I beg to move,
That this House has considered the programme of commemoration for the First World War.
One hundred years ago, a poor scrap of a man who was already dying of tuberculosis fired two shots into Archduke Franz Ferdinand, his wife Sophie, and their unborn child. Meanwhile back here, the following afternoon a debate on foreign affairs happened to be scheduled, although Hansard records that hon. Members were well into proceedings before anybody mentioned Sarajevo. Eventually, an obscure Liberal, Sir Joseph Walton, raised in passing reports of an assassination he had read about in the morning papers. By the time Foreign Secretary Sir Edward Grey got to his feet shortly before 7 o’clock, lazy summer ears appeared to be pricking at a city that then, as now, few Britons could accurately place on the map. Although next day the assassination got Asquith to the Dispatch Box, he was there to eulogise not to debate the geopolitical consequences of Gavrilo Princip’s chaotic street corner encounter with a man who, had he lived or died that day, was fated to change the course of history.
From 28 June to 4 August is 37 days. To overplay contemporary events on a similar time frame is to remind people in positions such as ours, and in significant countries such as this, of the solemn responsibility they hold. The first lesson I draw is the frightening speed with which peace, civilisation and a functioning rules-based system can descend into chaos.
I am privileged to lead our second debate on this subject. By common consent, the first debate on 7 November was of high quality, as was their lordships’ debate on this subject yesterday. From the luminaries seeking to catch your eye, Madam Deputy Speaker, I look forward to further such debate today. This debate is well timed since the 100th anniversary of the Archduke’s assassination this weekend falls on Armed Forces day, when right hon. and hon. Members will celebrate the men and women of today’s armed forces. I am delighted that this year that celebration will be centred on the great and historic city of Stirling.
I underscore “celebration” to contrast with commemoration, and let it be understood that the great war is cause for the latter, and assuredly not cause for the former. The Government pegged out the centenary in 2012 when the Prime Minister announced the UK’s approach in October that year at the Imperial War museum. The guiding lights are remembrance, youth and education, with the Government creating a framework for a national conversation about the war within which people can explore its causes, conduct and consequences for themselves. Linked to that, the public will not have an official narrative foisted on them. We should not confuse the role of historians and pedagogues with that of politicians. The job of government is to spark the national conversation, not dictate its terms. Historians have a responsibility to rigorously and dispassionately examine the facts, contest the evidence, and offer interpretation. Through open challenge and debate, the credibility of that interpretation is tested, and we glimpse the truth.
I know that the hon. Member for Barnsley Central (Dan Jarvis), who will speak for the Opposition, agrees with that because he told me last week that he was about to speak about the great war to the well-respected Labour History Group. I took the precaution of securing a copy of his speech, and I hope I will not embarrass or disadvantage him too much by saying what a very good speech it is. He is right to say that politicians probably should not do history, but I am sure he would be the first to say that we should all have an opinion on such an important matter. The Prime Minister has an opinion, I have mine—fortunately for me, it is somewhat similar to his—you, Madam Deputy Speaker, will have your opinion, and each right hon. and hon. Member in this most opinionated of places will have theirs.
Perhaps I may put my cards on the table. Like most Members present, I suspect that I would have supported Herbert Asquith in the summer of 1914, but it would have been through a veil of ignorance that obscured the full horror of what was about to be unleashed, not least from Asquith himself, whose brilliant son Raymond was killed two years later on the Somme and is listed No. 7 on the Palace of Westminster’s own village war memorial at the top of Westminster Hall, between Archdale and Balfour.
In my view, Britain’s entry into the great war fulfilled the Augustinian precepts for a just war, and we should be grateful that our predecessors in uniform and on the home front ultimately triumphed against the Kaiser—a militaristic aggressor, general disturber of the peace and, in 1914, surely Europe’s public enemy No. 1. There is nothing jingoistic or triumphalist in the view that this country has a tradition of reluctant, sober and purposeful military intervention as a last resort on the part of oppressed people, particularly in continental Europe, and where the well-being and liberty of her own citizens is threatened. The men and women we will celebrate on Armed Forces day in Stirling and across the country this weekend uphold that proud tradition.
Most people’s experience of the centenary will be through broadcast and social media, and the BBC is playing a central role in that in its best Reithian tradition. I am not always the Beeb’s greatest fan, but I have been bowled over by the quality and scope of its TV and radio offerings, which constitute the biggest and most ambitious pan-BBC season ever undertaken. The corporation’s stated intention is to bring the nation together in order to create a national conversation about the great war. Well, it is hitting the spot, and has viewer figures and feedback to prove not only the success of its programming, but the sheer scale of public interest in the centenary.
The Minister is making a thoughtful speech and I commend him on his work on mental health in the services, which has great relevance to this debate. Does he agree that not the least of the strengths of what the BBC has been doing is its coverage of life on the home front, and also the extraordinary outpouring of the arts, particularly music, resurrecting many of the semi-forgotten composers from the first world war?
I certainly agree. The BBC has a difficult balance to strike. In my view, it is doing that extremely well. I particularly commend its efforts to shine a light on some of the perhaps least well explored elements of the great war. We all know about the mud and the trenches. We know rather less about the home front. I hope that, as we proceed through the four-year centenary, we will have a more holistic view of what it meant to be alive between 1914 and 1918.
The UK’s commemoration will begin on Monday 4 August in Glasgow, where the JoyFest of the Commonwealth games will be replaced by the solemnity of Glasgow cathedral and remembrance in George square. In the evening, the evocative Commonwealth War Graves Commission site at St Symphorien near Mons has been chosen for an event based on reconciliation, which we know the public want and expect to see. German and Belgian representatives will join us, as will Heads of State and Government and the families of those interred, irrespective of nationality.
On the same day, the Step Short project in Folkestone will unveil its memorial arch over the road of remembrance, down which troops marched to embarkation. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Damian Collins) on bringing that important project to maturity. It is a flagship for thousands of independent projects up and down the country that have been inspired by the centenary.
I am pleased to hear my hon. Friend’s news. I have been watching the project with much interest. I know that it will be an important part of our commemoration. As I said in response to the hon. Member for Blackpool South (Mr Marsden), it is important to commemorate all elements of the centenary. The magic of Folkestone is the ability to plot the course of that final trip for so many thousands of servicemen as they embarked for France. Many, of course, never returned but many did—the majority did. Folkestone in those years held a particular place in the hearts of the service community, either because it was the point of embarkation or because, more happily, it was the point of return.
At 11 o’clock, the hour at which Britain entered the war on 4 August, the day will be closed with a vigil centred on Westminster abbey, which will run in parallel with similar services at St Anne’s cathedral in Belfast, Llandaff cathedral in Cardiff and other churches and faith communities across the country. At the same time, public buildings, workplaces and homes will be encouraged to participate in Lights Out to refer to the observation by Foreign Secretary Sir Edward Grey on the eve of war that the lamps were going out across Europe and they would not be lit again in his time. As part of that, the Royal British Legion plans to sell a million candles to remember a million fallen, each one extinguished at 11 pm. Here is the clever bit. In the darkness, a single lamp will be left burning, since hope never dies, and it never did.
The centenary is a marathon, not a sprint. Following 4 August, we have the 2014 season of remembrance, Gallipoli in April next year, Jutland and the Somme in 2016 and Passchendaele in 2017. In 2018, Amiens to Armistice will mark the last 100 days of the war. Interspersed will be myriad anniversaries from Coronel to Cambrai marking the waypoints of war, each commemorated appropriately with international participants and national units and their successors.
Big anniversaries, with their attendant large-scale national events, are pegs on which to hang the clothes of the centenary. The richness will come from 1,000 projects, from the flagship rebirth of the Imperial War museum on 19 July, to the Woodland Trust centenary forests to be planted in each of the four nations, to the small local initiatives that I heard about a week ago in Norfolk, as the guest of my hon. Friend the Member for Broadland (Mr Simpson). Many of those are funded from the £56 million already allocated by the Heritage Lottery Fund. Many are part of the First World War Centenary Partnership, which now has 3,000 member organisations in 50 countries, and many already have the active involvement of constituency MPs.
The 14-18 Now cultural programme will add granularity and texture to the centenary and bring it alive. May I pick out its letter to an unknown soldier project, a literary memorial centred on the enigmatic statue of a soldier reading a letter on platform 1 at Paddington station? The statue makes us wonder what is in the soldier’s letter. Members of the public are now invited to write that letter. All sorts of celebrities have already done so, and MPs certainly should.
I recently sent a note to all right hon. and hon. Members about the centenary poppy campaign, which is a great way for MPs to get involved locally and in the process both proliferate wild flowers and raise money to help the Royal British Legion to support today’s service community. I urge colleagues to take up the Commonwealth War Graves Commission offer to visit its sites in this country. There is most likely to be at least one such site in or close to each UK constituency. There are at least two Commonwealth War Graves Commission commissioners in the House today. I know that they will underscore that point. It is a revelation to many of us how many Commonwealth War Graves Commission sites there are in this country. They are not by any manner of means all on the western front.
I pay tribute to the way in which my hon. Friend is laying out the plans for this great year. The Commonwealth War Graves Commission recently took me around several of the war graves in my constituency. I have set about visiting all 55 churchyards with Commonwealth war graves in my constituency, 209 graves in total. Whether I will achieve that, we will have to see. I am taking with me children from local primary and secondary schools that are near those graves. That may be an initiative that others want to follow.
I commend my hon. Friend’s project. Other hon. Members will wish to emulate it. Like me, he has a large number of Commonwealth war graves in his constituency. I know that primary schools in particular in my constituency are keen to honour the fallen. Several of those schools have similar projects. The centenary will be an occasion when our minds will be focused closely on the subject. I suspect that, over the four years, interest will increase, particularly in schools. I hope that MPs will be able to take the lead in promoting that, as my hon. Friend has done in his constituency. It is important that parliamentarians apply leadership in such matters. I am confident, given the interest among colleagues, that they will do precisely that.
It is important also to ensure that our war memorials are in a fit state. A centenary is surely an opportunity to ensure that we revisit those extraordinary monuments that lie at the heart of most of our communities. I am pleased to say that over £5 million has been made available from Government to ensure that local war memorials are in good order. For details of that and the extensive work being done by Government Departments and agencies, I recommend the Government centenary webpage.
My hope is that the centenary of the first world war will provoke a wider interest in history and that it will enrich the teaching and study of the discipline more generally. It is not just about educating young people. I learnt about the wars of the 20th century from my parents and grandparents, who were contemporary witnesses. Young children these days do not have that advantage. In a curious reversal, to our surprise and delight, we have found that children participating in the £5.3 million battlefields project have been inculcating awareness of the great war among their parents, so it is bottom-up replacing top-down.
The Government intend to continue to work with the 60 or so countries worldwide who have a direct interest in the centenary. In Ireland the great war centenary falls within a decade of commemoration. It is an opportunity for reflection and conversation facilitated by the Queen’s historic visit in 2011, and it is set to mature further and strengthen one of the most important relationships for both countries.
This year a Commonwealth War Graves Commission cross of sacrifice is being erected in Dublin’s incredibly important Glasnevin cemetery, which I had the great privilege of visiting recently. Given the history, the significance of such a monument in the shadow of Daniel O’Connell’s tomb is very clear. History is often complex and nuanced, but no good is served by finessing its inconveniences.
My hon. Friend is making an excellent speech. On the Commonwealth, I was privileged last night to entertain Corporal Mark Donaldson VC from Australia, and is this not an appropriate moment to remember just how much this country owes our cousins in Australia, New Zealand, Canada, the troops who came from India and all over what was then the Empire and is now the Commonwealth, without whom we probably could not have seen through either of the world wars in the way that we did?
I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend. We have been working very closely with the Governments of all the countries he has cited and more, as he would expect. The high commissioners, particularly in London, have been very keen to engage. Indeed, several of those high commissioners serve as trustees of the Imperial War museum, which is absolutely front and centre, and appropriately so, of our centenary commemoration.
This is an opportunity to bring us closer together. It is, however, important to understand that there are very often complexities in the relationship, and we need to be prepared to address them without prevarication. My hon. Friend knows that in Australia in particular the “lions led by donkeys” mythology is prevalent in some quarters, and it is important to be able to address those concerns without attempting to avoid or sidestep them, because in so doing we come to a better understanding and much closer to the truth. We will be working particularly closely with our Anzac cousins, as my hon. Friend would expect, as our history runs long and deep. This centenary is a wonderful opportunity to make sure we are not seen to be taking that relationship for granted, but that we broaden and deepen it, and I am very confident, having visited Gallipoli this year, that that is on not only our agenda, but the agendas particularly of our Australian and New Zealand friends.
I have to say that the complexities I have cited in our relationships with other countries have not all been in predictable places. In the main they really have not been with Germany, Austria and Turkey; they have been in some unhappy corners of relationships with allies. We have discussed already where some of those may lie, but we must in particular respect and acknowledge attitudes of the sort that are prevalent in South Africa to events that are deeply troubling, such as the sinking of the troopship Mendi in 1917 and the treatment of non-European participants in the war effort. All of this has to be part of our centenary commemoration, and we must do nothing to avoid it, airbrush it or finesse it.
On the very cusp of the centenary of the war to end all war, our first duty has to be remembrance, but the measure of our success will be the extent to which we lift our understanding of the conflicts, causes, conduct and consequences, and the advancement of relations with today’s close friends and partners from both sides of the great war’s great divide.
I am proud to open this debate on behalf of the Opposition, and I know that Members on both sides of the House are grateful for this opportunity to mark this important year of remembrance.
Let me begin by paying tribute to the Minister. He and I have been discussing these commemorations for over three years, and I commend him on both the way he has opened this debate and his diligent and genuinely cross-party approach to leading these commemorations.
There are few moments in modern society when we come together as a country to reflect on our shared history, and as we approach Armed Forces day and the 100th anniversary of the shooting of Archduke Franz Ferdinand this weekend, and the other centenary anniversaries later this year, many people around the country will pause and think, perhaps for the first time, about the first world war and what relevance those events of a century ago have to our lives today. I know the Minister and I are agreed that these moments of reflection are not only rare but precious, and that is why our commemorations must be inclusive, engaging and, above all, respectful. Let us be clear—we are all agreed on this—that this is a commemoration, not a celebration.
On Armistice day 1918, the Prime Minister, David Lloyd George, came to this House and announced the end of what he described as the war to end all wars. Today we know that it was not that, but it was the war that changed life in this country for ever. The first world war touched every family, affected every community and fundamentally altered our country’s place in the world. It took the lives of 16 million soldiers and civilians across the globe, including around 900,000 servicemen from Britain and the Commonwealth. It was a conflict that transformed society, bringing about profound social, political and economic changes that we can still feel today. The centenary commemorations provide us with a unique opportunity to reflect on that, to pay tribute to those who served and sacrificed for us 100 years ago, and to pass those memories on to future generations. The Minister outlined some of the ways in which the commemorations programme will help to enable that over the next four years.
The programme has our full support, and I would like to put on record our thanks to the thousands of organisations, community groups and dedicated volunteers who are making this happen across the country. I would particularly like to pay tribute to the following: the First World War Centenary Partnership, led by the Imperial War museums, which has brought together nearly 3,000 member organisations from 49 countries and is delivering more than 2,000 events; the 14-18 NOW programme, which is bringing the centenary to life with 50 artistic creations and exhibitions across the country; the Woodland Trust, which is planting four new centenary woods across the United Kingdom as a lasting memorial to the fallen; the BBC, which will deliver 2,500 hours of programming on the subject over the next four years; and the Royal British Legion, the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, the Heritage Lottery Fund and many, many others. There are more than I could ever hope to have time to mention, but we applaud all of these groups for what they are doing. Each of them is helping to retell our national story. By bringing people together to revisit our shared history, they are making an important contribution.
I would like to say a particular word about the battlefield tours programme for schools, which is being delivered by the Institute of Education. There are few better ways to connect our young people with those who made the ultimate sacrifice on the western front than by taking them to walk the battlefields where so many fought and died. Anyone who has visited those cemeteries will know what a moving and powerful experience that is. There were 16,000 towns and villages across Britain in 1914, but only 40 of them—40 thankful parishes—would reach 1918 without having lost someone in the conflict, so every visiting school will be able to follow in the footsteps of soldiers from their own community.
Last month, I travelled to Serre in northern France to retrace the route taken by the Barnsley Pals battalions from my constituency. These were the men who responded to Lord Kitchener’s famous recruitment poster in 1914. They included miners, glassworkers, clerks, stonemasons and clerics, many of them friends and neighbours. They joined up together; they trained together; they went to war together; and ultimately, many of them died together. I walked the ground over which the Barnsley Pals fought at the battle of the Somme, and I stood in front of their graves in the pouring rain. Looking out from those trench positions that still scar the French countryside, I imagined what it must have been like. It was hard not be overcome by the emotion of what happened there. Later that day, we visited the memorial to the missing at Thiepval. As I read the names inscribed on the memorial, I suddenly saw my own name, “D. Jarvis”, staring back at me. It was a sobering moment that brought home the scale of the sacrifice, and an experience that so many visitors to the battlefield will have had.
Our country’s deployments over the past 13 years in Afghanistan and Iraq have now lasted over three times longer than the first world war; 632 servicemen and women have lost their lives, and we have felt the pain of each and every one of them, so it is hard to imagine now what it must have been like to live through a conflict that took the lives of six times that many soldiers every week, or to appreciate how much the country was wounded by the first day of the battle of the Somme, when 20,000 men were cut down on a single beautiful summer’s day on 1 July 1916.
I am very grateful to the hon. and gallant Gentleman for giving way during his really excellent speech. Is not the most remarkable testimony to the spirit of the nation at the time encapsulated in the words of a famous general from his own regiment, General Anthony Farrar-Hockley, who observed that on the eve of this, the largest military undertaking in British history up to that point, not one single soldier was listed as absent without leave?
I am very grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. I am not entirely certain which General Farrar-Hockley he is referring to—there were two in my regiment. [Interruption.] The elder. But whichever one it was, the words he recalls are an absolutely fitting tribute to the steel with which young men from across our country faced adversity. He is absolutely right to take the opportunity to make that point.
My hon. and gallant Friend is making an excellent and poignant speech. Tomorrow, I will visit our mini-arboretum in Blackpool, where not only a whole range of war veterans are recognised, but there are particular plantings for those from Blackpool and the Fylde coast who died in Afghanistan and Iraq; indeed, their names have been added to the war memorial in Blackpool. Does he agree that it is really important that we make a special effort in this centenary year to ensure that those who lost their lives in Afghanistan and Iraq are commemorated on local war memorials?
I am very grateful for that intervention, and my hon. Friend is absolutely right to say that this commemoration provides a very important opportunity to reflect on the service and sacrifice of not just those who served us 100 years ago, but those who more recently served our country in very difficult circumstances in Afghanistan and Iraq. This commemoration provides a very important opportunity to make sure that we continue to pay tribute to those who served, and who continue to serve, our country.
I was reflecting on the impact that the loss of 20,000 young men must have had on our country in July 1916. Naturally, it is right and understandable that there are strong and differing opinions about that war, which took the lives of so many young men. That was certainly true 100 years ago, and it is true today. Some will say that those young men died in a conflict that, though appalling, was necessary and needed to be fought. Others argue that their sacrifice was futile, in a war that achieved nothing and could and should have been avoided. It is a debate that has engaged historians and many others for many years and I am sure will continue to do so, but I believe that these commemorations should not be about Government and politicians sitting in judgment on events that took place 100 years ago. They should be about creating an environment in which we can all reflect on these events in an open and democratic way that is respectful of opinions that did, and do, differ.
As well as the silent tributes we will pay, there will also be room for lively debate and discussion. We should not shy away from talking about the anti-war movement, about the protest that took place against the war, and about those who refused to fight as a matter of conscience. As well as remembering the brave sacrifice of those on the front line, it is very important that we take the opportunity to include in this discussion the heroes who served our country on the home front, because we know that the first world war reached far beyond the poppy fields of Flanders. These commemorations should also tell the story of the people who kept this country going: the miners; the factory and railway workers; and those who worked the land and cared for the wounded.
This particularly struck me last week when I visited the National Memorial Arboretum in Staffordshire, a beautiful place that honours with fitting dignity and grace all those who have served our country in conflict. I was joined by a number of other Members, including my hon. Friend the Member for Gedling (Vernon Coaker) and my hon. Friend the Member for Eltham (Clive Efford), who is doing so much in his role—as is my hon. Friend the Member for North Durham (Mr Jones)—to support these commemorations and help make them a great success for the whole country. Together, we paid our respects at memorials to those who fell in the first world war and other conflicts since. We also visited memorials to those who served on the home front during the second world war, which underlined for me the fact that, although groups such as the Bevin boys have rightly become imprinted on our national consciousness, the story of the home front in the first world war is less well known.
My hon. Friend is making an eloquent and intelligent speech. The first world war was also a period of enormous political and social change; there were the rent strikes in Glasgow, in which tens of thousands of people participated. They led directly to the first rent restriction legislation in the whole of the Europe, which was passed in record time, in recognition of the work, led by women, for change in their own society.
I completely agree with my hon. Friend that this commemoration provides a unique opportunity to reflect on the very important social change that took place, and I will say more about that in a moment.
As I was saying, the story of the home front during the first world war is less well known. In my own Yorkshire region, hundreds of coal miners would die serving our country underground between 1914 and 1918. One personal hope that I therefore have for these centenary commemorations is that one day, there will be a fitting national memorial to recognise the debt we owe to everyone who contributed during the first world war here at home.
Again, I am grateful for that intervention. It is incredibly important that we take the opportunity to commemorate the sacrifice of those who served on the front line and those who served on the home front. As a Member representing a Barnsley constituency, I know how important people consider it to be that we do not lose sight of the difficult conditions that thousands and thousands of men worked under, not only underground in this country, but supporting our armed forces on the western front.
I was about to say that one personal hope I have for these centenary commemorations is that we have a fitting national memorial for those who contributed on the home front during the first world war, not just because of the importance of their service, but because it is also part of the story of how our country changed. The war led to more working women than ever before, taking on roles that had previously been the preserve only of men. An estimated 2 million women entered the work force, including 1 million women employed by the Ministry of Munitions alone. More than 250,000 joined the women’s Land Army and helped Britain fight off the peril of starvation caused by German U-boats. They joined countless individual heroines who showed us how bravery can come in many different forms, including amazing women such as the nurse Edith Cavell and the doctor Elsie Inglis. Together, those women left millions of cracks in what had previously been a pretty immaculate glass ceiling. Not one woman and hardly any working men had the vote when the war broke out.
Will my hon. Friend also acknowledge the women who were called up to into a profession that previously had been seen as being way beyond their capability—the police force? Those women walked the streets at night on their own, keeping them safe, as well doing the unique little job of calling on women whose husbands were at the front to check that they were not up to any shenanigans.
I am always grateful for my hon. Friend’s interventions and she makes an important point. I say again that this commemoration provides us with a unique opportunity to reflect on the role that women played and still play in our society, and it is important that we take the opportunity to reflect that in these commemorations.
As I was saying, not one woman and hardly any working men had the vote when war broke out, but by 1918, 8.4 million women were finally enfranchised by the Representation of the People Act 1918. Our democracy expanded, society became less deferential, the trade union movement grew, the role of the state changed and our politics would never be the same. The strains of war also contributed to unrest in Ireland and helped change the shape of the United Kingdom. Britain’s place in the world shifted, and men who had never been before to Britain would come here to fight for it. Millions of people from across the Commonwealth served in the British war effort—more than 1 million came from the Indian subcontinent alone—fighting side by side with British troops on land, at sea and in the air. When the British Expeditionary Force was on the brink in late September 1914, 28,000 troops from the Indian army, the first ever to fight on European soil, came to Britain’s aid and played a crucial role in holding the line on the western front. They would, of course, be joined by soldiers from many other countries, including volunteers from Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the West Indies and parts of Africa; 175 of those servicemen from overseas would be awarded the Victoria Cross for their courage and gallantry, and we must never forget that.
My hon. Friend is making an outstanding speech. On Monday, I attended the world war one commemoration event at Hounslow civic centre, in my constituency. It was also attended by the Gurkhas and so many others, including people of Indian origin, who share great pride in the role that they have also played. Does he agree that it is incredibly important that during this year of commemoration we recognise the diversity of those who have been involved in our forces and the importance of diversity in Britain today? I am talking not just about what we share today, but about our common bonds from our histories.
I completely agree with that; there is a strength that comes from our diversity. As the Minister also said, it is incredibly important that we take this opportunity to commemorate the service and sacrifice of those people who had never come to Britain before but came here to support our efforts. We have a huge debt of gratitude to pay to them, and we will miss an opportunity if we do not reflect on that in these commemorations.
The hon. and gallant Gentleman mentioned Ireland and the troubles it was experiencing during the first world war. None the less, the Irish came across to support us, from north and south, in huge numbers. He also mentioned the Victoria Cross, so I would like to place on the record the fact that it has been won by more Irishmen than Englishmen, Scotsmen and Welshmen put together.
I am grateful for that intervention as I did not know that. I am sure that the House will be extremely grateful for that contribution and I suspect that many of us will have learned something from it.
In that same spirit, I wish to reflect briefly for a moment on the significance of people such as Walter Tull, the first black officer in the British Army; that was just one small step on the road to affording ethnic minorities the recognition and respect they deserve.
We should also take the opportunity to reflect on the fact that the war left its mark on this place where we gather today. Of all the countries that went to war in 1914, Britain’s was the only Parliament to debate entry into the conflict. When the lamps went out that night on 4 August, it left more than just a shadow over this place; 251 existing and future MPs would serve in the first world war, and 19 from the Parliament of 1914 would not come back. Their shields mark this Chamber and watch over us today, and they were joined by 24 Members of the other place, as well as 20 parliamentary staff—clerks, waiters and cleaners—who were also killed in action.
I was not aware of that, so, again I am grateful for that intervention, from which I have learned something.
I was reflecting on the impact that the war had on this House and speaking about those Members of Parliament who went to serve, but we should be mindful of the fact that the war would not just be experienced by those on the front line. When the Lochnagar mine was detonated at 7.28 am on 1 July 1916 by the Royal Engineers at the start of the battle of the Somme, the noise was heard in Downing street. That same year, all three party leaders would lose a son in the war in the space of six months. In December 1917, the Speaker at the time was forced to adjourn a debate so that hon. Members could, as Hansard records it, “'retreat to the cellars” during a German air raid.
These commemorations, as well as looking back, should also be about looking forward, because if we get this right and if we dedicate ourselves to these commemorations in the right way, they should also be relevant to the lives we live today. We should be mindful of the fact that 100 years ago, on 22 May 1914, suffragettes were being arrested at the gates of Buckingham palace, petitioning for the right to vote, whereas on 22 May 2014 nearly two thirds of a country with universal suffrage decided they were better off staying at home on election day. One hundred years ago the debate was about whether women should be allowed in the polling booth and whether they could do jobs that only men had done before. Today, the debate needs to be about getting more women on to ballot papers and into boardrooms at the top of our work force.
One hundred years ago, nobody had ever heard of shellshock or post-traumatic stress disorder. Today, the issue is not just what more we can do for our veterans returning from action, but how we prioritise the mental health of everyone. One hundred years ago, people from all over the world fought and died to protect this country. Today we need to remember the debt that we owe to people who were not born here, but who helped make this country what it is. One hundred years ago, the first world war changed the role of the state. Government took action on food, rents and wages, and that links to one of the central arguments in our public life today: what Government should and should not do in the 21st century.
I began by reflecting on a quote of David Lloyd George on Armistice day. Let me finish with some words from a week later. On 18 November 1918, this House gathered again to debate an address to the King on a victorious peace. These are the words spoken that day by Herbert Asquith, who began the war as Prime Minister and ended it as Leader of the Opposition. This was his reflection:
“When history comes to tell the tale of these four years, it will recount a story the like of which is not to be found in any epic in any literature. It is and will remain by itself as a record of everything humanity can dare or endure--of the extremes of possible heroism and of possible baseness…The old world has been laid waste…All things have become new.”—[Official Report, 18 November 1918; Vol. 110, c. 3237.]
Nearly a century on, those words have lost none of their power or their resonance, and they reflect what should be our guiding light in these commemorations. We should remember that sacrifice that was laid to dust and reflect on what changed and what became new. If someone is to look back in 50 or 100 years to what was said when this House and this country marked the centenary of the first world war, let us hope that it will be said that we kept true to that—that we kept the memory of those who served burning brightly, not wearied by the passage of time, and that we took this important opportunity to reflect on how we became the country we are today and on all those who made it possible.
Order. As there are important and relevant speeches to be made, may I suggest to all Members that they aim to speak for about 10 minutes each? That will give everyone a fair chance to make their speech and to raise their constituency issues.
It is a great privilege to participate in the second debate in this Chamber on the centenary of the first world war. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Minister and the hon. Member for Barnsley Central (Dan Jarvis) on two excellent speeches, outlining not only the programme but many of the issues that we are here to debate. I will touch on two areas, but first, let me declare an interest as somebody who, as a military historian, has written about this subject in the past. I am a parliamentary commissioner on the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, along with the hon. Member for North Durham (Mr Jones), and joint chairman of the advisory board on Parliament and the first world war.
We should not shy away from the fact that this centenary is controversial. It is not up to the Government to lay down views on every aspect of it, but we should recognise that it is controversial—that history is alive today. The Minister mentioned the fact that in two days’ time it will be the centenary of the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife in Sarajevo. That anniversary is controversial for Serbs, Bosnians, Croats and the successors of the old Austro-Hungarian empire, because it is about symbols as much as anything else.
As we speak, the leaders of the European Union are gathering in the Belgian town of Ypres. The Immortal Salient is something that resonates very strongly with the British empire and Commonwealth forces. As much as the Somme, it is a symbol of the first world war. This evening, those leaders will gather at the Menin Gate, the great memorial to some 57,000 men who have no known grave and who died in the salient. That figure only goes up to August 1917. They could not get on all the names; the rest of the names are at the Tyne Cot cemetery.
Friends and foes will gather tonight and thoughts will be going through their minds. The event is important for us because the old British Army died at Ypres in 1914. It is important because some of the first Indian troops were being deployed in late 1914 to 1915. It is also important for the Belgians and the French. Sometimes we tend to erase them from the folk memory of the first world war. Yes, they should be grateful that the British empire came to their assistance, but it is as much about their memories of the first world war. After all, Ypres was almost totally destroyed by 1918. Indeed, in 1919, Churchill, as the Secretary of State for War and Air, suggested that Ypres should remain a ruin to immortalise the sacrifice of the British and Commonwealth armies, not taking into account that the Belgians had a different view on all of that.
Tonight is also important for the Germans. Chancellor Merkel will be there. Just north of Ypres—some Members will have been there—there is the German cemetery at Langemark, which commemorates about 40,000 German soldiers, most of whom died in 1914. One man who had a narrow escape was an Austrian serving in a reserve Bavarian regiment; he was Grenadier Adolf Hitler. If only some old British soldier had taken him out, things might have been different.
Those leaders who are gathering tonight will discuss controversies such as the future of the EU. A number of my colleagues become enraged at the idea of linking the EU with the centenary of the first world war. I want to do not that, but to remember the fact that one of the reasons why the French, Germans and Belgians came together after the second world war was to prevent another major clash between the French and Germans. After all, they did it in 1870-71, 1914-18 and then 1940-45. We should be sensitive to that. It does not mean that we have to agree with everything, but we should realise that, for the French and the Germans, Verdun is probably a bigger symbol than what will happen at Ypres.
I propose to Ministers—I hope that this will find support among colleagues across the House—to add one other specific commemoration on the Government’s national commemoration list. On 21 May 2017, we should commemorate the centenary of the establishment of what was then called the Imperial War Graves Commission. I am parti pris to this because I am a commissioner, but most people recognise that the Commonwealth War Graves Commission is the biggest deliverer of much of the commemoration of the first world war. The Imperial War museum, the BBC and the Heritage Lottery Fund are very important, but the Commonwealth War Graves Commission is something that most people at some stage have come across or are going to come across, and it was not predetermined.
Many colleagues recognise the fact that before the first world war, when men in the Army died serving in Europe, they were usually thrown into a pit. Occasionally, officers got a separate burial or, just occasionally, they were brought home. We should not forget the fact that the overwhelming majority of men who served in the Royal Navy or the merchant navy have no known grave. Nelson was rare; he was brought home in a keg of rum, most of which was drunk at Gibraltar before he was put in a proper coffin. There is nothing like the old chief petty officers for getting to the heart of the matter.
The point is that in 1914 nobody thought that the casualties would be on such a scale, and it was by chance that a 48-year-old ex-Plymouth Brethren, former member of Lord Milner’s young people in South Africa, and former editor of the Morning Post, who was in charge of a Red Cross ambulance column, began to worry about what was going to happen to the dead—where they would be buried and so on. That man was Fabian Ware. As much as anything else, it was his determination, political nous and knowledge of French that enabled the setting up of what we know today as the Commonwealth War Graves Commission.
To give hon. Members some context, the War Office did not really want to know about war graves, but within three months the British Army had suffered 80,000 casualties in France. His Grace the Duke of Wellington’s Army suffered 3,500 at the battle of Waterloo. The sheer scale of the losses was enormous. Parents, wives and husbands were worried about this. Ware achieved in December 1915 an agreement with the French Government that they would allow a series of dedicated areas to be consecrated as proper war cemeteries, where British dead could be brought during the war and afterwards. It was logistically important but also perhaps emotionally important that Ware decided not to allow tens of thousands of people to bring their husbands and sons home.
So the Commonwealth War Graves Commission deserves to be part of the recognition of the centenary. It meets all the criteria that hon. Members are looking for. It is about more than Great Britain. It is about equality in death, which was a rare thing that Ware demanded. There would be no distinction in rank or background; the gravestone would be the same. It would be laid out in a way that British empire people would recognise as representing what Britain stood for. He brought in some of the best architects such as Lutyens and Blomfield, who designed the Menin Gate, and of course the great wordsmith Rudyard Kipling. Kipling pulled every string to get his under-age son into the Irish Guards and then had the tragedy, like so many parents, of learning that he was killed and missing. The irony was that, long after Kipling and his wife had died, we were able to identify a body that was his son. Kipling came up with most of the terminology that we know today.
I hope that, apart from debating the history and sometimes the controversial nature of the first world war, we will be able collectively to persuade Ministers to celebrate the centenary of the establishment of the Imperial War Graves Commission—its patent, if you like—with the national centenary. It meets every criteria, not least in educating young people about the first world war.
I begin by commending the Government both for finding time for this important debate and for the measured way in which these centenary commemorations are being prepared. The way in which we describe the events of 1914-18 as the first world war, the great war or the war to end all wars reflects its global nature, the extent of the fighting and the fact that this was the first total war of the modern age. I am struck that the commemorations so far have been very personal to my constituents and many people I meet. It is as though everyone has a story to tell or everyone is searching for a story to tell, so I want to begin with an example that is not extraordinary in any way; it is just one story among millions.
The story is that of Sergeant Matthew Brown, who served in the 12th Battalion of the Durham Light Infantry. He was born in Consett in county Durham. He was one of seven children. He became a stonemason. He never married. He had no children. He was killed during the later stages of the battle of the Somme in October 1916. He was just 27 years old, which is less than half my age. He was blown to pieces near the village of Le Sars, along the Albert-Bapaume road, and his body was never recovered. His name, with those of thousands of his comrades, is inscribed on the great and moving memorial to the missing at Thiepval. I do not know what went through Matthew Brown’s mind when he enlisted or in the hours and days before he died, but I doubt very strongly that he would ever have imagined in a million years, let alone a hundred years, that his name would be mentioned in this great House of Commons, let alone by his great nephew, but I am proud to do so.
The commemorations are not just about those individuals, of course. They bring together local communities. Less than two weeks ago, I stood with veterans and local residents in Cullercoats in my constituency at a service to rededicate a plaque with the names of local men who died in the first world war. The plaque stands on the east side of St George’s church and was rededicated at exactly the same time on exactly the same date as the original plaque was dedicated 93 years earlier. Students at Marden high school took part in the event, and they will now research further the effects of the war on what was then a small fishing community.
One issue that emerged, and I am sure is emerging in many other places, is that some of the names on the plaque were of men who had no link with that community. Many of the men who died in the community are not on that plaque. Yet of course, it is a listed monument so, apart from one small correction of a spelling mistake, and that after a great deal of deliberation, no changes can be made. That is frustrating for families sometimes.
The plaque includes the names of Major and Captain Knott. Their father Sir James Knott was distraught at the deaths of his only two sons and set up a trust that continues to do good work today, including the building of Knotts flats to improve the provision of municipal housing in what was then a declining fishing and mining port.
The Tynemouth world war one project is based at the Linskill centre and funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund. More than 70 volunteers, under the inspirational leadership of Alan Fidler and Dan Jackson, are mapping the stories of men and women from just one borough—Tynemouth. They have already identified 2,000 men who lost their lives as a result of world war one. Most of them are from the town where I live, North Shields.
Any of us who have studied or taught the history of the 19th century and looked at industrial cities will be familiar with the maps that show where people died in cholera and typhus epidemics. The map that has been produced by the project is remarkably similar, yet this was a man-made epidemic.
Lectures at Northumbria university have been well attended and there have been less formal ones at the Low Lights Tavern. The project aims to mark with a plaque as many houses as can be found of those who fell. It is important for local people to know. Local newspapers such as the News Guardian and Evening Chronicle have given not only support but excellent coverage of what the project is doing. This Saturday the database will go live and on 3 August there will be a parade and service in Northumerland square. The project’s aims were to be informative, accessible and inspirational, and it is all those things and more.
The north-east paid a particularly high price in the war. It was said that working in the coal mines and shipyards gave local men the aptitude and stamina for trench warfare. Northumberland raised 55 battalions of fusiliers—more than any other county in the country. The Durham Light Infantry raised 43 battalions. Their histories record them as being where the action was heaviest. There were eight battalions of Tyneside Scottish and Tyneside Irish, showing where men had come from to work on the great northern coalfield. The Tyneside Scottish alone lost all four of its lieutenant-colonels on the first day of the battle of the Somme.
Scholars and historians will go on debating the first world war, its causes, its course and its effects, and so they should, but what is not debatable is the sacrifice made by individual soldiers, sailors and airmen, or the munitions workers, miners and shipyard workers— 60,000 of them along the banks of the river Tyne—who worked tirelessly to support the war effort. As the son of a Bevin boy, I support very much the idea that there should be a lasting memorial to them. Millions of men and women were prepared to defend their country—our country—and the values that they believed their country stood for. For the millions who gave their lives, in the famous words of Laurence Binyon, I say, “We will remember them.”
Mr Deputy Speaker, I thank you, Members in all parts of the House and the staff of the House for the warm welcome I have received since I arrived here. It is an honour to make my first modest contribution during this debate. As the Prime Minister said last year, commemorations say something about who we are as a people, and we in this country have a tradition of striking the right tone on such occasions. It is right that the House and the Government have given this such thoughtful consideration. Before I do so, I want to pay tribute to my predecessor, Mr Patrick Mercer, and say a few words about the constituency that I am incredibly proud to represent.
Patrick Mercer came to politics after 25 years as a soldier in a Nottinghamshire regiment, the Sherwood Foresters, and his strongly held views, particularly on defence and national security, were rooted in his own experience of military service. He knew what it was like to write to the mother or wife of a fallen soldier. He himself had fought with a courage and bravery we all wish we could display in our own lives. I know that Patrick worked hard for the people in Newark, particularly in his care and support for those returning to Nottinghamshire from Iraq and Afghanistan. I know he was, and remains, deeply attached to this beautiful constituency.
The town of Bingham was represented by my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Rushcliffe (Mr Clarke) for some 40 years prior to 2010, and it would be remiss of me not to pay tribute to him, too. There remains great affection for Ken around Bingham and, indeed, across Nottinghamshire. I understand that there is even talk of a statue, but opinion divides as to whether it should face the local cricket pitch, his favourite hostelry or the local Chinese restaurant where the young Mr Clarke is said to have held his early surgeries. I also walk in the footsteps of Gladstone, who did not stay long as a Newark Conservative, losing the confidence of the Duke of Newcastle, upon whom much depended in those days, and perhaps recognising that, as in the recent by-election, the Liberal vote in these parts can be quite limited.
It is almost unnecessary for me to tell the House about my constituency because many right hon. and hon. Members are already surprisingly familiar with it. Indeed, it has been said that Newark has not seen so many parliamentarians since the end of the civil war. As one sage trader in Newark market said to me at the weekend, the town has become such a popular destination for MPs that it is surely time that we, too, established an all-party parliamentary group.
I enter the House following a by-election, the result of which was historic—the first such victory for our party in government since that of my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary. After 25 years and 16 consecutive defeats, my right hon. Friend was, I suspect, only too glad to see his record broken. One journalist described us as the Fred Perry and Andy Murray of the Conservative party. The people of Newark have had to endure four by-elections in the last 100 years, and a further one was narrowly averted. It is my ambition to ensure that Newark now enters a period of electoral stability.
Newark is rich in history and blessed with some of England’s lesser known but most attractive towns, villages and countryside. It stretches from the shadow of Belvoir castle in the south to the tidal Trent villages of Bassetlaw in the north, and includes Southwell—or Southall—dominated by its Norman minster, Tuxford and Bingham, the latter recently voted England’s best place to bring up a family. The eastern border is Nottinghamshire’s county boundary, and includes villages of great beauty and historic connections, such as Elston, home of the Darwin family, and Norton Disney, the ancestral seat of Walt Disney. To the west the seat stretches from Lowdham and Epperstone, close to the city of Nottingham, through Caunton, Laxton, Wellow and Egmonton into Robin Hood country—the old Nottinghamshire dukeries whose occupants once dominated its politics and the Nottinghamshire coalfields once a major part of our economy. There are almost 100 villages set in undulating, largely arable agricultural land, watered and too often flooded by becks and tributaries of the River Trent.
Newark has been a meeting point for almost 1,000 years. The Romans built a motorway through it, the Fosse way, and later the Great North road. We have to put up with the A1. The Normans built a castle, later replaced by Bishop Alexander of Lincoln’s summer palace, or at least that is what he told the King when asking permission to build it. That castle was slighted by Cromwell after Newark surrendered following its third siege in the civil war. No town stood alone longer. No people proved more resilient. Its fall was the last order of Charles I, the price of his own surrender to the Scots at Kelham, having arrived at the Saracen’s Head in Southwell late the night before from Oxford, disguised as a priest.
During the recent by-election, the same inn played host to the leader of the United Kingdom Independence party, who arrived from Malta, not in disguise as far as I know, but also heading to Kelham, in this case for the election count—although he too has not always enjoyed being at the mercy of the Scots. Newark will soon boast the first national civil war museum. Having experience of the arts business, supporting our heritage sector, particularly in the regions, where funding has been limited, I intend to contribute on the subject.
Newark’s economy has at various times relied on wool, beer, grain, sugar, cream cakes, transport and antiques. The economy is growing, with 8,000 new jobs created since 2010. Newark has a high proportion of small and medium-sized businesses. My parents set up their own manufacturing business at our kitchen table and I will seek to support many Newark constituents taking personal risks, working hard and pursuing enterprising lives by defending low and simple taxation and light and flexible regulation.
An area whose virtue has long been location, location, location urgently needs investment in its creaking infrastructure, whether that is a southern relief road for Newark, increased services on the Lincoln-Newark-Nottingham railway and east coast main line or broadband for our underserved rural communities. A growing population requires appropriate public services, particularly health care, whether that be ensuring the long-term future of Newark’s cherished hospital or ensuring that our ambulance service is fit for purpose. There is a sentiment that Newark has not been front of mind for decision makers. Being a hidden gem is all well and good, but this one now requires some attention.
I am also conscious of how this little corner of England can prosper on a wider, global stage. I join this House having spent the last four years managing a British business expanding by entering new markets, accepting wholeheartedly the challenge and reward of globalisation. Newark businesses are succeeding in the global race. Our architects, Benoy, have grown from designing the local cowsheds to designing the shopping malls of China. I want to see more such businesses in my constituency.
This is in many ways one of the greatest times to be alive, when much of what we thought we knew is wrong, with the shift in power from west to east, the financial markets turned upside down and the internet upending old industries. But our success depends greatly on whether we can deliver the best schools and skills to young people, preparing them for the jobs of the future. My constituency is blessed with some outstanding schools—the Minster, Toot Hill and Tuxford—and a growing number of quality apprenticeships. I will make it my priority to raise educational standards in Newark—a town that, for all its many virtues, suffers areas of deprivation where we must do all we can to increase opportunity for all. The challenge as we emerge from the great recession is not only to finish the job—there are, after all, no final victories in politics; all achievements, however hard won, can be and are undone—but to position towns like Newark and, indeed, the country as a dynamic and optimistic place, living and trading courageously, face turned to the world.
In times of great change, a sense of anxiety can prevail, which brings me back to the subject of today’s debate, the importance of remembering our past and doing so in a manner that reflects and enriches our values. On 10 August this year in Newark, young and old together will recreate the rally and great march from our market square to Radcliffe-on-Trent undertaken on the same day in 1914, six days after war was declared, by hundreds of young men, who went on to training and ultimately to the trenches. Fewer than half of those men returned. Proportionally, Newark was one of the most affected towns in the UK. On 24 August, Newark football club will recreate the peace or truce match in Ypres, playing a German side from our twinned town, inspired by William Setchfield, the Newark lad widely credited with sparking the famous match 100 years ago this Christmas.
Southwell minster has hosted an evocative collection of local memories that I enjoyed taking a primary school to visit, entitled “No Greater Love”. Love is, I think, the key: to those who served our country, we offer belatedly our love by remembering and better understanding what they experienced, placing young people and education front and centre, and displaying the British virtue of being thoughtful and compassionate, able to look outward and to the future without neglecting our past.
It is an honour to serve as Member of Parliament for Newark. In doing so, I will act with the hopes, dreams and aspirations of Newark as my guide.
With other Members of the House, I welcome the hon. Member for Newark (Robert Jenrick) to his place. I knew his predecessor well and often heard his views on defence. We did not always agree, but more often than not, we did. I should apologise, because family commitments meant that I am one of the Members who has not visited his constituency lately. I therefore found it particularly interesting to hear his description, which may explain why so many Members flocked there. I recognise his hope that there will be no more by-elections for Newark and that we will now enter a period of stability.
If the hon. Gentleman is right and the view he takes in this House is one of “investment, investment, investment”, particularly in services, I think he will get a great deal of support from across the House. Investment in schools, educational standards and skills for young people is something that many Members agree on.
Today is a difficult day on which to make a maiden speech, because we have already heard some stunning speeches from Members on both sides of the House. It is interesting to see the hon. Gentleman at the heart of parliamentary unity, surrounded by Conservative Members. I hope that he continues to occupy such a harmonious place with members of his party.
I must admit to some shenanigans on my part. On Sunday, I attended a church service in Kenfig Hill, celebrating a week of community activities in Kenfig Hill alongside a commemoration of the first world war. In the service, the address was led by the Venerable Philip Morris, archdeacon of Margam and priest in charge at the parish of Ewenny and St Brides Major. When we came out of the church, I sidled up to the archdeacon and said, “Great sermon! Can I borrow it?” As a result, much that the House will hear today the archdeacon helped me write.
It is only appropriate that I commemorate the archdeacon’s part in this speech, because I too wanted to talk about how people in our local communities and the surrounding area played a part in the British war effort, in the trenches and at home. Many of the youngsters who went to war came from farm labouring jobs and had a very limited understanding of the wider world. For most of them, going as far as the large town of Bridgend would have been a huge achievement; to get as far as Cardiff would have been beyond their belief; and crossing the Severn into England would have been viewed with dread. Yet many joined the Glamorgan Yeomanry, headquartered in Bridgend, and on 9 August boarded a troopship—the SS Arcadian, which sailed from Devonport—for the front.
Instead of arriving at “the front”, the Glamorgan Yeomanry, knowing only the wet and the cold of the Welsh countryside, arrived in Alexandria in Egypt. We need to remember that the front was not just in France and Belgium. Instead of wet and rainy, the place they arrived at was hot and dusty. On the first day in camp, there was a sandstorm in which many of their tents were blown away, never to be recovered. They fought the Germans in Libya and Egypt, and the Turks in Palestine, and eventually they were taken to Marseilles to participate in the last big push in France. Four hundred and fifty-three officers and 7,661 other ranks of the Glamorgan Yeomanry were killed or wounded.
For many children, the war years are remembered in the lines of Dylan Thomas, whose 100th anniversary is also this year. He wrote of his childhood in the “ugly, lovely town” of Swansea,
“This sea town was my world…and…beyond that...a country called ‘The Front’ from which many of our neighbours never came back. At the beginning, the only ‘front’ I knew was the little lobby before our front door; I could not understand how so many people never returned from there”.
That would have echoed with many children in the Britain of 1914-18, though many were deeply involved in the war effort. Boy scouts were used to watch for invasion along the coast; they helped farmers on the land, because farm workers were going to the front. They helped during harvest; they acted as messengers for Government Departments and as orderlies in hospitals, helping those who had been injured at the front and brought home to hospitals in the country. Girl guides worked on vegetable patches and, like the scouts, on farms, digging and weeding, and they harvested fruit. Scouts and guides carried important messages and delivered milk. They parcelled up clothing such as knitwear to be sent to soldiers, and they learned first aid so that they could help the injured.
There is a great story, in what others have remarked is the wonderful BBC coverage, about how the scouts contributed to the war effort by helping to collect conkers. The collection was described as
“invaluable war work and…very urgent. Please encourage it.”
The scouts and children were never told exactly why the Government needed conkers, but they collected them with energy. So successful were their efforts that more conkers were collected than could be transported, and piles rotted at railway stations, but 3,000 tonnes of conkers made it to their destination, the Synthetic Products Company of King’s Lynn, where they were used to produce acetone, needed for the manufacture of cordite, which was the propellant for shells and bullets.
The scheme had been created by the Ministry of Munitions, run by that great Welshman, David Lloyd George. The programme was kept secret until after the war for fear that the Germans would learn of the idea. The wartime Government refused to disclose the purpose of the collection of conkers and, rather oddly, the Ministry of Defence, when questioned, was not clear in its answer, stating only that the conkers were needed for “certain purposes”. That sounds like the sort of answer we get even today.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Tynemouth (Mr Campbell) said he thought his great-uncle would have been proud to know that 100 years later my right hon. Friend would be a Member of the House. My grandfather, Driver A.E. Ironside, 17785, would have been amazed that women had the vote, and even more amazed that we were allowed into this House. He was called up at the start of the war and left on a troopship on 14 August from Limerick. His first nine days at the front were peaceful, if rather damp, but from 23 August he and his compatriots were under constant fire, often running to abandoned positions and seeing many wounded, as he saw action at the battles of Le Cateau and Mons.
My grandfather’s diary for 5 September records:
“We arrived in Monthyon stayed here for the night properly knocked out both horses and men. We found this place upside down with people. The houses its terrible to see the poor people on the road in a large cart and they don’t know where to go for safety, its heart breaking.”
One of the places such people went was Porthcawl in my constituency. The hon. Member for Broadland (Mr Simpson) said that we should remember the Belgians. Well, in Porthcawl we do remember the Belgians, because in my local museum, where we are commemorating Porthcawl’s engagement in the first world war, there is a large display about the Belgians—about how 4,500 who came to Wales found a welcoming place, and how people in Porthcawl took them in and helped them find their feet.
According to the local paper, Porthcawl had
“done better than any place in the country, having regard to population and other circumstances.”
The same paper, the Porthcawl News, ran a Flemish glossary and a Belgian column in order to aid the interaction between the Welsh people and the Belgians. The Porthcawl Belgian refugee committee, run by councillors and citizens, organised the assimilation of the refugees into the community, managed donations to the refugee fund, found accommodation and employment for the refugees and placed Belgian children in local schools. Although the majority of the Belgians returned home after the war, in 1921 Britain had double the Belgian population. We must remember the efforts of those Welsh men, women and children at home, who opposed the Germans peacefully while the military gave their lives.
I urge Members not to go to by-elections but instead to come to Porthcawl, where there is not going to be a by-election, on 2 and 3 August to see and hear illustrated 30-minute talks about Porthcawl during the war. They can join the Glamorgan Family History Society, which will help them to find members of their family who took part in the great war. There will be a recruiting sergeant, period street events, and a Lions club vintage fair, and the Rotary club will have a vintage car display. We will end, appropriately, with a service of reflection at All Saints church, just as we will all be reflecting throughout today.
I congratulate the Minister and the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Barnsley Central (Dan Jarvis), on two excellent speeches setting the tone of the debate. As has been said, this is the second debate that we have had on the subject, and we have not yet started the four years of commemoration of the great war. I suspect there will be more debates to come. I, too, pay tribute to everybody who has been involved in preparing the ground, notably the Imperial War museum and the BBC. Both those organisations are keen, as are the Government and Members across the House, that those should be commemorations, not celebrations, and that wherever possible they should be local commemorations.
I am delighted to say that in Colchester, local military historian Jess Jephcott has set up a Facebook page for this purpose with just one line: “Colchester Remembers 1914-1918”. On other webpages he kindly mentions a public meeting that I convened in March this year
“to explore ways in which Colchester could commemorate the centenary of the First World War. Those persons who attended gave a positive response and comprised members from the armed forces, the Royal British Legion, youth organisations and private individuals. It was agreed that a vigil should be held on the evening of the centenary of the first day of war being declared”,
so at 7 pm on 4 August, just a few hours before the midnight deadline in Berlin was reached, we will gather for a few minutes for a silent vigil—no banners, no great speeches, just a silent vigil—because, of course, it was all going to be over by Christmas.
We anticipate that there will be further commemorative events over the next four years, culminating in a celebration to mark the end of hostilities on 7 November 1918. There are those who believe that the war ended in 1919, as I mentioned in the previous debate; some communities believe that the war ended with the treaty of Versailles in 1919, which is the date one sometimes sees on war memorials. The aim of the Colchester group is to welcome others to join them in creating appropriate events to commemorate the various happenings, and to link up with others who are planning similar events within the town and the local community. The idea is not to have a formal committee or a big group, but to bring in individuals and groups such as the scouts, the guides or the Royal British Legion to organise their own events, using a central webpage in the hope of avoiding clashes. The opening page concludes:
“Does your locality’s war memorial need sprucing up? Has anybody done a transcription of your war memorial? Do you have pictures of these men and women who served during WW1 and stories to go with them?”
In the summer of 2001, I had the great honour of visiting the battlefields when I accompanied the Colchester sea cadet band, which played at the great ceremony that takes place every night at dusk at the Menin Gate. The next day at Tyne Cot cemetery, I made a point of going to look at the names of the fallen of the 1st Battalion the Essex Regiment, to see whether there were any with the name of Russell. There was Private J. Russell. A few months earlier, my first grandson, Joseph Russell, had been born. Following on from what the shadow Minister said, it was a poignant moment to see on a war memorial the name of my first grandson. Joseph Russell, who will shortly be 13, will go later this year to the fields where so much loss of life occurred, on a battlefields tour for students.
It is important that we bring to today’s generation what happened 100 years ago. I am delighted that the women of the war are to be featured. The poppy fields is an excellent addition, which I hope will be featured. We had a bombing raid in Colchester in the great war, which needs to be recognised and remembered. There are photographs showing the damage.
On 5 and 6 July, the Colchester military festival will take place, in aid of ABF The Soldiers Charity—formerly the Army Benevolent Fund. Although the aim is to show how important our armed forces are in the 21st century, particularly in the garrison town of Colchester, I think that it will set the scene for what happens from 4 August onwards. In the autumn, Colchester Military Wives Choir will sing in the town’s Mercury theatre. Again, that is not a direct first world war commemoration, but there is clearly a link.
It is also worth mentioning that on 19 July the transformed Imperial War museum in London will reopen to the public, revealing its brand-new first world war galleries, which will be free to the public. They will allow audiences young and old to explore what the first world war was like, and to learn how terrible it was for the hundreds of thousands of young men who came from around the world to fight. I am delighted that the hon. Member for Canterbury (Mr Brazier) mentioned some of the countries that sent their young people to fight. One of them was Canada. The Imperial War museum features an exhibit on the Canadian expeditionary force.
We are talking today about a war that commenced 100 years ago; 100 years ago, it was the 100th anniversary of another war—one that has been airbrushed out of this nation’s history. Those Members who have read yesterday’s Hansard will have seen that yesterday I had a debate in Westminster Hall—it begins at column 88—on “History Curriculum: North American War, 1812-14”. Had the Americans won that war—we won it—Canada would not have existed, and there would have been no Canadian expeditionary force in 1914, because the United States did not join the war until 1917. Who knows whether the war would still have been raging in 1917 had it not been for the Canadians and others from the empire who took part?
I welcome this debate. It is important that we remember the history of 100 years ago, but we must also remember history prior to that.
I welcome the opportunity to contribute to this debate. I rise to speak not only as a Member of this House, but as chair of the Northern Ireland First World War Centenary Committee. I also have the pleasure of representing Northern Ireland on the national advisory board for the commemorations.
I thank the Minister for the excellent work that he and his colleagues have undertaken in providing leadership for the centenary commemorations, which is very much appreciated in Northern Ireland. The help and assistance that we have received from the Department in Whitehall has not gone unnoticed. I also want to thank my colleagues on the committee in Northern Ireland, who represent all the key stakeholders involved in the commemorations, for the excellent work they are undertaking. I will say a little more later about the programme being developed in Northern Ireland for the centenary period.
Mention has already been made of the worldwide significance of the war. It helped to shape the history of Europe in the 20th century, and its impact on the island of Ireland was particularly significant. Indeed, arguably the events of that period continue to shape the history of Ireland today. Many of the men who fought in the ranks of the 10th and 16th Irish Divisions and in regiments such as the Royal Irish Regiment, the Connaught Rangers, the Royal Dublin Fusiliers, the Munsters, the Leinsters and the South Irish Horse were Irish volunteers committed to securing independence. Equally, the men of the 36th Ulster Division, who filled the ranks of the Royal Irish Rifles, the Royal Irish Fusiliers, the Inniskillings and the North Irish Horse, were Ulster volunteers who believed passionately in maintaining the Union with Britain. The future of Ireland was shaped not on the streets of Dublin in 1916, but on the muddy, blood-soaked battlefields of the western front, where Irishmen from every province of the island fought side by side in common cause.
The first Member of this House to lose his life in the war was an Ulsterman, Captain Arthur Edward Bruce O’Neill, who was the Member for Mid-Antrim, which is now represented, at least in part, by my hon. Friend the Member for North Antrim (Ian Paisley). Captain O’Neill was killed in action while serving with the 2nd Life Guards at Klein Zillebeke ridge on 6 November 1914 at the age of 38. He was the father of Captain Terence O’Neill, who became Prime Minister of Northern Ireland. Captain O’Neill served with valour. In November this year, with Mr Speaker’s permission, we hope to hold a small act of remembrance at the war memorial in Westminster Hall in memory of the honourable Captain Arthur Edward Bruce O’Neill MP.
Another Member of this House to die in action during the great war while representing an Irish constituency was Major Willie Redmond. He was killed in action while serving with the 6th Battalion the Royal Irish Regiment at Messines ridge on 7 June 1917 at the age of 56. He was a committed Irish nationalist, and brother of the leader of the Irish parliamentary party in this House. In the winter of 1916, months before his death and in the aftermath of the slaughter at the Somme, Willie Redmond wrote these words to 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.”
After the war, the lines were drawn across Ireland and the bridges were broken down. We all know the history of the decades that followed that war. Today, in the 21st century, those bridges that Willie Redmond spoke of are being built. They are bridges of co-operation between the two parts of the island, based on mutual respect—the kind of respect that was in the hearts of the men of the 10th and 16th Irish Divisions and the 36th Ulster Division who fought side by side at Messines in 1917. It is particularly poignant that Willie Redmond was carried off the battlefield by men from the 36th Ulster Division, including Private John Meeke of the 11th Inniskillings.
In honour of men such as Captain Arthur O’Neill MP and Major Willie Redmond MP and the ideals they upheld, we have chosen remembrance and reconciliation as the twin themes for the centenary commemorations in Northern Ireland. Our programme reflects that. On 4 August, as we mark the outbreak of the war, there will be a special service at St Anne’s cathedral in Belfast representing all traditions on the island of Ireland, current and past. We will then have a candlelight vigil at the cenotaph at Belfast city hall, where representatives of the Government of Northern Ireland and the Government of the Republic of Ireland will come together in an act of remembrance. We hope to have, for the first time in Northern Ireland, the pipes and drums of the Royal Irish Regiment play alongside those of the Irish army band.
We are planning other events as we look forward. I acknowledge, as the Minister has reported to the House, the excellent work being undertaken at Glasnevin cemetery. Not only have the war graves been restored to an excellent condition, but the erection there of the cross of sacrifice is particularly symbolic and significant. As he pointed out, the cross not only sits in the shadow of Daniel O’Connell’s monument, the round tower, but alongside Gladstone’s grave. Sorry. I do not mean Gladstone, who would not have been buried in Ireland—some people on my side of the House might have wanted to bury him in Ireland. I of course meant Parnell, who was leader of the Irish nationalists. De Valera is buried there too. Alongside their graves we have that fitting memorial to the men—56,000 of them—who left the island of Ireland and gave their lives in defence of our freedom.
Looking ahead, in 2015 we will join others from across the Commonwealth at Gallipoli, where the Irish made a significant contribution at the battle there. In 2016, the centenary of the battle of Jutland, there will be a particular focus on HMS Caroline, which is based in Belfast harbour and currently being restored by the National Museum of the Royal Navy. I thank the Minister and his colleagues for helping us to secure not only the retention of HMS Caroline in Belfast but the funding that will now see her restored to her former glory and right at the heart of the commemoration of the battle of Jutland.
In 2016, it is the centenary of the battle of the Somme, which is seared into the collective memory of the people of Ulster. The men of the 36th Ulster Division were at the forefront of the battle of the Somme. On that fateful morning of 1 July, thousands of those men lost their lives or went missing in action as a result of their heroic efforts. Indeed, a number of them won the Victoria Cross. We are participating in the national project across the United Kingdom to mark the memories of the men who won the Victoria Cross during the first world war with the placing of a stone in their town of birth. This will be done not only in Northern Ireland but in the Republic of Ireland, where the Irish Government have consented to receive the stones to mark these men. We very much welcome the fact that they will have their memories commemorated in that way.
In 2017 we mark the centenary of the battle of Messines, when the Irish Divisions fought alongside the Ulster Division. We intend to mark that particularly poignant occasion in a number of ways, bringing together people from across the island of Ireland. Finally, of course, we move towards the centenary of the armistice in 2018. We are considering a major project that will leave a lasting legacy of the centenary of the first world war in Northern Ireland.
I want to conclude my remarks with two quotations. At this time, it is the people who served and those who were left behind at home that we remember most. Captain Wilfred Spender served with the 36th (Ulster) Division at the battle of the Somme. After the battle, as he reflected on the heroics of the men who had gone out to fight that morning, he 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.”
A number of those men won the Victoria Cross that morning. The sacrifice was enormous.
The Minister mentioned the cultural side of the centenary, with the war poetry and the music, and all that is very important. I want to quote one verse from a poem written by Susan Adams from Pipers Hill in Lisburn in my constituency. It is a tribute to her son, Private Ralph Adams of the 13th Battalion Royal Irish Rifles, who was killed in action on 1 July 1916. She wrote this:
“In afar distant land though his body now rests.
Far from his home and the ones he loved best,
Still deep in our hearts his memory we’ll keep,
Sweet is the place where he now lies asleep.”
Those words remind us that whether in the far-off fields of France or in the graveyards across this United Kingdom, it is the men and women who fought and died whom this centenary is most about.
It gives me great pleasure to follow the right hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Mr Donaldson), who made a very poignant point about how Ireland fought together in the first world war. I am sure that that spirit will mean that all people can live together in Ireland in future. I thank the Minister and the shadow Minister for their great contributions to this debate, which is a very poignant moment for us to remember the war. I congratulate the hon. Member for Newark (Robert Jenrick) on an excellent maiden speech. We look forward to many great speeches from him. The people of Newark are very well represented in this place.
As we stand here some 100 years on from the start of the first world war, we take so much for granted—our freedom of speech and our ability to vote in democratic elections. We must remember the 887,000 soldiers from the United Kingdom and the British empire and the more than 1.6 million in total who were killed in that conflict. We must remember that at that time there were significantly lower populations in this country and across the world, so a huge percentage of young men were cut down. Perhaps some will dispute this, but—dare I say it—it was such a pointless, needless war: a war of imperial powers muscling up to each other to see who was the greatest. Such a waste of life is quite unbelievable. Of course, even today, conflicts go on across the world, but, thank goodness, we do not see them in our own country or across much of Europe. That is very much to be welcomed.
I congratulate the Government and all the political parties on the events that will take place throughout this memorial year, because it is right that we remember. For many of us, perhaps, this is history, and when we see things about battles on television and in films, it brings home to us what happened. As the generations of young people go by, they need to be reminded of it, not in a bloodthirsty way but in a way that shows them the loss of life that took place and what happens in war, so that we can try to bring about a situation where there is far less war in future.
I very much welcome the centenary apprenticeship scheme that the Government have launched, which encourages 100 companies that existed 100 years ago, at the start of the first world war, to offer apprenticeships. That is a very good scheme.
I have strongly supported Devon county council in its commemorative project, Devon Remembers. We have to make sure that the memorials in all our villages are remembered, maintained, and brought up to a reasonable standard.
The Woodland Trust is planting four woods across the country, and that is a very good idea. With my farming background and my great belief in growing things, I think there is nothing better than a tree as a living thing that represents bringing things to life again after such a terrible war.
In Beer, a small village in my constituency on the coast of south Devon, men who were called up to the Royal Naval Reserve marched along the streets to a band as they went off to war. That will be commemorated on 3 August, 100 years on, when the same thing will happen again.
Even politicians were not immune. The hon. William Walrond was Member of Parliament for Tiverton from 1906—a little while before me. He died in 1915 while serving as a lieutenant with the Royal Army Service Corps during the first world war. His name is listed on the memorial to the dead in Westminster Hall and is on one of the 42 heraldic shields in the House of Commons Chamber commemorating each of the MPs killed during both world wars.
It is not possible for me to attend the Remembrance day services in all the villages and towns in my constituency, because they are so spread out, but I attend services in Honiton, Tiverton, Axminster and Seaton on an alternate basis. On reading the list of names, I find it poignant that the number of those killed in the first world war is probably two to three times the number of those killed in the second world war, and many of the family names of those who lost loved ones in the first world war are repeated on the list of those who died in the second world war. That is what brings it home to me. We need to remember that and create a memorial that is about not which country was right and which was wrong, but bringing those countries together. It is good that we now remember alongside not only France and Belgium, but Germany.
My mother is 89 and our family were fortunate, because five of her uncles went to war from farms in Somerset, with their horses, and all five of them returned. That was, of course, very unusual, and we were blessed that so many of our family returned. The relatives of many of my constituents did not return, so it is very good that we are holding this, not celebration, but memorial to what happened in the first world war. The treaty of Versailles led very much to the rise of Hitler and the Nazis and all that followed. Let us in the 21st century remember what happened in the 20th century and pray to God that we do not let it happen again.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Neil Parish), particularly given his comments about the four proposed woods. Many of us will be able to picture photographs and Paul Nash’s paintings of the destroyed trees and their stumps. The proposal is an appropriate part of the commemoration process.
It is always a privilege to listen to a good maiden speech: we certainly heard one today, and I welcome the hon. Member for Newark (Robert Jenrick) to his place.
I am sure that most of us have listened to many excellent BBC programmes and heard many moving accounts from the men who served. I want to add to those accounts. No account is more poignant to me than the diary entry I am going to read now. It is dated 17 August 1914 and is from the diary of my great-uncle Lieutenant George Ward of the Duke of Cornwall’s Light Infantry, who was killed in action on 24 August 1916. His cousin, Gordon Clarke, wrote to his brother—my grandfather—who was recovering from serious wounds received earlier in the battle of the Somme, that he had seen George a couple of days earlier and he was in good spirits. The date of that letter was 24 August, the day he was actually killed. There are so many stories like that, and Gordon was killed four days later.
My great-uncle wrote:
“Europe is plunged into an awful war, what the issue will be no one can say. What waste of human life.”
He also expressed concerns about the problems of the slums in Britain and the need for money to be spent there, and questioned whether the war would be just and sensible. For a very young man, he was prescient in his concern about the size and scale of what was about to happen. Nevertheless, even with his misgivings and concern for the poor in Britain, he felt that it was his duty to serve. He had been a member of the Congregational Church and the Boys Brigade and had been involved in adult school evening classes.
My great-uncle also wrote to his parents to tell them of the great conflict in his soul about joining up. He felt that he should be away with his fellow countrymen fighting a noble cause, which was difficult because his parents were staunch pacifists. In fact, my great-uncle George’s name is not on the local war memorial because his father would not allow it to appear. That is a cause of enormous sadness to me, but it was very strongly felt and that is why his name does not appear.
In my great-uncle’s letter to his parents, he said:
“Could we have reasonably remained neutral without prejudice to our national honour? I think not!”
That was the view of an ordinary man at the start of the conflict. Clearly he had his fears and he queried the jingoistic comments in some newspapers. He wrote about not wanting
“to crush that beautiful Germany of Beethoven, Schubert, Martin Luther and Schiller but we do have to smash the military caste.”
That was his view at the time and it is an interesting observation.
My great-uncle is buried near Albert, in the Peronne road cemetery, which I will visit this summer to pay my respects. I add my thanks to all those involved in the Commonwealth War Graves Commission for the work they do. I think that the speech of the hon. Member for Broadland (Mr Simpson) will stand the test of time: people should read and take note of it, because it was fascinating on many levels.
My grandfather was blown up on the Somme on 12 July. He came back very badly injured and could never get life insurance as a result. These were the days when post-traumatic stress disorder was not recognised. How did he cope with what he had done and what he had seen? It is very interesting and it is only as I grew older and when I was an adult that I understood some of his behaviour. He used to take himself off to his allotment to be by himself. When family were present and people were chatting, he would not involve himself in the conversation. He would go off and play the piano in a very solitary way. He never, ever talked about his experience. I think that was the only way in which he could manage and deal with the horrors he had seen. Everyone present probably has a similar family story. We also need to remember those on the home front, including the women who worked in the munitions factories, and the terrible risks they faced at the time.
Today we talk of urgent operational requirements, but the speed with which the Government moved following the outbreak of war and the way in which cities such as Plymouth responded was astonishing. We should remember that in those days, they sent telegrams rather than text messages. Local historian Derek Tait notes that by 9 August the Government had already taken over control of the railways and all regular schedules were suspended.
Five of the 14 Plymouth-based ships were sunk during the battle of Jutland, including HMS Indefatigable. She had seen action in the Dardanelles, but was sunk after her magazine exploded following two or three direct hits. Only two of her 1,019 crew members survived. When we think about the losses experienced in the trenches, let us also not forget the huge loss of life at sea or, indeed, the short life expectancy of pilots flying for the Royal Flying Corps in those early planes that seemed to be held together with nothing more than string. Flying boats also took off from Mount Batten. Plymouth is a very rare thing indeed—a place where all three forces have been based simultaneously. The city of Plymouth will, of course, be holding many commemorations. The city museum is running a series of exhibitions that I hope people will go along to.
HMS Warspite was launched in 1913 from Devonport, where she began her distinguished career as the most decorated ship in the Royal Navy. Plymouth was one of the most important ports and that remains the case today. Of course, our merchant navy also went in and out of Plymouth, Portsmouth and elsewhere. We should take time to consider the losses that it incurred and the bravery of those men who sailed and kept this country supplied.
I congratulate the hon. Lady on the excellent speech she is making. Has she visited, as I have, the fantastic memorial to the merchant navy by the Tower of London? It is very moving—it lists the ships sunk and the loss of life on each of them—and does she agree that it is a very special memorial for a nation that has always depended on the sea?
Indeed. The hon. Gentleman is absolutely correct. I urge people who come to London and visit the tower to go to see the memorial, particularly this year or during the coming four years.
Interestingly, the war coincided with the amalgamation of three towns—Plymouth, Devonport and Stonehouse—into what we now know as the city of Plymouth. It was as Plymouth that citizens rallied around to support the troops and to care for the injured. Some 120,000 soldiers mobilised out of Plymouth in just four days between 5 and 9 August. Like many other cities, we had Pals regiments.
I again thank the Plymouth Herald and local historians for drawing my attention to the Plymouth Argyle players who enlisted. Jack Cock earned the military medal for bravery in the field. At one stage, he was pronounced missing presumed dead, but, fortunately for his family and for the club, that was not the case. He went on to score 72 league goals, as well as to play for England. I am sure that the current Green Army are very proud of their club’s players, and of their bravery and sacrifice.
Many schools in the city were converted for a range of uses, including as hospitals, and the city saw the return of injured Australians from the dreadful battle of Gallipoli, as well as the opening of a hospital specifically for US servicemen. Troops from across the empire—from Canada, India and New Zealand—set off from Plymouth, and we should remember the sacrifices of those men alongside those of other allies.
Such a wealth of information on which to draw gives us a very varied picture of what happened and of how individuals responded to the dreadful challenges they faced and the sights they witnessed. I was therefore a little surprised to read an article sent by my great-uncle, Lieutenant Ward that was printed in the Romford Recorder, because he gave it very much warts and all; there was no censorship. He described feeling happy to be alive but went on in graphic detail to describe the shelling of his trench and wrote about a private
“wild-eyed, white and haggard looking, plastered with mud asking for urgent help for the ‘Durhams’ who have got it.”
He also talked about the bravery and calmness of the stretcher bearers, and particularly about a Corporal Swain, a man from Cornwall. It is therefore interesting that when I was on a walk along the cliffs at Pentire point in Cornwall, I came across a plaque which reads:
“For the Fallen
Composed on these cliffs, 1914”.
The words by Laurence Binyon have already been mentioned, but they are worth repeating:
“They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old.
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.”
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Plymouth, Moor View (Alison Seabeck), who made a very personal speech. It is also a pleasure to speak in this debate, not least because it allows me to congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Newark (Robert Jenrick) on an excellent maiden speech. It could not have been improved, even—I am sure that we all agree—with the insertion of the words “long-term economic plan”. He will have the pleasure of knowing that no hon. Member will ever have to look up his constituency when they want to refer to him in a debate.
I want to start by paying tribute to the fallen, of whom 6,000 were from my city of Portsmouth, and to the wounded, of whom 18,000 were from my city. It is right that we remember their sacrifice and commemorate them, but I wish to focus my remarks on those from my city who—today—have been of immense service in enabling us to do just that.
Mr Charles Haskell has given time, artefacts, money and effort to build the World War One Remembrance Centre at Fort Widley, which opened last year. I believe that it is the only world war one museum in the south of England, with the exception of the Imperial War museum. As well as a record of events and personal stories, it has artefacts donated by local people displayed there. Volunteers have recreated a trench experience, which has been a real draw with schoolchildren from across the region. It is a real labour of love, and I commend the work of Mr Haskell and his volunteers on their remarkable achievement.
I pay tribute to the vision of Bob Beech, Portsmouth football club and the researcher Alan Laishley, who have documented the stories and sacrifice of the Pompey Pals—my city’s response to the initiative of General Sir Henry Rawlinson. In August 1914, the Portsmouth citizens patriotic recruiting committee called on the men of the city not already occupied in essential war work to form Portsmouth’s own battalion. It was not long before the city—including the surrounding areas of Gosport, Havant, Waterlooville and Petersfield—had raised two battalions, which were formally known as the 14th and 15th Portsmouth Battalions, the Hampshire Regiment. Like the other Pals battalions, which formed a major part of Kitchener’s new Army, they served on the western front from the middle years of the war and faced a baptism of fire on the killing grounds of the Somme. By the end of the war, 1,400 of the Pompey Pals had made the ultimate sacrifice. In August, a memorial to them will be unveiled at Fratton Park, which will ensure that their sacrifices are remembered often.
I am very grateful to the Heritage Lottery Fund, which has given my city’s museum a grant of £97,000 to support the Lest We Forget project. It has gathered volunteers from across Portsmouth to record and gather stories and to run community events to enable us all to remember. The whole city has responded to that and other initiatives. Churches, community groups, the creative industries and other organisations are all taking the opportunity to discover their local history and the stories of the time, as well as to ensure that future generations can do the same. I wish to pay tribute to all the work that is going on, which is largely being done by volunteers.
I pay tribute to the work of the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, and the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, my hon. Friend the Member for South West Wiltshire (Dr Murrison), as well as of my hon. Friend the Member for Broadland (Mr Simpson), on whose committee on this House’s commemorations it has been my privilege to serve. It is right that so much effort is being made for this centenary, and I thank them not only for putting on national events, but for the opportunities and support that have assisted my constituents in creating some wonderful and lasting projects on this occasion—for the benefit of us all—to remember so many.
Lastly, we have quite rightly focused on world war one graves over the past few months and in this debate, and on second world war graves through the 70th anniversary of D-day and other such events, but by comparison with those white stones, the wooden crosses of those who died in service between the wars often form a stark and tatty contrast. I hope that we can create a similar effort to ensure that their last resting places are also cared for and maintained. They deserve no less.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Newark (Robert Jenrick) on his maiden speech, which I thought was excellent. I, too, welcome him to the House.
The first world war affected virtually every town and village in Britain. In every community there stands a memorial to those who lost their lives fighting for their country. In my constituency of Sedgefield, it is no different. From Hurworth on the River Tees in the south to the former colliery village of Thornley in the north, those who served and died are honoured and remembered.
At least 1,500 men from the constituency were killed in the war to end all wars. In the town of Ferryhill, more than 130 gave their lives; in the village of Chilton, more than 100; in the village of Thornley, 134; in Wingate, 147; and in Wheatley Hill, 96. All those communities had something in common, which was that they were all colliery villages, and many men volunteered for the armed forces rather than go down the pit. In the Army, they were sure to be fed and clothed, and they would be able to stand up straight. They of course believed that the war would be over in a few weeks.
I want to mention at this point two specific members of the armed forces from my constituency who fought in that war. The first is 2nd Lieutenant Jack Youll, a miner from Thornley who won the VC on June 15 1918 but was killed on 27 October at the battle of Vittorio Veneto in Italy. He did not survive the war. Thomas Kenny, a private in the 13th battalion of the Durham Light Infantry from Wheatley Hill received his VC from the King and went on to survive the war, spending the rest of his life working down the pits of Wheatley hill and Wingate.
I believe that the number of soldiers around the constituency commemorated on memorials to be an underestimate in many cases. The war dead of the Trimdons prove the case. In 1914 over 2,000 miners worked down the local pits, and the memorial on the wall of St Albans church in Trimdon Grange tells us that 450 from the Trimdons served in the war. The memorial also lists the names of 94 who did not return. There is also a memorial in Trimdon colliery that shares some of the same names. Research by Adam Luke, an Oxford university student from Trimdon village, has revealed that 199 men from the Trimdons were killed, the equivalent of 45% of all those who served. This is a staggeringly tragic statistic. The research details the regiment in which the men served and when they were killed. During the war years, there were just under 1,000 households in the Trimdons. Every household would have been affected in some way by the catastrophe of the European battlefield.
At the battle of the Somme, 11 sons from the Trimdons were killed on that first day of July. By the end of the Somme campaign, 39 families had lost a son, husband, brother or father, half of them with no known graves. For example, on 1 July, Private Martin Durkin served with the 26th Tyneside Irish Battalion, the Northumberland Fusiliers. His battalion set off across no man's land, marching, according to a war diary
“as if on parade under heavy machine gun and shell fire”.
Private Durkin did not return to Trimdon Grange, has no known grave and was one of his battalion's 489 casualties that day. Private Barnes, of the 1st Battalion, the Border Regiment, was from Lower Hogg street, Trimdon Grange. Private Barnes was one of the many, as the regiment's war diary records, who was
“wiped out by machine gun fire in our own wires.”
The battalion suffered 619 casualties, and Private Barnes rests at Mailly Wood cemetery in France. On the same day, Private Frederick Hunter of the Royal Fusiliers was one of his battalion's 227 casualties who were involved in fierce hand to hand combat. Mr and Mrs Hunter of Trimdon lost a son that day.
The horror of the Somme went on until mid-November. Private Fred Shorthouse was killed at the Somme on 8 November 1916, just days before the end of the campaign. Fred was the second son of Mr and Mrs Shorthouse of 7 Pringle street in Trimdon Colliery to be killed in the space of six months. His brother had been wounded at Gallipoli and died earlier that year on 29 May. Private Fred Shorthouse was also married. He lived with his wife Mary at Lawson street, Trimdon Colliery. Their son Arthur, was born on 4 April, 1914. Fred joined the 1st Battalion DLI in 1915. Shortly after, he wrote home to his mam and dad. He wrote:
“I was out to tea and supper on Saturday and was at a concert at the Chapel...and last night again at a lecture so you see mother I am not wasting my time... the battalion is going foreign in a week or two...but it is not to fight we are for garrison duty abroad...we have not to fight so you see everything works together for good...The only thing that will trouble me will be leaving the old homestead and the faces I love because you have been a good mother to me. I will never forget you but we just have to hope for better days to come”.
Private Fred Shorthouse has no known grave.
Many of the streets and terraces of the first world war Trimdons are no longer there, but it can still be recorded that Front street, Trimdon Grange, lost four men to the war. Railway row, Deaf Hill lost three. Cross street, Trimdon Foundry, lost three. Kelloe Winning lost four. Coffee Pott row, Trimdon Colliery, lost four. The Plantations, Trimdon Grange, lost five. The list goes on.
The research undertaken by Adam Luke will be placed in a roll of honour and will detail not just those from Trimdon who were killed during the first world war, but those killed in all the wars since. The Trimdons have given up 269 of their own in conflicts since 1914. I commend the work Adam has done to ensure that all those who have lost their lives from the Trimdons will be remembered.
At 10.30 pm on Monday 4 August, in St Mary Magdalene's Church in Trimdon Village—like in many other places of worship up and down the land—a candlelit vigil will take place to remember the 199 Trimdon men killed during the war to end all wars. The Trimdons’ loss was not unique, but it serves as a sobering reminder of the suffering our communities embraced between 1914 and 1918.
The horizons of the men from the Trimdons during those years were limited to going down the pit or going to war. All that lay on the horizon for the women of the Trimdons during those years was inevitably to live in a pit village and marry a pitman. In 2014, all the pits have closed and there is no world war. The horizon for the young people of Trimdon is broad and, for many, is lit with optimism. Adam Luke is the grandson of a bus driver and is now at Oxford university, something that could never have been dreamed of during Fred Shorthouse’s short life. The aspirations of our young people in the second decade of the 21st century are many and varied. It is down to us to ensure those aspirations are fulfilled in a world where neither death by coalfield disasters nor world wars will ever happen again.
I want to end my speech by returning to Private Fred Shorthouse and some words by his wife Mary. She could not afford a sturdy memorial to sustain his memory over the decades. Mary had instead a Remembrance card printed. It read:
“In loving memory of Private F Shorthouse, Beloved husband of Mary Shorthouse of Trimdon Colliery, Who fell in action, November 8th, 1916 aged 27 years. Deeply mourned by his loving wife and child. Gone, but not forgotten.
I hope someday my eyes shall see,
The face I loved so well,
I hope someday my hands shall clasp.
And never say farewell.”
We must ensure that our nation never says farewell to those who served and died for their country. We must never forget. That is why this debate and the commemorations to come are so important.
It is an honour to follow so many colleagues on both sides who have spoken so movingly, including my hon. Friend the Member for Broadland (Mr Simpson) and the right hon. Member for Tynemouth (Mr Campbell), with whom I sparred gently over the years before I was retired out of the service. It is fitting that in this place, to which we all come from different walks of life and different parts of the country, our memories of our constituents or our families reflect exactly what happened 100 years ago, where so many people fought and died while disregarding their status in society. That is reflected here today.
May I also say what an honour it was to listen to my hon. Friend the Member for Newark (Robert Jenrick)? I have to say that that was a marvellous speech. As someone who came to the House in a by-election I can say that it is all downhill from now on. The Whips will have taken note of a speech like that and will mark my hon. Friend down for plenty of statutory instrument and delegated legislation committees because that is what it is all about.
Just after my 18th birthday—
It was indeed a long time ago and I can just about remember it. Just after my 18th birthday, I was standing, literally, in the footprints in the pavement in Sarajevo, by the river Miljacka, where Gavrilo Princip stood and fired those fateful shots that sparked the conflagration we are discussing today. At the time, it was chilling to think what had happened and what the consequences were. As my hon. Friend the Member for Broadland and others have said, the causes of the war and who was to blame are matters for historians to discuss at great length. I have noticed that a certain amount of revisionism is going on in certain quarters, but I will leave that aside. Little did I realise then, of course, that Sarajevo, having been the trigger point for such conflict would in a few decades again become the very centre of more conflict and killing in Europe in our own era.
I am afraid to say that the folly of us all as human beings is that we never seem to learn the lesson of history. That is why these commemorations have to be held and why we have to educate generation after generation in the hope that somehow those mistakes will eventually be realised. We must remember, too, how easy it is to fall into violent conflict.
I congratulate the Government and the country as a whole on the way in which they are embarking on this anniversary. There will be many commemorations throughout the country—some grand, some major civic ones, some local, some individual ones. In my own small parish church, St Laurence in Cowley near Uxbridge, they are researching the names—not a great number—of those on the war memorial. We are still trying to track down the one lady whose name is on there—Olive Latham. We have not yet found out about her history, who she was and why she is on the memorial.
I am proud to say that when a memorial was built and consecrated in Uxbridge after the first world war, we called it a “peace memorial”. I grew up thinking that it might have been done in the ’70s—in a decade of awakening in which we felt that we should not be talking about war—but I found that that was the original name for our memorial. That is fitting, given that Uxbridge was, and to some extent still is, a centre of non-conformism. The hon. Member for Plymouth, Moor View (Alison Seabeck) talked about her forebears in the congregational church, and that applies to me, too. For many of the local people, at heart, there was a degree of pacifism but perhaps there was a need for people to answer a stronger calling to serve their country.
As we have heard movingly from many Members, every family will have memories from those days that have been told down the generations. Both my grandfathers were in the forces. My maternal grandfather was in the Royal Flying Corps, principally because he was a woodwork teacher and the aeroplanes were made out of wood. He ended up doing important work mending the planes, so he did not have to serve on the front line. My paternal grandfather, Bert Randall, joined the Royal Horse Artillery and kept a diary. As a good Randalls, as I hope I have been, we always obey the rules. He wrote his diary every day, but it ceased as soon as he went overseas, when keeping a diary was not allowed.
It is fascinating to read what my grandfather had for breakfast, lunch, dinner and many other things from day to day, but it does not provide the sort of insightful, deep and philosophical thoughts of which we have heard from other diaries. I noticed from the diary that he started off with a boyish enthusiasm, joining up with his mates going off to war. While he was training, first in Reading and then in Norfolk, it is possible to see that enthusiasm being tempered, as he realised that some of his comrades were being sent off to France to fill the gaps as a result of all the casualties. The realisation that this was not a game was dawning on him.
One of the most poignant pieces of memorabilia pertaining to my grandfather is provided by a little note he sent. He was on the front line in France, manning a gun limber, and the horse was blown up underneath him, wounding him quite severely. He came home on a hospital train and I have the very note he scribbled out in pencil, which he gave to someone to deliver to his mother in Uxbridge, saying “I’m all right, I’m safe”. He said he did not know why he was being sent to Nottingham when he was only a few miles away from her, but he told her, “Don’t worry, Mum, I’m okay”. I find that incredibly moving, because these stories are all about people. I am sure that many of us here are parents and we can hardly begin to imagine the horror of seeing one’s children going off to war.
My grandfather never wanted to talk about the war—it could be an example of that non-conformism. On Remembrance Sundays, my father who had served in the second world war was very happy to wear a poppy, but my grandfather was not. I think it was the horrors he had seen. He never really wanted to talk about it. That stays with me.
Thankfully, both those grandparents returned home, but not everybody in Uxbridge was so lucky. Lord Hillingdon was one whose son, the honourable Charles Mills, died in action. He was killed in 1915 when Lord Hillingdon was the sitting Member of Parliament for Uxbridge. Everybody is affected and, as I said earlier, we have to educate every generation about what happened.
We have talked about some of the excellent schemes that have been put in place—that of the Institute of Education, for example—and there has been a concentration on the western front. It is quite easy to send schoolchildren across to France and Belgium to see the moving war cemeteries, the Menin Gate and so forth. We have to remember, however, that the war was fought on many fronts and that many people lost their lives throughout the world. In my own borough of Hillingdon, there is an obvious link with the wider world where graves of Australian and New Zealand servicemen can be found at Harefield church, which has an annual Anzac day service at which local school- children put a little Australian or New Zealand flag on the graves. Harefield is one of the smallest villages in Middlesex—it is still there, still a village and still in Middlesex—but it was home to two Victoria Cross recipients in the first world war.
Returning to my theme of remembering what happened elsewhere, I shall talk briefly about the conflict on the Salonika front. I shall do so not only because I studied the history and languages of the Balkans at university, but because I discovered recently the story of British women, particularly Scots but some English women, who served on that front. Although they are much feted in Serbia and elsewhere, we know very little about them over here—something we should try to rectify.
Those women mostly went out as nurses. One particular woman, not in the first flush of youth, had been rather snubbed over here. She wanted to join up and do nursing, but they did not think she had enough qualifications, so she joined the Red Cross and went over to Serbia, where along with various others who had volunteered, she was thrown into the middle of an horrendous typhus epidemic. In the early days of the war, more soldiers were dying there from typhus than they were from battle wounds. Many of the nurses and doctors succumbed to the disease, but these women gallantly turned some of these hospitals round.
Then, as the Serbian army pushed back, something began to happen in 1915. I hope that we shall take part in some of the commemorations of it next year, because the British were involved, although not as much as some. The Serbian nation—I say “nation” because this included the Parliament, the King, bishops, the army and many civilians—retreated across the Albanian mountains along to the Adriatic coast, and thence to the island of Corfu. It was a terrible retreat, during which hundreds of thousands of people died. It is interesting to note that the Albanian people allowed the Serbian army to pass freely. Some of the rivalries about which we hear today may not be as long-lasting as we probably assume.
At the time of the retreat, a nurse, Flora Sandes, decided to enlist in the Serbian army. She did not see why she, as a woman, should not be able, or allowed, to do what a man could do. The Serbian army personnel were a little bit sceptical, but they needed every person they could get. They thought that somehow having one of their allies—a British person—alongside them would be a morale-booster, and so it proved to be. Flora joined up as a private, and she did not get many special favours. She was on that terrible retreat, and she went to Corfu. After the French and the British had enabled those on the retreat to convalesce and re-equip themselves, they arrived at the Salonika front. Flora Sandes was very seriously injured.
As I have said, I do not think that we in this country have fully recognised that, at a time when women did not have the vote and it was very rare for them to be doctors, women such as Flora Sandes not only wanted to do such work, but were given an opportunity to do it in a place that was not their own. There is an excellent book on the life of Flora Sandes and others, and I have to say that the more I read such stories, the more of a feminist I become. That may seem unlikely, but it is true.
The Scots did not only send nurses. They, as well as the French, took some of the young people from Serbia who had gone on that terrible retreat—many of them had been orphaned—into their homes, where they were looked after. I think that some connections still exist. Scotland took a very proud part in those events, and is remembered very fondly in the Balkans as a result.
We know that we must engage in these commemorations for the reasons that I have already given, but I also remember an experience that I had a few years ago, just before we had to vote on the war in Iraq. I took two of my children—it was half term—to the site of the battle of Waterloo, and also to the cemeteries and trenches of the first world war. I am not a great military historian like my hon. Friend the Member for Broadland, but I think it important for people to know about their history.
When I saw, face to face, the reality—the enormity—of what armed conflict means in terms of human life, it became very difficult for me to say that I had the right to send people to their deaths. There are times when we have to do it, and I recognise that: I am not a pacifist by nature. However, it makes us all have to think, because making such decisions is not an easy matter. For that reason, I am thankful that I had the opportunity to make that visit.
Let us go forward into these commemorations. Let us try to ensure, for the sake of those men and women who gave their lives—and those men and women whose lives were ruined for ever because of all the trauma, which might have been gassing or might have been just what they saw, and were never really mended afterwards—that those lives were not given in vain. We must do everything we can to try to avoid the follies that we end up going into.
I want to associate myself with the tributes that have been paid by Members in all parts of the House to the millions of people, of all nationalities, who lost their lives during the first world war. I must admit, however, that I have been somewhat uncomfortable with the way in which debates surrounding the commemorations of the “great war” have been framed in recent months.
At the end of October 2012, my hon. Friend the Member for Arfon (Hywel Williams) and I tabled an early-day motion criticising the Government’s decision to spend £50 million on plans to commemorate the centenary of the beginning of the war, in an attempt, as the Prime Minister put it, to replicate the national “spirit” that marked the Queen’s diamond jubilee celebrations. We argued then that, in view of the fact that an estimated 10 million soldiers and 7 million civilians had lost their lives and 20 million had been seriously wounded, any attempt to observe the centenary in a jubilant manner would be deeply insensitive. With that in mind, I have been greatly heartened by the themes that have featured in today’s debate.
This should not be, as some have argued, an opportunity to celebrate the “best of British” spirit. It should not be used as an excuse to redraft the national curriculum so that schoolchildren, in England at least, are taught a skewed, victorious version of history. The first world war should rather be remembered as the unnecessary massacre that it was. It was, after all, the first industrialised war of its kind, and marked the first occasion on which chemical gas, machine guns and tanks had been used on such a scale.
Men and boys rushed to enlist, thinking that it would “all be over by Christmas”. The military leaders who led them into battle were utterly unprepared for how long the conflict would last, and for the horrors that trench warfare would bring about. The fate that awaited them, as Wilfred Owen had it, was that they would “die as cattle”. The sheer numbers of the dead meant that the Army was forced to review the way in which dead soldiers were buried. Rather than there being mass burials and unmarked graves, each soldier’s name was recorded and then engraved on one of the war memorials that are to be found in villages and towns throughout Europe.
In another of Owen’s celebrated poems, “Dulce et Decorum Est”, the poet exposes “the old lie” that it is sweet and noble to die for one’s country. However, quite apart from the horrendous ways in which the young men died—which was, of course, what the poet was referring to in his closing couplet—this was not a war that sprung from noble causes. On the contrary, it was inspired by competing imperial foreign policies. Speaking at an event in Bosnia and Herzegovina earlier this month, the Nobel peace prize winner Mairead Maguire argued that
“The shot fired in Sarajevo a century ago set off, like a starting pistol, a race for power, two global wars, a Cold War, a century of immense, rapid explosion of death and destruction.”
The worst lie of all was the claim that this would be the war to end all wars. In hindsight, we see that the end of the conflict in 1918 only marked the prelude to mass unemployment, depression and, eventually, a second world war.
During a period of convalescence in July 1917, the soldier and poet Siegfried Sassoon wrote a letter to his commanding officer renouncing the war effort. Copies of the letter were printed in newspapers under the title “Finished with the War: A Soldier’s Declaration”, and Sassoon’s words were quoted during a debate in this place by Hastings Lees-Smith, MP. In his letter, Sassoon lamented the fact that the war
“on which I entered as a war of defence and liberation, has now become a war of aggression and conquest.”
He further added:
“I am not protesting against the conduct of the war, but against the political errors and insincerities for which the fighting men are being sacrificed.”
He only escaped a court martial by being diagnosed with shell shock and declared unfit for service.
A year later, the Army officer Charles Carrington said:
“England was beastly in 1918…Envy, hatred, malice and all uncharitableness, fear and cruelty born of fear seemed the dominant passions of the leaders of nations in those days.”
A recent editorial in The Irish Times summarises the political capital of the debate rather well. The piece, published on 18 June this year, points out that commemorations of the first world war have
“been a battle for the control of memory as much as it has been about remembering those who were killed.”
It also argues:
“Today, the fight to control history continues, since the war is seen though the prism of the growing debate about the need to define and assert ‘British values’ in a changing cultural landscape.”
That is perhaps what Jeremy Paxman had in mind when he commented recently:
“The events now are so built upon by writers and attitudinisers and propaganda that the actual events seem submerged.”
It is fitting, of course, that part of the commemorations will include the reopening of the Imperial War museum. The museum fulfils a highly important role in educating generations about the realities of war, and it should be commended on the work that it does, but we should not forget that when the museum first opened on 9 June 1920, its chairman, the right hon. Sir Alfred Mond MP, said:
“The museum was not conceived as a monument to military glory, but rather as a record of toil and sacrifice.”
Those in public life today would do well to keep that in mind.
During debates on the Imperial War Museum Act 1920, Lieutenant Commander Joseph Kenworthy MP said:
“We should forbid our children to have anything to do with the pomp and glamour and the bestiality of the late War, which has led to the death of millions of men. I refuse to vote a penny of public money to commemorate such suicidal madness of civilisation as that which was shown in the late War.”—[Official Report, 12 April 1920; Vol. 127, c. 1465.]
A distinction should be made, of course, between celebrating the pomp, glamour and bestiality of war, and commemorating those who died. I am a firm supporter of the campaign to erect a Welsh memorial in Flanders, which has already raised over £100,000 of its £150,000 target. I understand that the Welsh Government have also pledged money to the project.
The memorial, which will be made from stone donated by Craig yr Hesg quarry in Pontypridd, will be unveiled during a ceremony on 16 August this year. In May, my colleague and right hon. Friend the Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd (Mr Llwyd) hosted a reception in this place to raise awareness of the campaign in Parliament. I was glad to lend my support then and do so again now, because it is only right that a memorial of this kind should be in place. Tens of thousands of Welshmen died during the war, and every village in Wales was left in mourning. Over 4,000 Welshmen died in Mametz wood alone in July 1916, most from Monmouthshire and Breconshire. Indeed, it is bitterly ironic that some of those killed had survived the mining disaster in Senghennydd in 1913. Owen Sheers has written a poem about Mametz, which is now on the GCSE curriculum, and his play, “Mametz”, is being staged by National Theatre Wales this week in Usk.
It is pertinent, though, that the new memorial will be in Flanders, where the majority of Welshmen lost their lives—including our celebrated poet, Hedd Wyn. That was the pen name of Ellis Humphrey Evans, who was awarded the prestigious chair prize in the Eisteddfod of 1917 for his winning awdl, “Yr Arwr”, or “The Hero”. Evans was killed during the battle of Pilckem ridge on 31 July 1917. During the chairing ceremony the following September, when his poem was declared the winner, it was also announced that he had died in battle, and the chair was draped in a black cloak. Ever since, Evans has been referred to as “Bardd y Gadair Ddu”—the bard of the black chair. In a moving poem of that name, R. Williams Parry imagines that the arms of the chair itself are reaching
“mewn hedd hir am un ni ddaw”,
which translates as
“in everlasting peace, for one who will never come”.
I should note that the English meaning of “Hedd Wyn” is white, or blessed, peace.
I would, of course, wish to associate myself with the tributes made to those who died, and I believe that it is only right that their sacrifice should be commemorated, but as my hon. Friend the Member for Arfon and I argued in our early-day motion, it would surely be more appropriate to commemorate the end of the war in 2018, rather than its beginning.
In “Goodbye to All That” in 1929, Robert Graves said of the Armistice:
“The news sent me out walking alone along the dyke above the marshes of Rhuddlan…cursing and sobbing and thinking of the dead.”
Even peace, for some, served only to emphasise the futility of the war and the senselessness of so many dead.
This year’s commemorations should provide an opportunity for sombre reflection, for pausing and for remembering those who died, but we should not forget the pity of war and the pointlessness of the conflict that began in 1914. As history has shown, it was far from being the war to end all wars.
I would like to end by quoting an englyn by William Ambrose:
“Celfyddyd o hyd mewn hedd—aed yn uwch
O dan nawdd tangnefedd;
Segurdod yw clod y cledd,
A’i rwd yw ei anrhydedd.”
The closing couplet translates as:
“Idleness is the glory of the sword
And rust is its distinction”.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Carmarthen East and Dinefwr (Jonathan Edwards) on a passionate speech, although I disagree that the Government have struck the wrong balance. As we have heard from those on the Government and Opposition Front Benches, a careful balance has been struck in these commemorations.
I join in the tributes to my hon. Friend the Member for Newark (Robert Jenrick) for his excellent maiden speech. I met him some time before he became a candidate in Newark, so I looked forward to him coming to Parliament. He struck a good tone in his comments, and I must admit to a twinge of jealously, not at the warm reception that he received in Parliament, but because he was talking about fighting to improve his rail services, and his are more than twice the distance from London than mine in Worcester, although the journey takes about half the time. I look forward to working with him to promote the interests of business and fight for fairer funding for schools in both our counties.
It is truly an honour to speak in a debate on such a significant commemoration, and on an event that has been variously described as a catastrophe, the great war, and, for some years, the war to end all wars; as so many people have said, that sadly turned out not to be the case. The commemorations of the centenary will cover a sequence of events that profoundly changed our nation, each of our constituencies, and the world. As constituency MPs, almost all of us will take part in Remembrance Sunday services, and for me, it is one of the proudest but most humbling moments to take my place each year in Worcester cathedral for the moving service of remembrance. In recent years, those services have attracted ever larger crowds, and those at the Cenotaph service outside the cathedral now dwarf the packed congregation inside. Later I will touch on some of the local aspects of commemoration that will take place in Worcester, and my recent visit to Commonwealth war graves in Worcester.
First, however, I will focus on one of the most positive aspects of commemoration, which is the way it can bring communities together, heal the wounds of the past, and remind us of the things that unite us, rather than those that divide us. The Minister touched on the importance of the commemorations to Ireland, both Northern Ireland and the Republic, and the right hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Mr Donaldson) made an excellent speech on those issues. As Parliamentary Private Secretary to the Northern Ireland Office and someone who attended my first British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly earlier this year, that point has been impressed on me very clearly.
It is truly remarkable that last year the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland stood alongside the First Minister and the Taoiseach for a service of remembrance at Enniskillen, and the Minister of State joined Ministers of the Republic of Ireland in laying wreaths at both Glasnevin and Islandbridge. It is perhaps more remarkable still that last year’s Remembrance Sunday service in Belfast was attended by the Sinn Fein Lord Mayor of that city—the first time in which that party has formally taken part in the event.
Those steps toward reconciliation are welcome, and I commend not only the excellent speech of the right hon. Member for Lagan Valley, but his work in bringing the exhibition “Fields of Battle—Lands of Peace” to Parliament; it echoes the theme of reconciliation through remembrance.
It was good to see Her Majesty the Queen on her visit this week to Northern Ireland laying a wreath at Coleraine and launching the programme for the Royal British Legion’s commemorations in both Northern Ireland and the Republic. I am glad that that programme also includes the service at St Anne’s cathedral in Belfast and the Woodland Trust work in County Londonderry. It is especially appropriate that the programme of commemorations has funded the extensive restoration of HMS Caroline, which, as Lord Trimble said yesterday, is the last surviving veteran of the battle of Jutland.
It is welcome that the British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly is planning on holding its next plenary in Ashford, so that Members from the Dáil, this Parliament, and all the other Parliaments represented in that body can travel to the first world war battlefields, pay tribute at the Island of Ireland peace park, and read the pledge inscribed on a pillar in that park. If the House will excuse me, I think it is worth while reading into the record the wording of that pledge:
“From the crest of this ridge, which was the scene of terrific carnage in the First World War on which we have built a peace park and Round Tower to commemorate the thousands of young men from all parts of Ireland who fought a common enemy, defended democracy and the rights of all nations, whose graves are in shockingly uncountable numbers and those who have no graves, we condemn war and the futility of war. We repudiate and denounce violence, aggression, intimidation, threats and unfriendly behaviour.
As Protestants and Catholics, we apologise for the terrible deeds we have done to each other and ask forgiveness. From this sacred shrine of remembrance, where soldiers of all nationalities, creeds and political allegiances were united in death, we appeal to all people in Ireland to help build a peaceful and tolerant society. Let us remember the solidarity and trust that developed between Protestant and Catholic soldiers when they served together in these trenches.
As we jointly thank the Armistice of 11 November 1918, when the guns fell silent along this western front—we affirm that a fitting tribute to the principles for which men and women from the Island of Ireland died in both World Wars would be permanent peace.”
Amen to that.
I would like to return to matters closer to home, and in particular to my constituency of Worcester. Alongside the privilege of attending each year’s Remembrance Sunday service, I have also been honoured to go each year as MP to the city’s Gheluvelt park and attend the commemorations that take place there of a battle that may sound unfamiliar to many in this House, but which is firmly inscribed in the honours list of the Worcestershire Regiment.
On 31 October we will mark the 100th anniversary of the battle of Gheluvelt, part of the first battle of Ypres in 1914, in which the 2nd Battalion the Worcestershire Regiment advanced against overwhelming odds and, despite other forces retreating all around them, stopped the Germans’ advance and thwarted their attempt to break through the lines. That intervention was crucial. The cost of the attack was terrible: in a single day, the battalion lost 187 men, including three officers. Field Marshal Sir Claud Jacob said of the action:
“Let it never be forgotten that the true glory of the fight at Gheluvelt lies not in the success achieved but in the courage which urged our solitary battalion to advance undaunted amid all the evidence of retreat and disaster to meet great odds in a battle apparently lost”.
To this day, one of the finest parks in Worcester commemorates that action. I will be there this October, along with the Royal British Legion, Worcestershire’s regimental association, the Mercian Regiment and other units that fought alongside it. The commemorations of the bravery of the Worcesters on that day will rightly be balanced with remembrance of the tragic loss of life.
Growing up in a small village in rural Worcestershire, I was struck by the fact that the only names on our little war memorial in Abbots Morton were not from big battles such as Ypres or the Somme, but from somewhere that, as a child, I would have found difficult to find on a map—Mesopotamia. It is worth remembering, as so much focus is on the western front, the wider scope of the great war, and the fact that thousands of British and imperial soldiers and sailors fought, suffered and died in far off places such as Iraq, Gallipoli, Salonika—as my right hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge and South Ruislip (Sir John Randall) pointed out—Tanzania and the south Atlantic.
For much of the great war, the Worcestershire Yeomanry were deployed, as were the Glamorgan Yeomanry, which the hon. Member for Bridgend (Mrs Moon) mentioned, in what we now call the middle east, fighting the Ottoman empire. For all that most people of my generation have seen “Lawrence of Arabia”, it is important that we should not allow the further-flung elements of the war to be forgotten. I am pleased that the Worcestershire regimental museum contains displays about the war in the desert. In these days when we closely follow such worrying news from that part of the world, we should remember the role that Britain played in shaping the modern middle east, understand that interventions did not start in 2003, and bring a greater historical appreciation to our understanding of the region. We should also remember that alongside the more recent sacrifices that our armed forces have made in Iraq there were previous generations who fought, sweated, suffered and died in that land.
One Worcestershire hero who fought the Ottomans was Private Fred Dancox, who went on to become the city’s one and only Victoria Cross winner. Little is known about his life before the war, but he fought at Gallipoli and, having survived the horrors of that brutal battle, he earned eternal fame by his actions back on the western front at the third battle of Ypres, better known as Passchendaele. His citation for the Victoria Cross reads:
“For most conspicuous bravery and devotion to duty in attack…this man entered the ‘Pillbox’ from the rear, threatening the garrison with a Mills bomb. Shortly afterwards he reappeared with a machine gun under his arm, followed by about 40 enemy. The machine gun was brought back to our position by Private Dancox, and he kept it in action all day. By his resolution, absolute disregard of danger and cheerful disposition, the morale of his comrades was maintained at a very high standard under extremely trying circumstances.”
That citation was published in the London Gazette on 23 November 1917. At that time, Private Dancox had been granted leave to return home to Worcester. A civic reception was prepared, and the story goes that the mayor and council were even waiting at the station to meet him. Tragically, he was never to arrive. On 30 November 1917, Private Dancox VC was killed in action. A few years ago, I attended the unveiling of a plaque to the memory of Fred Dancox, and it is appropriate that our new TA centre in Worcester has been named in his honour.
The programme of commemorations in Worcester will include the 150th anniversary of our Territorial Army unit, 214 Battery Royal Artillery, based at Dancox house, which also played its part in the great war, and on 16 August Worcester will witness a military parade to celebrate that milestone. We will also celebrate the life and achievements of one of the city’s most famous sons, the Reverend Geoffrey Studdert Kennedy, better known as Woodbine Willie. This pastor served with distinction as a forces chaplain and brought comfort to the troops over a number of years, doling out cigarettes in a way that may be frowned on today but was clearly much appreciated by the soldiers of the day. Although he joined up with conviction to serve his country, his experiences at the front convinced him of the futility of war, and in its aftermath he became a passionate pacifist and Christian socialist. His legacy is well remembered in Worcester, and it is right that the programme includes exhibitions on his life and work, as well as a service at our cathedral in his memory.
Another Worcester character who will be remembered is Vesta Tilley, who became known as “Britain’s best recruiting sergeant”. This locally born music hall actress used her controversial performances, dressed as a soldier or sailor and singing songs such as “The Army of Today’s All Right” and “Jolly Good Luck to the Girl Who Loves a Soldier”, to drum up recruits, and sometimes enrolled volunteers during her performances. I was recently very moved to hear, as part of the BBC’s excellent commemorative work, a recording of a war widow whose husband was recruited from under her nose at one of these performances. An exhibition about Vesta Tilley’s life and work starts this month and will run into September at the Commandery.
Today at the Commandery, which hosted Charles I’s headquarters at the battle of Worcester, the door is being opened to the Worcester public so that they can bring their war stories, photographs and memorabilia, in order to make sure that they are included in the county’s major project, Worcestershire World War One Hundred, one of the most significant Heritage Lottery Fund programmes outside London.
The vibrant arts and cultural scene in Worcester is also playing its part. Last Friday at our Guildhall, under Woodbine Willie’s portrait, I attended the launch of the Worcestershire literary festival and heard excellent poems on the theme of “a prelude to war”. This year’s Three Choirs festival will host a performance of Britten’s “War Requiem”, talks on how the war influenced Edward Elgar, and a specially commissioned piece by the German composer Torsten Rasch that is to be called “A foreign field”. Our museums will be hosting special exhibitions, and our schools will be running projects to research local history related to the great war.
I join my hon. Friend the Member for Broadland (Mr Simpson) in congratulating the Commonwealth War Graves Commission on the work it is doing to promote understanding and visits to the war graves in our city.
My generation is perhaps the last that will have had any living contact with the generation that remembered the great war. I recall my grandmother on my father’s side telling me what it felt like to be bombed by a zeppelin in east London, and my mother talking about how, in the 1960s, her grandfather still felt the effects of having been gassed. The passing of the years and the generations should not stand in the way of our understanding or our remembering the heroism and the sacrifice, the triumphs and the tragedies, and the long-term consequences of the first world war. I congratulate the Minister and the shadow Front Benchers on setting out such a fitting and appropriate programme of commemorations, and I am proud that Worcester will be playing its part.
This has been an excellent debate, with speeches of knowledge, poignancy and passion from all Members. I do, however, want to single out the maiden speech of the hon. Member for Newark (Robert Jenrick). I, too, came into this House after a long-run by-election, so I know what he has gone through. I wish my maiden speech had been as good as his; it marked him out as somebody from whom we will look forward to hearing more. I think he will have a long and strong period of time in this House and I wish him all the very best.
I am proud that in my maiden speech I mentioned the bombardment of the Hartlepools, and I want to return to that today, because 16 December this year will mark the centenary of that event. At 10 minutes past 8 on the morning of 16 December 1914, three German battle-cruisers started firing shells off the coast of the north-east towards Hartlepool and West Hartlepool. A total of 1,150 shells were fired over a 40-minute period, and 118 people, including 37 children, were killed in the bombardment and many hundreds were injured.
I believe it is right for this House and the country to commemorate that event, because I believe it had profound and historic implications at local, national and international level. Certainly, at the local level my constituency experienced the horror and the carnage. The scene that morning in hundreds of Hartlepool homes will have been replayed countless times before and since: a mad rush to get children to school on time—children who were probably thinking about the imminent arrival of Christmas a mere nine days later. What is not so usual, thankfully, is the confusion and terror that must have arisen after the shells started raining down.
As I said earlier, 118 people in Hartlepool and West Hartlepool were killed, including 37 children. Belk street, which is still standing and is still inhabited, was particularly badly affected. That is where the youngest victim, Benjamin Lofthouse, died; he was just seven months old. Families were torn apart. The Cornforths lost three generations to the bombardment on that day. Peter Whitecross, aged eight, and his brother John, aged six, were killed together. Sarah and Hannah Jobling were aged just six and four. William and Andrew Peart were aged just five and two. The Dixon family lost three children that day: George, aged 14; Margaret, aged eight; and Albert, aged seven.
I hope those names and ages make clear to the House the big scar that the bombardment left on my constituency. Many of the streets where the shells landed are still in existence and still lived in. The families who suffered in the bombardment still live in the town. The list of people who died in the attack—the Cornforths, the Dixons, the Horselys, the Hunters—are strong Hartlepool families with long lineages. They are very familiar to me as long-standing Hartlepool families whose direct descendants are still my constituents. Although the bombardment of the Hartlepools was a century ago, in my constituency it seems much more recent.
The bombardment also has national importance. It was the first attack on the mainland in the first world war. It also saw the first soldier to be killed on British soil since the battle of Culloden in 1746. Private Theo Jones was a local lad who lived in Ashgrove avenue. He enlisted in the Durham Light Infantry, and was one of six members of 18th Battalion DLI to be killed on duty that day. Private Jones was 29 years old. He had left Hartlepool to become a teacher in Leicestershire but had returned home to west Hartlepool to serve in his local regiment. He had been one of the first to volunteer in those heady summer days of August 1914. His pupils had given him a prayer book on his leaving, and a shard of the shell that had hit Private Jones in the chest was found lodged in the prayer book he was carrying in his breast pocket. That prayer book will be included in a programme of events to be organised by the museum of Hartlepool and located at the Heugh gun battery, on the actual spot where British troops, including Private Jones, repelled the German attack. That has been made possible through an Arts Council grant, for which I am very grateful.
The bombardment also has implications beyond local or even national considerations, however. The first world war was four months old at the time of the bombardment, which changed warfare and military tactics massively, arguably for ever. Following the bombardment, the enemy realised the panic and disruption, loss of support for Government and sapping of public morale that direct attacks on civilian populations could unleash. Changing technology meant that warfare was not confined merely to the armed forces in somewhat distant trenches on a foreign field; the full horrors of war could be experienced by innocent men, women and children on civvy street. The bombardment of the Hartlepools was in this regard the unwanted architect of the blitz of the second world war and the terrorist atrocities of the late 20th and early 21st centuries.
It is for those reasons that the bombardment merits national coverage and strong recognition through first world war commemorations. I very much hope that the House will have an opportunity to debate and reflect on the bombardment of the Hartlepools on the centenary, 16 December. Each year at 10 past 8 on that day, my constituency holds a ceremony, organised by the Heugh Gun Battery Trust, to mark the occasion of the bombardment. This year, as the House will appreciate, it should be very special. I hope that, at the very least, the Secretary of State for Defence will attend, along with other Members; they will be made very welcome. I also hope that the Government will mark the centenary in a respectful and appropriate manner. In this way, the bombardment of the Hartlepools will be given the national recognition and commemoration that the attack, but most of all the lives lost in my constituency almost 100 years ago, fully deserve.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Hartlepool (Mr Wright), who reminded us in his excellent speech that the losses of the first world war occurred not just in Gallipoli or in the trenches, but at home as well. The raid on the Hartlepools was a terrible story that is well remembered now and had a huge impact on people at the time. In Folkestone in 1917, more than 60 people were killed in a single air raid. German planes that were looking for London dropped their bombs on the way back to the continent, killing innocent women and children—including children who were only a few months old—in the process. That was a tragic and terrible incident, and we should remember that there were important losses at home, as well as those on the western front. One important thing we will find during this centenary period is that we have forgotten lots of things about the war. I am talking about stories of individual heroism and of the way communities worked together, which were not part of the big narrative and are not found in the history books, but which are very important local, community stories. During these centenary years we will have the chance to tell them again.
My main focus as the MP for Folkestone and Hythe—I also declare my interest as chairman of Step Short, the first world war centenary charity in Folkestone—has been to mark the role that Folkestone played in the war effort as the main port of embarkation from these islands to the western front. There were more than 10 million movements of service personnel through Folkestone port during the war; those were people from all around the world, as well as from all corners of these islands. During this centenary we should remember that more than 1 million men from the Indian subcontinent, as well as people from China and south America, fought in the allied war effort and cause during the war. As part of Folkestone’s commemorations, we are certainly remembering those people, too.
We should also remember that we not only sent people out to fight, but gave comfort to people seeking refuge. Folkestone received tens of thousands of refugees from Belgium in the first weeks of the war; these people were fleeing for their lives, fleeing persecution and fleeing the advance of the enemy troops through their country— through their homeland. They came to this country and we gave them a home. These people went all across the UK, but tens of thousands of them stayed in Folkestone during the war. A great painting, painted in 1915, commemorating the arrival of the Belgian refugees sits in the town hall in Folkestone, and they are a very important part of our community’s story about the work people did during the war.
The main community effort we have supported to mark the centenary has been the building of a memorial arch that will stand over the route that those millions of soldiers marched to the ships waiting in the harbour to take them on their journey to France. The walk down the Slope road, as it was known then—after the war it was renamed the Road of Remembrance—to the harbour was for many the final journey leaving this country. Wilfred Owen spent his last night in England at the Grand hotel in Folkestone, billeted there before making that journey. So we wanted to do something that marked that route and that journey, and we are building a memorial arch over the route they took. As I mentioned earlier, this debate is particularly timely because that arch is being assembled today and will be in place by the end of the evening. On 4 August, His Royal Highness Prince Harry will be coming to Folkestone to dedicate the arch as part of the centenary commemorations and that centenary day itself.
I remember going on a battlefield tour when I was at school, 25 years ago, with my history teacher Mr Fitzgerald, who is still head of history at St Mary’s Roman Catholic high school in Herefordshire. He has been running exactly the same battlefield tour for 25 years, taking schoolboys and schoolgirls to Tyne Cot and Vimy ridge to see things for themselves and walk in the footsteps of the soldiers. That trip had a profound impact on me; one has to stand on the site and experience it. Our school always went in the autumn. Typically for that part of Europe, it is often blowy, cold and wet. Visitors get the tiniest insight into and glimpse of what it might have been like to have been standing there during the war. We could never truly know what it was like; we cannot imagine, in our lives today, what it must have been like to fight in that war. There is something sacred about these places, which is why it is right that the Government are supporting schools and encouraging them to take such trips, in order to get more schools to go to the battlefields to see them for themselves.
That is why we in Folkestone also wanted to dedicate a space that was relevant to the war and the experience of the soldiers—the place they marched down. They marched down the Road of Remembrance, they could see the ships in the harbour waiting to take them; they could see France, where they were going; and, in the distance, they were probably able to hear the guns at the front, which were only 100 miles away. They were not looking with wonder across the channel at the boats crossing; they were looking across a frontier to a very hostile place they were journeying to.
Throughout this debate we have heard stories of people who won great awards for their gallantry—Victoria Crosses and other military medals. Many of them were not servicemen before the war. They were not professional, trained soldiers. They gave up their lives at home, their families and their livelihoods, and they sacrificed themselves. They demonstrated incredible bravery, fighting for themselves, their communities and their families to defend their homeland. They demonstrated the incredible depths of resilience and bravery that probably everyone has. When we consider this first world war centenary period, we must ask ourselves whether we could make those sacrifices today. Could we do as people did 100 years ago? Are we too cynical? I think the answer is absolutely not. What the first world war demonstrated was the incredible resilience of people and the sacrifices that they were prepared to make in a good cause. The same is true of the 9/11 attacks in New York. Did those firemen wake up that morning thinking that they would have to run into a collapsing building while people were running out of it? They did their job out of duty and at the moment in time they were called to do it. People did the same in the first world war, and that is one of the things that we remember.
Another important reason for remembering the first world war is the message that emerged, which was that we were all in it together. It was a war fought not just by armies but by societies and nations. We relied on everyone’s efforts. There was mass conscription into the armed forces. We had a field army of more than a million people, all of whom were trained and fit. They had a diet and an education that enabled them to take part in the war effort. The people who could not fight in the war worked in the munitions factories and in the fields. Everyone was part of the war effort. The ability to put an army in the field and to win such a war required the participation of the entire population. It also required people of genius, inspiration and ingenuity to design new weapons, new techniques and new technologies that would make winning that war possible. To fight and win such a conflict required the resources of the entire population, and the entire country had to be strong.
My hon. Friend is making an impressive speech. Will he join me in saluting the work of the charity Never Such Innocence, which is marking the massive contribution made by the Dominions, as they then were, towards the great war? It is ably led by Edward Wild and Lady Lucy French, whose great-great grandfather was Field Marshall Sir John French.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his intervention. I was about to mention Never Such Innocence. The charity, which has been working closely with Australia house, has done a fantastic project of work this year, and I hope that it continues. I know that, like me, the hon. Member for Barnsley Central (Dan Jarvis) is also a supporter of the charity. I am grateful that the charity made a contribution to the Step Short project in Folkestone, and that it provided support to military charities such as Combat Stress.
It is interesting to note that Combat Stress marks its own centenary in 2019. It was formed to deal with the unique challenges, injuries and needs of people coming back from the war. It was only after the first world war that we really understood the nature of stress—mental stress from the battlefield—and the fact that it required special treatment. Combat Stress is a very relevant and important charity in its own right, and it is significant that it should be linked to the good work of Never Such Innocence.
I also want to underline the role of the Commonwealth in the war effort, especially that of the Anzac troops. Anzac day is marked now in increasingly growing numbers in this country as well as around the world and is of huge significance and importance to the history of the Commonwealth as well as to Australia and New Zealand.
I want to come back to the point about how there was this sense during the war of us all being in it together. The lesson of the war was that we need a strong society, and that to function properly there should be rewards and benefits for the whole of society coming out of that war. We also learned that the ability of a nation to fight wars in the future would depend on the strength not just of the armed forces, but of the whole country, and that our duties and responsibilities lie beyond our shores. We should fight not just wars of defence but wars to uphold the values of democracy and freedom that we have in our country. We went to war not just to defend ourselves but to liberate other people from oppression. There can be no nobler cause than that.
The first world war changed the whole of this country; it changed society. Anyone who had lived in the 20 years before the war would not have seen a huge amount of change before 1914. If they had come back to this country 20 years after the war had ended, they would have noticed that society had changed for ever. That is why these centenaries are so important. It is to remember that period of change.
Finally, I thank the Minister and the Government for the support they have given to the Step Short project. I also thank the Ministry of Defence, which is providing parading soldiers and the band of the Brigade of Gurkhas for the commemorations in Folkestone on 4 August. Soldiers will march through the memorial arch in the steps of the soldiers who went to war. It is right that the armed forces should be involved in the commemoration of the war. We are in no way seeking to make this a military occasion or to glorify war; we just want to remember that it is the servicemen who made the sacrifice and got on the ships to go and fight, and they did so in the service of their country and in the service of others. It is right that they should be involved in the commemorations that day.
I am also grateful for the support of Shepway district council and Kent county council, who provided financial support for the project. More than half of the money that has been raised by Step Short has been given as private donations. Private organisations have raised money. It is right that local authorities should support heritage projects in their areas, but also that we should seek broader support. It is right to recognise that the greater part of the support that we have received has come from other sources.
I thank the property company Lend Lease, which has provided its services for free to build the memorial arch in Folkestone. They have given a dedicated team to project manage it. That is an enormous contribution on its part. The company exemplifies the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Neil Carmichael) that this is a Commonwealth effort. Lend Lease is based in Australia, but it is giving its resources to support the project in Folkestone. It has also led on the work to restore the Imperial War museum.
I would also like to thank—this is a bit of an Oscar thank you speech, but I would like to get it on the record—the large number of organisations that have helped us with our centenary project in Folkestone. The National Army museum has brought an exhibition to Folkestone that tells the story from enlistment to embarkation. Parts of their collections have been brought to Folkestone and the museum has worked with local historians and history groups to put on the exhibition, which opened on Tuesday this week and will run for 10 months. It provides an excellent educational resource telling the story of going to war. I hope that the people who come to Folkestone to see the memorial arch will also take a look at that exhibition and that it will complement the exhibition that will be put on in the Sassoon room in Folkestone library shortly, which tells the story of the Folkestone community during the war in pictures.
I also urge all my Kent colleagues to look at the excellent online resource called Kent in World War One. We are asking people to share their data and information, pictures and stories. Such local projects and the online work of the Imperial War museum are merging official data—war records, service records and medal records and charts—with personal data such as diaries, letters, stories and photographs. That will create a wonderful resource, bringing those stories together.
It is fantastic not just to hear a citation for bravery and read someone’s war record but to hear a personal story. The Kent in World War One project maps that on local streets so that people can see what people who lived in the road where they live now did in the war, bringing the stories alive in the community. It is an excellent way of marking the centenary of the first world war.
I am sure that 4 August will be a day of moving, fitting and appropriate commemorations right across the United Kingdom, but in many ways it will be the start of a process. We will see more and more such commemorations on the important anniversaries that fall throughout the four and a half years up to the centenary of Armistice day in 2018. It is a programme that we should all celebrate and be proud of.
It is a great privilege to speak in this debate, and I join colleagues who have welcomed the tone in which it was introduced by the Minister and my hon. Friend the shadow Minister. I also compliment right hon. and hon. Members who have contributed to a powerful debate this afternoon. It has also been a pleasure to participate in a debate in which the hon. Member for Newark (Robert Jenrick) gave his maiden speech, and I look forward to hearing many more such articulate contributions from him in the months to come.
Last Saturday, I visited Imperial War Museum North, which is located in my constituency, and saw its exhibition “From Street to Trench”. The IWM North is at the heart of the world war one anniversary commemorations, with a programme of outreach and collaboration, which has enabled others across the region and beyond to mark and appreciate the significance of the anniversary. Some beautiful, moving and innovative projects are being sponsored under the auspices of the museum. There has been a creative response to the anniversary through Reactions 14, involving the English National Ballet, the BBC, local, national and international artists such as Bill Fontana, Mark Anstee and Jennifer Vickers, the Royal Northern College of Music, the BBC Philharmonic, the Lowry theatre, other museums across Greater Manchester, local councils across Greater Manchester and local libraries and archives. We are looking forward to “Honour” at the beginning of August, to the Asian art triennial in September and, of course, to “Lights Out” on 4 August.
It is important to note that the Imperial War Museum North is also at the heart of an important programme of educational outreach and engagement with young people. We have learning boxes, filled with world war one replica items for use in schools, particularly where children cannot come to visit the museum, and we have “Finding our first world war”. Of course, we hope that as many of our young people as possible from across the region and beyond will visit the museum, as I did last week.
“From Street to Trench” is a remarkable exhibition showing how world war one affected families from all walks of life across our region, and I encourage right hon. and hon. Members who are in the north to visit it. It includes footage of soldiers serving on the different battlefields and of workers in munitions factories as well as those dealing with foodstuffs, cotton and other textiles. As has been noted by other hon. Members, many of those factory workers were women, who filled the vacancies left by men serving at the front. It is possible to listen to recordings of the voices of veterans recounting their experiences first hand and to look at photographs, medals, uniforms and equipment. One can read letters, which other hon. Members have mentioned, including those from service personnel writing home to their families, which are very touching. There is a letter from Clement Attlee to his great-nephew, which I was particularly pleased to take a look at.
There are also, of course, poems—poems written from the heart by ordinary service people and their families, but also early versions of poems by some of our greatest war poets, including one of Wilfred Owen’s “Dulce et Decorum Est”, a poem that I first read, as I am sure many colleagues did, at school and which some 40 years later still has the power to move and, I have to say, chill me with its words.
If I may say so, and I hope that I will not offend anyone in this House or outside it when I say this, what struck me most in the exhibition was how little happiness there was in the images that I saw. Faces were exhausted, demoralised and bleak. I do not say that for one moment to denigrate the courage, the comradeship and the pride that people clearly took in the work that they were doing in the factories and the fields, but what came across to me is that war is hell, and not just on the front line.
The day before I went to the exhibition, I was at Stretford high school in my constituency, and I was asked by one 15-year-old student why the UK is involved in so many wars. We discussed the significance of our imperial history and our notions of international justice and obligation to our neighbours in other countries. We talked about notions of power and economic self-interest and our international alliances and friendships and, in particular, how that had led to the domino effect of country after country collapsing into conflict that characterised the start of world war one. It was clear in the discussions with the young people in that class that they did not want that to happen in their generation. They see fighting as failure, and of course it is their lives—the lives of our young people—that are the first to be sacrificed. I wonder, as we consider the international challenges and tests that face us today, and the conflicts around us and the way in which we decide that we will or will not be drawn into them, whether we do enough to hear the voices and views of young people—the generation that we would, after all, send to fight.
I am very proud of our record in the north-west in the first world war and in other wars. Our region continues to contribute to this day; for example, through the volunteer 207 field hospital located in Old Trafford in my constituency, whose volunteers—reservists all of them—have recently returned from Afghanistan. I am also proud of our industrial contribution. Trafford Park was and remains the largest industrial estate in Europe, and much of the production and industry that went to support world war one and other wars took place there. That of course made it a magnet for enemy attack, including air attack, during those wars.
I am proud of our record of dissent in the north-west. “From Street to Trench” carries some testimony from conscientious objectors, some who contributed in other ways to the war effort, some who refused altogether and were imprisoned for their beliefs. It has testimony from religious dissenters and from political dissenters and, of course, as has been mentioned, it acknowledges the debate that began the first world war, continued through it and was, to a degree, starting to be concluded after it on the role of women and women’s suffrage. Perhaps this is the moment to put on record how pleased I am that Parliament is to commemorate women’s suffrage and the arrival of women here in this House through the work of Parliament’s artist in residence, Mary Branson. I know that you, Madam Deputy Speaker, and other colleagues look forward to being closely involved in that work.
The final point I want to put on the record is that dissenting, resisting war, not being prepared necessarily to adopt the prevailing wisdom, takes great courage and bravery and is a form of contribution, too. Negotiating first and last, putting our efforts into diplomacy and building relationships, internationally through our membership of the European Union and other European bodies, and here at home in our diverse multicultural communities, where we must reach out to each community and hear their views—that is where I want us to use this anniversary period to concentrate our energies, because for me it is a tragedy that 100 years after the war that was described as the war to end all wars, we still cannot say with confidence, “Never again.”
It is a huge honour to speak in this important debate. Many Members have said that, and I think that when we reflect on the way the debate was introduced by both Front-Bench teams, we have to salute that fact. I commend the Front Benchers for what they have done.
As Members walk into this House, they are witness to a memorial to the first world war—the great war—as they walk past plaques in memory of the many gallant Members who have laid down their lives. Two are particularly significant: one for Captain O’Neill and one for Major Willie Redmond—two Irishmen, one an Irish Unionist and one an Irish nationalist, both of whom fought for king and country and both of whom made the ultimate sacrifice for king and country. They were able to set aside their other divisions and associations and to unite behind a greater cause: to fight for liberty and freedom for all their people. Those two plaques on either side stand as pillars in this House. We pass them each day, probably rarely paying attention to them, but today we have the opportunity to reflect on how those pillars unite two very different ideologies and viewpoints on what should happen on my island. That is significant; it is poignant; and it is important.
The hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green) said this was the war that was supposed to end all wars and to change all wars. Of course, it also united our peoples in a solemn way. It united us in bravery and in grief, and we should reflect on that. I, of course, as an Ulster Unionist, am proud of the people of my country and want to reflect on the sacrifice that I believe was beyond the call of duty made by many an Ulsterman and Ulsterwoman.
The number of Victoria Crosses won by Irishmen in the first world war has already been commented on in the House today. One of those men was from my own constituency, from the village of Bushmills. As the hon. Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Damian Collins) said, these were not professional soldiers, but ordinary men and women. Private Quigg was a gamekeeper on the Macnaghten estate in Bushmills and it is appropriate that his gallantry is put on the record of the House. He was awarded the Victoria Cross for “most conspicuous bravery” at the battle of the Somme on 1 July 1916.
Prior to a major offensive, Quigg’s unit had been placed in the French village of Hamel. On 1 July the Mid-Antrim Volunteers were ordered to advance through the defences towards the heavily defended German lines. During the advance, they encountered fierce resistance from heavy machinegun and shell fire. Quiggs’s platoon made three advances during that day, only to be beaten back on each occasion by German fire. The final evening assault left many hundreds of the 12th Battalion lying dead and wounded in no man’s land.
In the early hours of the next morning it was reported that Lieutenant Harry Macnaghten, also from Bushmills, the platoon commander, was missing. Robert Quigg immediately volunteered to go out into no man’s land to try to locate him. He went out seven times to search for the missing officer, each time without success. On each occasion, he came under heavy machinegun fire, but he managed to return with a wounded colleague on every occasion. It was reported that on one of his forays he crawled within yards of a German position to rescue a wounded soldier, whom he dragged back on a waterproof groundsheet. After seven hours of trying and wrestling through that mudbath and bloodbath to try to find his platoon commander, he gave up in exhaustion. Robert’s efforts to find the body of Lieutenant Harry Macnaghten were in vain, as his body was never recovered.
On 8 January 1917, Quigg received the Victoria Cross from King George V at York cottage, Sandringham. Queen Mary was also present. Later the Russians recognised his bravery and presented him with the medal of the Order of St George, fourth-class division. This is the highest award the Russian empire could give to any individual who was not a Russian citizen. That says something about the remarkable efforts that that Ulsterman made.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Lagan Valley (Mr Donaldson) earlier read on to the record Captain W. B. Spender’s comment that he was not an Ulsterman, but that the previous day, 1 July 1916, he wished he had been. Captain Spender went on to say:
“The Ulster Volunteer Force, from which the Division was made, has won a name which equals any in history. Their devotion deserves the gratitude of the British Empire.”
King George V said:
“I recall the deeds of the 36th (Ulster) Division, which have more than fulfilled the high opinion formed by me on inspecting that force on the eve of its departure for the front. Throughout the long years of struggle, which have now so gloriously ended, the men of Ulster have proved how nobly they fight and die.”
Winston Churchill wrote of the 36th Ulster Division and his pride in them. He said that
“they acquired a reputation for conduct and devotion deathless in military history of the United Kingdom, and repeatedly signalised in the despatches of the Commander-in-Chief.”
That says something of the devotion of Ulsterman in the battles of the first world war, and of Irishmen who volunteered to fight for king and country. The level of sacrifice reminds us that we as a nation must now resource that memory and encourage our schools, colleges and education boards to grasp that memory and ensure that it is not lost in time. That would be a great travesty.
I believe that we have a duty to remember our glorious dead. Some 140,000 Irishmen volunteered to fight in the great war. According to the records, 50,000 men from Irish divisions were casualties. Indeed, 5,500 from the 36th Ulster Division were killed or wounded in one day on the Somme, between 1 and 2 July 1916. In September, another 4,500 were recorded as wounded or missing from the 16th Irish Division at Guillemont. The 16th Irish Division suffered more than 28,000 casualties during the war. The fact that they came from so small a nation amplifies their sacrifice all the more.
As other Members have mentioned, the sacrifice was not only from these islands; a major sacrifice was made by the Dominions and other nations. The British empire in 1914 covered 9 million square miles and represented 348 million people. Canada sent 458,000 men to the war; Australia sent 332,000; New Zealand sent 112,000; South Africa sent 136,000—the list goes on. The sacrifice of each of those nations was immense, but also terrible and troubling, given what they had to do.
As we remember our glorious dead and the glorious memory that they have rightly earned and paid for in their blood across Flanders fields, and as we tell the story and try to commit these things to memory, we must also look forward and recognise that some good has to come from all that. Her Majesty the Queen, on her gracious visit to the Republic of Ireland, visited the memorial to the Irish soldiers who fought in the first world war. That act was not only very important and significant, but a recognition of the fact that Irishmen now want to remember that they made a major contribution to the battles that were fought, and that is very significant. Indeed, it is encouraging, because although there are things that divide us, there are things that have united us that are far, far stronger.
I congratulate both Front Benchers on setting an exemplary tone for the debate and all hon. Members on both sides of the House on contributing so well. In particular, I congratulate the newest Member, the hon. Member for Newark (Robert Jenrick), on making his maiden speech. If I may give him some advice, it is to listen to everybody in the House and then make up his own mind and do his own thing.
I want to reflect on some of the excellent work that is being done for the commemorations by many of the local families who can trace their history back, as many can, within our communities, and also by the local history societies, which remind us of the personal, local and human face of war and what it means for their communities in this long trail of history that reaches us here today in this Chamber.
Many of the people in the valleys I represent, such as Ogmore, Garw, Llynfi and Gilfach, left their work in the pits, even though they were protected jobs and they could have chosen to stay, to enlist and go overseas into areas that they had no knowledge of. They certainly did not foresee the horror that awaited them. They were people such as Corporal James Llewellyn Davies of Nant-y-moel row, who was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross for his bravery in Pilkem ridge in 1917.
Another such individual was Horace Rees, one of the first men in the Ogmore valley to answer the call in 1914, or at least to try to, because he tried 14 times and was rejected each time—he has a cleft palate and a speech impediment that made him unfit to enlist. He succeeded on the 15th attempt, although there are rumours that he first had to bribe the recruitment sergeant. Horace Rees was indeed a persistent man, but his gallantry and fighting spirit were also exemplary. He was recommended for the Victoria Cross for his bravery at the battle of Festubert in May 1915. The recommendation fell on deaf ears, but it was recognised in the very next battle, as he was awarded the Military Medal on 25 September 1915 at the battle of Loos for rescuing the wounded under fire.
Another such individual was Chief Petty Officer George Prowse. He was born in Brynsion terrace in Gilfach Goch and worked as a collier in Swansea before enlisting. He was the only survivor of a small group of men who successfully captured an enemy strongpoint, including 23 prisoners and five machine guns, at Pronville in France on 2 September 1918. Very shortly afterwards, on 27 September he was killed in action at Anneux in France.
Then there is Hiram Davies DCM, a Welsh-speaking miner from Maesteg who enlisted in the 10th Welsh Regiment on 11 November 1914 with his brother Illtyd, who was killed in action in May 1917, and other fellow miners from Garth colliery. It was quite typical that pals from collieries would enlist and go together. He fought in Mametz Wood, Passchendaele, and was awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal for single-handedly taking out three machine gun posts during the battle for Delville Wood in August 1918, saving countless numbers of lives.
Men from all across the valleys went and fought, displaying great bravery in the face of unimaginable horror and carnage. Their families and communities are right to be immensely proud of them.
If the hon. Gentleman will excuse me, he will understand if I do not give way on this occasion, because other people are waiting to speak.
It was not all to do with the stories on the front; it was also about what was happening back home. It is interesting that the local papers such as the Glamorgan Gazette would occasionally print letters from front-line troops. On 11 February 1916, the Glamorgan Gazette published a Blaengarw soldier’s lament in which he says:
May I, through the columns of your newspaper put forward a complaint? I am a native of Blaengarw, at present on active service in France, doing a little bit for the old country.”
He went on to complain about the use of the Prince of Wales fund and the committee that was stopping his wife’s allowance so that she could not now pay the rent. He concludes:
“Maybe if a few of the committee-men were out here doing their bit, and their wives and families were pinched a bit at home, they would take a different view of things.”
Signed Tommy Atkins.”
We have no way of tracing the writer or his family. We cannot know whether they survived the war or, indeed, the peace that came afterwards.
Then there are the Garw officers who wrote back home. Thanks to the local Garw history society, we have this undated letter, which says:
“Christmas Eve, and we are in the trenches again. We came in last night, and we will be here for some time. It is fearfully wet here. Last night I got simply soaked through from head to foot; it was awful, and the rats were mighty. I am about 100 yds behind the front trenches, and the noise is fearful. Our battalion may be out on Monday, then 4 days rest billets, about 5 miles behind the lines, then in again for 8 days, I think. I nearly got hit as we went out of the trenches on Wednesday night. I was with the Commanding Officer and another, a Colonel. Going out we had to duck and jump into a dug-out, as there was a sniper on. We lost a Captain on our first day, killed by shrapnel. I hope you have a happy Christmas. I wish I was with you, but this is my place, and I hope we shall be alright.”
Private Francis George Ricketts wrote back to his parents, saying in the middle of his letter:
“During our eight days of rest we were billeted in barns, and slept on straw, but although it was wanting in home comforts, we were glad to be in such, and we were happy and contented. It was in these billets that we spent our Christmas ‘holidays’. Although we were within the sound of the guns, we all went to church services on Christmas morning, and all of us joined in singing the old well known carol ‘Peace on Earth.’ And how beautiful were the strains of ‘Aberystwyth’ and ‘Mae hen wlad fy nhadau,’ as over a thousand Welsh throats sang them in our own native tongue. Although we were far away from the ‘Land of Song’ our hearts were there amongst our old folks at home.”
Then there is the story of Francis Banks and his brother Jack, who both joined up. Jack ended up being captured very early on and spent most of the time as a prisoner of war, but Francey fought in France and Belgium with the Royal Irish Regiment. He was Irish but lived in Maesteg in the Llynfi valley. He was company runner and, in the words of his captain, H. J. O’Reilly,
“consequently my right hand man, whether in action or out of it”.
On 16 August 1917, Francey was bringing a message back to camp and to his captain. When he was just 12 yards away, he was shot by a German sniper. He struggled on and died in the arms of his captain, who says in a letter he sent home:
“A more gallant or finer soldier never drew breath but there is this great consolation back to you and me, that no soldier could have wished to die a better or a more glorious death.”
I thank again all those families and historical societies that have pulled together this material in order to show today’s children exactly what this means and how poignant it is. Private Morgan Llewellyn of the Royal Army Medical Corps, who had been reported missing believed killed in Serbia in 1915, wrote home from Salonika in December 1916:
“When I was in Serbia last winter, I met many Garw, Ogmore and Maesteg boys, and I won’t forget that retreat in a hurry”.
He went on:
“There are a good few Maesteg boys in this Division and also a few from Tondu. A batch of Maesteg and Garw boys have just arrived, and the first word I got the other day from a Pontycymmer lad was ‘Hello, good old Mog; You’re still alive! They mourned you as dead once in Pontycymmer.’ When I get hold of a Gazette out here, it always means a few hours of interesting reading for me. It is sent out to me here regularly by a friend in Pontycymmer. I was more than pleased to read the news of Pte W.J. Ridgeway, R.A.M.C., winning the M.M. in France. I was greatly interested too in his letter in the Gazette, and I hope he and I and all the Garw lads will be spared to land once again in dear old Blighty.”
The stories reach out to us down the years and remind us of the human faces of war and how we should strive at all costs to avoid it wherever possible. They are also a poignant lesson not only for politicians, but for today’s children and our communities, which gave and lost so much in the great war—the war that was supposed to end all wars.
It is a great privilege to speak in this debate, to which there have been many stunning contributions, including by my hon. Friend the Member for Newark (Robert Jenrick), who made an excellent maiden speech of which he will be rightly proud. My hon. Friend the Member for Broadland (Mr Simpson) also made a very moving and excellent speech on war graves. There are two Commonwealth war graves just 100 yards from my house, and they are a constant reminder to us of military action.
I have already been to one commemoration event in Laxfield, which is in my neighbouring constituency, but the parishes of Cratfield, Ubbeston, Huntingfield and Heveningham were also involved. I was moved by a churchyard that is not in my constituency, but in Shotley in South Suffolk. HMS Ganges is where a lot of orphan boys went to train to be midshipmen and they have very special graves—distinctive crosses with black plaques—in that churchyard. If Members go to Suffolk, I would recommend that they visit that very peaceful churchyard. Perhaps unusually, a zeppelin was shot down in Theberton in 1917. Most of the crew were killed and they are buried in Theberton churchyard. As has been said, people died on both sides.
We have heard from many Members representing constituencies across the United Kingdom, which reflects the fact that nearly every village was affected in a devastating way. I think that the number of thankful villages to which everyone came back was only 53. I am sure we all notice during our Remembrance day services that many more names are read out from world war one and, in particular, that the same surnames are often repeated, so there was a devastating effect on the families left behind.
There are going to be several commemoration events across my constituency and I will refer to some of the towns involved later. I congratulate Melton on its extensive work on involving people of all ages in its commemorations. I also pay tribute to the Royal British Legion, which is leading much of the activity, as well as the Heritage Lottery Fund, which has provided a lot of money towards it.
The Suffolk Regiment raised 14 battalions, was awarded two unit Victoria Crosses and lost many men in Belgium and France. The very first casualty on our own shores happened just off the coast of Felixstowe on 6 August 1914, when HMS Amphion, returning to the port of Harwich, hit mines and 150 men died. Six weeks later three more ships were sunk by a U boat off the coast of Suffolk. It was then that the Royal Naval Air Service seaplane base, which had been established the previous year in Felixstowe, started its main role of patrolling the sea for U boats. By the end of the war, RNAS Felixstowe had become one of the largest bases in the world.
I was pleased to open an exhibition in Felixstowe museum, and I pay tribute to Pam Cole, Sue Tod and their team for putting together a fascinating, compelling and moving exhibition that I hope many children and adults in Felixstowe will visit. It is not the only museum along the coast, but I certainly learned a lot there. It is based around Landguard fort, which had seen action in other wars. I had never realised that this happened in this country, but Felixstowe was declared a martial town, meaning that people had to have papers to go in and out of it. I am learning new things all the time about my constituency in Suffolk.
Slightly further along the coast is the very interesting site of Orford Ness, where experimental things happened. It was, and still is, rather remote. I am visiting it tomorrow, thanks to the National Trust. Aeroplanes had been invented only a few years earlier, but it was tasked with creating bombs and depth charges, and with how to mount machine guns on to planes. Essentially, it was a key part of trying to turn around some of the initial issues that arose in the war. Indeed, many of the scientists who were there during world war one went on to help with the effort during world war two. One of the more peculiar things they did was with parachutes—world war one pilots were not allowed to have them, because they were considered too dangerous—about which they did a lot of research. Basically, pigeons were put in wicker crates and then dropped with parachutes over the continent. Some interesting things happened there, as well as some very sad ones.
Many aeroplanes and other pieces of machinery were built in the Garrett lorry shop further along the coast at Leiston. Women worked in such factories. Indeed, they played a big role in Suffolk not only in such work, but in hospitals and convalescent homes. It was often said that someone injured in Flanders on a Monday would be being cared for by Suffolk women by the Thursday.
I have already referred to the special village of Theberton, where the Zeppelin was shot down in 1917. Lieutenant Colonel Charles Doughty-Wylie—better known as Dick Doughty-Wylie—of the Royal Welch Fusiliers, was awarded the VC. He had served as the military British attaché in Turkey, so when the world war started he was attached to a unit in Gallipoli. After the commanders had been killed, he gathered some men and led a successful attack in parts of Gallipoli, but he was shot dead. He was buried where he fell, which means that he is the only British, or indeed Commonwealth, soldier to be buried on the Gallipoli peninsula. We will commemorate Lieutenant Colonel Doughty-Wylie next year with one of the very special paving slabs that have been issued to villages around the country.
To finish very briefly, I could not let this debate go by— Actually, I will skip that bit of my speech, or else I will break down in tears, Madam Deputy Speaker. Bravery untold, never forgotten.
It is a pleasure to follow the excellent speech of the hon. Member for Suffolk Coastal (Dr Coffey). I will come on to mention my family’s connections with Suffolk, which are very much related to the history of world war one.
Like many other hon. Members, I have read many excellent pieces of literature about the world war one period. One book that touched me as a young person was “The Wars” by Timothy Findley, an excellent Canadian author. It recounts tales of those from the Commonwealth and the dominions who lived through those tragic and terrible times. This passage has always stayed with me:
“Someone once said to Clive: do you think we will ever be forgiven for what we’ve done? They meant their generation and the war and what the war had done to civilization. Clive said something I’ve never forgotten. He said: I doubt we’ll ever be forgiven. All I hope is—they’ll remember we were human beings.”
That very much reminds us of the individual human lives, from our or our constituents’ families, that were irrevocably changed by the war and its consequences, as well as by service in the armed forces in general.
I have looked into my family history, as other hon. Members have done. It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Lady because my great-grandfather Ernest Hubbard lived in the village of Euston in Suffolk. His family, and many of my relatives, were in service to the Duke and Duchess of Grafton at Euston hall. They were farm labourers, servants, cooks and cleaners there. Uniquely, as servants, they were remembered on the family’s roll of honour in the church on the estate at Euston hall. My great-grandfather, his cousins and brothers, others who fell and those who returned are all memorialised there. I was privileged to go and see that myself a number of years ago.
On the other side of the family, my great-grandfather Peter Marsh served with the King’s Own Scottish Borderers. I never knew Peter but my mum remembers meeting him as a child. He was still suffering the effects, many years later, of being gassed in the trenches. The King’s Own Scottish Borderers was an old and historic regiment formed in 1689 in Edinburgh following the Glorious Revolution. Numerous battalions were raised at the start of the war and a number of new battalions were created. The KOSB served and fought at Gallipoli, the Somme, Ypres, Vimy ridge, the battle of Gaza and many others. The 6th battalion in particular suffered heavy casualties at the battle of Loos in September 1915 and later fought at the Somme. The 7th lost two thirds of its men and the 8th battalion lost over a third. That shows the scale of the losses.
It was particularly emotional for me to discover in the national archives one medal records card that matches my great-grandfather, Peter Marsh. It has the medals he was awarded throughout the first world war, but at the end there is a line though the card, and the phrase, “Forfeited by desertion in 1919.” He survived and was not one of those who were tragically shot at dawn. We do not know the full story in the family. We know that he was terribly scarred by his experience, both physically and mentally, for the rest of his life. We do not know if he was traumatised, if he was sent somewhere else and wanted to be demobilised and was not, or whether he simply could not cope any more. His story is similar to those of many who returned and saw their lives irrevocably changed.
These were two stories from my family but, like many Members, I have been looking into those of my constituents. I am pleased to say that St Augustine’s church in Penarth—one of the most historic churches in the area—has undertaken a project to restore its roll of honour from the first world war. It is a fantastic piece of art and remembrance in the church. The project has been generously funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund and the War Memorial Trust, and there has been a significant amount of local fundraising to remember all those from Penarth and the district who fell.
The roll of honour was designed by John Batten and carved by Joseph Armitage, who, interestingly, also designed the oak leaf symbol of the National Trust. Unfortunately, the memorial has degraded over the years. Some of the names have been lost but fantastically, thanks to this project, the roll is being restored. An online archive has also been created to detail the lives of many of those who appear on the roll, and of their families. I very much look forward to attending the re-dedication of that shortly.
Many members have spoken about the work of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. I had the privilege of meeting Andy Knowlson from the commission last Friday. He took me on a fascinating and emotional tour round a number of war graves that I had absolutely no idea were in Penarth cemetery and St Augustine’s church. I am also hoping to go to see some of those in the Cardiff area. As we have heard, the CWGC looks after many thousands of graves in 153 countries. I was staggered by the scale of its work, and the absolute dedication and care with which it memorialises the heavy price paid by many constituents, including Gunner Bendon of the Royal Field Artillery, whose grave I saw; he died in 1917 at the age of just 32, which is younger than I am.
Thinking a lot about first world war memorials has made me think carefully about how we memorialise those from all the conflicts of the past 100 years, whether we are talking about Afghanistan, Iraq, the Falklands or any of the other conflicts that British service people have been involved in.
I recently met a constituent, Sian Woodland, and the mother of Paul Woodland. Sian and Paul were due to be married, but sadly Paul, a Royal Marine, was killed during operational training with the Special Boat Service in October 2012. Sian has done amazing work since raising money for charity, and to memorialise her fiancé. She has rightly raised the question of how we should memorialise all those who have died on active service and training since world war one. We should all think carefully in this year of remembrance about how properly to memorialise people, not only at fantastic facilities such as the National Memorial Arboretum, but in our communities up and down the country.
It is a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff South and Penarth (Stephen Doughty), and I join him in praising those who tend the Commonwealth war graves. It is a pleasure, too, to follow the hon. Member for Suffolk Coastal (Dr Coffey), and I join her in praising the Royal British Legion and all it does in supporting our armed services and the important role they will play in the commemorations.
I greatly welcome this debate on the commemoration, as well as the commemoration itself. I want to take this opportunity to place on record my profound respect for all those from Oxfordshire and beyond who served and suffered, along with their families, during the first world war. As is evident from so many of the contributions we have heard, the scale of people’s courage and sacrifice was matched only by the horrors that they were forced to endure. In a real sense, whatever we are able to say here in such debates cannot do justice to what people who went through the first world war endured. It is almost beyond our imagination. The most fitting thing to come out of the commemoration, and the epitaph to the centenary, must be a firm resolve on the part of us all to do everything we can to prevent such carnage from happening again.
I will be as quick as I can, and I would like to apologise for not being here for the entire debate; I was at Buckingham palace for the 95th anniversary of the Not Forgotten Association. I am glad to be back.
I want to say very quickly how very frightened those boys on the front lines must have been. None of us can understand how ghastly it must have been. I felt a little of that when in March 1993, my staff sergeant beside me was shot in the head by a sniper. That was on the front lines in Bosnia. I was determined to go, and I went. What was so awful was my tummy and my fear—the jitters. Overcoming that and trying to go forward was difficult; my feet felt like lead. That was just one little instance, so let us try to think what it must have been like for those men from Ulster and those other brave men on 1 July 1916 when they had to climb those ladders and go over the top in that dreadful row—with all that fear and all that kit and all that thinking of their mothers. Soldiers always think of their mothers. I think we would all totally understand that we can have no idea how bad it was for those boys who fought in the first world war; we just have a little glimmer from what they left behind and what they said. God bless the lot of them.
Let me first say how appropriate it is to have this debate today as we look forward to Armed Forces day this weekend. I congratulate the Minister and my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley Central (Dan Jarvis) on their opening remarks, and I pay tribute to the work in this area of my hon. Friend the Member for Eltham (Clive Efford) as the shadow Minister for Culture, Media and Sport.
I congratulate the Minister not just on his speech today, but on the work he has done over the past few years. I remember meeting him shortly after he was appointed as the Prime Minister’s special representative for commemorating the first world war. I give credit to the Minister, because what he envisaged should happen over the four years leading up to the commemoration and what I discussed with him then has actually worked. I refer to the idea that this should not be a celebration driven centrally by the Government; it should be about local communities coming together at a local level to remember not just those who fought and fell in action, but all those who made a contribution in the widest possible sense. I think that he should be congratulated on that vision.
In April, I had the honour of visiting Gallipoli with the Minister. As has already been pointed out today, it is important to recognise that this is not just about the United Kingdom; it is also about the Commonwealth countries that made a contribution during the war—India, South Africa, New Zealand, Australia and Canada—and the other European nations that took part.
I have the privilege to serve as one of the 15 Commonwealth War Graves Commissioners, along with the hon. Member for Broadland (Mr Simpson). I might refer to the hon. Gentleman as “my hon. Friend”, because I consider him to be a very good friend. I pay tribute not only to the work of the commission and its staff, but to their tremendous dedication. Last year, a gardener in France asked me, “When you think about the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, what is the main thing that you think about?” I said, as I always say, that it was the dedication and hard work of the individual members of staff who maintain cemeteries and organise commemorations around the world—in 150 countries, as we heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff South and Penarth (Stephen Doughty).
One of the projects in which the commission has been involved as part of the commemorations is intended to raise awareness. My hon. Friend the Member for Broadland and I have been trying to ensure that people are aware of Commonwealth war graves that are in churchyards in their own communities. If Members have not taken the opportunity to visit those graves with the commission’s staff, I urge them to do so. They will find the experience very educational, and I think it important for them to try to involve their local communities in that way.
I would, but I am very short of time.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Newark (Robert Jenrick) on a fantastic maiden speech. Not only did he deliver it with force and passion, but he rightly praised the beauty of his constituency. Having been born in Nottinghamshire, I know the constituency very well. I went there once during the by-election campaign, but I have fonder memories of fishing on the River Trent—with, I have to say, not a great deal of success. I was also pleased to hear that the right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe (Mr Clarke) is so highly thought of in the area, although I suspect that the hon. Gentleman will find out very soon that the same sentiment is not shared among members of the parliamentary Conservative party. I wish him all the best for his parliamentary career, and congratulate him again on his speech.
We have heard 24 very good speeches today, which have demonstrated not only the breadth of knowledge about this subject in the House, but the way in which Members of Parliament are engaging with their constituents, with volunteers and with others to ensure that the story of the first world war and the involvement of their local communities is recognised. The hon. Members for Tiverton and Honiton (Neil Parish) and for North Antrim (Ian Paisley) and the right hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Mr Donaldson) referred to Members of Parliament who had fought and died in the war. I think it important to recognise not only those who died but those who fought, because they influenced the debate that took place a generation later in the House. It is clear from the memoirs of Macmillan and Attlee, who fought in the first world war, that their experience brought a certain understanding of the gravity of the decisions that were made a generation later as we entered the second world war.
Many Members, including my right hon. Friend the Member for Tynemouth (Mr Campbell) and my hon. Friends the Members for Bridgend (Mrs Moon), for Plymouth, Moor View (Alison Seabeck) and for Ogmore (Huw Irranca-Davies), related personal stories about members of their families who had fought and, in some cases, died in the first world war. I expect that we shall hear more such stories from all over the country over the next four years, as Members engage in family research to find out what their forebears did.
Another important point is that in some contributions and commentary, there is an emphasis that it was all about the western front, but what has been good this afternoon is that a number of Members have recognised that the commemoration has to recognise the idea that it was a world war, with fighting across the globe. The right hon. Member for Uxbridge and South Ruislip (Sir John Randall) mentioned the dedication shown by nurses in parts of Serbia, and he raised an issue that we sometimes forget: people not only died of their wounds; a number died of typhus and Spanish flu after the war.
The hon. Member for Worcester (Mr Walker) said that this war was not only on the western front, mentioning the fighting that took place in Mesopotamia. That was also mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgend, and it is important, certainly when looking at issues from the first world war and how they impact on our lives today. We can look back and see that the boundaries that were drawn up after the first world war have had and still are having a direct impact in the tragic events in the middle east today.
Many Members have said thanks to the Heritage Lottery Fund, and can I put on record everyone’s thanks for the contribution it is making, in terms of allowing local communities to remember the first world war? From speaking to the Heritage Lottery Fund and from visiting various constituencies, I have been struck by the variety of projects that it is backing: for example, my right hon. Friend the Member for Tynemouth mentioned the excellent Tynemouth world war one project. Also, school groups are putting on plays and villages are holding events about their village at war. In a few weeks’ time, in Sacriston in my constituency, I will be attending a village at war presentation done by the local heritage group. That shows the variety of ways in which we can remember the first world war.
My hon. Friend the Member for Broadland raised the issue of controversy around the first world war, and clearly that continues. The hon. Member for Carmarthen East and Dinefwr (Jonathan Edwards) also raised that issue, and I think he was wrong when he said that this is about the glorification of war. The Minister and the Government have made clear that this is not about celebration or jingoism; it is about remembering what happened during the first world war and how it impacted not only on Parliament and the international situation, but on daily lives. If the hon. Gentleman looks at the Heritage Lottery Fund, he will see that it is funding projects including those remembering conscientious objectors, as referred to by my hon. Friend the Member for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green). The role of conscientious objectors, whether for religious or political reasons, is important to the lessons of and the stories told about the first world war.
A number of Members, including my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgend and the hon. Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Damian Collins), spoke about Belgians. Again, it has been forgotten that during the war, this country opened its arms to large numbers of Belgian refugees, who settled here, fleeing violence in their own country. In the north-east, they made a huge contribution at the Royal Ordnance factory in Birtley to the war effort. I am pleased to announce that later this year, the Commonwealth War Graves Commission will be re-erecting a number of headstones in Birtley to honour Belgian soldiers who lost their lives during the first world war.
The home front also featured in a lot of today’s contributions, whether it was the changing role of women, or the contributions made by coal miners and factory workers, which my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley Central mentioned. In the North Durham coalfield, a huge number of miners not only volunteered for active service, but kept the pits going throughout the first world war to provide the coal that was needed.
There are also examples of people in reserve occupations. One of my predecessors, Jack Lawson, who was Member of Parliament for Chester-le-Street from 1919 to 1949, was in a reserved occupation at the time as a county councillor. When his brother Will was killed at the battle of Ypres in 1915, he volunteered at the age of 39 for service on the western front. That did not stop the Liberals in 1918 accusing him, when he fought the next general election, of being a conscientious objector because he had been a member of the Independent Labour party. That shows the contribution that many communities made across the country. My hon. Friend the Member for Hartlepool (Mr Wright) and the hon. Member for Folkestone and Hythe spoke about the civilian cost, and it was the first war that brought war to the home front, such as in the bombardment of Hartlepool or the Zeppelin raids mentioned by the hon. Member for Suffolk Coastal (Dr Coffey).
Another great change, which was illustrated in the speeches of the right hon. Member for Lagan Valley and the hon. Members for Worcester (Mr Walker) and for North Antrim (Ian Paisley), is the contribution made from Ireland. We heard stories of Captain O’Neill and Willie Redmond, and today this opportunity is being used to ensure that reconciliation comes into being. I saw that first hand last year when I visited Glasnevin cemetery, and I pay tribute to the group there who are ensuring that there is a fitting memorial and a recognition of the contribution made.
With time pressing I will mention just one other area: education. That has been mentioned by many Members, and is something that we must press not just this year but over the next four years. The hon. Member for Colchester (Sir Bob Russell) is taking his grandson to France, and we must also ensure that children visit local cemeteries to see graves. We must ensure that the sacrifices made during the first world war are not forgotten, and that some of the lessons can be learned.
I thank hon. Members from across the House who have spoken today, and I have listened with great attention to what they have said. Many have spoken with passion, and tears at times, and I will refer to as many contributions as possible in the time allowed.
The Under-Secretary of State for Defence, my hon. Friend the Member for South West Wiltshire (Dr Murrison), set out at the beginning of the debate what the Government are doing for the first world war centenary, so I will not rehearse that now. The commemoration will be accessible and relevant to all parts of the country. It will reach out to young people, as custodians of the first world war legacy, and we will be mindful of our present-day friendships, both with our former adversaries and with the Commonwealth.
I am afraid that I will not because I have so little time.
The hon. Member for Carmarthen East and Dinefwr (Jonathan Edwards) spoke about the tone of the commemorations. The first world war continues to be a focus for strongly felt and widely differing responses. Some people see it as a squabble between empires; others as a just war, and all points in between. Let me be clear that it is not the Government’s role to accept or promote one view or another. We are neither celebratory nor apologetic. Although it is clear which side won, the enormous sacrifices on both sides and the horror of war referred to by the right hon. Member for Oxford East (Mr Smith) and my hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart) means that there is no cause for celebration. Instead, we wish to commemorate the war appropriately and with humility, though with pride in the courage of our ancestors.
The Government share the view of many hon. Members that the programme should be inclusive. We want people of all backgrounds to have a chance to get involved and not just by ensuring diverse attendance at national events. For example, the immense contribution of troops from all the present-day Commonwealth will be recognised on 4 August and beyond, including the sacrifices of the Indian army’s famous Jullundur Brigade at Neuve Chapelle; the exemplary record of the Anzacs during the Gallipoli campaign; the heroism of the Canadians at Passchendaele; and the considerable contribution of the Caribbean regiments in various theatres.
We are also exploring ways to mark the life of Walter Tull, the first black commissioned officer in the British Army, and to commemorate the tragic sinking of the SS Mendi in 1917, with the loss of 646 men of the South African Native Labour Corps. Among the more than 600 world war one projects made possible by the Heritage Lottery Fund are many with a minority focus, such as “Hackney Remembers”, which will look at the Jewish experience in the war; and a major new exhibition at the School of Oriental and African Studies on the military contribution of Sikhs.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge and South Ruislip (Sir John Randall) and others have spoken about the important contribution of women. The empowerment of women was one of the most important ways in which the war shaped modern Britain. Not only did they enter the workplace as nurses, farmers and munitions workers, but they kept communities going when the men were away and when many were dealing with personal loss. Their huge contribution helped to bring about votes for women and it is right and proper that we should mark that now.
On international women’s day, my Department awarded the First Aid Nursing Yeomanry a £20,000 grant to aid its present-day mission, and the Heritage Lottery Fund has supported many local projects that tell women’s wartime stories, such as the digitisation of the British Red Cross’s volunteer women’s records and a theatre project in Leeds enabling young people to learn about the evolution of women’s roles during the war. Many projects and events linked to the Imperial War museum’s centenary partnership are wholly or partly about women, such as the exhibition on women in industry in the first world war at Imperial War Museum North in Manchester, to which the hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green) referred. The Imperial War museum’s new first world war galleries, opening in July, will include a section on the contribution of women. My Department’s arm’s length bodies are delivering various programmes looking at the home front, including the British Library’s new educational website, which explores topics such as class and gender during the war and its aftermath.
The hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston also referred to the exhibition at Imperial War Museum North covering conscientious objectors. I have not yet visited it, but I hope to do so. The Heritage Lottery Fund has recently awarded a grant of £95,000 to the Peace Pledge Union to help to explore the history of conscientious objectors during the first world war. It is right that the lottery programme should reflect a broad range of views and experiences of the war, and that is just one such example.
My hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Neil Parish) spoke about the importance of how we engage with our young people. One of our key objectives for the centenary is to encourage young people by making connections between young people today and the young people who fought and died a century ago. Our battlefield visits programme will connect young people with battlefields and offer a special experience that they can share with classmates.
My hon. Friend the Member for Broadland (Mr Simpson) spoke poignantly about the work of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. We fully appreciate its wonderful work. Indeed, it is responsible for providing some of the sites for our national events. Recognition of the commission’s work is inherent in all we do. Nevertheless, I am grateful to him for his suggestion. I will look at what he said and come back to him on the proposal.
Many Members have spoken about the commemoration activities in their constituencies. I was delighted to listen to my hon. Friend the Member for Newark (Robert Jenrick), who delivered an excellent maiden speech. I was also delighted to visit his constituency recently, on at least three occasions, so I know what a beautiful constituency he has the honour to represent. Being Sports Minister, I was especially interested to hear about the recreation of a Christmas truce match on 24 August in his constituency, which I am sure will be a great success.
I was also pleased to hear from my hon. Friends the Members for Colchester (Sir Bob Russell), for Portsmouth North (Penny Mordaunt), for Worcester (Mr Walker) and for Folkestone and Hythe (Damian Collins) and my right hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge and South Ruislip (Sir John Randall) about a range of different activities in their constituencies, from Facebook sites, “Colchester remembers” 1914-18, silent vigils, pipes and drums, world war one museums, events to commemorate the bravery of the Worcesters, the construction of an incredible arch in Folkestone—today, I believe—and the special Step Short project, which my hon. Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe has worked very hard on, to the researching of local war memorials in Cowley. These are precisely the types of project that we want to hear about, and I wish them every possible success.
I want to mention that the original Military Wives performed a wonderful medley of first world war songs last night in Portcullis House. I hope many Members were able to be present, because they were incredible. They were guests of my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Oliver Colvile), so well done to him. It was an excellent and very special event.
We have heard many personal recollections today, too, and it was humbling and emotional to listen to the individual stories of the right hon. Members for Tynemouth (Mr Campbell) and for Lagan Valley (Mr Donaldson), the hon. Members for Barnsley Central (Dan Jarvis), for Bridgend (Mrs Moon), for Plymouth, Moor View (Alison Seabeck), for Sedgefield (Phil Wilson), for Hartlepool (Mr Wright), for North Antrim (Ian Paisley), for Ogmore (Huw Irranca-Davies) and for Cardiff South and Penarth (Stephen Doughty) and my hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk Coastal (Dr Coffey)—I hope that I have not missed anyone out. They related to a variety of individuals and groups ranging from the Barnsley and Pompey Pals, “Mrs Barbour’s army”, Edith Cavell, Fred Dancox, Matthew Brown and the Bevin Boys, Driver A. E. Ironside, Major Willie Redmond, Captain Arthur Edward Bruce O’Neill MP, Lieutenant George Ward, the sons of Trimdon who died on the Somme, the bombardment of Hartlepool, Robert Quigg, Horace Rees and his 14 rejections and, last but certainly not least, Lieutenant-Colonel Charles Doughty-Wylie. We can feel nothing but respect and awe when we hear about such personal suffering and sacrifice and bravery, and the commemorations will help us to mark such contributions. They will also make future generations aware of the history of the war, so that we can continue to learn from the past.
I again thank all Members who have spoken and made interventions today. Many Members have written to their constituents urging them to get involved in the centenary commemoration, and to great effect. I ask Members to carry on with a steady drumbeat of information about what is being planned over the next four years. Connections to the war can be found in our churchyards and in the names on our memorials and even in those photographs that we keep at home of family members who are no longer with us, but whose stories remain to be discovered again.
The war and its legacy is of such importance that it is right that the Government should be leading the commemoration of its centenary. However, it is relevant to everyone in this country and the ownership of it rests with the public as a whole. I hope that what we have said this afternoon assures the House that what we have planned, and what we continue to plan, will have a life beyond the next four years, so that our generation passes what we have learned to the generations yet to come, so that they may pay their respects to the service and sacrifice of those who did and endured so much 100 years ago.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the programme of commemoration for the First World War.