Skip to main content

First World War

Volume 575: debated on Monday 3 February 2014

2. What contribution the armed forces will make to commemorations of the start of the first world war. (902314)

16. What contribution the armed forces will make to commemorations of the start of the first world war. (902328)

The Department for Culture, Media and Sport has the Government lead for the first world war centenary commemorations. The Ministry of Defence is working closely with it and other Government partners in full support of the commemorations. The armed forces will be present at key events on 4 August 2014, the anniversary of the outbreak of war, and throughout the centenary period.

What opportunity will there be for my constituents to visit the Colne Valley military cemetery in Ypres, which has the graves of 47 British soldiers, including some from the 49th West Riding Division, during the commemorations of the centenary of world war one?

The Commonwealth War Graves Commission is very keen that people should visit not just the big sites such as Tyne Cot, but the smaller, intimate sites of the sort to which my hon. Friend refers, which can be the most poignant. I hope that there will be such an opportunity as part of the Institute of Education’s battlefield tour programme, which his young constituents will be able to take part in. In particular, I hope that people will have an opportunity to visit sites that have local relevance.

Will the Minister join me in welcoming the initiative of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission to install quick response codes at memorials, including at Gillingham cemetery in my constituency, so that visitors can access information on and the stories of those who died for our country?

Of course I welcome that initiative. The Commonwealth War Graves Commission is doing a fantastic job in the run-up to the centenary. I know that a number of right hon. and hon. Members are Commonwealth war graves commissioners. It is vital that people have the opportunity not only to pay their respects at such incredibly important sites, but to explore the causes, conduct and consequences of the great war during the four-year period. Initiatives of the sort that my hon. Friend has described are an important part of that.

Would the Minister mind my mentioning my grandmother’s brother, farm labourer James Marchant, who served in world war one in the Royal Sussex Regiment, a unit in which, sadly, 6,800 men lost their lives?

I think that many of us will go on a voyage of exploration as we explore our family histories during the four-year period. I know that my hon. Friend has long-standing Sussex ancestry. May I take this opportunity to congratulate his daughter, who I understand has just joined the Army Reserve?

I am sure that Ministers will join me in congratulating the shadow Secretary of State for Defence on winning the Opposition Front Bencher of the year award last week. On world war one, I want to make sure that Ministers recognise, not just this year but over the whole period, the contribution that women made to the efforts.

I absolutely agree with the hon. Lady, as she would expect. There will be opportunities throughout the four-year period to commemorate not just fighting soldiers, but the population at large and women in particular. It is important to note that this was the first total war that we experienced. It would therefore be bizarre if we did not commemorate the contribution of the whole population, rather than simply commemorating our troops, important though they were.

There are three memorials in my constituency alone, and we pay tribute to the many who died in the first world war in the most terrible circumstances. Does the Minister recognise that not only will there be a continuing debate about Britain’s involvement, rightly or wrongly, in that war—the sort of debate that does not take place about the second world war—but there will inevitably be renewed criticism of the way senior generals conducted it? Many believe, for example, that “Oh! What a Lovely War” was by no means a total exaggeration.

I certainly welcome debate and very much hope that this will be an opportunity to explore the causes, conduct and consequences of the war. The hon. Gentleman will be aware of funding that is available across the board. I commend the Heritage Lottery Fund, in particular, for being very even-handed in the way it has behaved. I understand his point of view well, although it is not one that I necessarily share completely. I point out the debate we had in this place on 7 November, which I think was one of the most consensual we have had during my time here. I see the hon. Member for Barnsley Central (Dan Jarvis) nodding in agreement. He and I have had considerable discussions on the matter and I am very pleased that this is consensual and not party political.

What discussions, if any, have there been with the Governments of Commonwealth countries and the Irish Government on commemorating the first world war?

I am pleased to tell the hon. Gentleman that 10 days ago I lectured at University College Cork on our relationship in that respect, and I was extremely well received, for which I am grateful. The Government have made it clear that it needs to be a Commonwealth-facing series of anniversaries. It would be extraordinary, given the history, if it was not.