I beg to move,
That this House has considered the centenary of the Battle of the Somme.
The motion was tabled in my name and that of the hon. Member for Barnsley Central (Dan Jarvis).
On 12 August 1916, a young German officer called Friedrich Steinbrecher wrote home, saying:
“Somme. The whole history of the world cannot contain a more ghastly word.”
Somme is seared into the national consciousness like no other battle before or since.
On Friday, in Manchester, at Thiepval, in London and across the country, we will unite to mark the first day of the centenary of the Somme. Soldiers are often glorious, but war never is—and anyone saying otherwise is a complete fool. War is sheer, bloody reeking hell on earth, and we politicians must do everything in our power to avoid it. More than 1 million men lost their lives during the 141 days of the Somme offensive, many of them reduced to unrecognisable scraps of flesh and bits of gristle. Most, of course, survived but so many were left with physical and mental scars that they would take with them to the grave.
For the record, I should declare an interest: since November 2011, I have been the Prime Minister’s special representative for the commemoration of the centenary of the Great War and thus involved with the national arrangements that I suspect my right hon. Friend the Minister will shortly discuss. All I will say, sparing his departmental blushes, is that his officials and the associated arm’s-length bodies have done a truly fantastic job, and continue to attract admiration from our international partners. I would also like to pay particular tribute to the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, the Royal British Legion and the Imperial War Museum, which have all worked tirelessly, and to the BBC whose coverage has been in the very best traditions of public service broadcasting.
I think we have had a pretty divisive few weeks. Now is the time for unity, as we come together to remember one of the bloodiest battles in our history—a battle that touched everyone from Lerwick to Londonderry to Land’s End. In all our communities, it still casts a long shadow. If a battle divides, its centenary has the power to unite. That was vividly shown last month when we marked the centenary of the Battle of Jutland, shoulder to shoulder with Germany in the grand panorama of Scapa Flow and on the Jutland Bank.
The Somme was obviously the major battle of the first world war, but we should not forget all the other battles of that war, in which so many men lost their lives or were badly maimed. My grandfather, for example, was badly wounded at the battle of Loos.
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right, and I suspect he will have closely followed the programme over the past two years and will continue to monitor it closely over the next two years, leading up to armistice in 2018.
As I was gazing over Scapa Flow a few weeks ago, I wondered how many seamen in Jellicoe’s grand fleet, or in Scheer’s high seas fleet, would have guessed that their countrymen would be spending most of the ensuing 100 years as the closest of allies, united in the most powerful alliance that the world has ever seen. On Friday, we will be standing shoulder to shoulder with another friend and ally at a very special Anglo-French place, the Thiepval monument on the Somme, in the lee of which there are 300 French and 300 British graves. It is a special place; a haunting place. It was Lutyens’s great triumph—a monument to the missing, but more than that: an enduring monument to the unity, I think, of Europeans, and particularly our unity with our closest continental neighbours.
At this time of historic opportunity and risk, let us make the centenary’s legacy one of amity and concord in our European neighbourhood. Here at home, too, we are desperately in need of a coming-together moment. The Somme vigil on Thursday night, and the silence at 7.30 on Friday morning, will, I hope, facilitate such moments of quiet reflection.
My hon. Friend is making a powerful speech, which is worthy of this occasion. Does he agree that one of the most encouraging developments of the last few years is the greater respect that is shown to our armed forces, and, in particular, the armed forces covenant? Is our country not coming together to a greater extent than ever to mark the dedication and service of our armed forces?
I agree with my hon. Friend. One of the things that has struck me while I have been doing this work is how much added value there is in the presence of a serviceman from today’s Army on the battlefield tours that we have been running, and in seeing the faces of the young people for whom the tours were principally designed. One understands that they get it—in that moment, they get it—and there is a bridge between today’s servicemen and those who served 100 years ago. That is very powerful.
I am very pleased to see that so many colleagues from Northern Ireland are present. As I was preparing my speech, I asked myself, “Who can I reasonably expect to see in the House during this debate?” I am not surprised, and I am not disappointed. May I pre-empt some of the remarks of Northern Ireland Members by saying that there is nowhere in these islands where the force of the Great War is more keenly felt, or, indeed, where I have felt that more value has been extracted as a result of this centenary commemoration? The way in which communities have been pulled together by sharing history that is so often complex and nuanced has been a joy to behold.
When prominent republicans feel comfortable telling us about their relatives’ wartime service in the British Army, when members of the nationalist community—as guests of the Somme Association at the Somme Museum in County Down—proudly show us their grandfathers’ Great War medals, when the Irish Ambassador lays a wreath at the Cenotaph for the first time, and when the Commonwealth War Graves Commission unveils a Cross of Sacrifice in Glasnevin cemetery in the shadow of Daniel O’Connell’s tomb, we know that something good is afoot. If this is a centenary looking for a legacy, it need look no further. We should remember that a Somme that saw the Ulstermen’s heroic storming of the Schwaben Redoubt also saw the 16th (Irish) Division’s Guillemont and Ginchy. The Somme narrative, once heavily partisan, is now becoming a shared history. On Friday, President Higgins will occupy a place of honour before the Thiepval monument, which carries the names of so many from what were, by the time it was built, two separate polities on the island of Ireland.
Remembrance is hard-wired into the four-year centenary, but what does remembrance of the Somme actually mean now, today, given that its participants would have been long since deceased in any event? I look forward to hearing the views of young people the length and breadth of the country who will be taking part in the series of Great War school debates that were successfully opened last night in Manchester.
The perspective of youth on the causes, conduct and consequences of conflict is so important to our future, but for me remembrance means reflecting on loss and missed opportunity. Our society now is the poorer for the fallen not having enriched the last century through arts, science, medicine, business, even politics. We lost the famous men honoured in their generation, the glory of their time, cited in “Ecclesiasticus”, which many of us will have read out on Remembrance Sunday. Society is the poorer also for the loss of men who would otherwise have lived out their lives in relative obscurity. “Ecclesiasticus” mentions them too. It is the poorer because of the children who were never born to all those great uncles, children whose names were never etched in stone and whose number was never counted among the casualties. In all that hopeful, bright, missed opportunity, how bitterly ironic that one participant in the battle survived—the very distillation of evil, a corporal in the Bavarian army who would march the world to an even greater war of misery two decades later, a war that history will judge to be inseparable from the first.
Steinbrecher was right. The Somme has become a byword for tragedy, pointlessness and waste, but we should never lose sight of the achievements of our predecessors. Be proud of them. Be proud of Britain’s first citizen army. The butcher’s bill may have turned out to be impossibly high, but they were doing the right thing in a just cause. That they were acting against Europe’s then general disturber of the peace was nobly and magnanimously acknowledged at the start of the centenary by the President of Germany, a modern, forward-looking country still tortured by its past.
What was going on in the heads of Kitchener’s young men? In 1916, many of them would not have had the vote. Their families would not have enjoyed the equity in a rich country or public goods that today we assume as our birthright. What then motivated them? If the rallying cry in 1916 was “King and Country” or “Gott, Kaiser und Vaterland”, the glue was loyalty to your mates. If love for country was the headline, the text was written in pride—pride for town, for village, for neighbourhood and for family. But above all it was the ultimate team spirit, the instinct to do the right thing by fellow creatures united in adversity and a common cause. That is why men went over the top in July 1916. That is why they endured unspeakable horrors. That is why they fought and died on the Somme on a truly industrial scale. But ask those who have served in the wars of the 21st century, the sort of conflict that we will be debating, again and at last, next week. They will say the same. A gentler age would have called it love for your oppo. In today’s terms, it is loyalty to your mates.
Nowhere is that better shown than in the Pals battalions of Kitchener’s volunteer army, a phenomenon that is a byword for the pathos of the Somme. That magisterial work, “The First World War” by my late constituent and near neighbour Sir John Keegan, ends with this:
“Men whom the trenches cast into intimacy entered into bonds of mutual dependency and sacrifice of self stronger than any of the friendships made in peace and better times. That is the ultimate mystery of the First World War. If we could understand its loves, as well as its hates, we would be nearer understanding the mystery of human life.”
Steinbrecher survived the Somme, but was killed in action the following year. By then, with the Americans entering the war, the tide had turned. Another German officer, Captain von Hentig, described the Somme as
“the muddy grave of the German field army”
and so it was. But peace came, and Europe’s politicians failed, a betrayal of the fallen and a reminder of our heavy responsibility.
I know that Members from all parts of the House are grateful for the opportunity to mark this important moment of remembrance, and I would particularly like to thank the hon. Member for South West Wiltshire (Dr Murrison) —my hon. Friend—who in his role as the Prime Minister’s special representative for the centenary commemoration of the first world war has done very important work in ensuring that the first world war is commemorated in an appropriate and inclusive way. He and I agree that one of the most important reasons for our country to remember is that our country’s young people—the next generation—cannot. To them, thankfully, a war in western Europe seems a distant prospect and my hon. Friend deserves generous praise for working to ensure that our next generation has been fully engaged in this process of commemoration.
Many of us will be attending commemorative events for the Battle of the Somme in the coming days, but it is absolutely right that in this place we have the opportunity to pay our respects. Organisations and community groups across the country will also be commemorating this centenary. I want to pay particular tribute, as my hon. Friend did, to the work that is specifically being done by the Royal British Legion, the BBC, the Woodland Trust, the Commonwealth War Graves Commission and the Imperial War Museum. They have all made a very significant contribution to this process. Tonight, I want to reflect on the battle itself, the contribution made to the war effort by the country, and the wider implications of the battle and the first world war itself.
On the morning of 1 July 1916, the piercing sound of whistles filled the air as men climbed out of their trenches to advance, and so began 141 days of the bloodiest battle of world war one. Those soldiers were surrounded by their comrades and driven forward by determination, duty and fear. The prospects of reaching the enemy trenches were grim as whole waves of men fell to the storm of oncoming fire that spread across the battlefield.
By nightfall some 21,000 would lay dead and 35,000 lay wounded. It is hard to comprehend the horror. The sound of British artillery guns could be heard across the channel on the south coast of England, mines detonated beneath the German trenches shook the ground, and within moments cries of the wounded were echoing across the bloodied battlefield.
For every yard of the 16-mile front there were two British casualties, and by the end of the battle more than 1 million soldiers had been killed. The terrible price paid by those soldiers reverberated across Europe and, indeed, the world.
In the weeks and months that followed, families would mourn their loved ones who would never come home. This pain was felt in every community across our country. Of the 16,000 towns and villages across Britain which dispatched soldiers to war in 1914, only 40 “thankful parishes” would see the return by 1918 of all who had left for the conflict.
I visited northern France last year to pay my respects to those who had fallen: men who were prepared to face danger to secure freedom for people they would never meet and never know. I stood in the trenches they had defended. I imagined the terror they must have experienced and walked the ground on which they had fought. I knelt in front of their graves. It felt like they were a long way from home.
On occasions such as these, it is customary to talk about one’s own local unit, and I will do so in a moment. I remember being in northern France a year ago, standing in the trench from which the men of the Devonshire Regiment had begun their attack. Those who had fallen now lie buried in the very same trenches from which they had fought. There is a plaque marking the spot, and it reads:
“The men of the Devonshire Regiment held this trench. They hold it still.”
Many of those who lost their lives on the Somme were volunteers—men who put themselves forward after seeing Lord Kitchener’s famous recruiting poster. Among them were the Barnsley Pals. They were miners, steelworkers, glassworkers, clerks, stonemasons and clerics, and many of them were friends and neighbours. They joined up together, they trained together and they went to war together. Ultimately, many of them died together. That story is true not just of the Barnsley Pals but of the many volunteer battalions up and down the country. Some signed up through a sense of duty, others through a sense of adventure, but regardless of their reasons for joining or of where they came from in our country, we stand united today to recognise and remember their sacrifice. We live in peace and enjoy freedom today because of what they and others did for us. That is a legacy that must endure for all time.
We should also take a moment to acknowledge how the Somme and the first world war in general helped to reshape our society. We remember the sacrifice of the men who died at the Somme, but Britain’s war effort would not have been possible had women not become the backbone of the war effort. This ultimately led to the Representation of the People Act 1918, which at long last extended the voting franchise to women. It can also be argued that the conflict planted the seeds for the growth of the trade union movement, the transformation of the state and the fundamental realignment of British politics that has had a profound impact on our country over the last century.
This debate also provides us with an important opportunity to pause, to remember and to pay tribute to those from the Commonwealth nations who fought alongside British troops. There were volunteers from India, the West Indies, Africa, Australia, New Zealand and other countries across the globe. They were thousands of miles away from home but they were fighting with great courage for what they believed to be right. We owe them a debt of gratitude.
In our debate in this place just a couple of years ago, we marked the start of our commemoration of world war one by saying how important it was for it to be a commemoration and not a celebration. In that spirit, I also want to commemorate the men in the opposite trenches at the Somme who lost their lives during the battle’s 141 horrific days. I have read the accounts of both German and allied troops who fought at the Somme. The accounts are eerily similar and similarly tragic. Those in the opposing trenches were not monsters. They were young men, just like their British and allied counterparts, fighting for their country.
We know that, sadly, the first world war did not turn out to be the war to end all wars, as David Lloyd George had suggested. Within two decades, war would again engulf our continent, but it is a fitting tribute to those who died in both world wars that we now pursue partnerships of peace and are enjoying our longest period without conflict in western Europe for nearly 2,000 years. It is comforting to know that what were once fields of war are now fields of peace.
The historian A. J. P. Taylor once said that idealism died on the Somme. I do not believe that that is true, and I do not believe that we can allow it to be true. We must keep working for a better world—a world that stands as a fitting legacy for those who fell at the Somme in those dark days 100 years ago. It is a mark of our common decency that we commemorate a war of history, but it is a measure of our common humanity that we continue our work today to ensure that such an event never occurs again. That is the greatest tribute that we can pay.
It is a privilege to follow the hon. Member for Barnsley Central (Dan Jarvis), who gave a moving speech, talking in very human terms about one of the bloodiest battles in our country’s history. I join him in paying tribute to the Commonwealth citizens who gave so much in the war. Like him, I took my family to northern France to see the battlefields—they are a moving sight.
It is also a great privilege to follow the powerful speech made by my hon. Friend the Member for South West Wiltshire (Dr Murrison). He has provided exemplary leadership on this particular piece of work. The whole House owes him a great debt of gratitude for all the work that he has done. He is right that war is hell on earth, but his thoughtful opening to the debate set the events in an understandable context. It is difficult for us to comprehend the scale of the sacrifice of those who went into battle 100 years ago.
There are no surviving soldiers to tell us their stories. Instead, we have extraordinary monuments of scale and poignancy that defy belief. Lutyens’ Thiepval monument, commemorating more than 70,000 British and South African soldiers, is haunting, but it is a place that we should all visit. The Welsh red dragon of Mametz wood remembers more than 400 soldiers who were killed and injured in that particular part of this appalling battle. These are extraordinary monuments to people who showed courage in the face of such horror. I pay tribute to the Government for putting in place the Battlefield Tours Programme, which continues to help many children to gain a deeper understanding of this important part of our nation’s history. My hon. Friend is right that remembrance is hard-wired into these commemorations. This is about loss and opportunities forgone.
I did not learn about the war from great-grandfather, who was a soldier in the first world war. It was actually from reading the memories of poets such as Wilfred Owen that I gained my first understanding of the horrors of the war. My hon. Friend paid tribute to the Commonwealth War Graves Commission and the BBC, and I want to extend that tribute to, and specifically talk about, the work of 14-18 NOW. With no one left to tell the stories of what happened, we are again using the work of artists to help us to connect with the horrors and the courage of the Somme 100 years on.
While I was a Minister, I was fortunate enough to be able to help to establish 14-18 NOW and to give another generation of artists the opportunity to help us to make sense of the events. Jenny Waldman and Vikki Heywood have led the way in commissioning some extraordinary work that will live on in everybody’s memory, such as the iconic poppies at the Tower of London, the dazzle ships, and the “Lights Out” event that marked the start of our nation’s first world war commemorations. Those visual, memorable events brought into our consciousness the devastating events of so many years ago. The advisory panel, which I had the honour of chairing on the behalf of the Prime Minister, ensured that the programme of works was inspiring and fitting. I again pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for South West Wiltshire. Not only was he a member of that extraordinary panel of people, but he ensured that the events came to fruition.
14-18 NOW has helped to create a body of work to mark the 100th anniversary of the battle of the Somme, including the newly commissioned opera “In Parenthesis”, which is based on the epic poem by David Jones, “Memorial Ground”, a new choral work by David Lang, and the Somme 100 Manchester event at Heaton Park with the Hallé orchestra. All those pieces of work can perhaps help us to understand the raw emotion of those times. Yet again it has been the artists who have helped us, another generation, to connect with and comprehend the scale of horror and courage.
We are at a point in our history when our relationship with the rest of continental Europe is very much at the forefront of our minds. My hon. Friend the Member for South West Wiltshire was right that the legacy here is of coming together. In remembering the battles fought 100 years ago alongside our allies, we should not forget the sacrifices that were made by so many men and women on both sides. We may vote to leave a political institution, for whatever reason, but the pasts and destinies of Britain and our European neighbours will be forever intertwined. We should remember those who lost their lives.
It is a privilege to follow the right hon. Member for Basingstoke (Mrs Miller). I had the pleasure of serving under her chairmanship on the first world war centenary advisory board and of working alongside the hon. Member for South West Wiltshire (Dr Murrison), the Prime Minister’s special representative for the centenary commemoration of the first world war. He has been in Northern Ireland and the Republic on a number of occasions and joined us in some of our centenary commemoration events. We thank him for all his support.
The Battle of the Somme has a particular resonance, as the hon. Gentleman reminded us, for the island of Ireland, and especially in the historic province of Ulster in what is now Northern Ireland. The 36th (Ulster) Division, which was deployed for the first time in combat on 1 July 1916, acquitted itself with great gallantry, heroism and fortitude, but it suffered a huge loss on that fateful day.
Before I go into a little detail on that, may I pay a tribute to my colleagues on the Northern Ireland world war one centenary committee, which I have had the privilege of chairing since its formation? The committee is responsible for organising the main events throughout the centenary period. We have a special programme of events coming up this weekend in Northern Ireland, including an overnight vigil at Clandeboye, near Helen’s Tower, the scene where the 36th Division trained before it went off to France to fight on the western front. We will have events at Belfast City Hall and in Parliament Buildings, Stormont. In the evening, we have a festival of remembrance at Carrickfergus castle. Saturday is devoted to local community events, commemorating the losses at a local level in villages, towns and cities across Northern Ireland. On Sunday, we have a special service in St Anne’s cathedral in Belfast to commemorate the sacrifice not only of the 36th Division, but of the 16th (Irish) Division, which fought with equal valour at the Battle of the Somme.
May I commend my right hon. Friend on the way in which he has chaired the Northern Ireland world war one centenary committee? He mentioned the sacrifice of the 36th (Ulster) Division and the 16th (Irish) Division. The way in which the commemorations are playing out in Northern Ireland is exemplary because they are bringing people together. For the first time in a long time, people are recognising the sacrifice of soldiers from Northern Ireland and southern Ireland. The work that his committee has done has been absolutely tremendous.
I thank my right hon. Friend for his very kind words. It is not just me but my colleagues from many parts of civil society in Northern Ireland who have come together to undertake excellent work to ensure that the centenary commemorations are inclusive—they have been, as the hon. Member for South West Wiltshire has reminded us—and that they embrace people from right across the community. I have had the pleasure of attending events in Northern Ireland in which people from all sections of the community have taken part. I have attended services, for example, at Lisburn cathedral in my constituency, when we marked the centenary of Gallipoli. We had the Speaker of the Northern Ireland Assembly, a member of Sinn Féin, lay a wreath in the cathedral in remembrance of the men from the island who died in that battle.
I totally accept the right hon. Gentleman’s purpose and what he is saying. Does he accept that in 1916 there was huge turmoil in Ireland, which was under the United Kingdom at the time—we had one country in Ireland? Does he accept that the Irish Government have now taken on their responsibilities and role, and that they recognise the soldiers who died at the Somme and in other battles, which they did not do for many years? They deserve some credit for that.
Indeed. I echo the hon. Gentleman’s comments. It has been a pleasure to work with the Irish Government. We have organised and hosted a number of joint events commemorating soldiers from right across the island of Ireland. I will be back in Glasnevin cemetery in July, where some more of the Victoria Cross stones will be unveiled for soldiers who died. They lie in the shadow of the cross of sacrifice in Glasnevin cemetery. I commend the Irish Government for the way in which they have embraced the centenary of the first world war. The events that they have organised have been most appropriate and inclusive.
I had the privilege of visiting the Somme and in particular the Ulster tower on the Somme. I do not know whether the right hon. Gentleman has visited that wonderful memorial. Will he join me in paying tribute to those who organised that? It tells the world and the European Community of the sacrifice of the 36th (Ulster) Division on 1 July.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. He is right. The Ulster tower is a replica of Helen’s Tower at Clandeboye, and on 1 July there will be, as there is every year, a special event to mark the sacrifice of the 36th Division. I commend to the hon. Gentleman the Irish peace tower at Mesen, which is symbolic of the three Irish Divisions—the 10th, the 16th and the 36th. I hope that next year, as part of the centenary commemorations, we will hold a joint commemorative event with the Irish Government to mark the sacrifice of the three Divisions in the first world war.
The 36th (Ulster) Division was commanded by Major General Oliver Nugent. On 1 July, the first day of the Battle of the Somme, it was one of the few Divisions to make significant gains on that fateful day. Its objective was to take the German position known as the Schwaben redoubt. The Ulstermen took the German front lines and secured that position, but did so at a huge loss. It is worth recording that on the first two days of fighting at the Somme, the Ulster Division lost 5,500 officers and enlisted men, killed, wounded or missing in action. Given that Northern Ireland is a very small place, the impact of such losses in two days of battle was huge. Visitors to many of the cities, towns and villages in Northern Ireland today will see place names linked to the Somme. In my constituency Thiepval barracks, named after Thiepval wood where the Ulstermen made their attack, is the headquarters of 38 (Irish) Brigade and the Army’s headquarters in Northern Ireland.
Of the nine Victoria Crosses that were awarded to the British Army for the Battle of the Somme, four were awarded to men of the 36th (Ulster) Division. I want to mention briefly the names of those four courageous soldiers. Captain Eric Norman Frankland Bell from Enniskillen, who served with the 9th Battalion, the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers, was 20 years old when he died on 1 July 1916. Rifleman Robert Quigg served with the 12th Battalion, the Royal Irish Rifles. We were delighted that yesterday in the village of Bushmills in County Antrim, Her Majesty the Queen unveiled a statue to commemorate Robert Quigg and his heroism during the Battle of the Somme. Rifleman William Frederick McFadzean, 14th Battalion, the Royal Irish Rifles, died aged 20 on 1 July 1916. Lieutenant Geoffrey Cather, 9th Battalion, the Royal Irish Fusiliers, 25 years old, died on 2 July 1916. Those four men were awarded the Victoria Cross for their heroism.
I also want to mention the 16th (Irish) Division at the Battle of the Somme. It is important to understand, as we do in Northern Ireland, that it was not only Ulstermen who went over the top at the blow of the whistle on 1 July. There were some from the 10th (Irish) Division. The 1st Battalion, the Royal Dublin Fusiliers, were in action that day alongside the 36th (Ulster) Division, and later in September the entire Division was deployed at the Somme, again with massive losses during the Battle of the Somme. The 16th (Irish) Division suffered 4,314 casualties during the Battle of the Somme. We from Northern Ireland commemorate not only the soldiers from the Province of Ulster—from what is now Northern Ireland—but those from the 16th (Irish) Division who fought and died alongside the 36th Division at the Battle of the Somme.
In concluding, to underline the significance of the Battle of the Somme for those of us from Northern Ireland, I quote the now famous words of Captain Wilfred Spender of the 36th (Ulster) Division, who wrote—I never tire of quoting these words—on 2 July, the following day:
“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. My pen cannot describe adequately the hundreds of heroic acts that I witnessed...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.”
And so it was. The blood sacrifice of the 36th (Ulster) Division, in my opinion, is the basis on which in 1921 Northern Ireland remained part of the United Kingdom. The Ulstermen did not die in vain. Not only did they die for a cause that was noble in defending European freedom, but they died for a cause that ensured that the Six Counties that are now Northern Ireland remain part of the United Kingdom. Their sacrifice has a special place in the hearts of Ulstermen and women, and it is why this weekend, when we remember them and we remember their sacrifice, they will have that special place in our acts of remembrance. But in the spirit of taking forward reconciliation on the island of Ireland, there is also a special place in our hearts for the men from Connacht, from Leinster and from Munster who put on the uniform of the Crown and sacrificed themselves in an equally noble cause, and who died for our freedom.
I congratulate the right hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Sir Jeffrey M. Donaldson) on his moving speech and the hon. Member for Barnsley Central (Dan Jarvis) on his speech and comments. I also congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for South West Wiltshire (Dr Murrison), who I know has worked so hard in preparing all the commemorations to do with the first world war.
I am so old that I interviewed dozens of first world war veterans in the 1970s, many of them officers, about their experiences. The first lecture I ever gave at the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst, in the Churchill hall, was on the Battle of the Somme. Above the snores of the officer cadets, there was the occasional person who was paying attention.
In my brief remarks, I do not intend to replicate the comments that have been made so far about specifics to do with the Battle of the Somme. If anything, I want to try to step back, because it seems to me that one thing that often does not come across in the commemorative ceremonies is: why the Somme, and what happened?
All too often, there is no context in the coverage. People know about the first day of the Battle of the Somme—that it was the bloodiest battle that the British Army ever fought, and that it was just one day—and it has entered our psyche. It has to be more than that, however. It has to have more than a commemorative purpose in bringing together not only the peoples of the United Kingdom, but the peoples of Europe. I think that that is very important. I would say to some of the people who have been involved in the debates on whether we leave or remain in the European Union that the failure to understand why the French and the Germans cling to the European Union comes from a failure to see that this is not just about money; it is about the fact that they fought three brutal wars against each other— the Franco-Prussian war, the first world war and the second world war—and they are determined that that should never, ever happen again. We should bear that in mind.
The next point I want to make is that to understand what happened, we have to go back to the end of 1915. We, the British, were the junior partners in an allied alliance—we represented about 5% to 10% of the French army in 1914. Our old, pre-war regular Army, with the Territorials, had just about died off by the end of 1914. Our strength was the Royal Navy. We had to build up an Army, and as hon. Members have said, those who served in the campaign on the Somme were almost exclusively volunteers—loosely called Kitchener’s Army —with large numbers of Territorials. The men who volunteered in late 1914 and early 1915 were deployed mainly as formed units in the spring and summer of 1916, and their learning curve had to be absolutely enormous.
The allied strategy was a recognition of the fact that the Germans and Austro-Hungarians were in a powerful position. If you are the Belgians and the French in 1915, that is not an academic thesis. Some 90% of Belgium was occupied by the Germans, and all of northern France was. How do you get them out? The allies recognised that you do that by co-ordinating your attacks. In late 1915, therefore, they decided to co-ordinate an offensive on the Somme in the spring and summer of 1916 with the Russians, the Italians and, of course, the British.
However, old Napoleon Bonaparte once said that the first law of war was that no plan succeeded after initial contact with the enemy. Between February and December 1916, the Germans and the French fought an attritional campaign at Verdun—we are talking about the most monstrous campaign. If any hon. Members have ever been to Verdun, they will know that it puts Thiepval into context. We think that the French lost about 300,000 to 400,000, and the Germans lost about 300,000 to 400,000. This was an attritional war on a vast scale.
The British therefore had to shift the balance. The French were going to take the main offensive on the Somme, but it became the British. The offensive was going to be conducted by an Army led by a few professional regulars. The commander-in-chief, Douglas Haig, had commanded, at the most, 20,000 men in 1914; he was now commanding an army of 1.5 million. The battalions that our Northern Irish friends talk about were lucky if 1,000 men had two regular officers and a couple of regular non-commissioned officers.
The offensive was based on the fact that a vast artillery barrage would destroy the German frontline. We never had enough guns. Our war industries meant that about one third of the shells we produced were duds. The Germans were also a formidable opponent.
The context has to be that the commander-in-chief and his army commander could not agree on the operational plan. Douglas Haig thought that the plan would work, that we would break into the German lines, that the cavalry would be sent through and that we would roll the Germans up. His commander of the fourth army, Rawlinson, believed that all he could do was take the first line of trenches. They never agreed on what the main plan was.
That is crucial in terms of what happened on 1 July. On 1 July, the German defences were not overwhelmed, and the statistics we have seen resulted from the fact that the German machine gunners and artillery were able to destroy our advancing infantry on a vast scale. However, 1 July is only the start of an offensive on the Somme that lasted until November 1916. While we commemorate, and rightly so, the 60,000 casualties on the first day of the Somme, we should recognise that over the next three to four months the British Army endured over 300,000 casualties—the Germans about the same, and the French about the same, in addition to what they had lost at Verdun. We should recognise that this was a major campaign, and we should not ignore the bravery of the men who fought in those ensuing months.
My final point is crucial in understanding the men and women of that period. Yes, there were men and women who opposed the war, and yes, there were men and women—men, in particular—whose morale was broken by what they endured during those operations, but my conclusion from talking to veterans, and from all the reading I have done of letters and diaries, is that they did not give up; if anything, their determination to continue what we regard as a slaughter was increased.
If I were to advise Members to read anything about the first day of the Somme, it would be a novel published in 1961 by John Harris entitled “Covenant with Death”, based on the Sheffield Pals battalion of the York and Lancaster Regiment. It is a marvellous, moving novel. He worked in a Sheffield newspaper office in the 1950s with many of those veterans. Of all the things I have ever read about the first day of the Somme, it is the most moving, and a tribute to the men who died on that day.
The Somme: the first time this world had seen mechanised warfare and the industrial destruction of human life. “Lions led by donkeys” it was said of the British forces in the Crimean war, but that was never more true than at the Somme. We cannot see the war that those who were living a century ago saw, nor can we hope to understand the horror, the pride, the loss and the patriotism that they felt. It may be a disservice to them for us to try. Current serving personnel and veterans of our modern wars will have some understanding, but we do not. Soldiers, sailors and air crew are now trained before being thrown into the hell that is the killing theatre. Precious few of those who fought in the last century had anything resembling military training. Theirs was not an easy task, nor an easy billet, nor an easy death.
My own constituency remembers most keenly the Edinburgh Pals battalions, encouraged to join up with people they already knew to fight alongside them and to die alongside them. Whole communities were devastated as their sons died on France’s fields. People on the other side of Edinburgh from my constituency tell of an entire professional football team, Heart of Midlothian, which joined a Pals battalion, along with players from other Scottish professional sides. They fared no better—youths who were sent to die in the mud. War is always loss and grief and pain, but the first world war stands out starkly as a reminder of how cheaply the lives of ordinary soldiers were held, and how little regard their leaders had for them, even after the guns fell silent.
I am Australian, so I will take a few moments, if I may, to talk about the forces who came from Australia and New Zealand. The Australian and New Zealand soldiers—the Anzacs—fought first at Gallipoli in April 1915. In July 1916, they were in France, at Fromelles, as a diversion for the Franco-British offensive on the Somme. In September, they were sent to rest, but were back at the Somme in October, where they suffered a very severe winter. About one in seven of the New Zealand division died in the battle, and 40% were wounded. Two thousand graves and 1,200 names engraved on the memorial to the missing mark New Zealand’s sorrow. New Zealand’s population at the time was about 1 million. At the Battle of Fromelles, there were just over 7,000 casualties in the British Expeditionary Force, and 5,500 of them were Australian.
“Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori”
may be a fine epitaph, but it does not wipe away the hurt, or ease the grief, or help to rebuild the community.
After the war, Ataturk spoke to the mothers of the Anzac soldiers who died at Gallipoli, and the sentiments he expressed apply across the world and across the decades:
“You, the mothers who sent their sons from faraway countries, wipe away your tears; your sons are now lying in our bosom and are in peace. After having lost their lives on this land they have become our sons as well.”
Wherever they came from, whatever side they fought on and whoever we are now, we should embrace all those who have lost their lives fighting in wars they never started. We should remember them as human beings. In the chaos and cacophony of battle, these boys died painful and frightening deaths, lonely even as their friends died alongside them.
Some say that wars are crimes committed under the cover of patriotism, necessity and self-defence. It is sometimes found necessary to commit such crimes, but they are crimes none the less. It is said that we sleep peacefully because others stand ready to do violence on our behalf, but that does not make it right. We owe a huge debt of gratitude to those who served and those who continue to serve, but we owe them more: we owe them our best efforts to avoid waging war in the first place.
As this debate is about the Somme, I thought the hon. Lady would like to join me in paying tribute to the Australian armed forces that fought so superbly at Pozières. Not only is there a fantastic memorial there, but soil from Pozières was used for the burial of the Australian unknown soldier in Canberra.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for making that point and I appreciate his raising it at this time, but I hope that I have already paid tribute to the Anzac soldiers in my comments.
Those who fought in previous wars should be remembered, and those who defend us now should be honoured and paid well. Those who come back from the battlefield injured should be looked after, and their rehabilitation and long-term care should be shouldered completely by the Government, not simply by charity. A century after the carnage of the Somme, we still send young people into harm’s way. The very least we can do is to treat them well.
All the belligerents—the Germans, the French and we the British, too—thought the year 1916 would be one for decisive results. The Germans felt that they could severely knock out the French. I think that is right, but I would ask my right hon. Friend the Member for Broadland (Mr Simpson) whether it is. He taught me at Sandhurst, although I was asleep most of the time. The Germans believed the French were slightly weaker than the British and that knocking out the French would bring the British to heel and sort out the problem.
As my hon. Friend has already hinted, and I will continue on the same theme, that caused the Battle of Verdun, which started on 21 February 1916. The Germans and the French went at it in that fortified town, and it went very badly for our allies the French. My wife’s French family have a biscuit tin filled with various medals—the Légion d’Honneur, the Croix de Guerre and the Medal Militaire—which were gained by her family at Verdun. All 11 of them were killed. Now the family does not even know to whom the medals were awarded. As my hon. Friend stressed, Verdun was hell on earth. Unsurprisingly, the French General Joffre, as allied commander-in-chief, pressed his British allies to take the pressure off Verdun by a massive attack in our sector. Our commander-in-chief, General Haig, wanted to delay until August, but Joffre was insistent, and thus the Battle of the Somme started on 1 July.
In his book, “Britain and Her Army”, the military historian Correlli Barnett wrote that
“the British army in France by 1916 was the largest, most complicated, and most comprehensive single organisation ever evolved by the British nation.”
and that no peacetime operation in either Government or private enterprise could begin to compare with it. But all that organisation was to count for nought and would be largely annihilated by what was to happen.
On the Somme, German positions were mainly on the high ground, and they had incredible shelters, some of which were as deep as 30 to 40 feet underground. British preliminary bombardments had started a week earlier but with not as many shells as we had hoped, and they had little effect because the Germans were relatively safe deep underground. As the bombardment ended, the whistles blew and our men started moving across that dreadful area. The Germans came out of their deep shelters and mowed down our men as they crossed no-man’s land, which could be up to a mile wide and was in full view of the enemy.
The attack started at 7.30 in the morning with whistles blowing up and down the line—I think we will replicate that at 7.30 am in many of the commemorations on 1 July. Four battalions of my regiment, the Cheshires, went over the top in that first assault. Day one was a total failure—well almost; a little bit of the German line was captured. Estimates vary, but about 20,000 men were killed and 60,000 wounded. The carnage was enormous. A company of the 5th Cheshires lost every officer and all its men—they stood no chance.
Today I do not suppose that we can even get near to understanding how difficult it must have been to keep going through the oozing mud, wire and shell holes when one’s closest friends were dropping all around, often in agony. The effect on our soldiers must have been utterly horrific. Let me read what I say at all military funerals that I have attended, and quote the words of Padre Geoffrey Studdert Kennedy, who was known as “Woodbine Willie” by all the men:
“There are many kinds of sorrow in this world of love and hate but there is no keener sorrow than a soldier’s for his mate”.
I will end with a little story that links today with 100 years ago. In 1982, when I was a terribly good-looking young major—[Interruption.] Thank you—I wanted to lighten the tone. In 1982 as a company commander in Northern Ireland, I lost my company when six of my men were killed and 35 wounded. Those were not quite the casualties that the Ulster Division had, but it was not far off and—as in the first world war—it took place in one incident: the Ballykelly bomb. I had not only to be the incident commander through the night, but it took me six hours to identify my men. I then had to bring them home, and they were all buried within the boundaries of Cheshire.
As I came out of St George’s, Stockport, after the second funeral I had been to in that church that week—this must have been just before Christmas 1982—I saw an old lady who was crying. I crossed the road and put my arms around her. I am afraid, ladies, I am a bit of a dinosaur and I said to her, “Don’t worry, darling, he’s out of his pain.” She said, “You don’t understand, young man.” In my mind I was thinking, “I bloody well do understand. I held him as he died.” I did not say that, but she read my mind. She said, “No, you clearly don’t understand. When I was a little girl, I stood on this spot and watched 800 men of the 6th Cheshires go into that church. When they came back from the Battle of the Somme, they filled three pews.”
Over the past decades the Battle of the Somme, and the first world war more generally, has passed from living memory to shared national history. Those who experienced at first- hand the horror of fighting in the trenches are no longer with us. Their children, who were brought up in the shadow of the war fully aware of the huge impact it had, are falling in number. For the majority of us now, the Battle of the Somme is something impersonal. We read about it in school textbooks, and those who perished on the battlefields of France are remembered perhaps too often as numbers, rather than as the people they were.
Everybody knows that nearly 20,000 British soldiers died on the first day of the battle, 1 July 1916, and that by the end of the battle, in November 1916, over 1 million men had either lost their lives or been injured. Few of us, however, can comprehend the huge sense of loss and devastation that engulfed the country at the time of the tragic battle. In every city, town and village, mothers, wives, daughters and sisters received news of their sons, husbands, fathers and brothers who had suffered or had died. No community was left unscathed by the battle.
At the time of going to war in 1914, the regular professional British Army was already Scots-heavy and it was supplemented by volunteers as the war got under way. There were 4.6 million Scots, comprising less than 10% of Britain’s pre-war population, yet they made up 13% of the volunteers in 1914 and 1915. A total of 147,609 Scots lost their lives in the four-year conflict between 1914 and 1918. Scotland’s soldiers accounted for a fifth of Britain’s war dead, although Scots were only a tenth of Britain’s population.
At the Battle of the Somme, the casualties, as a percentage of the British Army total, did not include as many Scots as at the Battle of Loos the year before, where one third of the casualty list served in Scottish regiments. However, the number of Scottish troops who took part was considerable. Three Scottish divisions took part in the battle and many other battalions were involved. Many of these battalions were volunteers known, as we have heard, as the Pals battalions. They were particularly affected by the battle. One of these was the 16th Royal Scots, which became known as McCrae’s battalion, after the charismatic Lieutenant-Colonel Sir George McCrae, who rallied the men of Edinburgh to enlist beside him. It is also known as the sporting battalion, after the whole of Heart of Midlothian football team joined up. Prior to enlisting, the Hearts team were taunted for continuing to play football rather than supporting the war effort, with a letter in the Edinburgh Evening News stating that they should adopt the nom de plume, the White Feathers of Midlothian. However, when the team committed themselves to the war, the same paper declared:
“There is only one football champion in Scotland, and its colours are maroon and khaki.”
They were followed by professionals from other football and sporting clubs and their supporters. McCrae’s battalion was one of many to go over the top on the first day of the Somme. Some of the battalion managed to fight through, capturing the strong point that became known as the Scots redoubt. Others made it to the village of Contalmaison—the deepest penetration of the German front lines that morning—but few of them lived to tell the tale. By the end of the day, the battalion had lost 12 officers and 573 soldiers. Three-quarters of the 16th Royal Scots were killed and wounded on 1 July. A distinguished conduct medal, three military crosses and seven military medals were awarded to the bravest of McCrae’s men.
That was not the only Scottish battalion to show remarkable bravery at the Somme. On the morning of the battle, David Laidlaw, who was commanding the 16th Highland Light Infantry, commented that his men were
“singing and whistling as if they were going to a football match instead of one of the most serious encounters in the world’s history.”
Despite losing 20 officers and 534 men on the first day, three platoons held out for eight days against ferocious German attacks after being isolated following an attack on a trench called the Frankfurt. There was no military worth in holding out for so long, but it said everything about their bravery and heroism that they did so.
One soldier to show heroism at the Somme was John Meikle, born in Kirkintilloch in my constituency of East Dunbartonshire. Like many others, he was so anxious to join up at the beginning of the war that he lied about his age and fought at the Somme aged just 17. Despite his extreme youth, he quickly rose up the ranks and survived the battle. Sadly, he was killed two years later at the second Battle of the Marne. To mark his death, a commemorative plaque in his honour will be laid in Kirkintilloch in two years’ time. John is thought to be one of the youngest-ever recipients of the Victoria Cross and is one of only 25 men under the age of 20 to receive the award. After his death, his family did not attend the official presentation of his Victoria Cross at Buckingham Palace. Why? They were unable to afford the associated expense of new clothes and accommodation in London. Instead, they chose to receive the decoration during a local parade in Glasgow.
Unfortunately, that was an all too familiar story for those who lost close family members or for those returning from the battlefield. While they were promised a land fit for heroes by the then Prime Minister David Lloyd George, the reality was very different. In many towns and villages, the male populations had been wiped out. The profound effects of mental and physical injury left many soldiers incapable of adapting back into society. Unemployment was rife, and half a million decent homes to be built by 1933 did not materialise.
My grandfather, John George Stant, was one of those who volunteered and served. His letters home to his mum in Scotstoun in Glasgow, written in immaculate copperplate, with a signed oath on each envelope, spell out his hopes and fears—absurd optimism giving way to grim despair. The job that was promised to him was not there in reality, so he decided not to return home. There was little choice but to join the army of occupation marching into Germany, where he was billeted with a kind family in Cologne. They left him a present under their Christmas tree that year, as he told his mum in a letter.
My grandpa survived only to be killed by a German bomb in the Glasgow shipyards 20 years later, but many did not get those extra 20 years. The chaplain at the Somme wrote a letter to the parents of Peter Logan of Milngavie, who was killed on 20 July 1916. He said:
“It is some help to bear your heavy loss to know that he was doing his heroic bit in this battle and that he had made his great sacrifice for a cause that stands for everything we hold dear.”
Tragically, despite such great heroism and sacrifice at the Somme and throughout the first world war, the devastation left behind, the failure to build a new Britain and the inability to build a lasting peace in Europe meant that the sacrifices were often in vain, and many who survived found themselves battling on the home front just 20 years later.
We must never forget the horrors of war or the personal stories that go with it. As many at the Somme and those left behind found out, the devastation of war far exceeded the glory. The Battle of the Somme will be forever etched into the national memory of villages, towns and cities throughout these islands and Europe, especially as we mark the battle’s centenary this week, but if we do just one thing we must remember this: it is easy to stand up in the House, make grand speeches and pay homage to those who died, but the best memorial to them would be if everyone here were to think very carefully before casting a vote for war and be absolutely certain that they have the best interests of our troops at heart and are protecting them and their lives.
It is an honour to follow the moving speech from the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire (John Nicolson) about the Scottish regiments’ contribution to the Somme and about what we should always bear in mind in the House when we commemorate the dreadful events of 100 years ago.
It is right that we commemorate the Somme on 1 July. We will be doing so in my Sussex constituency of Horsham, in the town itself, in Crawley Down and in other villages and towns around the constituency. My hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart) referred to the battle beginning on 1 July, but of course the preceding artillery barrage started on 24 June—[Interruption]—as he is now reminding us. The barrage grew in intensity until, by 1 July, it could be heard on the Sussex coast.
The Somme campaign involved a series of related engagements, however, and it is on one of them that I want to touch briefly. Even before 1 July, some of our forces were going over the top. A diversionary attack was launched on 30 June, the day before the battle, at 3.5 am. It took place away from the Somme, in the Richebourg sector, at an emplacement known as the Boar’s Head, and was designed to persuade the Germans that the real thrust was coming from elsewhere. It was conducted by three battalions of the Royal Sussex Regiment—the Southdown Battalions: the 11th Battalion, in a support role, suffered 116 casualties; the 12th Battalion suffered 429 casualties; and the 13th Battalion, which was destroyed, suffered 800 killed, wounded or captured.
In that engagement, which lasted five hours, no fewer than 12 sets of brothers were killed. The battle mimicked what would happen the next day on the Somme. In horrific fighting, the troops advanced on prepared positions and captured the frontline. In fact, they captured a notice, written helpfully in English, that read, “Welcome Sussex boys. We’ve been waiting days for you”. The battle followed a three-day artillery barrage. They held the frontline and penetrated right through to the support trenches, which they held for four hours, before a complete shortage of ammunition forced them to withdraw. There was terrific heroism. The company sergeant major, Nelson Carter, was awarded a posthumous Victoria Cross.
The people of Sussex know that, for understandable reasons, their battle will always take second place to the carnage the following day on the Somme—the battle of Boar’s Head does not even feature in the official history of the war, despite the losses and the valour—but in proposing today’s motion, my hon. Friend the Member for South West Wiltshire (Dr Murrison) mentioned that one of the many emotions that went through our soldiers’ minds as they went over the top was pride in their neighbourhoods. I wanted to put it on the record that the neighbourhoods and the county of Sussex still take huge pride in those men. Sussex will always remember 30 June 1916 as the day that Sussex died.
It is a pleasure to contribute on this issue. As the hon. Member for South West Wiltshire (Dr Murrison) clearly outlined in his introduction, in the Province of Ulster or Northern Ireland as it is now, we remember with great pride the courage of our forefathers at the Battle of the Somme. I would also like to thank the hon. Gentleman for the overseeing work that he has done for the whole of the United Kingdom in the commemorations for the first world war.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Lagan Valley (Sir Jeffrey M. Donaldson) is not in his place, but it is only fair to put on record on behalf of the MPs and the people of Northern Ireland our recognition of the energy, drive and leadership of my right hon. Friend as the chairman of the Northern Ireland First World War Centenary Committee. Many events taking place today are happening because of his leadership. He would always say that it was due to those around him, but the fact of the matter is that he is the Michael O’Neill of this first world war commemorative committee.
It would be remiss of me not to mention the hon. Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart). I want to put it on the record that he spoke most gallantly. We in Northern Ireland want to thank him very much for his courage, his leadership and heroics. He will not take it lightly, but we mean it. I thank him for all he did in uniform for Northern Ireland and for helping to make it a better place today. I thank him so much for that, which is something I have always wanted to say publicly in this Chamber; it is only right that we should do so.
As the diktat of home rule loomed, Ulstermen and women organised their resistance. From 1910, the leadership of the Ulster Unionist Council had been persuading the Dubliner, Edward Carson, to become their leader. In 1911, he wrote to James Craig that in return for his leadership he wanted to satisfy himself that the people really meant to resist:
“I am not for a game of bluff and, unless men are prepared to make great sacrifices which they clearly understand, the talk of resistance is useless.”
Under the leadership of famous Lord Carson among many others, Ulster stood up and backed up her defiance with a willingness to fight. Up to half a million signed the Ulster covenant, signalling their intent to resist home rule by all means necessary, and over 100,000 signed up to join the Ulster Volunteers, should such means of resistance become necessary.
From where I am from in Strangford, I can see the Helen’s Tower where the 36th (Ulster) Division trained. It is always good to remember that. Just three weeks ago, the Orange institution of which I am proud to be a member in the fourth district of Newtownards paraded on the same route that the men marched down after their training at Helen’s Tower before they went off to Newtownards to catch the train to go to fight in the first world war and the Battle of the Somme. Wearing a different hat as a mayor back in 1991 and ’92, I had the opportunity to visit the Somme, and I will always remember the youth of those who died so clearly for a cause, as they did.
At a rally in the Ulster Hall, Fred Crawford, who had been keen on obtaining arms to challenge home rule from the mid-1890s, stated:
“I predict that Home Rule will never be killed until we show any British Government which brings it forward that we will resist to the death, even with arms if necessary”.
But soon, a foe beyond our shores would raise its head. This is pertinent to last week when the Ulster boys were making all the noise at the Euros; 100 years ago, our boys were sent off to France. Without fear, reservation or doubt and with no uncertainty in their conviction, our boys went off to fight for King, country and empire. Their presence alone turned heads before a shot was even fired.
In July 1915, the division moved to Seaford on the Sussex coast of England. This was the first time that many of the men had been outside their native land. Lord Kitchener inspected the division there on 27 July 1915, and later remarked to Carson:
“Your Division of Ulstermen is the finest I have yet seen.”
Off to France our 36th Ulster Division went—and in the finest spirit and as finely trained as they could be.
In March 1916, the sector of the front held by the Ulster Division was extended to cover an area south of the river called Thiepval wood. This wood, the name of which would become indelibly linked to the Province of Ulster, served as a base until the commencement of the Battle of the Somme on 1 July 1916. Thiepval comprised an area of some 100 acres of deciduous forest and was criss-crossed with deep communication trenches leading to the front line. Dugouts were excavated from the chalky earth and provided some shelter from the German artillery.
Food stores and ammunition dumps were also constructed in the wood, and it was near one of those dumps, on the morning of 1 July, that Rifleman William McFadzean, of the 14th Royal Irish Rifles (Young Citizen Volunteers), won immortal fame when he was awarded a posthumous Victoria Cross for an act of courageous self-sacrifice. Last Saturday, in my constituency, we unveiled a new commemoration garden and a new monument to the 36th (Ulster) Division, 100 years after the event, and we mentioned the four VCs that were won by members of that division.
Thiepval wood housed the four battalions of 109th Brigade. The River Ancre divided the 108th Brigade, with two battalions in the wood and two in the village of Hamel. Divisional headquarters were at Aveluy Wood, which also housed the 107th Brigade.
On 1 July 1916, as the morning mists cleared away, the assault waves of 130,000 British infantry called their rolls and checked their arms and ammunition. Each man was in “fighting order”, and given the extra burden of shovels, grenades, a Stokes mortar bomb, wire cutters, a gas mask, a prepared charge of explosives for cutting gaps in wire and other obstacles, many of them were carrying up to 90 lb. At 7.30 am, zero hour, the artillery barrage lifted off the first German line and moved on to the second. That was the first employment of the so-called rolling barrage. Steel-helmeted and with bayonets fixed, the infantry left their trenches and advanced. A senior officer wrote to The Times of the Ulster Division:
“It was done as if it was a parade movement on the barrack square”.
They were closely packed in rigid lines, the military doctrine of the day being that they should swarm on to the enemy trenches as soon as their own artillery had lifted, but that stiff formation prevented the use of cover and inhibited initiative. Thousands of Ulstermen reportedly dumped supplies so that they could be as fast and as agile as possible.
From 1915 until 1918, the 36th Division was commanded by Major-General Oliver Nugent, a general of distinction. The 36th was one of the few divisions to make significant gains on the first day on the Somme. It attacked between the Ancre and Thiepval against a position known as the Schwaben redoubt. We are told that the leading battalions of the division
“had been ordered out from the wood just before 7.30am and laid down near the German trenches ...At zero hour…blew the ‘Advance’.”
It is said that many of those Ulstermen wore their orange sashes when they went over the top. The pipes were skirling—the Ulstermen loved the pipes, as we still do—and they advanced out of their trenches full of energy, courage and conviction. They
“rushed the German front line ...By a combination of sensible tactics and Ulster dash, the prize that eluded so many, the capture of a long section of the German front line, had been accomplished.”
At first, south of the Ancre, everything went well, and the108th and 109th Brigades moved over the German trenches with few casualties. Scarcely were they across, however, when the German batteries opened a barrage on “no man’s land”.
The hon. Gentleman has said it for me. I thank him for the benefit of his knowledge, as always.
Simultaneously, the resolute German machine-gunners, who had remained safe from our bombardment, sprang up from their shelters, pulling up their guns and heavy ammunition boxes, and raked our men from the flanks and the rear, thinning the waves of soldiers. Many officers fell, and the men went on alone.
The Ulster Division’s position was now a vulnerable salient in the German line, a few hundred yards wide and raked by German fire. At dusk, a powerful counter-attack by fresh German troops drove our men, almost weaponless, back to the second German line, which they held all the next day until they were relieved at night by the troops of the 49th Division. They withdrew, having suffered horrendous casualties. The Innsikillings lost more men than any British regiment had ever lost in a single day. Of the 15th Battalion Royal Irish Rifles, only 70 men answered a roll call on that night of 1 July. The total number of British casualties on that first day was 60,000. Many homes were affected in my constituency, in Ards and Comber, in the borough of Ards and North Down, and there are many memorials there to lost loved ones and to the injured. Families lost brothers, sons, fathers and uncles. Some families lost two of their members, and some lost three. The losses were horrendous.
Through no fault of their own, the blinding success that the Ulstermen had achieved had not been exploited, but the Battle of the Somme had inflicted on the Germans a wound from which they never fully recovered. I love this statement by Captain Wilfred Spender of the Ulster Division's HQ staff, which was quoted earlier by my right hon. Friend the Member for Lagan Valley. It was reported in the press after the battle The captain said:
“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.”
He further stated:
“The Ulster Division has lost more than half the men who attacked and, in doing so, has sacrificed itself for the Empire which has treated them none too well. The much derided Ulster Volunteer Force has won a name which equals any in history. Their devotion, which no doubt has helped the advance elsewhere, deserved the gratitude of the British Empire. It is due to the memory of these brave fellows that their beloved Province shall be fairly treated.”
In serving King and empire, the men of the Ulster Volunteers had in their incredible bravery in the 36th secured Ulster’s place within the United Kingdom. Let us never forget their sacrifice and let us live with the same vigour and valour that they did show.
Order. If all remaining colleagues who are interested in speaking in the debate are to be accommodated, each needs to be speak for no longer than six or seven minutes because we must have the winding-up speeches, and hopefully there will be an opportunity for the hon. Member for South West Wiltshire (Dr Murrison) to wind up.
It is a great privilege to follow the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon). July 1 1916 was the bloodiest day for the British Army and the start of our bloodiest battle. As nations applied the lessons of the industrial revolution to the battlefield, there were casualty rates of 20,000 a day—60,000 casualties on the first day—and nearly 1 million men were killed over the course of the several months of the battle. Those rates are slightly numbing. How do you put faces to close on 1 million men? How can you prevent so many tragedies from becoming, as the saying has it, mere statistics?
In my constituency of Solihull, we have a strong connection with our history—many Members have reflected on the history of their own constituencies. On 1 July, the mayor will be hosting our borough’s own commemoration of this pivotal battle, next to a replica trench in the grounds of Kingshurst academy. That will bring history to life for a new generation. I always find with younger people that they have a real, deep respect when faced with the sacrifices of our forebears and have real empathy for what they went through.
I would like to pay tribute to the men and women from my community who paid the ultimate price during the Battle of the Somme and during the Great War. There is not time enough to list them all: 24 Solihull men—Silhillians—died on the first day of the battle, and 127 would die before it concluded in November. Solihull was a very small place then in comparison with now, so we can imagine the impact on the community. Many hon. Members have mentioned that in relation to their own communities. These were people everyone knew. I remember the names I have seen and taken note of on the local war memorial: William Bolton, Charles Frost, Charles Haynes, David Jelfs, Clive Latch and Claud Wilks. Also listed are three members of the same family: Albert, Henry and Sidney Britt, all of whom served and died during the Great War. We are very lucky to live in a country where it is difficult to imagine any family suffering so terribly in a war. However, perhaps these days such things are becoming all too more frequent in our civilian lives.
For every man who died, another came home with life-changing injuries to a society ill prepared for them. This centenary offers us an important opportunity, amidst the sadness and respect, to recognise how far we have come in our treatment of veterans. This is not just about medical science, although that has come an astonishing distance since the Somme, as society has applied the same innovative genius to healing men as it once did to killing them. It is also about our much greater understanding of the mental and spiritual traumas that war inflicts on those who serve.
I am pleased that our country is making great strides towards improved mental health support for our servicemen and women, but we still have a long way to go and for many years our progress was too slow in that regard. I always think it is a great shame in our society that many of those who are homeless are former armed services personnel. I will do my best to support those efforts in my role as a Member of Parliament.
Of course, the age of total war meant that the wounds and risks were not borne by soldiers alone. A huge number of courageous men and women on all sides served in medical and technical positions, which were essential to the war effort. My right hon. Friend the Member for Broadland (Mr Simpson) mentioned that many of the shells fired at the Somme were dud. It was very much a testament to the women of this country working in the munitions factories that they made such a difference in improving the quality of the armaments, thereby helping to deliver victory. So let me pay tribute to them now, especially to the extraordinary women who overcame great prejudice to play their vital part. Even before the sheer scale of the slaughter, the authorities had invited them to serve in a wide range of important roles.
Events like this centenary remind us not only how lucky we are to live in an age when mass mechanised warfare is seemingly not imminent but of the incalculable debt all of us owe to the men and women of our armed forces today.
It is an honour to follow the thoughtful speech of the hon. Member for Solihull (Julian Knight) and it is good to be speaking today. I am particularly grateful to the hon. Member for South West Wiltshire (Dr Murrison) for securing this debate.
It is also slightly embarrassing to think that the right hon. Member for Broadland (Mr Simpson) talked about those of us who might have been sleeping at Sandhurst in the ’70s while he presented his lectures. I do remember the lectures from him and John Keegan. They were lectures where someone could stand and speak and, although we were exhausted, keep our attention all the time; they were fantastic, and I am sorry the right hon. Gentleman is not in the Chamber at the moment.
I also thank all those who worked in Northern Ireland, particularly the right hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Sir Jeffrey M. Donaldson) for all the hard work he has done with the centenary committee and all the work that has gone into pulling everything together in Northern Ireland. This is sounding rather like a wedding speech with lots of thank yous. I also thank my colleague the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) for going into the history and detail because it saves me from having to do so. I knew that both of them would be speaking before me.
One thought always runs through our minds when we have gone to the Somme and have stood in the trenches. I sit there as an ex-member of the armed forces and think, “Could I have done it? Could I have led men out of those trenches on the sound of the whistle?” The answer has to be yes, but with knees knocking, and worry and concern. I think we all learned something from those battles—it has come all the way through the military to today—about how we look after each other and work together. They were heroes and people we should all be saluting.
I also remember from my time at Sandhurst going to the memorial chapel. I was brought up on the basis of the Somme and the Ulstermen, but I remember sitting by a pillar for, I think, the Middlesex Regiment, and looking at the names of a family called Usher, of whom there were, I think, some 12, all killed. We have already heard of the Pals battalions. This brought home to me that it was not just Ulster; it was the whole of the United Kingdom; it was everybody giving their blood so that we could have our freedom in the future. That really ran through me and made me realise how brave they had all been.
We have heard much about the Ulster Division, but we have not really made the link on our side to the fact that the Easter Rising was the same year. The Ulster Volunteer Force, which became that Ulster Division, was in France and Belgium to stand up for the freedom of Ulster, and while they were there, all the wrong things were happening at home. I would like to thank the Irish Government for all the work they have done this year with the centenaries—the wonderful work to mark them all in absolutely the right way. That has been exemplary.
I am only going to repeat something I have said in this House before, but it is terribly important. The men from the north of Ireland—Northern Ireland—and from the south of Ireland together got more Victoria Crosses than the Scots, the English and the Welsh put together. They were incredible.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that comment. It is so true, and perhaps it shows that our wish to fight has always run through us strongly. It shows how brave they were.
We also had the honour of the Queen unveiling the statue of Robert Quigg, which was touched on earlier. It is wonderful that he is being remembered. He went out seven times to pull back those who were injured when looking for his previous employer, an officer who was never found. He, however, survived the war. He was one of the few VCs to do so.
As I wonder whether I could have gone over the top, I must point out that every person who did so was brave. Everyone who went over the top and into those guns deserves to be remembered, not just those who got the medals. It is also poignant that the Irish were there with us all the way through, and we must always mark their bravery. We must remember everyone together.
When I started in politics, I went to the Somme with the various bonfire groups from my local town. Watching people standing to attention like ramrods in front of the graves of their grandfathers really brought it home to me that this was their battle and that they were proud of it. That is what we should all remember today. On Saturdays, when I can, I go to the Ballyclare Comrades football club, which has a historical connection with C company the 12th Irish Rifles, who were said to have played football between the trenches. I am never quite sure whether it is true that they were the ones from the story, but that is always what is said. Today, let us all remember everything. Walter Lord, in his book on the Titanic, said that when questions were being asked afterwards, the need to look after the third class passengers was raised. The first world war also brought home the fact that we had to look after everyone and that every life mattered.
I welcome the opportunity to take part in the debate. It is entirely appropriate that, within our commemorations of the Great War, we take particular note of the Battle of the Somme. I want to highlight the role of my local Pals battalion, which was raised in the Grimsby and Cleethorpes area. It was not unique, in that young men up and down the country were signing up, but it was unique in that it was known as the Grimsby Chums. “Chums” has a rather old-fashioned sound to it these days, but the name emphasises the camaraderie that was needed by our serving forces.
Kitchener was appointed on 6 August 1914. He said that he did not believe that this would be a short war that would be over by Christmas. The Army at the time was 450,000 strong, but 118,000 were serving in India and elsewhere in the empire. However, we had 250,000 territorials. Kitchener was determined to get millions into uniform, and on 7 August he launched his campaign to recruit 100,000 men. The response to his appeal was unprecedented, and the system was overwhelmed.
In Grimsby and Cleethorpes, as elsewhere, local dignitaries stepped in with offers of help. Kitchener agreed to the formation of the Pals battalions. They had certain things in common—recruits’ work, background or the town where they lived—and 304 such battalions were formed. On 9 August, Alderman John Herbert Tate, the Mayor of Grimsby, received a telegram advising him that he had been appointed by the War Office to take charge of local recruitment. The patriotism and determination of the local men from Grimsby, Cleethorpes and the surrounding district were never in doubt. Grimsby had never been a garrison town. Until the time of the Great War, it had been relatively small and had only recently been transformed into a major fishing town. That industry was to expand to make it the greatest fishing port in the world.
The opportunity for adventure and to become a soldier of the empire was irresistible to many. Alderman Tate appointed George Bennett, a local timber merchant, as acting commanding officer. Bennett was a retired captain from the 1st Lincolnshire Royal Garrison Artillery (Volunteers). A permanent CO was subsequently appointed: step forward Lieutenant Colonel the right hon. George Edward Heneage. Plucked from retirement, he answered the call. His father, Lord Heneage, had been Grimsby’s MP and was subsequently high steward of the borough—incidentally, a position now held by our former colleague Austin Mitchell. The name “Chums” appeared in print on 11 September 1914 in the Grimsby Daily Telegraph. The term was taken up by the redoubtable Lady Eugenia Doughty, wife of Sir George Doughty, who was Grimsby’s MP and owner of the said newspaper. Wouldn’t it be nice for present-day MPs to own their local newspapers? Think of the headlines we could get.
Initially, there were no uniforms or cap badges, but they gradually took shape. Recruitment was encouraged by headmasters at local schools. Clee Grammar and St James’ School in Grimsby were prominent among them, but also in the local area was the grammar school at Louth. In an effort to establish a more permanent camp, Alderman Tate approached the Earl of Yarborough, whose Brocklesby estate lies just 10 miles out of town. His lordship was pleased to agree to the request. The months passed, but the battalion was eventually to leave Brocklesby in May 1915. Before it headed south, it marched through the streets of Grimsby and Cleethorpes, with thousands lining the route. More training and preparation followed before the battalion departed for France on 4 January 1916.
The early months were but preparation for what was to follow. As the Battle of the Somme approached, officers were confidently telling men that the enemy could not survive the “big push”. The Somme assault was the first attack on prepared German positions that had been held since September 1914 and was designed to reduce pressure on French troops at Verdun. On 1 July 1916, the 101st Brigade, as part of the 34th Division, within which the Grimsby Chums were found, was situated near La Boisselle. The Chums were ordered to take the town. As the attack began, a mine was to be detonated and the Chums were ordered to occupy the crater itself. Rum was issued to the troops at 4.30 am and they moved into their positions. The mine was detonated and the attack started at 7.30 am. However, the two-minute wait between the explosion and the attack was long enough for German gunners to set up machine guns and aim at the British lines.
The Chums were forced to begin their attack from the communication and reserve trenches due to the size of the explosion and the danger of falling debris, adding 150 yards of unprotected advance before the British front line was even reached. From this point, the Chums had to advance across 500 yards of no-man’s land. Three companies were sent into the attack, advancing in four lines and walking slowly through no-man’s land. The idea was that the enemy had been weakened by a combination of mine and artillery bombardment. In a description by the commander of the 34th Division, the men
“advanced as on parade and never flinched.”
One description stated that
“it was wonderful the way they were dropping in perfect coordination. But then I noticed they were not getting up. They were being dropped by bullets.”
The men were almost immediately mowed down with no gains made. By noon, it had become apparent that the main German trench was intact and German weapons were still functioning. The Chums were involved in other actions, suffering many hundreds of casualties.
When the war ended in November 1918, the colours of the 10th (Service) Battalion the Lincolnshire Regiment were handed over to the St James church in Grimsby—now Grimsby minster. Parades were held for the remaining men of the battalion. The young men of Grimsby and Cleethorpes had stepped forward in 1914, as they would again in 1939, and they did not flinch. They stepped forward to serve King and country. Of course, a sense of adventure played its part, but patriotism and pride in their country and a determination to protect freedom were also in their thoughts. Between 1916 and 1918, the Chums fought in six major engagements. Some were successful, but others were appalling defeats. At the Battle of the Somme, 15 officers and 487 men were declared killed, missing or wounded. That pride and patriotism were on display again only four days ago when Cleethorpes hosted the national weekend event for Armed Forces Day. Cleethorpes attracted 120,000 people to honour our forces.
Many Chums who survived the horrors of war rose to positions of leadership in the local community. On 14 August 1918, Charles Emmerson wrote in his regimental diary:
“There is not another battalion like the 10th Lincolnshire and there never can be.”
They were the town’s best and bravest.
In his book “Grimsby’s Own”, local journalist and writer Peter Chapman concludes by stating he hopes that Grimsby—I would add Cleethorpes and district—will never forget those who came home with their memories and those who gave their lives in the 10th (Service) Battalion. May that be so. Grimsby and Cleethorpes are proud of the Chums. We honour them today and always.
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for South West Wiltshire (Dr Murrison) and the hon. Member for Barnsley Central (Dan Jarvis) for securing this debate.
I grew up with the Somme. My grandparents and great grandparents served on the Somme. My neighbours in the council estate in south Manchester where I grew up served on the Somme. I used to speak to them as a very young man. I have a great uncle who was named after the Battle of Verdun. I have walked the Somme and cycled the Somme. I took my girlfriend round the Somme, visiting the battlefields. She is now Mrs Evans—I know how to treat a girl.
I thank my right hon. Friend the Member for Broadland (Mr Simpson) for putting this battle into historical context as only he can. We had friends—they were the French, the Russians and the Italians. As he ably said, we were planning an attack to kick the Germans out of territories in Belgium and France. However, the Germans struck first. They took Verdun, which was critical to the French, who were being bled white. Our allies and friends called on us to join the attack, but we were not ready. The Somme was not the area or the time of our choosing, because our Army was a citizen army and only half trained. None the less, we chose to help our friends then. If we were called on today, 100 years later, to vote in this House on such action, would we as politicians go to the aid of our friends and neighbours? If members of NATO were attacked in the same way, would we go to their aid? I do not have an answer to that.
I am glad to hear it.
Let me go back to the Somme and how it affects our communities. If Members go to a war memorial in their constituency, they will see names such as Thomas, James, Harry and George. If they then go to their local primary school and look at the children’s coat pegs, they will see Thomas, James, Harry and George. Those forebears grew up in our communities 100 years ago. If they were here today, they would recognise those communities. It is important to remember that they were once young people who sacrificed their lives.
I have a couple of examples from Weaver Vale to read out before I give others a chance to speak. The Norley wildflower walk is about the men of Norley. Eighty-seven served in the first world war and only 77 returned, which meant that 10 were killed. The community looked at where those men lived. Norley is a classic Cheshire village—a beautiful little village. People can walk around the village and see shrines made up of wild flowers commemorating those 10 men of Norley, three of whom died on the Somme. That is an indication of the significance of the Battle of the Somme. The three men were: Lance Corporal Samuel Grindlay, aged 35, who joined the East Lancashire Regiment; Private Arthur Rutter, aged 25, who joined the Manchester Regiment; and Private Edward Parrot, aged 20, who joined the Cheshire Regiment and was killed on 5 September. By coincidence, my parliamentary researcher realised that her great grandfather —a chap called Bernard Quigley—was killed in the same battle as Edward Parrot.
When I visited the Somme with my family, we tasked our children with finding Bernard Quigley’s grave. It is in the big Serre Road cemetery on the Somme. It is always sad to hear the personal stories. Bernard had three children. When he went off to fight, his wife was pregnant. She died in childbirth and the four children were orphaned. That shows the tragedy that that war brought to so many.
Todger Jones served in 1st Battalion the Cheshire Regiment. Todger was a great man, although diminutive. In photographs his rifle and bayonet look bigger than him. What did Todger do? The Germans were shooting at Todger and his comrades. Against orders, he decided to take the German sniper out. He jumped into the trench and shot three Germans very quickly, firing from the hip—he had learned to shoot his Lee-Enfield from the hip. Little did he know that there were 150 Germans; they took one look at Todger and went into their dug-out. He took 150 Germans prisoner and earned the VC.
Todger received the VC at Buckingham Palace during the first world war and went to Runcorn and told the people that he dedicated his VC to his comrades on the front line. Despite what we have said about the horror, all he wanted to do was to go back and serve on the front line. He earned a DCM for an act that, in my view, was even braver than the one for which he earned the VC. That says something about the character of the British nation. I was pleased to raise funds for a magnificent bronze statue of Todger in Runcorn.
The hon. Member for Barnsley Central (Dan Jarvis) is a good Yorkshireman. The memorial of the Serre massacre is in the Sheffield memorial park. That is a misnomer because, as the hon. Gentleman knows, it commemorates the contribution of not just Sheffield, but Barnsley, Accrington and Chorley. The 31st Division is the epitome of the service battalions, the Pals battalions, the Kitchener’s army, because the whole lot were volunteers and suffered significant casualties on the first day.
The hon. Member for Barnsley Central mentioned the Devonshire memorial. For me, there is no better place on the Somme. It is a beautiful area, but sombre if one knows the story behind it. Mansell copse is very special not just because of the Devonshires and what happened there to the 8th and 9th Devons, but because of Lieutenant William Hodgson, who was a very famous poet. He had already received the Military Cross when he looked at the area that was to be attacked on the first day and he recognised a German emplacement in an area called the shrine. In there was a German machine gun post, and he knew that that machine gun was in a position to take them out when they went over the top. He trained his men to try and take the position but, sadly, they failed.
Exactly 100 years ago, on 29 June 1916, Lieutenant Hodgson wrote a poem. He was a young man leading his men over the top on 1 July. He knew that he was going to die. To conclude my tribute to the men who fought on the Somme, I will read the poem, which is called “Before Action”:
“By all the glories of the day,
And the cool evening’s benison:
By the last sunset touch that lay
Upon the hills when day was done:
By beauty lavishly outpoured,
And blessings carelessly received,
By all the days that I have lived,
Make me a soldier, Lord.
By all of all men’s hopes and fears,
And all the wonders poets sing,
The laughter of unclouded years,
And every sad and lovely thing:
By the romantic ages stored
With high endeavour that was his,
By all his mad catastrophes,
Make me a man, O Lord.
I, that on my familiar hill
Saw with uncomprehending eyes
A hundred of Thy sunsets spill
Their fresh and sanguine sacrifice,
Ere the sun swings his noonday sword
Must say good-bye to all of this:—
By all delights that I shall miss,
Help me to die, O Lord.”
I thank my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for South West Wiltshire (Dr Murrison) and the hon. and gallant Member for Barnsley Central (Dan Jarvis) for giving us this opportunity to pay our respects as we commemorate the centenary of the Somme, a battle that had such an unhappy impact on so many homes in our country.
We also raised a Pals battalion in Portsmouth. The Pals battalions were made up of men drawn from recruiting drives from local areas which benefited massively from the wave of patriotic sentiment that swept the nation at the outbreak of war. Pals battalions allowed friends, colleagues and even relatives to join up together, to do their bit for king and country. However, the Pals battalions system was a double-edged sword. Pals battalions meant that many men from a single town or city all fought in the same battles, in the same section of the battlefield. It was perhaps an unforeseen consequence that where the Pals battalions suffered heavy losses, there would be an immediate, devastating impact on the local community that they came from.
The Somme marked a change in how the Army was supplied with recruits. The close-knit Pals battalions were replaced with largely indiscriminate conscription, bringing together men from across the country to fight together in single units. That may have lessened the impact of a single day’s losses on local communities, but the industrial scale of the first world war would mean that no town, city or village would find that their men were immune to the slaughter. The Pompey Pals took part in the battle of the Somme, and they fought in battles before and after it during world war one. Many other men from Portsmouth took part in other formations in the Army at the Somme.
We are fortunate to have in Portsmouth some great people who keep alive the memory of the Pompey Pals. I should like to pay tribute to Bob Beech, Alan Laishley and their colleagues who have been doing this work for many years. A couple of years ago, they created a memorial to our battalions at Fratton Park, our football ground in the heart of the city. It is a fitting place for it, since many of those who joined up were recruited directly from the crowds who poured through the turnstiles there.
The 14th Battalion of the Hampshire Regiment was the formal name of the first Pompey Pals. They participated at the Somme from August 1916, taking part in the push on the River Ancre. In their first major engagement, the battalion suffered 440 casualties in one morning. The 15th Battalion of the Hampshires, the second Pompey Pals battalion, joined the Somme campaign at Flers in September 1916. With several displays of courage, they secured the village of Flers and held it despite constant artillery fire and German counter-attacks. As a result of this action, 305 men were wounded or killed. The two battalions fought along the western front throughout the war, and the second Pompey Pals formed part of the Army of Occupation of Germany afterwards. When the war memorial by Portsmouth Guildhall was unveiled in 1921, a parade of veterans from both battalions was held. The memorial remains a focal point for commemorations to this day, and it is a place for reflection.
We should remember the role played by women in supporting the troops at the front. Many of those women were nurses close to the lines, and they were not immune to the risks of war or the hardship it imposed. Many nurses, in places of grave danger, cared for the wounded and dying with great devotion. We had a memorial service in their honour last autumn in Portsmouth, under the direction of Emma D’Aeth, at the Holy Spirit church in Southsea. Our general hospital in Portsmouth, Queen Alexandra, was originally a military hospital. It was named in honour of the Queen of Edward VII, who sponsored the Army Nursing Corps. As well as those in the Army Nursing Corps, we must remember the women of the Voluntary Aid Detachment who worked in hospitals in the UK and in field hospitals near the front. World war one was the first time that women started taking on roles traditionally done by men, and our nurses were there at the front.
Last November, I visited the battlefields of the Somme and the memorials when I visited my great-uncle’s grave. Francis Douglas Adamson died at Cuinchy in November 1915, aged 24. Like many others, he was a much loved son and brother, and his death had a major effect on my family. I recently read a letter from his father—my great-grandfather—in which he reflected on the fact that it was difficult to travel to see the grave, and he said that he hoped that members of the family would visit it. I think I am the first one of my generation to have done so. My great-uncle’s photo hangs on the wall in my house in Southsea, and I think of him often.
So many of those who died in the first world war were young men who did not have a chance to start families of their own. These men left no direct descendants to remember them, and it is important that the great-nephews and nieces pass on their stories to the children whom we have been blessed with. I hope that others, like me, will track down the graves of their family members, which remind us all of why we need to continue to work closely with our dear friends in Europe to stop any further conflicts.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for South West Wiltshire (Dr Murrison) and the hon. Member for Barnsley Central (Dan Jarvis) for organising this centenary debate. Its subject matter is far enough away in time for many to feel as though it is ancient history, but it is close enough for some of us to have known veterans of that battle.
Let me pay a brief tribute to those in my family, my city and my county who were at the Battle of the Somme. My grandfather, Ogilvie Graham, was 22 at the beginning of the war and an acting Lieutenant Colonel in the Rifle Brigade at 25, with responsibility for others far beyond his years, as was the way in that and many wars. In the Battle of the Somme, he was badly wounded and awarded the DSO.
Like so many of his generation, my grandfather never spoke about the war afterwards. However, there was one great, good thing that came from the Somme, for it was there that he met a young unit administrator in Queen Mary’s Army Auxiliary Corps. She refused to allow him to take over a farmhouse where her team of nurses, cooks and secretaries was based. Winifred Maud Harford did, however, allow my grandfather to marry her, so the Battle of the Somme is indirectly responsible for who I, my brother and my sisters are. I am just as proud of my grandmother’s military MBE from that war as I am of my grandfather’s medals.
My city of Gloucester, and the county of Gloucestershire, made an immense contribution to the Battle of the Somme. There were 13 battalions of the Gloucestershire Regiment—the Glosters—in that battle. Some 1,813 members of the regiment died, and about 6,000 were wounded. Carton de Wiart, who himself won a VC commanding the 8th Glosters, noted at one point that he had
“eight new officers arrive in the morning, and all were lost by the evening”.
Among the many grisly statistics of death from the Battle of the Somme, I find those among the saddest, alongside the story of the Soul family, from Great Rissington, in Gloucestershire. Mrs Soul had five sons who fought in world war one in different regiments, and all were killed.
On Friday, we will hold a commemoration in Gloucester cathedral, close to the stained glass windows that celebrate Ivor Gurney—Gloucester man and poet of the Severn and the Somme. In his poem “On Somme”, he started with these lines:
“Suddenly into the still air burst thudding
And thudding, and cold fear possessed me all,
On the grey slopes there, where winter in sullen brooding
Hung between height and depth of the ugly fall
Of Heaven to earth; and the thudding was illness’ own.”
The thudding is over, but Ivor Gurney never really recovered; he spent years in a mental hospital.
This Friday, in the cathedral, we will commemorate Ivor Gurney and all those from our city and county who fought at the Battle of the Somme. Nearby, in the parish of Hempsted, there will be on display all the research done by Hempsted primary school on those from the village who fought and died. That will be supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund’s special world war one fund.
In our cathedral and in the Lysons memorial hall, we will all be moved again, as Members have been here, by the tragedy of waste, whichever army it was in, and even by the story of the mules from Shandong province that my wife’s grandfather shipped to the front for a muddy death.
I wish to make a few comments because the Staffordshire Regiment played a magnificent part in the first world war. I also want to commemorate those we remember on Remembrance Sunday. Their names are read out in St. Mary’s church in Cheadle and in Stone church. We listen to the roll call and think of the brothers, sisters and all the others who were affected by this enormous tragedy.
I simply want to say this: war is dreadful. My father was killed in the second world war, but people were killed on a massive scale in the first world war, and we do not want that ever to happen again. I am not going to speak about current matters—I just want to remember these people.
I also want to remember those from southern Ireland who took part in the war, just like those from Northern Ireland and from across our territories. There were many such people, including people like Victor Cullen from the Royal Irish Rifles. I would like to mention the names of the regiments: the Royal Dublin Fusiliers, the Royal Munster Fusiliers, the Connaught Rangers, Princess Victoria’s Regiment, the Royal Irish Fusiliers and the Royal Irish Rifles. It is impossible for us to imagine that the people in these regiments, who became part of southern Ireland for the most part, actually fought with our people. As a result of the troubles, they were vilified afterwards, but now they are entrenched in our memories.
I want to read out, in final tribute, just one part of a poem by Wilfred Owen:
“What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?
Only the monstrous anger of the guns.
Only the stuttering rifles’ rapid rattle
Can patter out their hasty orisons.
No mockeries now for them; no prayers nor bells,
Nor any voice of mourning save the choirs,
The shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells;
And bugles calling for them from sad shires.”
I thank the hon. Members for South West Wiltshire (Dr Murrison) and for Barnsley Central (Dan Jarvis) for bringing this debate to the Chamber today. It is a pleasure to sum up for the SNP, and to commemorate all the men— so many of them—who lost their lives at the Somme. There have been excellent speeches throughout the debate. They have been informative and moving, for me none more so than that from the hon. and gallant Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart).
The war of 1914 to 1918 was terrible and destructive. It tore the continent of Europe apart. Of all the terrible battles, even now, so many years later, the Somme is recognised as defining. More British Army troops died on the first day of the Somme than on any other single day in history. The description by the hon. Member for Stone (Sir William Cash) of war as terrible is quite right in that context. As we heard from the right hon. Member for Broadland (Mr Simpson), the Somme was the allied forces “big push” to break German lines, but they were met with fierce resistance from the well-prepared German forces, and the result was months of fighting and terrible loss of life for the British empire, French and German forces. That was in only this one battle, such was the terrible nature of the attrition that characterised the strategy—if that is a word we can use here—of this war.
After a week of heavy artillery bombardment, the British infantry advanced at breakfast time on 1 July 1916. They did so following a whistle blown, in some cases, by Robert Cameron. One hundred years on, to the minute, his nephew, Alan Cameron, chair of the Royal Army Service Corps, will blow the same whistle to mark the end of two minutes silence at the Scottish National War Memorial in Edinburgh castle, where an overnight vigil of remembrance is being held. The fighting at the Somme ultimately lasted from 1 July until 18 November. During that time, the conditions were indescribably horrific, and the battleground was fluid; it was not really clear, a lot of the time, what significant gains or losses were being made.
As we have heard from a number of Members, along with the troops from Britain and European countries British empire troops played a key role in the Great War. Among those involved at the Somme were two Indian regiments that took part in the first and only cavalry charge of the battle, between the High wood and the Delville wood areas, before they were forced to retreat under heavy fire. In common with many other potential advances, this joint Indian and British assault failed because of poor communications. British troops had captured a large amount of ground in the area, and it was planned that the cavalry would exploit this, but because orders came through so slowly, they had to wait around for a fortnight before they saw action, which gave the Germans time to regroup, with disastrous results. The terrible fighting was quite shocking to the Indian soldiers, with one writing home, “This is not war; it is the ending of the world.”
It was indeed the ending of the world for so many of the young men sent to the Somme. They are a lost generation of young men—the Harrys, Jameses and Georges described by the hon. Member for Weaver Vale (Graham Evans)—cut down before they had any chance of a life. Britain, like other countries, sent its young men in numbers, and in reality they were simply numbers, lost to the stalemates and hellish trench warfare of the Somme.
As the hon. Member for South West Wiltshire described so well, the first world war has an enduring association with poetry, with many plunged into hellish conditions reflecting their surroundings in writing and in poems. In his “Anthem for Doomed Youth”, Wilfred Owen described
“the monstrous anger of the guns.”
He reflected that war was not glorious, and, as the hon. Gentleman said, of course it is not. We can, and we should, remember those who fell. We should do so soberly, with respect and with honour. To describe their deaths as glorious, however, does nothing to acknowledge their terrible experience, nor the bravery that service personnel show today, standing for us in the most difficult of circumstances.
As well as the excellent work of charities, such as Poppy Scotland and the Royal British Legion, in commemorating the Battle of the Somme during the first world war, many groups and organisations, including the University of Glasgow, are remembering those lost at the Somme. Huge recruitment drives took place at the Glasgow University Union, a former haunt of both my hon. Friend the Member for East Dunbartonshire (John Nicolson) and mine.
In a project taking place near my home, knitted and crocheted squares are being made, each of which represents one of the men lost in the Glasgow Pals battalions we heard about earlier. Such battalions were formed as a result of the Government encouraging groups of young men who worked together or shared common interests to join up together, such as the Grimsby Chums that the hon. Member for Cleethorpes (Martin Vickers) told us about. It is fitting that these friends should be remembered together, and it is particularly fitting that the squares will be displayed on the rails of the People’s Palace in Glasgow so that the Pals of today can remember those groups of Pals, about whom the hon. Member for Solihull (Julian Knight) spoke in relation to his community.
The knitting project also acknowledges the role of women at home, who were encouraged to knit for the troops, but were keen to do so much more to help, as the hon. Member for Barnsley Central said. The hon. Member for Portsmouth South (Mrs Drummond) spoke powerfully about the role of women much nearer the battle. It was particularly moving to hear about the meeting of the grandparents of the hon. Member for Gloucester (Richard Graham).
The speeches by the hon. Members for Strangford (Jim Shannon) and for South Antrim (Danny Kinahan) and the right hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Sir Jeffrey M. Donaldson) made clear the scale of the contribution made by soldiers from Northern Ireland. The Scots also played a very significant role at the Somme, with the involvement of 51 Scottish battalions. The Irish and Scottish Brigades of the 34th Division suffered terrible losses, as did the Pals battalions in general. The Glasgow and Edinburgh Pals battalions lost over 1,000 men in the opening days of the offensive. In total, 7,000 men of the 34th Division lost their lives.
Famous among those who fell were the men of the McCrae’s battalion of the Royal Scots. As my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh North and Leith (Deidre Brock) told us, the battalion was raised in Edinburgh and was made up of football players and supporters, not unlike the Pompey Pals the hon. Member for Portsmouth South told us about. In the opening days of the offensive, the McCrae’s battalion alone lost 12 officers and 573 men, which was three quarters of its attacking strength.
All these men and many more are commemorated at the Scottish National War Memorial in Edinburgh castle. I would echo the words of the right hon. Member for Basingstoke (Mrs Miller) and encourage people to visit such memorials. A statue has been placed above the exit door so that it is the final thing that people see before they leave the memorial. The bright golden figure, the only colourful thing in the whole memorial, is a representation of peace—a figure with a broken sword and the sun rising behind her. That is the sentiment with which we should remember the men who fell at the Somme, as we aspire to maintain peace today.
As the right hon. Member for Broadland so eloquently described, 100 years ago Europe was in turmoil. Europe is in a different kind of turmoil today. The path of European relations, either before or after the first world war, has never been entirely smooth, but it is undeniable that we have been at peace in our area of Europe for 70 years and that earlier times of peace were inextricably linked to the hard work done to maintain good relations and co-operation between sovereign states. While we remember, let us—particularly those in this House—always aim to learn from the past and to work together, and always aspire to peace, because that is truly the only way properly to respect and remember the terrible tragedy of all those young men who went to the Somme and never came home.
I congratulate the hon. Member for South West Wiltshire (Dr Murrison) and my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley Central (Dan Jarvis) on securing this important debate on the centenary of one of the most tragic events in Europe’s history, and on their very fine and moving speeches. I also congratulate all hon. Members on their equally fine speeches. We have heard not just very moving words, but interesting speeches from people who know a lot about what happened in those terrible times during the first world war.
I wish to pay my personal tribute to those who fought and died on the Somme in the weeks that followed 1 July 100 years ago. Controversy has raged for decades about why such suffering of hundreds of thousands of men should have been first initiated and then tolerated, even as an act of war. The particular role of General, later Field Marshal, Haig, has been considered controversial, but perhaps that is a debate for another day. It is the men who died and were wounded on the Somme that must be and are uppermost in our thoughts today. Their incredible bravery and dreadful suffering are what we commemorate and are discussing. I hope I speak for all my party colleagues when I pay tribute to those men in this debate.
The Somme has come to symbolise the terrible nature of war at its most devastating and tragic. We must salute and remember all those who were killed and wounded on the Somme, and ensure that they are never forgotten. The first world war, and the Somme in particular, seem very close to me and are far from distant in my thoughts. I am older than the great majority of hon. Members in this House, and I have some personal associations with those events.
My maternal grandfather, Arthur Frost, was wounded early in the war, and could not return to the trenches. Instead—perhaps fortunately—he was employed as a chauffeur to a general, which is surely the reason he survived. My mother was born shortly after the war, and I would not be here today if my grandfather had not come through. I remember him telling me about his experiences in the war when I was seven and he was just 60—14 years younger than I am now. I, too, was lucky to survive the second world war. We lived in south London in Norwood in 1943, and my mother insisted that my brother and I were evacuated with her to my grandparents in Leicester, shortly before a V1 destroyed our house.
I have always been very conscious of war and its dangers and tragedies, but I have a particular association with the Somme. My wife Pat’s grandfather, Private Arthur Thomas Langley, died on the Somme, and my late father-in-law was raised by his mother and his aunt, whose fiancé had also been killed. I remember Nan and Aunty Sis, as they were known in the early 1960s—two dignified and kindly women who had both suffered tragedy in their lives but retained an amazing serenity. They, too, were a good deal younger than I am now. I knew several such women in those years, and there were hundreds of thousands of them, together with mothers, sisters, fathers, brothers and children.
I have brought with me the posthumous medals that were awarded to Private Langley and later posted to my wife’s Nan. We even have the registered envelope in which they were delivered nearly 100 years ago. My wife and I were the first members of her family to find out through the internet where Arthur was buried, and to make a journey to visit his grave. He lies in a war cemetery called Caterpillar Valley, alongside hundreds of his comrades. We took those medals with us and photographed them on his headstone as we paid our respects. We shall not forget him, nor the sight of the vast numbers of white headstones in one of many such cemeteries across the Somme. Each year we drive to see friends in Burgundy, crossing the Somme near Saint-Quentin, and we give more thought to those who died 100 years ago. The land around there is now calm, undulating and mostly grassy, and it is difficult to imagine the horror and slaughter that took place in those times.
I also remember the poems of Rupert Brooke, Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon, which we read at school—some of that has been referred to today. Those men were there, and they put into moving and eloquent language their thoughts on that war, and the death and destruction that they saw, and that two of them were later to suffer themselves. Their words are perhaps more telling than anything we might say today—moving though many of today’s words have been—and they will live on.
We should also remember all those from other lands, about which much has been said today, who fought on the Somme on both sides. My constituency contains the largest Irish community in the eastern region of England, and, as we have heard, many thousands of Irish soldiers died on the Somme—indeed, last Saturday I was at the annual general meeting of the Luton Irish Forum, and mention was made of that. I also represent many communities from across the Commonwealth who suffered great losses in the war. It is astonishing to think that they came from all over the world to fight and die in what was essentially a European war, and we should not forget that. I have many thousands of constituents from south Asia. They know that their parents and grandparents were associated with and involved in those wars, and we remember and pay tribute to them.
It has been a privilege and an honour to make my first speech from the Dispatch Box in this most significant, honourable, and heartfelt debate.
I am absolutely delighted to be able to respond to this important debate this evening. I would like to begin by congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for South West Wiltshire (Dr Murrison) and the Backbench Business Committee on securing this important debate on the centenary of the Battle of the Somme. I would also like thank him personally for all the work he has done and continues to do for the first world war commemorations. His speech was measured, effective and very moving. I would also like to commend the very powerful speech by the co-sponsor of the debate, the hon. Member for Barnsley Central (Dan Jarvis). I welcome the hon. Member for Luton North (Kelvin Hopkins) to the Opposition Front Bench and congratulate him on his first performance on behalf of the official Opposition. I found his speech about his family history and his contribution not only very effective and interesting but very moving.
We have heard really powerful and informative contributions from across the House. We have had an impressive debate of commemoration and remembrance to do justice to those who served 100 years ago at the Battle of the Somme. Our commemorative programme is built around the themes of remembrance, youth and education. We do not dictate how people should interpret the war’s origins, the conduct or the consequences, but rather we want to encourage people to discover and debate this most crucial of periods in their own way.
As many speakers have alluded to, there are lots of events planned to commemorate the Somme. Tomorrow evening, on the eve of the battle, there will be a service at Westminster Abbey attended by Her Majesty the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh. This will be followed by an all-night vigil around the Grave of the Unknown Warrior to which all are welcome. The vigil ends in the morning of 1 July. At 7.25 am in Parliament Square, three guns from King’s Troop Royal Horse Artillery will fire in Parliament Square for 100 seconds. This will be followed by a two-minute silence. Then, at 7.30 am, one long whistle blow will mark the moment the men went over the top 100 years ago.
There will, as we have heard, be a military vigil at the Thiepval Memorial to the Missing in France, attended by their Royal Highnesses the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge and Prince Henry of Wales. The memorial has been restored and a lighting scheme installed, all made possible by a £1.6 million LIBOR grant from my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer. I shall be privileged to be at both the Abbey and Thiepval to remember and commemorate the battle and all those who served. Overnight vigils will also be held at the Scottish National War Memorial in Edinburgh castle, the Welsh National War Memorial in Cardiff and the Somme Museum at Clandeboye, County Down. The whole nation will come together to commemorate the events of 100 years ago.
At 11 am UK time on 1 July, a national commemorative service will be held at the Commonwealth War Graves Commission’s Thiepval memorial in France. The service will reflect the story of the whole battle, capturing the scale and reach of the conflict, and the impact it had on all the lives of all communities in the UK and France. I would particularly like to acknowledge the support of the French authorities, with whom we have worked very closely in planning these events. The occasion will be attended by about 10,000 guests, including members of the royal family, Heads of State, senior politicians and representatives from all the nations involved, and about 8,000 members of the public.
At this point I would like to acknowledge the fantastic work of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, one of our key partners in our commemorative programme. The CWGC does excellent work in ensuring that the 1.7 million people who died in the two world wars will never be forgotten. It cares for the cemeteries and the memorials at 23,000 locations in 154 countries across the globe. All are perfectly maintained. I pay tribute to all the people involved in the CWGC, including the administrators, the gardeners and those responsible for the gravestones. They do a fantastic job.
I recently visited the Thiepval memorial and many of the other cemeteries in France. I can advise hon. Members that they are fantastically well maintained. I had the privilege of climbing to the top of the memorial and looked out across the surrounding landscape. One thing I observed was how quiet it was and how different and terrible it must have been 100 years ago.
On the afternoon of 1 July, our focus moves to Manchester. A significant number of Pals battalions, which we have heard a lot about from Members on both sides of the House this evening, were raised in Manchester and the north of the country, and the industrial north made a huge contribution to our war effort. His Royal Highness the Duke of York, representing Her Majesty the Queen, will take part in a wreath-laying service at the city’s cenotaph, which will be followed by a national commemorative service at Manchester cathedral.
After the cathedral service, a remembrance walk will take place, involving a first world war wagon collecting all the memory pieces that have been made as part of the “Path of the Remembered” project, ending at Heaton Park. In the evening, a cultural concert will be held, featuring a national children’s choir, film, dance, and the Hallé orchestra—19,240 tickets were made available, one for each soldier of the British Army who died on the opening day of battle, and I am delighted that every one of them has been taken up.
Heaton Park, which was used as a military camp in the first world war, will host over two days “Experience Field”—there will be talks, exhibitions, performances and activities from leading experts on the first world war. I am particularly delighted that more than 1,400 pupils from 37 schools will visit on 1 July. It will be open to the public on 2 July. I put on record my sincere thanks to Manchester City Council, Manchester cathedral and all partners involved in organising those important events.
As we have heard, the Battle of the Somme lasted 141 days, and to ensure our focus is not just on the opening day of battle, the Royal British Legion and the CWGC will host a daily public service of remembrance at the Thiepval memorial through to 18 November. CWGC is facilitating a range of events at cemeteries across the region throughout the period. Regimental associations, communities and descendants can therefore participate on a day that is particularly significant to them.
We want to ensure that there are opportunities for everyone to learn about the Somme and commemorate the courage and sacrifice of all those who gave their lives during the first world war, which has been discussed by the many hon. Members who have participated in the debate this evening. Many people were affected, and we remember the impact it had on those families who were never to see their loved ones again. We also remember the huge effort that took place on the home front, and all the factory and munitions workers, particularly the women, who did so much at home and who played such an important role in the first world war.
As well as the national commemorative events, Government partners will be involved in other Somme-related activities. We are funding a series of 12 regional debates for schools in 2016-17, which will enable year 12 and 13 students to debate the causes, the conduct and the consequences of the war. The first of those was held last night at Manchester cathedral.
The 14-18 NOW arts programme is connecting people with the first world war. It has so far reached 20 million people through events such as “Lights Out”, the “Dazzle Ships” and the UK-wide tour of the poppies. There are a number of events this year, including the Welsh National Opera’s “In Parenthesis”; and “Memorial Ground”, a major participative project featuring choirs and singing groups across the UK. The poppies continue their tour. The “Weeping Window” can be seen at the Black Watch Museum in Perth, and “The Wave” can be seen at Lincoln castle.
I apologise to the House for not being present earlier, but I had other commitments. Will the Minister join me in congratulating McCrae’s Battalion Trust, which built a cairn in the French village of Contalmaison in 2003 to commemorate the deaths of the Edinburgh men and women killed on 1 July 1916, and whose members are going on their annual pilgrimage this week? We owe a great deal of respect to the people who continue to make these pilgrimages to the Somme to remember those who fought and made the ultimate sacrifice.
I am pleased to join the hon. Gentleman in commemorating those events and in congratulating those involved. I am grateful to him for bringing that to the attention of the House.
The Imperial War Museum will also open late on 30 June, with film screenings, live music, immersive theatre and poetry, while the film “The Battle of the Somme” is available to Centenary Partnership members to show in public venues—there will be more than 100 screenings.
So far, I have focused on what the Government will deliver or help to facilitate, but what is really heartening is the response to our call to the nation in April. Many hundreds of remembrance activities will be taking place in local communities up and down the country, and many of them have been registered on our map on the centenary pages of gov.uk. I would like to mention a few: a vigil at Clifton cathedral in Bristol; a parade through Wick in Scotland; an event at the war memorial at Barnsley town hall; a whistle ceremony at Fivemiletown in Northern Ireland; and a special concert at St Collen’s church in Llangollen, Wales—all local communities commemorating the 100th anniversary of the start of the Battle of Somme. Communities are coming together everywhere to remember. I particularly thank the Royal British Legion for all its work in helping local communities with these remembrance activities.
There are also many Heritage Lottery Fund projects taking place up and down the country. Local communities are exploring their first world war heritage. The CWGC has recently launched its “Living Memory” project, calling on communities to rediscover war graves in their local cemeteries and to remember the lives of those who lie within them. The project encourages people young and old to discover and learn about war graves and their heritage, and anyone can get involved. I strongly recommend that people visit the CWGC website and encourage local communities to do the same and to get involved in this project marking the 141 days of the Somme.
We all have a history of family members involved in the first world war. One of my grandfathers, Thomas Evennett, fought not at the Somme but in France in the Army. My other grandfather was in the Royal Navy and was at Jutland—we recently commemorated that battle in a moving ceremony up in the Orkneys. We all should learn more about the history of our communities and families and make sure they are remembered not just by us but by our whole communities. This debate has been an opportunity for people across the House to pay moving tributes to families, communities and constituencies across our United Kingdom.
Individuals and communities across our country have an opportunity to come together on 1 July and throughout the 141 days—yes, 141 days—and to learn about the Somme and all those affected by it, on the battlefield and, subsequently, at home. One hundred years ago, the bloodiest battle in our history was about to begin. It is right that the House remembers all those who made the ultimate sacrifice in the service of their country. We will remember them.
We have had a debate of superlative quality this evening, with 20 right hon. and hon. Members speaking extremely movingly on this the eve of the centenary of the bloodiest day in British military history.
The 19th century French army officer and author, Alfred de Vigny, spoke in his book “The Servitude and Grandeur of Arms” of military service as the most fearsome of contracts. It was true then; it was true in 1916; it was true in 1982, as my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart) so movingly reminded us; and it remains true today.
The hon. and gallant Member for Barnsley Central (Dan Jarvis) quoted AJP Taylor and disagreed with him. I think the hon. Gentleman is allowed to disagree with him; I am not sure that I am. Nevertheless, I hope he will allow me the indulgence on this occasion, because I, too, disagree with him. It is certainly the case that idealism did not die on the Somme; neither did the lights entirely go out across Europe.
If we are to avoid the loss of our 21st century lives and loves in the mud and blood of continental Europe, we need to ensure that we have eternal vigilance across all the Parliaments and Assemblies of our continent. I think that should be our tribute to the fallen this evening—lest we forget.
I am sure that the Minister wanted to point out that Chorley’s own celebration will take place at 10 o’clock tomorrow night and Friday morning, and that the 3 Medical Regiment will take the freedom of the town in Chorley, with the dedication of the cenotaph taking place on Saturday.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the centenary of the Battle of the Somme.