project on lives of people in the first world war that is being established by the Imperial War museum.
More than anything else, this all has a personal aspect. One thing that my noble Friend Lord Wallace of Saltaire has done in the House of Lords, which is something that we will do in the House of Commons, is to send a questionnaire to every peer and peeress asking what their families did during the first world war. He has received some fascinating replies. People had relatives who served not only in the British armed forces, as one might expect, or on the support side, but in the Commonwealth armed forces and the Indian army. He has received replies from people whose relatives fought on both sides: the father’s side of the family in the British Army, and the mother’s side in the Austro-Hungarian or German army. I would like to think that we would be able to get such information from colleagues in this place and from the staff, too. We would be able to put that into the public domain to contribute to the commemoration.
We must also consider the fact that we will not stop in 2018 with the commemoration of 1918. The first world war did not end there; its legacy continued. There were big debates in this House about how we were going to honour the dead. The establishment of the Imperial War Graves Commission in 1917 was controversial. Up until then, bodies had been brought home, so the decision to bury the dead where they had fallen was controversial. Political upheaval followed the end of the first world war. Ex-soldiers from Irish regiments became members of the IRA or, on the other side, of the auxiliary division of the Royal Irish Constabulary. There was a civil war there.
There was also the disillusionment that grew in the 1920s and 1930s, and the legacy of pacifism and appeasement that affected minorities in the Labour, Liberal and Conservative parties. It is difficult for us now to think that while Harold Macmillan, whom I remember meeting in 1978 as a very old but fully alert man, was the British Prime Minister in 1963, which is well within my lifetime, his most moving experience was serving in the first world war. He tended to judge men and women by how they had acted and behaved in that war.
I hope that what we are doing, with the help of Members, to get Parliament to consider how to commemorate the first world war will not only interest us, but involve the wider public and young people, which is one of our greatest aims. I suspect that all those men and women who were lucky enough to survive the war and live on would approve of what we are trying to do and of the fact that we are going to consider the matter in a non-prescriptive way. Instead, to use that old expression, we will let a thousand flowers bloom and have a proper debate.
Today I want to remember the 11th Battalion East Lancashire Regiment, universally known as the Accrington Pals. The battalion’s horrific losses stand as a reminder of the gratuitous barbarity of the warfare, particularly trench warfare, during the first world war. The history of the battalion is as known now as it was in the years of suffering that followed. The tragic waste of human potential during the first world war was quite simply shocking. Young men died in horrific and frightening circumstances. Modern cinematic productions allow us occasionally to glimpse that horror and, each and every time, any thought of this being a reality is frightening to me.
Many people in Hyndburn signed up not to the Pals, but to other regiments. I was fortunate enough to find a piece of information from Kew about my great-grandfather’s record. He served in the Royal Ambulance Medical Corps. While I knew him before he died, I recall my grandfather occasionally speaking of his father’s time on the front line, carrying off young men who had lost body parts and whose bodies had been mutilated by shells, mines and bullets—some alive, some dying, many dead and many screaming out as they died. That my great-grandfather rarely spoke of those horrors, paralysed by his fearful memories, is testament to the torturous experiences many of the combatants faced. I am grateful to the Hyndburn historians Walter Holmes, who worked as an apprentice alongside my grandfather, and the late Bill Turner, for their lifelong dedication to the history of the regiment and the fallen soldiers, and personally for helping me find my great-grandfather’s limited Army record.
There were, of course, many Pals regiments. My hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley Central (Dan Jarvis) has talked about the Barnsley Pals. I applaud the successful work of my right hon. Friend the Member for Chorley (Mr Hoyle) in building a monument to be proud of and a museum in Chorley. A large number of memorials celebrate the sacrifices of the Pals regiments in the borough.
The particular tragedy of the Pals regiments is that their members were all friends and family from the same area, formed as a result of Lord Kitchener’s desire to boost morale through the creation of a voluntary army and the belief that people would be more willing to sign up if they were able to fight alongside their community. Hundreds of people from Accrington and surrounding towns joined up together to defend this great nation.
I am listening to the hon. Gentleman with interest. Is he aware of the magnificent memorial at the misleadingly named Sheffield memorial park in Serre on the Somme? The Accrington brick memorial pays a very good tribute to that regiment.
I am well aware of it, and with the help of Cath Holmes, one of the granddaughters of someone who fought in the war, I helped to get a sign in Serre pointing the way for relatives to the cemeteries where soldiers from Accrington and other places in the borough are buried. We need to make more of that memorial.
The Pals regiments were incredibly popular and, by 1914, 50 towns had them. The Accrington Pals honoured by playwright Peter Whelan remind us of the devastating impact of the first world war. The great sadness is the colossal waste of human life. In their very first assault during the battle for Serre on the first day of the Somme, 584 of 720 Pals were killed, wounded or declared missing. The fighting started at 7.20 am and by 8 am, just 40 minutes later, a generation of young men from in and around Accrington had laid down their life or had it altered for ever. What Lord Kitchener did not foresee when designing a policy intended to boost morale was that if the regiment suffered substantial losses, the whole community would be devastated.
Percy Holmes, the brother of one of the Pals who fought that day, recalled:
“I remember when the news came through to Accrington that the Pals had been wiped out. I don’t think there was a street in Accrington and district that didn’t have their blinds drawn and the bell at Christ Church tolled all the day.”
The reason why the Pals are so important, and why they must not be forgotten, is that they were identifiably part of the community. Helped by Hyndburn council, the Accrington Pals centenary commemoration group has a programme of civic, cultural, religious, musical and even horticultural themes across the next few years that will pay tribute to the Pals, including concerts, exhibitions, films, visits to Serre to lay wreaths, and the planting of poppies. I hope that Members will reflect for a moment on those 40 minutes of madness when they are able to sample the Accrington Pals ale in Strangers bar next year.
Recently, I have worked with a constituent, Cath Holmes, on getting signs put up and trying to get people to go and see the cemeteries at Serre and the other great sites. It seems like only a little thing, but to have a plain sign put up in a field in France is important for the people of Accrington and the wider area, because it is a symbol of their past and it commemorates those who gave their lives.
Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker, and belated congratulations on your elevation.
As part of the commemoration, recollection and thinking about history that we are all going to talk about this afternoon in the Chamber, I want to speak about the Sikh contribution in the great war. I know that much has been made of the contribution of all Commonwealth forces, but the Sikh contribution is sometimes overlooked. I will also refer to the contribution of Wolverhampton. It would be remiss of me not to do so. If I cannot do this as a Sikh Member of Parliament for Wolverhampton South West, I am not entirely sure what my purpose is in this place.
At the start of the war, Sikhs made up a tiny percentage of an undivided India, yet they were contributing 22% of the British Indian army. More than 138,000 Indian troops fought in Belgium and France and over a quarter of these would, unfortunately, become casualties. After the bloody battle of Neuve Chapelle in 1915, the Sikh regiments had lost nearly 80% of their men, with three regiments standing at just 16% of their original complement. The valour and courage of Sikh soldiers was rightly commended by British generals. General Sir Frank Messery, commenting on the Sikh contribution in both world wars, noted that the only physical protection that Sikhs had was their turban—a symbol of our faith.
General Sir James Wilcox, the Commander of the Indian Corps, stated that the Sikh regiments responded with only
“their valour, their rifles and two machine guns per battalion”
to the heavy German bombardment of mortars, hand grenades and high explosive shells.
What intrigues many is what would motivate these men to fight in a war thousands of miles away, for a cause that did not seem too relevant to them. For some it may have been the financial reward, but for many it was their duty to bring honour to their clan by fighting bravely like warriors. Perhaps their motivation is best captured by Indar Singh, a Sikh soldier fighting on the Somme in September 1916, who wrote home:
“It is quite impossible that I should return alive. Don’t be grieved at my death, because I shall die arms in hand, wearing the warrior’s clothes. This is the most happy death that anyone can die.”
Those are strong words and, in the modern context, perhaps difficult to understand, but when we think of that young man, thousands of miles away from home, they show something of his psyche and his values and beliefs.
More than 4 million men and women from British colonies volunteered in the first and second world wars. For many Members here, I know this is a matter of great pride, and indeed it is for me personally. My own maternal great-grandfather, Jawala Singh Khela, fought in the still-relevant theatre of Basra during the great war.
I am proud, too, of the contribution that was made to the war effort by the town, as it was then, of Wolverhampton. At the outbreak of war in 1914, many men enthusiastically flocked to the town hall to sign up, eager to help the national effort in a war they believed would be “over by Christmas”. As a bustling industrial town, Wolverhampton was ready to contribute to the provision of resources for the front line. Villiers Engineering Company produced ammunition, and Guy Motors became the largest manufacturer of firing mechanisms for depth charges in the country. H. M. Hobson Ltd manufactured carburettors for engines, and the Sunbeam Motor Car Company produced staff cars and commercial vehicles for the military, ambulances for the Red Cross and engines for aircraft and high-speed naval craft. It is ironic that the Villiers Engineering Company and its Sunbeam motor manufacturing unit, which was on Upper Villiers street, is now a Sikh temple, of which I am a trustee.
Wolverhampton showed its proud, hospitable credentials in the great war by providing accommodation for displaced Belgian refugees. In September 1914, the local refugee committee and Roman Catholics in the area offered to accommodate 25 refugees, and the offer was accepted by the local authority. The following month, two hostels were established in Finchfield and Pennfields, and by March 1915 a further three hostels had been set up.
Wolverhampton is noted for its generosity. I am proud to represent a city that displays an outward-looking and accommodating attitude to those most in need. I am proud not only of our city’s industrial contribution, but of its many war heroes. I will highlight one individual in particular. Douglas Morris Harris was a wireless telegrapher on board an Italian drifter, the Floandi, which was being used to blockade the port of Kotor and prevent the Austrian navy from accessing the Adriatic sea. In May 1917 the drifter was attacked by the Austrians, but Harris remained dutifully at his post and unfortunately lost his life at the age of just 19. For his bravery he was awarded one of Italy’s highest honours, and his bust still stands proudly in the grounds of St Peter’s church in Wolverhampton, adjacent to the cenotaph, which I have the pleasure of being able to see from my constituency office window.
It was no surprise that when the war came to an end in 1918 the people of Wolverhampton greeted the news with relief, happiness and thanksgiving, as well as sorrow and reflection on what, and indeed who, had been lost. It was certainly a sorrowful time for the Belgian refugee Peter van Cleven, whose son had been killed on the battlefield just a few days before the war ended. In 1919 the local authority established a war memorial committee to create a roll of remembrance to honour over 1,700 men from Wolverhampton who left home to fight but never returned.
On Sunday I will be standing at the cenotaph at St Peter’s church, shoulder to shoulder with veterans of previous conflicts, to honour the gallantry, bravery and sacrifice of all those who have laid down their lives so that we can enjoy our freedom. I will remember poignantly the contribution of Sikh regiments and the esteem in which they were held by British generals, and I will reflect on the heroic sacrifices of the city of Wolverhampton, both on the home front and the front line. The coming weekend will be a great time for reflection across our nation. I hope that we will never neglect our duties in remembering the fallen.
I think that we all agree that the first world war was a truly terrible conflict. There can be no doubting the bravery of the millions who fought for their country, many of whom lost their lives—nearly 1 million soldiers from the British Army and over 700,000 from the British isles. But I believe that we should also acknowledge the conscientious objectors to the war. They, too, were people of courage who stood up for what they believed in and experienced enormous public opprobrium as a result. They also experienced huge personal hardship and discrimination after the war ended.
Caerphilly has a two-fold distinction in that respect. First, two of its MPs, Morgan Jones and Ness Edwards, were conscientious objectors. Ness was the Member of Parliament from 1939 until 1968 and served as Postmaster General in the 1951 Labour Government. He was preceded by Morgan Jones, who served as an Education Minister in the Labour Governments of 1924 and 1929. Secondly, Morgan Jones was the first conscientious objector to be elected to the House of Commons—he was elected in a by-election in August 1921—and it is about him that I would like to say a few words this afternoon.
Morgan Jones was born in May 1895 in Gelligaer in the Rhymney valley. He came from a modest background, his father being a coal miner. He left the valley to receive an education at Reading university but returned to become a local councillor. He was elected as a socialist and a member of the Independent Labour party. He was a man of principle, courage and conviction. He did what he thought was right and held firmly to his principles throughout his life.
From the moment Britain entered the great war in August 1914, Morgan Jones was a vocal opponent of the war. Like many in the ILP, he believed that the war was unjustified and unnecessary, a nationalist conflict that set worker against worker. He therefore opposed the war as a socialist and as an internationalist. But he also adopted a Christian pacifist position and declared his opposition to all forms of warfare, believing that the destruction of human life should not be a means of solving international disputes. His unequivocal views led him quickly to join the No Conscription Fellowship, and he was appointed to its national committee in 1914.
In the early part of the war, until 1916, the British Army consisted entirely of volunteers, and south Wales was a particularly important recruiting ground. However, it soon became clear that relying on volunteers was not enough, so the Government introduced the Military Service Act 1916 and conscription. Under the Act, local tribunals were established to determine cases of exemption for men who could best contribute to the war by continuing in their civil roles. One of the effects of the Act was to create two kinds of conscientious objector. The absolutists were those who adopted a maximalist position of being opposed to the war but also refusing to accept any kind of alternative work. The other type of conscientious objector was the alternativist. These individuals were wholly opposed to the war but prepared nevertheless to accept some form of alternative employment, mostly in transport or mining. Morgan Jones was one of those conscientious objectors, and he eventually came to accept membership of this voluntary scheme.
Early in 1916, Morgan Jones received his call-up papers. At about the same time, Gelligaer urban district council, of which he was a member, was informed—
My hon. Friend is making a very good speech that shows how we are going to look at all aspects of the first world war in the coming years. Is he aware that some 7,000 conscientious objectors went to the front and some were killed as a result of doing stretcher-bearing and ambulance work?
Yes indeed. Those who became stretcher-bearers were probably at the greatest risk of all those in the armed forces, and the casualties among them were particularly high.
Morgan Jones was a member of Gelligaer urban district council. His own council, at a full meeting in February 1916, voted by 10 votes to eight to empower the chairman and the clerk to convene a special meeting wherever necessary to take appropriate action to consider the cases of those who were making conscientious objections. Such a meeting was convened in his case, but it was inquorate, and it seems very likely that the Labour members absented themselves to make it so. Nevertheless, the local tribunal was eventually convened and Morgan Jones appeared before it to put his case.
Interestingly enough—I have done some research on this matter—the minutes of Gelligaer urban district council have mysteriously disappeared from the Glamorgan record office, as have the minutes of the local tribunal, and nobody seems to know why. However, we know from the local press that when the tribunal was convened, Morgan Jones put a robust case, declaring himself a socialist and someone who was
“resolutely opposed to all warfare”.
He argued that the war was the result of wrongheaded diplomacy. Predictably, however, the local tribunal concluded that he would not be excluded from military service. He therefore appealed to the tribunal in Cardiff, but his appeal fell. At the same time, action was being taken against the No Conscription Fellowship, and he was found guilty in that regard as well.
In essence, after all was said and done, Morgan Jones went to trial and went to prison, and, as a consequence, suffered a great deal of physical and mental hardship. However, at the end of the war, when he was eventually released, an opportunity arose for him to stand for election to this Parliament in 1921. He was successfully elected and, as a result, made his true imprint on history by being the first conscientious objector to be elected to this House.
I congratulate my hon. and gallant Friend the Minister not only on the measured speech that he gave today but on all the hard work he has done over a long period as the Prime Minister’s special envoy to ensure that this country gets this right. I also congratulate the hon. and gallant Member for Barnsley Central (Dan Jarvis) on his speech. They both got it right. This is not a celebration; it is a commemoration. The language is therefore very important, and we are off to a good start. This debate is also about the relevance today of what happened 100 years ago. It was, of course, the last time that cavalry went into a major battle. Those four years saw the emergence of tanks and aircraft, so there was a complete change.
What happened then is relevant to what followed. The Chavasse rehabilitation centre in Colchester is named after Captain Noel Godfrey Chavasse, VC and Bar and recipient of the military cross, who died aged 32. He was the twin son of the Bishop of Liverpool. The battle of Guillemont saw acts of heroism by Captain Chavasse, the only man to be awarded the Victoria Cross twice during the first world war. In 1916, Chavasse was hit by shell splinters while rescuing men in no man’s land. He performed similar heroics in the offensive at Passchendaele, gaining his second VC to become the most highly decorated British serviceman in the war. Sadly, he died of his wounds in 1917. The rehabilitation centre, which opened two or three years ago at the Colchester garrison, is funded by Help for Heroes and the Royal British Legion.
My interest in the great war—it only became known as the first world war in 1939—started when, as a 14-year-old scout on my first class hike, I was required to do a task on a topic and I chose war memorials. As I went around the villages on the Essex-Suffolk border, the sheer numbers of those who died between 1914 and 1918—or was it between 1914 and 1919?—quickly dawned on me. The question of why some war memorials have different dates has to be explained. Why is it that in certain areas the war ended in a different year?
All the memorials referred to the men, never the women, of a particular village or town. I have only ever seen one memorial mentioning women from the first world war and that was in Hamilton, Ontario in Canada. That needs to be addressed.
The hon. Gentleman is delivering a very interesting speech. He has mentioned the number of young men and, indeed, women from some of the villages who were struck down during the great war. In my constituency, Northlew is in the tragic position of having proportionately suffered the most casualties of any community in the country. To commemorate the great war, poppies will be planted all the way from Northlew to the nearest town of Okehampton, which is seven miles away. Will the hon. Gentleman join me in saluting all the men and women in local communities throughout the country who will do so much to make sure that those who died in the great war are not forgotten?
I endorse the hon. Gentleman’s words. I think he has read my mind, because I was going to go on to say that, while this is a national and international event, it is what happens in our local communities that is important in terms of bringing it home to today’s generation.
The BBC’s world war one centenary season will be the biggest and most ambitious pan-BBC season ever undertaken. There will be four years of programming and events spanning 2014 to 2018, more than 130 specially commissioned programmes and about 2,500 hours of programming.
Others also need to be praised. The Imperial War museum has already done a fantastic amount of research. It is asking people around the country to search in the attic for diaries, memorabilia and artefacts that belonged to their granddad, great-granddad or great-granny. In the past week, I have been advised of a constituent who has in his loft a wing mirror from an Army vehicle that was situated less than a mile from the front line somewhere in France. A German sniper took out the wing mirror and, significantly, the driver of the vehicle was a woman. We need to recognise such memorabilia and stories.
Returning to the local theme raised by the hon. Member for Central Devon (Mel Stride), the War Memorials Trust has said:
“As we approach Remembrance Sunday we are all aware that next year the nation will mark the centenary of the start of World War I. The following five years will see ceremonies remembering significant moments of that conflict. War memorials will play a central role.
Yet, apart from Remembrance Sunday, how often do we look at our local war memorials? When was the last time you stopped and read those names, or went further and looked at the condition of the memorial?”
“Simple steps, taken by you and members of your community, can make a significant difference in ensuring our local war memorials are preserved. It is vital we act to stop names and inscriptions fading and disappearing, prevent deterioration due to a lack of maintenance and deter those who contemplate vandalism and theft.”
In my town, we have an avenue of remembrance, where trees were planted in the 1930s that name individuals from Colchester who lost their lives. In the 1st Colchester scout headquarters, there is a stone memorial to the boy scouts who went into the Army from the 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th and 6th Colchester troops and lost their lives. It is such things that localise the war.
What about the blessed or thankful villages, of which there are 32 in England and Wales, but sadly none in Northern Ireland or Scotland, where not a single person lost their lives? There is just one in Essex, the village of Strethall. Today, it has a population of 26. It is arguably the smallest parish in Essex, and possibly in the whole country.
To conclude, the Government’s project will see thousands of schoolchildren visiting the first world war battlefields to ensure that the bravery and suffering of the fallen is not forgotten. Those youngsters will be the great-great-grandchildren of those who lost their lives in the great war, the first world war.
John Morris said that all history is local. If ever we should respect that saying, it is during the commemoration of the great war.
Last weekend, I was asked by Andrew Hillier and David Swidenbank to visit my local museum in Porthcawl because it is facing closure. They showed me around rooms full of uniforms and artefacts that they had collected in preparation for the commemoration of the war. Sadly, the local council is facing £36 million of cuts over the next two years. There will be cuts to school transport and other essential services. Unfortunately, the museum also faces closure. I hope that the Heritage Lottery Fund will come to the rescue and that that tragic loss to the community of Porthcawl and the history of south Wales will be avoided.
The other reason I visited the museum was that Ceri Joseph, who was taking a history walk that weekend, had often been in touch with me. My inbox is full of communications from Ceri, who has a passion for history that is reminiscent of an amateur detective. I have talked to her over many years about the names on the Porthcawl war memorial. She has spent months and years researching the stories and uncovering who the people on the war memorial were. In the words of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, she has brought them “in from the cold”. Some of them were local and some had relatives who lived locally. It is not necessarily just local people who are named on war memorials, because anybody could put a name forward. Some people appear on several war memorials. The names of some local people who died do not appear at all.
What the hon. Lady is describing strikes a chord with the work that is being done by my constituent Richard Broadhead to research the lost dead of the first world war. About 60 men from Wiltshire and no doubt many from south Wales died shortly after the end of the first world war of wounds and other causes associated with the war, but are not commemorated on war memorials or on Commonwealth War Graves Commission headstones. That is something we ought to correct.
I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman has seen the information that has been sent out by the war heritage all-party parliamentary group this week, which identifies where there are war graves in our constituencies, but I have found it very moving and extremely helpful. I was grateful to be able to pass that information on to my local history society. The museum intends to do a lot of work with schools, present exhibitions around the town, and put together a world war one trench so that people can get some idea of what local people and volunteers experienced.
Ceri also helped me personally with my family history. I have lived all my life with two faded photographs of Albert Edward Ironside, my grandfather. Apart from a small pocket diary written during active service in France and Belgium, I have his “Soldiers’ Small Book”, the two photographs, his will, and the King George memorial penny that was sent to the families of those who served and died on the front line. My grandfather was a member of the Royal Engineers and responsible for providing signals communication. Ceri and her husband plan to visit all the graves of those from Porthcawl who died, and they have generously offered also to visit my grandfather’s grave. I, too, have visited that grave, mainly because I wanted to take my son and so that my grandfather would somehow know that his life had carried on with four grandchildren and, to date, eight great-grandchildren and nine great-great-grandchildren—none of them mine so far.
The first world war was declared on 4 August 1914. My grandfather left his wife and son—my father, then aged 18 months—and went to Ireland in preparation for the war as part of the British Expeditionary Force. On Thursday 13 August he embarked on the SS Matheson, and arrived in Le Havre on 14 August. The next diary entries for the next few days record lots of rain and a unique experience of the first train journeys to the front:
“Station platforms were all crowded with people to see us go by. We got chocolate and cigarettes in galore and splendid reception.”
On 23 August he records:
“We rested for the day. The war commenced around here at 12 o’clock, the firing was terrible to stand all day and all night. We are about 2 miles from the firing line. Saw 2 German aeroplanes above our head.”
This was the start of the first battle of Mons, and in the next few days the British Army was in retreat. He records:
“Passed through Mons at Bavay stayed at Wwaso for a rest, we were exposed to shell fire for 3 hours before we retired. The shells fell in the town as we were leaving it. We had to leave everything behind us, cables and communications lines as we could not pick them up on account of the closeness of the Germans. We were lucky to get away at all.”
Then the diary jumps.
Most people retreated from the battle of Mons, but two battalions did not—the Norfolks and the Cheshires. They were surrounded and they fought to the last. Even the commanding officer was killed.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that moving information.
It is less well known that the soldiers who fled lived without food and water, their boots filling with blood from bloated feet. When they arrived at Monthyon, my grandfather records that they
“stayed there for the night properly knocked out both horses and men. We found this place upside down with the people, their houses its terrible to see these poor people on the road in a large cart and they don’t know where to go for safety. It’s heartbreaking to see them.”
We need to remember all those civilians who suffered horrific experiences during the first world war.
The entry for 17 October is revealing:
“Very fine morning, all my chums congratulated me on my birthday. We got a blanket served out to us. We have had nothing to cover us since we came out. Severe fighting is going all along the canal.”
On 29 October he says:
“Terrific firing all day and night. The Indian troops came here to relieve us. They look a fine lot of men—Ghurkhas, Sikhs and Punjabs.”
The diary covers only the first year of the war, and I knew little of the rest of his experience. Ceri, however, helped me uncover more information, and I hope that that is the sort of work that local museums and societies will do for many, bringing their family members back to them.
Ceri also brought to my attention the fact that my grandfather’s first world war medal had recently been sold. I thank the hon. Members for Beckenham (Bob Stewart) and for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Tim Farron) for their help in trying to get Britannia Military Antiques and Collectables to bring that medal back to the family. Sadly, despite all the efforts, including letters, e-mails and telephone calls, so far I have not been successful.
Families need to take ownership of the family members who died on behalf of their communities and their country. This is a chance for the country to honour those people and bring them back from the cold.
Several hon. Members
Order. I regret to say that time is against us this afternoon. Thirteen more hon. Members wish to speak so I am reducing the time limit to five minutes. I am loth to take it lower than that, but I would ask all hon. Members to give some consideration to their colleagues and try to make shorter, pithier speeches so that we can ensure that everybody is able to contribute. Perhaps hon. Members could also be sparing with their interventions unless they are really helpful to the debate.
The great war resulted in death and carnage on a previously unknown and unimagined scale. Not surprisingly, there was an enormous and justified outpouring of public grief that resulted in a major public arts programme in Britain to design and erect memorials to those who had died, and the Imperial—now Commonwealth—War Graves Commission was founded in 1917. We are fortunate to have two commissioners among our Members—my hon. Friend the Member for Broadland (Mr Simpson) and the hon. Member for North Durham (Mr Jones).
There are now roughly 36,000 memorials to the dead of the great war in Britain which reflect that unprecedented expression of public grief. What they almost all have in common are the inscriptions of the names of those who died. Those names are essential to the act of remembrance—
“Their name liveth for ever more”.
War memorials are everywhere urging remembrance. Not surprisingly many of the war memorials are in churches or within the curtilage of church buildings.
The centenary years of the great war will hopefully stimulate considerable interest in war memorials and monuments and the histories of the names of those inscribed on those monuments. Clive Aslet, the former editor of Country Life, recently wrote a book called, “War Memorial - the story of one village’s sacrifice from 1914-2003”. It took a typical village—Lydford in Devon—and traced the individual history behind all the names on its war memorial. Clive Aslet has commented:
“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.”
Other communities are already taking up the challenge. Michael Allbrook and Robert Forsyth have written a history of “A Parish at War”—a military record of three villages in my constituency, Deddington, Clifton and Hempton. They say in the preface to their book:
“When the ‘Deddington’ War Memorial was erected in 1922, it was sufficient for the inscription to be simply a name and an initial. Everybody knew them. Now more information is necessary to tell us about these men of Deddington. You will see that the names include men who had emigrated to Australia Canada and New Zealand and still they volunteered to support the land of their birth.”
As my hon. Friend the Member for Broadland has said, it was Government policy that all those who died overseas would be buried where they died, irrespective of their rank. The graves were located overseas, and back home there was a memorial bearing the names of those who had died. It is difficult now to imagine what it must have been like and the enormous grief when, some few years after the great war, memorials were unveiled with the names of those engraved, the memories of whom were still clear and sharp.
Of course, every community had to design, commission and erect its own war memorial. As early as 1915, a newly formed civic arts association was distributing advice about appropriate ways to remember the dead. In 1919, the Victoria and Albert museum put on a war memorials exhibition organised by the Royal Academy of Arts with the intention of directing groups, communities and committees in the right artistic and architectural direction. As early as 1916, the Commonwealth War Graves Commission made the important decision that no distinction was to be made in the formal nature of the memorials between officers and men lying in the same cemeteries. All were equal in death.
Most of us have heard of Mick Jagger, of Rolling Stones fame, but not so many will have heard of his uncle, Charles Sargeant Jagger, who designed both the Royal Artillery memorial in London’s Hyde park corner and the first world war memorial in Paddington station. Driving around Hyde park, one finds it all too easy to take the Royal Artillery memorial for granted—something that one sees all the time but does not always notice. I hope that during the next four years, we will notice all our war memorials and ensure that by 2018 we learn as much as we can about the lives of the men whose names are inscribed upon them, and that every war memorial is restored and remains kempt—memorials to those who died in the great war protecting and guaranteeing our freedoms.
I will speak only about MPs who died in the first world war, and the couple of MPs who died in the second world war, because sometimes in all the talk about how politicians are out of touch and how we are not all in it together, we forget that at many of the key moments in Britain’s history, Members of this House have been very much in it together.
Within the first few months of the outbreak of the first world war, 139 Unionist MPs and 41 Liberals had signed up. At a time when it was still voluntary, that was a very high percentage of those of service age. All the big political families lost somebody. William Ewart Gladstone’s grandson, Lieutenant William Gladstone, who was 29 and MP for Kilmarnock, died in the Royal Welch Fusiliers on 15 April 1915. Captain Neil Primrose, the Liberal MP for Wisbech and Parliamentary Secretary to the Treasury, was only 35 and the second son of former Prime Minister Lord Rosebery. He was awarded the military cross in 1916 and led his squadron into battle in the third battle of Gaza, and died.
Raymond Asquith was a barrister and the only son of the Prime Minister at the beginning of the first world war. He was killed on 15 September 1916, leading 4 Company in an attack on Ginchy in the battle of Flers-Courcelette. Within months, of course, his father lost office. In many ways, perhaps it was easier to oust him, because he was so upset by the loss of his son. Arthur Henderson, the Leader of the Labour party, lost his son, David. As the hon. Member for Broadland (Mr Simpson) said, Bonar Law lost not one but two sons, Charlie and James, and it is perhaps no wonder that his other son, Dick, fought so hard against appeasement in the 1930s, given that so many of his family had already gone.
I want to talk about two particular cases. The first concerns the Cawley family. Harold Cawley was Liberal MP for Heywood and Parliamentary Private Secretary to the Home Secretary. He was the second son of another MP, Frederick Cawley, and was sent to Gallipoli in May 1915 as an aide-de-camp. His younger brother, who was not an MP, died at Mons the day before he set sail. Harold Cawley hated being in a headquarters job, and wrote:
“I have always felt rather a brute skulking behind in comparative safety while my friends are being killed”.
Four of his friends from Rugby were killed on the same day in Gallipoli. He got his wish and of course was killed on 23 September 1915. Ironically, because his letters to his father were from one MP to another MP, they had parliamentary privilege, so the Government could not prevent their being made public. That is one reason we know about the disasters of the Dardanelles campaign. Even more sadly, his other brother, Oswald—this is now the third son—who became an MP when his father was made a peer in 1918, was also keen to fight, became a captain in the 10th King’s Shropshire Light Infantry, was shot in the arm on 22 August, got his wound dressed, went back into the fray and was later shot in the jaw, this time fatally.
There are three shields from the first world war that I think are missing from the Chamber. The first is for Dr John Esmonde, who was the Irish nationalist MP for North Tipperary from 1910 until his death on 17 April 1915, when he was serving as a medical doctor in the Army medical corps. It is true that, in one sense, he was not a combatant and, according to his death certificate, died from pneumonia and heart failure consequent on the strain of overwork, but several other MP casualties are commemorated in the Chamber who died as a result of accidents rather than as combatants.
The second is Lieutenant Tom Kettle, who was an ardent home rule MP for East Tyrone between 1906 and 1910. He was gun-running for the national volunteers in Belgium when the war came, but reckoning that it was the war of civilisation against barbarians, he spent several weeks in what he called
“the agony of the valiant Belgian nation”.
Then, despite poor health, he applied time and again for active service on the western front in one of the Irish regiments. He was killed.
The third is Charles Lyell, who died of pneumonia in 1918 as assistant military attaché in Washington having served two periods as PPS to Asquith, the Prime Minister, and devoting himself wholeheartedly to the war effort. I think it is a shame that these three are not commemorated in the Chamber. I have written to the Speaker and I hope that this will be taken up.
With that, I echo all the comments of the many others who have spoken.
I hope that this will be the first of a number of occasions on which we are able to debate the causes, conduct and consequences of the first world war. The causes are many and include: the Austro-Hungarian empire’s desire to control the Balkans; the German desire to continue Bismarck’s work on expansionism; the French desire to gain revenge for Germany’s victory in battle in 1871; and Russia’s anxiety after its defeat in Japan and its civil war problems. Compounding that were the interrelations between the royal families across Europe and the agreements and ententes cordiales that existed.
As an officer I am keen to understand the details and the importance of the conduct of the war to learn lessons for the future. We have not asked why the war lasted so long. Britain was certainly not prepared for the war; the Crimea was the last main one, and then there were colonial adventures, if we can call them that. The Russo-Japanese conflict was a bad influence on us; the impact of firepower was then understood but the wrong examples were taken from the use of the bayonet, which I am afraid influenced our senior commanders.
It was those senior commanders who were not ready to be engaged in modern warfare. They were looking through the prism of the 19th century. War was seen as noble, structured and decisive; decision-making was very much controlled from the top in an hierarchical, autocratic structure, mostly, dare I say, by cavalry officers, which I am glad to say is no longer the case. It is no wonder that this Army—trained as much for the sports field as the battlefield, bred from narrow regimental and Army loyalties and led by a higher command that was a stickler for tradition and suppressive of criticism— took far too long to defeat the enemy.
The British commanders expected to win through their offensive spirit, the mobility of attack and using phrases such as “at all costs” and “regardless of loss”. Indeed General Smith-Dorrien, Commander of II Corps, was relieved of his command for daring to ask permission to retreat. We are now very familiar with the locations of these battles; Mons, Ypres, Passchendaele, Loos and so forth. The fundamental problem across all of them was that the antiquated command structure actually prevented battalion and brigade commanders from exploiting wins—unwilling to leverage any success until new orders arrived.
Those artillery barrages that we learned so much about and have seen in footage did not cut down the barbed wire or destroy the enemy trenches to give the foot soldiers an advantage when charging across no man’s land. As has been said, the most vivid example of that is the battle of the Somme on 1 July 1916, when 57,000 casualties were suffered in a single day; the biggest number ever in the British Army. Not until new tactics emerged—with battalion and brigade commanders given freedom in decision-making and combined warfare developed, with greater use of the tank and the aeroplane— was that stalemate broken in the battles of Hamel and Amiens.
We are still in fingertip touch with that war through the memories of our parents, grandparents and other relatives. My grandfather was a survivor of the battle of the Somme, from the Manchester regiment. He was blinded in one eye and throughout his life bits of shrapnel came to the surface and had to be removed.
The consequences of that war are still evident today. Britain as a nation was broke, and its place in the world changed as the map of Europe was redrawn to create something close to what we know today. Socially, every town, city and village had to come to terms with a loss of life on a scale that is hard to comprehend today. The war was entered into with enthusiasm but bitterly questioned in retrospect as Britain was robbed of a generation of men and had to adapt to a new world order.
I hope that the commemorations, 100 years on, will not be an exercise in brushing up our history and dates. I hope that we as a nation, in every city, town and village, will reflect on the scale of the sacrifice, given so resolutely by our own relatives only two generations ago, that has helped to define who we are today.
This Sunday, like many colleagues, I shall be at my borough’s annual presentation of wreaths at the war memorial. Our memorial is a circle on Islington green. It was designed to show how people can come together after conflict, not in a spirit of victory but through a desire for no more war to take place. Later that day, we will lay wreaths at the site of the casualty department of the former Royal Northern hospital. To commemorate the thousands of local people who lost their lives in world war one, there was a public collection that resulted in the building of an accident and emergency department there, on the basis of a need for something tangible that people could live from, rather than die from. It is a very appropriate memorial.
When we look at the war memorials—and when we remember the Pals regiments that colleagues have mentioned—we see dozens of names from the same family. We see how one generation was completely wiped out, with many brothers dying alongside each other. I recall looking at a huge war memorial in Sospel in southern France. It commemorated the people of that town, and it was clear that many members of the same families had died in the Franco-Prussian war, the first world war and the second world war. That series of wars wiped out generations.
As a child growing up in a small village in Wiltshire, I recall talking to old men who breathed with enormous difficulty. They told me that they had suffered “the gas” in the first world war. We have to remember those who suffered and those who died. We remember them with poetry and with hope. Many brilliant poems have been written about the first world war, as well as brilliant pieces of music such as Ralph Vaughan Williams’s “The Lark Ascending”, which he dreamed up in the trenches. In the lull between the fighting, he could see the larks above the fields; their song was drowned out as the guns started up again. Nigel Kennedy played it brilliantly at the last night of the Proms earlier this year.
In commemorating all those who died, we must remember that there were also many who opposed the war, as my hon. Friend the Member for Caerphilly (Wayne David) pointed out. There were massive anti-war meetings in Finsbury Park in my constituency well into the first world war. The international women’s conference against the war and in favour of peace took place in The Hague in 1915. It obviously did not stop the war, but it did influence President Woodrow Wilson and the 14 points that he later produced.
The first world war was a culmination of the rivalry between nations and empires; it was a commercial war in many ways. It was envisaged in J. A. Hobson’s brilliant work on imperialism in 1902, in which he predicted that there would be a war between the European nations because the tension and the arms expenditure were so great. There are serious lessons to be learned from that.
The map of the middle east was drawn as a result of the first world war. The Sykes-Picot agreement, which was revealed during the war, after the Russian revolution, showed the intention of Britain and France to carve up the middle east for themselves. The League of Nations was unsuccessful, but it represented an attempt at the end of the first world war to work out an international order that would prevent the same level of carnage from befalling another generation. In many ways, the League of Nations was doomed before it even started, because of the behaviour of the powers at the negotiations that resulted in the treaty of Versailles. Instead of bringing about a peace, those powers sought to impose a victors’ justice so, for example, the people of New Guinea stopped being subjects of the German empire and became a mandated people under the power of Australia, while the people of the middle east came to live under mandated territories of Britain and France. Many of the problems that the world saw later arose from the first world war.
During the years of discussion about the war, let us try to ensure that, in memory of them, we talk about those who opposed it and those who died in it. Above all, we should bring up our children to try to look for a world of peace—a world where we can settle grievances and differences, rather than feeding an arms race all around the world that can lead only to another war, such as the tragedies of the Congo, Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan. Let us try to look to a world of peace and hope, not another war.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn). For once, I agree with him, given what he says about commemoration. I add my congratulations to the Minister who, as the shadow Minister said, has shown such dedication in getting us to this stage. He has dealt with many sensitivities, and we are genuinely grateful for his work.
We are commemorating something that is, in a sense, still alive. As the hon. Member for Islington North made clear, for the middle east, the Sykes-Picot agreement and the Balfour declaration are still live issues. The issues of the war became more personal for me four years ago when, along with my hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth East (Mr Ellwood), I visited Bosnia and Herzegovina to work with Bosniac refugees. I recall being sat down in the biggest mosque in Sarajevo to meet the grand mufti, the head of the Muslim faith in Bosnia and Herzegovina. I remember him saying in really good English, “The last time this country was run properly was under the Habsburg monarchy, and we still call this mosque the Emperor mosque because the Emperor Franz Joseph restored it.” We should think about what has happened in Bosnia and Herzegovina since that time, which suggests that there is an element of truth in that. We are officially to start our national commemorations on 4 August, but we should not forget 28 June 1914, when the Archduke was shot, and what happened subsequently. We still have responsibility to mend those terrible events that happened in Bosnia and Herzegovina.
As someone who was a history teacher, I was a little perturbed by the Minister’s comment about how few people knew much about the first world war and who fought it. Given that I taught for 28 years, I hope that none of those people were in my classes. If the Minister has names, I would like to see them.
Much of the first world war is still with us, so that must be a key aspect of understanding and education. As my hon. Friends the Members for Wolverhampton South West (Paul Uppal) and for Reading West (Alok Sharma) pointed out, imperial troops made an unbelievable contribution to the war. There is a Sikh memorial in Belgium. The Indian memorial at Neuve Chapelle commemorates 4,742 Indian troops of no known grave. I saw Jewish graves at Lijssenthoek military cemetery, and I have seen Muslim graves organised in line with Mecca. I have seen a grave for seven people from a Chinese labour battalion who died in the first world war.
Given the diversity of people who live in Britain, we have an opportunity. As a teacher in Tottenham in 1972, I faced the question of how to teach the first world war to classes of pupils from different religious backgrounds and ethnicities. Of course, such teaching could be done, because a huge number of the grandfathers of such pupils would have been there. It has been calculated that about 1.2 million non-white soldiers fought across the first world war theatre. We therefore have an opportunity to use these commemorations to bring people together in a practical way, as people realise that their family histories of the war might not be much different from those of families who live next door.
I pay tribute to the Commonwealth War Graves Commission for all the work it has done. Incredibly, I was able to discover my great uncle, William Ollerenshaw of the Lancashire Fusiliers, who died on 27 June 1916. I was also impressed by the commission’s recent work on the “In From The Cold” project. It has sent me a chart showing that, in Lancaster and Fleetwood alone, there are 161 war graves scattered across different churchyards. For instance, two soldiers are buried in Glasson churchyard, three in Pilling churchyard, and 38 in Fleetwood cemetery, and they will be remembered. I am extremely grateful for all that detailed work, of which the commission should be proud.
There is still a memorial village in Lancaster and Fleetwood, and Fleetwood has a memorial park, which has just received money so that it can be maintained and brought back into use. That will not be forgotten in the constituency.
I am grateful for the debate, but I am particularly grateful for the hard work done by the Minister over a number of years. I hope that he is proud of where he has got to as a result.
It is my honour to be the chair of the Northern Ireland world war one centenary committee. I also serve, along with other Members, on the national advisory board. I join others in commending the Minister for the excellent work that he has done in preparing for next year’s commemorative events, and I have greatly enjoyed working with him.
The hon. Member for Wolverhampton South West (Paul Uppal) spoke of looking out of the window of his constituency office. When I look out of the window of my constituency office in Lisburn, I can see the war memorial, on the front of which is the word “Thiepval”. Thiepval is, of course, synonymous with the battle of the Somme, and it was the 36th (Ulster) Division that emerged from Thiepval wood on that fateful day, 1 July 1916, and charged towards the German lines. Indeed, the Ulster division was the only division of X Corps to achieve its objective that morning, but it paid a terrible price in doing so: 5,500 soldiers were killed, wounded or missing in action.
The war memorials in my constituency commemorate those men. There are war memorials in Lisburn, Hillsborough and Dromore, and there is a war memorial hall in Lower Ballinderry. Northern Ireland is no different from other parts of the United Kingdom in that respect. However, the battle of the Somme left its mark on that small community. Captain Wilfred Spender, who was an officer in the 36th (Ulster) Division, wrote these words:
“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.”
We remember the valour of those men. Of the nine Victoria Crosses given to British soldiers who fought in the battle of the Somme, four were awarded to soldiers in the 36th (Ulster) Division, and the division won nine VCs during the course of the war.
While remembrance will be an important theme for us in Northern Ireland, another will be reconciliation. As hon. Members have reminded us, during the first world war, the island of Ireland was united under the Crown as part of the United Kingdom. The 10th and 16th (Irish) Divisions fought alongside the 36th (Ulster) Division. We think of regiments now extinct such as the old Royal Irish Regiment, the Connaught Rangers, the Royal Dublin Fusiliers, the Prince of Wales Leinster Regiment, the Royal Munster Fusiliers, and the South Irish Horse. We also think of existing regiments such as the Irish Guards, and of the current Royal Irish Regiment, along with its antecedents, including the Royal Irish Rifles, the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers and the Royal Irish Fusiliers, and of course the North Irish Horse, the first regiment in which my brother served when he joined the Army. He now commands the Royal Yeomanry here in London.
Earlier, I quoted Captain Wilfred Spender. Let me now quote another brave soldier: Captain Willie Redmond, who was a Member of this House. He was an Irish nationalist, the brother of the leader of the then Irish nationalist party. Willie Redmond fervently and passionately advocated that nationalists should join the British Army and fight for freedom on the western front. In December 1916, he wrote to his friend Arthur Conan Doyle:
“It would be a fine memorial to the men who have died so splendidly if we could, over their graves, build up a bridge between North and South.”
We cannot change the history of the century that followed the first world war, nor can we alter the constitutional realities today on the island of Ireland. I am a proud Ulsterman and a proud Unionist, but I will say this: the time has come to build those bridges. The time has come to use this shared history of the first world war to build bridges across the island, built on tolerance and mutual respect, in recognition of the brave men who went out and fought for this country and for our freedom, and who sacrificed their lives. Their memory is no less worthy of remembrance than the soldiers of the 36th (Ulster) Division who died alongside them at the Somme and Messines, and other battle places. That does not mean that people have to stop believing in what they believe—that I have to stop being a Unionist, or that my fellow islanders who live in the Republic have to stop being nationalists—but let us together share the history and the remembrance of those who died in that fateful war.
I am very grateful to have been called to speak in this debate on the commemoration of the first world war.
I am delighted to report that both my grandfathers, having served as gunnery officers on the western front and at Jutland, survived. If they had not, I would not be here. My paternal grandfather, Kenneth Colvile, was a member of the Royal Garrison Artillery, while my maternal grandfather, Charles Neate, served on board HMS Valiant, a Queen Elizabeth class battleship, at Jutland. It is a real privilege for me to be able to pay tribute to those members of the Royal Navy and Royal Marines who served in the Devonport fleet, which played such a significant role in the first world war.
Five of the 14 ships lost at the battle of Jutland were Devonport-based ships. I am most fortunate that both my grandfathers left eye-witness accounts of their experiences, and I would like to share a little bit of one of them, from my grandfather who was on the Valiant. He said:
“I went on watch at 12.30 pm for the afternoon watch over the 6" anti-submarine guns; during the latter part of that watch signals began to fly round a good bit, steam for full speed, action stations and so on and then it became known to me that the enemy wireless signals were growing very loud and strong and the Bridge passed down that our light cruisers had got in touch with two enemy light cruisers and seemed likely to cut them off and destroy them.
Just as I was about to be relieved we closed up and got ready for instant action. The usual preparations such as changing into clean clothes, provision of fresh water and food in turrets and other places had to be left undone and we had bare time to get the ship herself ready...
On arrival at my lofty station we saw the Battle-Cruisers on our starboard bow and at about 4.45 pm the Hun battle-cruisers appeared on the port bow and the two squadrons opened action.
We did not open just yet. To realise our difficulties you must try and visualise the light and position. The range was about 10-11 miles. Behind the enemy were blue-black clouds and a low lying mist and behind us was the sun and a sharp clear horizon with no mist. The actual sun was behind clouds high in the sky so they had no glare in their glasses. Thus you will see that the Germans were almost invisible and we were silhouetted against a bright clear background so they could get good readings from their range finders and also mark their fall of shot.”
I am delighted to be able to report that Plymouth will be playing a very significant role in commemorating the first world war, and we will be taking that very seriously. Apart from next year’s national Armed Forces day taking place on Saturday 28 June, on Saturday 4 August we will be having prayers on the Hoe with speeches and the reading of the declaration of war followed by a gun salute from the citadel with a two-minute silence and laying of wreaths. That will be followed by the “Last Post”. Both those days will provide all of us in Plymouth with a real opportunity to express our gratitude to all those brave servicemen and women, and to demonstrate our thanks for their sacrifices.
We all have some real lessons to learn from this most savage war. On election to this place three years ago, I gave a commitment that I would campaign for better treatment for our veterans. I am very grateful that the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, my hon. Friend the Member for South West Wiltshire (Dr Murrison) has done so much in that regard. May I also pay tribute to the previous Government’s decision to allow those people who were shot for desertion when they were suffering from shell shock and mental health challenges to be pardoned?
I represent a naval garrison city so I see and hear at first hand the real stresses and strains that our veterans face. Indeed, this week, I heard from an Afghan veteran who told me that he is not looking forward to Sunday because he will have to remember many of his friends and his fellow servicemen who died on active military service. That is why we must remember.
First, may I declare an interest, in that I am a commissioner on the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, along with my friend the hon. Member for Broadland (Mr Simpson)? I consider that to be a great privilege, as I know he does. The CWGC commemorates the 1.7 million people who died in the two wars. I wish to record my thanks to Alan Pateman-Jones, its director general, and his staff for the work they do in more than 153 different countries. I also thank the Governments of New Zealand, India, Australia, Canada and South Africa for their contributions, all of whom will be joining in the commemorations of the 1914 to 1918 war.
I wish to mention a fact that not many people recognise. We all see the iconic sites in France, but we also have 170,000 graves in this country, as the hon. Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood (Eric Ollerenshaw) mentioned. Every community will have CWGC graves in their local churchyard or municipal cemetery, and I am pleased that the CWGC, along with the all-party group on war heritage, has broken these down by constituency. One thing that I have been working closely on with the CWGC is raising awareness in communities of those graves. One initiative has been to erect Commonwealth war grave signs and, in some cases, information boards, so that local people know that the graves are there and are aware of why they are there.
I agree with the hon. Gentleman about the good work that the CWGC does. He will know that many graves of Victoria Cross holders across the country are neglected and that only those soldiers who died in battle have their graves covered by the CWGC. May I commend to him the work of the Victoria Cross Trust, a charity, of which I am a patron, that does such good work in restoring the graves of VC heroes across the country?
I commend that body. The CWGC’s remit is defined by its charter, but the important point is that the CWGC does look after all those graves in the UK that come under its charter. We are talking about either the traditional stones that people will recognise or private memorials. I pay tribute to councillors in the north-east of England, all of whose areas have now erected these green signs. I ask hon. Members of any party who wish to have them erected in their local cemeteries to contact me or the hon. Member for Broadland, as we will be only too willing to help. We have had a bit of a glitch with the Church of England—I am sorry that the Second Church Estates Commissioner, the hon. Member for Banbury (Sir Tony Baldry) is not here for this—which seemed to offer a protracted and bureaucratic reason for why we could not put these signs up. I am glad to say that some progress has been made, including in Durham, where the Archbishop of Canterbury, the former Bishop of Durham, seemed to cut through the red tape of the Church of England. It would be nice to see those tasteful signs on all churchyards, just to raise awareness, so that local people know that the graves are there.
Let me now deal with the issues raised by the Minister. I congratulate him on the work he has done on them, because I think he has got this right. There was a real danger that this could go wrong. As he said, it is right that there will be national and international commemorations, but the real focus has to come from below—I totally agree with him on that; local communities have to get involved. I pay tribute to the Heritage Lottery Fund, which is providing grants for local communities, a few of them in my constituency, including Park View school, which has just received a grant for doing a world war one project. I know that there are many others. Pelton Fell memorial park is applying for a grant and a number of other villages want to hold events. Sacriston, for example, wants to hold a village at war event.
I am passionate about ensuring that those who lost their lives are remembered, but another important aspect is what happened in local communities. In the north-east and County Durham, for example, the role of coal mining in the first world war was important, as were the roles of women in munitions factories and the munitions industry in Tyneside.
I am pleased that my hon. Friends the Members for Caerphilly (Wayne David) and for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn) mentioned conscientious objectors, because the war was divisive. In the early parts of the conflict, members of the Independent Labour party were very much against the involvement of Britain in the war. There were some notable exceptions and some people broke away, including Clem Attlee, who fought bravely at Gallipoli. One of my predecessors, Jack Lawson, the Member for Chester-le-Street—who, by coincidence, was a member of the Imperial War Graves Commission in the 1920s—fought on the western front, even though he was an ILP member.
There are opportunities for communities not only to remember the first world war but to do some good things about their own history and to ensure that people remember the contribution that everyone made to the war effort. When I was the veterans Minister, I had the privilege of meeting Harry Patch, Bill Stone and Henry Allingham. Sadly, I also attended their funerals. As the Minister said, they were the last living link to the first world war, which, as my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley Central (Dan Jarvis) said, has now passed into history. This is a great opportunity to ensure that future generations not only do not forget but know of the important role that their local communities played in that important part of our great nation’s history.
Several hon. Members
Order. I shall have to start the wind-ups at 4.48 and there are five speakers left. It is almost impossible. I am going to take the time limit to four minutes, but I implore hon. Members to make room for their colleagues to speak, too, by not necessarily using the full time, short as it is. The time limit is now four minutes, because I think that it is important that every Member gets to speak.
It was a pleasure to listen to the speech by the right hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Mr Donaldson) and I commend him for the work he has done. I am sure that he would agree that the stated desire of the Prime Minister and the Taoiseach Enda Kenny to visit a war grave together during the run-up to the centenary is an excellent way of marking the fact that Irishmen, both Unionist and nationalist, fought together for a good cause in the first world war and we should not forget that.
The first world war has captured the imagination of the public. It might have passed from living memory, but people’s desire to find out about it, to walk in the footsteps of the soldiers by visiting the battlefields and to gain an insight into what it must have been like is as keen now as it has probably been in living memory. Perhaps that is because we want to challenge ourselves. In the same circumstances, would we be as brave as people were then?
Throughout the debate, people have mentioned the “Blackadder” version of history and asked whether we are too cynical now as a nation to make the sacrifices that people did then. Through the course of the first world war centenary years we will remember the sacrifices of those who gave their lives and of those who served, both on the front line and to support the people on the front line. It is a reminder of the incredible sacrifices people make and the incredible endurance people have in extreme circumstances. People rise to that challenge generation after generation and it is right that we should remember the sacrifices of the first world war, which were on such an enormous scale.
I remember reading the remarks of my predecessor, Philip Sassoon, who was an MP during the first world war. He felt that the battles at places such as Waterloo seemed Lilliputian compared with Neuve Chapelle, as it was such a totally different experience from anything anyone had seen before.
I want to mention the Step Short project in my constituency, of which I am chairman. I thank the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, my hon. Friend the Member for South West Wiltshire (Dr Murrison), who has been to Folkestone to visit the project and see what we are planning: to tell a local story based on rediscovering the role the town played during the war. Folkestone was the major port of embarkation for troops to and from the trenches of the western front. It is estimated that 10 million servicemen came through the town during the war and our major project is to create a memorial arch over the route that they marched down to the ships in the harbour waiting to take them to France. The arch will commemorate not just those who lost their lives and for whom that journey was their last on home soil but everyone who served in the war—soldiers, nurses, people in the supply chains, everyone who was part of the national contribution to the first world war. I hope that people will come and experience what Folkestone has to offer and see the arch, which we will unveil on 4 August next year as our commemoration of the centenary of the outbreak of the war.
I also thank the National Army museum, which will bring an exhibition to Folkestone that will run from June next year for 10 months. It will help tell the story of the home front and the journey to war. Many stories will be rediscovered as part of the first world war centenary.
Another local story I will touch on is that of Walter Tull, whose story was rediscovered by the Dover war memorial project. He was the first black soldier to be commissioned in the British Army, as well as having been the first black professional footballer to play in an outfield position in the professional football leagues. Many such stories will be rediscovered.
Another Folkestone story that is important to us is the role that the town played in accommodating tens of thousands of refugees from Belgium in the first weeks of the war. We gave succour and comfort to people who had been dispossessed of their homes. That is an incredible story of the war, and we will discover more such stories as we go through.
In his poem “Aftermath”, Siegfried Sassoon said:
“Have you forgotten yet?
For the world’s events have rumbled on since those gagged days.”
Next year we have a chance to demonstrate that we have not forgotten.
On the morning of 22 May 1915, 227 people were killed in what is still Britain’s worst rail disaster when a troop train and two other passenger trains collided at Quintinshill near Gretna. Almost all those who died were men from the Leith Battalion of the Royal Scots, who were killed before even reaching the battlefields of Gallipoli that they were heading for on their first posting after training. The vast majority of those who were killed were obviously from Edinburgh and Leith. Of course, in the time before and after hundreds more from the community of Edinburgh died in various battlefields and at sea, but the impact of that rail disaster, because it had such a dramatic effect on one day on people who did not even get to Gallipoli, where they had been expecting to fight, was both dramatic and traumatic.
The disaster is now remembered every year on its anniversary at a war memorial in a cemetery in the centre of my constituency. At one of those commemorations a few years ago I met a grandchild, the great-grandchildren and the great-great-grandchildren of a victim of that disaster who were pleased that the local community was now remembering their ancestor. I am glad to say that the Quintinshill disaster is recognised by both the UK and Scottish Governments as one of the Scottish national events to be remembered in the commemorations of world war one. It reminds us that the way in which the war impacted on individuals and communities was not just at the front and at sea but in places a long way from the battlefield and in ways that we do not always appreciate.
The bodies of those who died in that disaster were brought back to the Drill hall in Leith. That building is now the Out of the Blue centre, a successful arts and cultural centre. Appropriately, in that very building a couple of months ago, I was privileged to take part in the launch of one of the community projects funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund. It was a project organised by the Disability History Scotland group, which aims to look at how the experience of disability caused directly or indirectly by world war one had consequences for families and communities, for social policy, disability groups and disability rights campaigns for generations until now.
That is again a reminder of how the consequences of war extend far beyond its original participants in all sorts of ways and down the decades. Besides the project that I mentioned, I know that others in my community have sought, and I hope received, funding from the HLF. I have encouraged them to do so and I hope that the publicity about today’s debate will encourage other groups to come forward with projects for their community.
Another ceremony that has recently been revived is at the war memorial at Newhaven village in my constituency, a fishing village in the past and a very small fishing community now. It takes place every year at the war memorial attached to the local school. It brings together the wider community and the young people at the school to remember what their forefathers fought for in the first world war. It is an opportunity to remind young people of what happened at that time and to look, as many colleagues have said, at reconciliation and work for peace so that future generations will not have to go through what so many went through in the first world war.
Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker, for giving me this opportunity. I shall make a brief contribution.
I was born on Remembrance day and I have always attended Remembrance day services—those cold November mornings, the leaves falling on the ground, the sound of Elgar’s “Nimrod” and the stories of my grandparents. That may explain my long-standing interest in military history. I believe that the only way we can shape a better future is by understanding and honouring those who have fallen for this country.
I have been struck by the respect and solemnity with which the public regard Remembrance day and have been raising money for poppies across my constituency over the past few weekends, as have many hon. Members. I ran the London marathon earlier this year, raising money for the Royal British Legion. I pay tribute to my constituents. We are raising money for the Todger Jones VC bronze statue. Todger Jones was a Cheshire Regiment lad who won his Victoria Cross at Morval on the Somme in 1916.
War is an inescapable truth and to leave any conflict saying that it is the last would be either naive or wilfully misleading, but what we can do is recognise the importance of what is done, ensure that the skills and requirements protect the armed forces as much as possible, and remember those who have made such sacrifices in our country’s name. That is why I am so proud to speak today and take part in the commemoration service across Weaver Vale this weekend. Those who have fought for Britain may be gone, but they are always in our thoughts and in our memories.
We pay tribute to Tommy Atkins—Tommy Atkins, like Todger Jones and my grandfather, who, being a Manchester lad, wanted to join up in 1914 but was not old enough. The recruiting sergeant knew that he was not old enough so, along with his mates who were under age, he hot-footed it to Manchester Piccadilly station, got on the west coast line down to London Euston and joined up at the first recruiting office, which just happened to be the Middlesex Regiment. I make that same journey every Monday morning down to this place and I never fail to remember those brave Tommy Atkins from all parts of the country who made the ultimate sacrifice.
On Saturday, in common with many other Members of Parliament and millions of people throughout this country, we will commemorate and remember those who died in the first and the second world wars. In particular, in my constituency we commemorate the North and the South Staffordshire Regiments with their VCs and those who did not attain great gallantry medals but who fought the battles, fought the war, saved this country and saved our democracy.
I pay tribute to the Royal Irish Rifles because, as has already been mentioned, it is remarkable that despite all the troubles between us and those who live in the southern part of Ireland, so many people are now touched by the fact that we are coming together. We commemorate people who fought—people like Vincent Cullen—because they were loyal, they were real and they were brave. They fought with our people and we should never forget them.
Finally, I should like to put it on record that Doug Lakey, who came here this afternoon and was the only person in the Special Gallery, as far as I know, was with my father on the day he was killed in the second world war. He is a constituent of the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, my hon. Friend the Member for South West Wiltshire (Dr Murrison), and I thought he would like to know that. Doug Lakey is 93 now. He has had a fantastic day and it has been a wonderful occasion for me to be able to have him here for the first time in the House of Commons.
Madam Deputy Speaker, I am very grateful for your permission to contribute to this debate, particularly as the first ever televised session of the Intelligence and Security Committee meeting today prevented me from attending by far the greater part of the debate. I shall just make a few very brief remarks and hope that I am not unwittingly repeating things that others have already raised.
We all have our different methods by which we have been in contact with or affected by the first world war. Mine dates back to my days as a schoolboy, when I became friendly with a veteran of the Royal Navy, Mr Leslie Horton, who served from 1915 to 1945 in just about every variety of royal naval ship. He served on the destroyer HMS Landrail in the first world war, for example, and the S-class submarine HMS Seadog in the second world war. The force of character and personality of all those people who have been through these vicissitudes, ordeals and dangers cannot help but transmit itself to people of a younger generation.
In the brief time available I want to make one point for the Minister to consider in his reply. It will not come as a surprise to him, because we have discussed it privately previously. I want to be certain that when, in the course of commemorating the events of the first world war, we focus on particular spikes in the history of that catastrophic conflict, we do not end up focusing solely on those events that marked terrible mistakes and defeats. It is a reality that the generalship behind the battle of the Somme was sadly lacking—some would say it was grossly negligent. It is a fact that the mistakes made at the battle of the Somme were repeated at the battle of Passchendaele, but it is also a fact that by the time we got to 8 August 1918, the lessons of those disastrous earlier offences had been learnt, however belatedly. The battle of Amiens, which hardly anyone has heard of by comparison with the earlier battles, was a stupendous victory for which our forces gain too little credit.
Of course commemoration is about reconciliation, but we must not blind ourselves to the fact that those battles took place not on the territory of a country that did the invading, but by definition on the territory of countries that had been invaded. It should be a matter of pride for the people of this country that we fought on the right side in the first world war. Indeed, the failure to draw the right lessons from what happened at the end of the war had the consequence that after the second world war we were determined there would have to be unconditional surrender—so that next time nobody could argue, as they had done after 1918, that they had not really been defeated. Let us of course reach out the hand of friendship and remember the terrible mistakes made, but let us remember the victories, too, and the justice of the cause for which British soldiers, sailors and airmen fought and died.
Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker, for calling me at the end of the debate; I was in a Committee meeting and so was unable to contribute earlier.
Burton can take the credit for having been home to the most decorated non-commissioned soldier of the first world war, William Coltman, who won not only the Victoria Cross but the distinguished conduct medal and bar and the military medal. He won those amazing medals as a pacifist. He was a stretcher bearer because his religious beliefs prevented him from fighting, but he was a brave men. He is a man that Burton is very proud of.
I speak as a patron of the Victoria Cross Trust. As has been mentioned, there are hundreds of graves of heroes across the country, including VC winners, that are not tended by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission because those brave servicemen died after they had been decommissioned and when they were no longer in the Army. It is a terrible shame for our country. In my opinion it is a national disgrace that the graves of those men who did such great acts of bravery and valour on behalf of this country and democracy are not tended. We see these crumbling gravestones and overgrown memorials to such brave men, and it is time that we looked at what we can do about them.
The Victoria Cross Trust is a charity that was established by a gentleman called Gary Stapleton. With no public money, he and his band of volunteers have restored very many graves, up and down the country, of VC heroes. It is time that we looked at what we could do as a Government to try to support them. They do not ask for huge amounts of Government funding, but I am sure there must be ways we can help. This is the big society in action—people going out in the community, raising money to restore the graves of some of the bravest men of this country. We should commend them and do all we can to support them.
This has been a very fitting and moving debate. I always feel that the House is at its best on such occasions. I cannot, in the time available, do credit to all the speeches. We heard from the right hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Mr Donaldson), the hon. Member for Broadland (Mr Simpson), my hon. Friend the Member for Hyndburn (Graham Jones), the hon. Member for Wolverhampton South West (Paul Uppal), my hon. Friend the Member for Caerphilly (Wayne David), the hon. Member for Colchester (Sir Bob Russell), my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgend (Mrs Moon), the hon. Member for Banbury (Sir Tony Baldry), my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant), the hon. Member for Bournemouth East (Mr Ellwood), my hon. Friend the Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn), the hon. Members for Lancaster and Fleetwood (Eric Ollerenshaw) and for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Oliver Colvile), my hon. Friend the Member for North Durham (Mr Jones), the hon. Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Damian Collins), my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh North and Leith (Mark Lazarowicz), and the hon. Members for Weaver Vale (Graham Evans), for Stone (Mr Cash), for New Forest East (Dr Lewis), and for Burton (Andrew Griffiths). All I can say is that it is an honour to have taken part in this debate with them.
How we should approach this commemoration is symbolised by Harry Patch’s insistence that German and British veterans should carry his coffin. For the past 20 years, long before I became a Member of Parliament, I have been attending the remembrance service in Eltham. Over the years, it has become a much more diverse affair. In fact, the people who attend nowadays represent the diversity of the armed forces who took part in the first world war more than they ever have in previous years. It is a real community event with everyone coming together. More recently, we have been happy to welcome a large contingent of the Gurkha community, and it is a pleasure to see how their presence is warmly welcomed by the entire community. British Future’s publication about the first world war refers to
“the graves…of Christians, Jews, Muslims, Sikhs and Hindus lying side by side, just as”
“had fought side by side”.
It is often at these times in the field of human conflict that humanity shows its greatest attributes. Whether it is the brotherhood of those diverse cultures or the symbolic events that took place in no man’s land at Christmas 1914, there is more in human nature that binds us than divides us. When Harry Patch sadly passed away in 2009, we lost one of the last direct connections with the British soldiers who fought so bravely in that war. Our generation will be the last to have had direct contact with these soldiers. We must therefore reflect on how the 150th anniversary might be remembered.
When this Chamber suffered a direct hit from a German bomb during the second world war, Winston Churchill instructed that some of the rubble from the bomb damage be incorporated in the renovated Chamber of the House of Commons to remind us not only of the fortitude of those who fought in that war but the damage and harm that was inevitably caused by wars. So this Chamber itself, in a way, has a form of remembrance. That is a reminder that we, as politicians, must exhaust every political and diplomatic avenue before we ever consider sending our armed forces into harm’s way. War is a breakdown of the political process and, as such, can only be the last resort in any conflict.
It has been an honour to take part in this debate. In particular, I pay tribute to the work of the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, the hon. Member for South West Wiltshire (Dr Murrison), and what he has done to bring us to this point. I also pay tribute to the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, to the Imperial War Museum, to the BBC for what it has planned over the next four years, and to all the countries of the Commonwealth that will be doing so much to help us to mark this important event in our collective history.
Forty-one million British people lived through the first world war while what was described as the flower of British youth went off to fight. Nine million soldiers lost their lives and 16 million people died overall. For them, we must be a nation at our best when commemorating these events. We must lay the foundations for future generations to go on learning the lessons of just how devastating war can be. If we can achieve that, we will have achieved something that is worthy of those whom we aim to remember.
I thank all Members who have taken part in this very important debate and I am sorry that there is so little time to respond fully to all the important issues and moving stories that have been mentioned.
More than anything else, the Government want engagement with this commemoration. Almost every one of us has discoveries to make about the first world war and our various personal links to it. The issue is important to me: as the mother of a Royal Marine Commando, I understand and appreciate the courage, tenacity and skill of our armed forces. I also understand the pride and anxiety that families feel when those they love go away to serve.
Today’s speeches and interventions by Members stemmed, understandably, from their own interest in the time and their genuine concerns for how war is commemorated. I sensed considerable consensus in the Chamber this afternoon.
The shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Barnsley Central (Dan Jarvis), and the hon. Member for Colchester (Sir Bob Russell) and others raised the issue of the tone of the commemoration. I absolutely agree with them that this is not a celebration; it is a commemoration. There are no surviving veterans from the first world war, but it is up to us to pay respect and to ensure that future generations do not forget and that there will be no triumphalism or jingoism.
My hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Sir Tony Baldry), the hon. Members for Bridgend (Mrs Moon) and for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn), the right hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Mr Donaldson) and my hon. Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Damian Collins) spoke about the importance of war memorials and the various plans for research, restoration and having these important structures listed. Those are exactly the sorts of projects that the Government programme is designed to support and I wish those concerned every success.
On the issue raised right at the end by my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis), when my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Defence opened the debate he mentioned the battle of Amiens, which was a victory. I think my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest East may have missed that reference.
The role of women has been raised by several Members and it will certainly be commemorated. Women played an essential role in the war. We need to recognise the huge impact that the war had on women, their place in society, the suffragette movement and employment.
My hon. Friend the Member for Broadland (Mr Simpson) and others spoke about the importance of engaging with our young people. One of our key objectives for the centenary is to engage with them by making connections between young people today and young people who fought and died a century ago. Our battlefield visit programme will connect young people with battlefields and, I hope, offer them a special experience that they can share with their classmates.
It was humbling to hear about the Barnsley Pals, and about the Accrington Pals from the hon. Member for Hyndburn (Graham Jones), and about the valiant Todger Jones, William Coltman and Tommy Atkins. It was also moving to hear from my hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton South West (Paul Uppal) about the bravery of the Sikh regiments, and from my hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood (Eric Ollerenshaw) about the importance of diversity. I reassure Members that this commemoration will help us mark such contributions. It will also make future generations aware of the history of the war so that we can continue to learn from the lessons of the past.
It is clear from what has been said today that many Members have already encouraged their constituents to become involved, and I thank them very much for their efforts. If Members have not already done so, I ask them to tell those in their area about what is being planned and encourage them to find their own links to the first world war, a conflict that, though it took place 100 years ago, remains deeply ingrained in the fabric of our society, our churchyards, our memorials and our heritage buildings, and in the hearts of our families.
Although our Government commemoration is proudly led by the Government, the spirit is rightly owned by all of the people of this country. I hope that what we have said this afternoon has assured Members from all parties that we are working hard to make sure that the UK’s first world war centenary commemoration will be solemnly, respectfully and properly remembered.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered commemoration of the First World War.