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First World War Commemoration

Volume 572: debated on Thursday 12 December 2013

The Government will mark the centenary of the first world war with a programme of national events, cultural activities, educational initiatives and community projects from 4 August next year through to Armistice day in 2018. We will deliver a centenary that will mark, with the most profound respect, this seminal moment in our modern history for the benefit of all parts of the community.

The first soldier to be killed on the western front in the first world war lived in Finchley and Golders Green. What plans are there for descendant families to be included in the commemorations?

I recently took my family to St Symphorien and had the privilege of seeing John Parr’s grave—it was a moving moment for us all. We are working with the Commonwealth War Graves Commission to trace families of other men buried at St Symphorien, and we very much hope that a number of the families will be able to attend the event. We would welcome any help in tracing the families involved.

My grandfather Harry Hanson’s first taste of combat in the first world war was in March 1915 at Neuve Chapelle, where he fought alongside thousands of Indian troops who to this day remain buried in France. Will the Secretary of State give a commitment that we will celebrate the role of Commonwealth troops, particularly Indian troops, during this first world war celebration?

The right hon. Gentleman raises an important point about the significant Commonwealth dimension to our commemoration of the first world war. It is most fitting that the first event, which will follow shortly after the Commonwealth games in Edinburgh next August, will involve Commonwealth leaders.

Will the Secretary of State join me in welcoming the £1.5 million grant from the National Heritage Memorial Fund to save Stow Maries aerodrome in my constituency, which is the last remaining, intact first world war airfield? Does she agree that Stow Maries, from which pilots flew to defend us against zeppelin attacks, would be a fitting place to start the commemorations that her Department is planning?

My hon. Friend is right to point out that there are not that many structures remaining for us to look at as part of our commemorations around the first world war centenary. I am sure that that airfield could play an important role in bringing this to life for new generations.

Springwell Dene school in my constituency already does excellent work in taking students to visit world war one battlefield sites, but it is concerned that because of its children’s special educational needs, it might not be able to take part in the Government’s scheme. Will a Minister from the Department meet me to discuss this matter and how we can ensure that all children in our communities can join in this commemoration and understand our history?

The hon. Lady is right that the Government have invested considerably in ensuring that schoolchildren can visit battlefields, and of course that programme should be open to all children, although it is for schools to decide who exactly is involved. I am sure we would be interested to know more about the problems experienced and to try and resolve them, working with our colleagues in the Department for Education.

Will the Minister consider providing resources to expand or continue the sort of work that occurred at Pheasant Wood near Fromelles in France in order to locate and identify the war dead?

I know that there is continuing work, particularly in the north of France, to identify individuals who might not even to date be buried in recognised graves. I am sure that that will continue until there is no longer a need for it.

On 1 July 1916 at the battle of the Somme, the 36th Ulster Division fought alongside the 16th Irish Division, showing great courage and heroism in that much commemorated battle. Will the Secretary of State outline what discussions she has had with the Republic of Ireland Government to commemorate the battle of the Somme and other battles where the two nations fought together?

I can reassure the hon. Gentleman that considerable conversations are taking place between ourselves—and not just my Department, but others—and our colleagues in the Irish Republic. This is an important part of Irish history and it is important to recognise it in the work we are doing. If the hon. Gentleman had a look at the full list of events being undertaken, I think he would be pleasantly surprised and happy about what we have done.

With the decision not to repatriate the fallen in the first world war, the legacy for our nation is that almost every village, town or city in the land has either a simple or a magnificent war memorial. What plans are in place to ensure that all of these are spick and span to commemorate the start of the first world war?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right that there are very few communities in our country that do not possess a memorial to those who fell in the first world war, although there are, of course, a few thankful villages that had no need for one and might commemorate the event in different ways. We already have a good funding level for the restoration of memorials, but this is something that we continue to look at. If there is an indication that further support is needed, we will of course look at it further.