We now come to the general debate on the commemoration of Passchendaele—[Interruption.] I trust, as we are about to consider such a sombre and serious matter as those who gave their lives a century ago for the freedom that we now enjoy, that hon. Members who wish to leave the Chamber will have the decency to do so quietly. We now come to the general debate on the commemoration of Passchendaele, the third battle of Ypres.
Just before I call the Minister to introduce the debate I would like, most unusually, to welcome to the Palace of Westminster the two police officers who apprehended the murderer of our late colleague, Jo Cox. Craig Nicholls and Jonathan Wright are here with us, and we welcome them and commend them for their bravery. It is fitting that we should do so as we are about to have a debate commemorating those who gave their lives for freedom and democracy.
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the Commemoration of Passchendaele, the Third Battle of Ypres.
Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker. I would like to reiterate your words of welcome to Mr Nicholls and Mr Wright. I am sure that the whole House is very pleased that they are with us today.
The commemoration of Passchendaele is just one of the national events in our first world war centenary programme, as announced by the previous Prime Minister in 2012. This four-year programme has seen us deliver national events on 4 August 2014 to mark the centenary of Britain’s entry into the war, with services for the Commonwealth at Glasgow Cathedral, at St Symphorien military cemetery and at Westminster Abbey. In April 2015, we marked the Gallipoli campaign in Turkey and at the Cenotaph in Whitehall.
I also congratulate the two police officers on their bravery. Does the Minister have any plans to commemorate the battle of Loos?
That is certainly something that I can consider, but I have no immediate plans at this point.
Last year on 31 May, we commemorated the famous naval battle, the battle of Jutland, with events in Orkney, and then one month later, on 1 July, we remembered the battle of the Somme with national events in France, London and Manchester. Overnight vigils were held at Westminster Abbey and in Edinburgh, Cardiff and Belfast, and replicated in local communities across the UK.
Before I go on, I would like to acknowledge the huge support of my hon. Friend the Member for South West Wiltshire (Dr Murrison), who has shaped and steered this centenary programme. He is a hugely valued colleague, as well as being my parliamentary neighbour. I should also like to take this opportunity to congratulate him on his election to the chairmanship of the Northern Ireland Select Committee. If he brings to that role the integrity, wisdom and hard work that he has brought to this project, the House will be very well served. In addition, I would like to thank the members of the Secretary of State’s first world war centenary advisory group, who have provided vital advice and guided my Department through the programme every step of the way. I was tempted to name all of them, but there are just too many. However, I want to put on record the Government’s gratitude for their work. In just over two weeks’ time we will deliver our next commemorative event. Officially known as the third battle of Ypres, Passchendaele is one of the most famous battles of the first world war.
I, too, want to add my commendation to the police officers who are with us today. The South Wales Borderers and the 2nd Battalion the Monmouthshire Regiment showed incredible heroism and made great sacrifices at Passchendaele. Both included members from my constituency. Soldiers were also lost in the days leading up to the battle. The 2nd Battalion the Monmouthshire Regiment moved up to the forward line on 29 July in preparation for the battle on 31 July. As we entirely appropriately remember those who gave so much in the battle, can we also remember those whose lives were lost, perhaps through wounds, in the days before?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that contribution. He makes a wise point with his customary eloquence, and I am sure it will be echoed across the House.
The battle was infamous not only for the terrible conditions but for the sheer scale of the losses. In the region of 250,000 allied soldiers and around the same number of German soldiers, a total of some 500,000 men from both sides, were wounded, killed or missing. Those are quite frankly unbelievable numbers. Fought between 31 July and 10 November 1917, the battle saw the British Army attempt to break out of the notorious Ypres Salient and put intolerable pressure on the German defences. Troops from across Britain and Ireland took part, along with significant numbers from today’s Commonwealth, particularly from Australia, Canada, New Zealand and South Africa. Allied air forces played an important role, providing vital reconnaissance for the ground forces and fighting deadly dogfights with their German counterparts in the skies above the trenches. The battle was conceived, in part, as a means of influencing the struggle against German submarines, and the Royal Naval Division served on Passchendaele’s battlefield alongside other soldiers. Many others contributed during the battle and in the fighting around Ypres during the conflict, including servicemen from India and the West Indies, labourers from China and, of course, the nurses and medical staff who worked behind the lines to treat the wounded.
For all those who fought in that small corner of Flanders in the late summer and autumn of 1917, including those in the Belgian, French and German armies, it would prove to be one of the most gruelling experiences of the conflict. Much of the first world war’s enduring photography, poetry and artwork was inspired by the desolate landscape, which became a featureless quagmire over the course of the battle. After periods of intense rain, the mud became so bad that men and animals could be swallowed up in the swamp. Images, such as the photography of Frank Hurley or the evocative paintings of Paul Nash, are a harrowing reflection of the utter devastation that was wrought.
Many families, villages and towns were touched by the fighting. In Wales, the battle is partly remembered for the loss of the renowned poet Ellis Evans—better known by his bardic name Hedd Wyn—who died on Pilckem Ridge on the opening day of the battle.
I apologise to the Minister because I have to be briefly absent for part of the debate, but I will return at the earliest opportunity. I know that props are not always welcome in the Chamber, but in the light of what he said about photographs, may I share with him a pair of photographs? They show Passchendaele village in June 1917 and in December 1917, and it is possible even from a distance to see how entirely the landscape was obliterated by the bombardment.
I thank my right hon. Friend for his pertinent intervention, which the whole House will welcome.
Order. The Minister is right that the whole House will welcome the right hon. Gentleman’s illustration, but the House will note that there is a good reason why we do not use props. I did not stop the right hon. Gentleman in this exceptional circumstance, because he showed us the photographs with the very best of intentions. I am not quite sure how Hansard will record the pictures, but the Minister is right to note the right hon. Gentleman’s point.
That day also saw the death of the Irish poet Francis Ledwidge. It is important to remember that many of those who fought at Passchendaele were conscripts and that the war had already led to huge changes around these islands. Women were already playing a vital role in the war effort, particularly in the production of munition for the artillery, which was so critical to the outcome of the fighting. For many of us, Passchendaele has come to epitomise the horrors of trench warfare on the western front.
I think my hon. Friend knows what I am about to say, but does he recall that, through him and the Wiltshire Regiment, I presented the city of Salisbury with a bugle that was used by the 1st Wiltshire Regiment? I understand that it is now in the museum as a recognition and a memory of the brave people who fought in that wonderful battle.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for reminding me and the House of that kind gift. It represents a whole plethora of gifts and memories concerning the first and second world wars that many Members of this House and many of constituents have in their families. It is important that we put those exhibits out there so that the next generation can fully grasp what happened during this period of our history.
I rise because of the description of Passchendaele as a “wonderful battle.” For many who were there, including my father, it was a terrible tragedy that resulted from the misjudgment of generals and others. We cannot look at it without remembering that many of those who lost their lives—they did not give their lives—were told that if they went there, they would stop the “Huns” bayoneting Belgian babies. They went there as a result of persuasion and propaganda, and we must remember that if we are going to learn the proper lessons of war and the immense and wasteful loss of human life.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his contribution. Every Member will have a different emphasis and interpretation of events, and I hope that the debate will give everyone an opportunity to reflect in our own way on the events of 100 years ago.
Three commemorative events will be held in Belgium on 30 and 31 July 2017 at iconic locations where soldiers fought, survived, died and are commemorated. On Sunday 30 July, we will begin with the traditional last post ceremony at the Menin Gate in Ypres. It is one of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission’s most iconic memorials. It was built to honour all of those who fought around Ypres during the first world war and also bears the names of more than 54,000 individuals who died while serving with the forces of Britain, Australia, Canada, India and South Africa but for whom there is no known grave. Designed by Sir Reginald Blomfield, it is a remarkable monument, and a fitting place to start our proceedings. The last post ceremony has been held there at 20:00 hours every evening since the unveiling of the memorial in 1927—with the exception of the second world war, when the ceremony was held at Brookwood military cemetery near Woking. It is organised by the Last Post Association and its buglers have performed the ceremony since its origin.
The ceremony will commemorate the UK’s shared history with Belgium. A UK military band and the National Youth Choir of Scotland will perform, and wreaths will be laid by representatives of some 23 nations who fought on the Ypres Salient during the war. Two hundred invited guests will attend, as well as 200 descendants who were successful in a public ballot and whose ancestors are named on the Menin Gate. After the ceremony, events will be held outside the Cloth Hall in Ypres’ Market Square to an estimated audience of around 6,000 members of the public, plus our invited guests. We will creatively tell the story of the war in the Ypres Salient from 1914, with a particular focus on the third battle of Ypres of 1917. Projecting on the Cloth Hall, we will use a range of contemporary digital techniques to bring history to life. Projections will enable the use of a broad range of visual media from photographic and film archive to animation. The projections will be supported by live readings and poetry and musical performances, including an orchestra and choir. The event will add a distinctive, engaging and contemporary element to the centenary programme that will help us to reach a wider and, I hope, younger audience, which is a key objective of the commemorations.
On Monday 31 July, exactly 100 years since the battle began, a national commemorative event will be held at the Commonwealth War Graves Commission’s Tyne Cot cemetery near Zonnebeke. In terms of burials, it is the largest CWGC cemetery in the world, being the final resting place of almost 12,000 Commonwealth servicemen, of whom more than 8,300 remain unidentified.
My hon. Friend has mentioned the Commonwealth War Graves Commission site at Ypres, and he mentions another now. Will he join me in paying tribute to all those, not just in north-western European but across the world, who maintain our Commonwealth war grave sites with such dignity and who so brilliantly maintain the memory of those who died in service to their country?
I am extremely grateful to my hon. Friend, as I was just about to do that. He is right to mention their enormous contribution over the last 100 years.
Tyne Cot is the final resting place of almost 12,000 Commonwealth servicemen, of whom more than 8,300 remain unidentified—among them four German soldiers. At the heart of the cemetery is the Tyne Cot blockhouse, a formidable German fortification captured during the fighting and then used as a medical post. After the war, remains were brought to Tyne Cot from across the surrounding battlefields, but most of those buried there are thought to have died during the third battle of Ypres.
When the Menin Gate was constructed, its walls proved insufficient to bear the names of all the missing of the Ypres Salient, so a memorial wall at Tyne Cot bears the names of nearly 35,000 men who were killed after 16 August 1917 and whose graves are not known.
Is the Minister troubled, as I am, by the inherent tension within the nation’s commemorative programme for the first world war between the need to remember the sacrifice of previous generations and the desire to instil in current generations the need for patriotism and potential sacrifice in defence of our values? The dreadful, needless mass loss of life in the first world war was perhaps different from the second world war.
The hon. Gentleman makes a typically thoughtful representation of the challenge in getting these commemorations right. I hope he will recognise that a lot of thought and work has gone into trying to get that balance right. I hope we will begin to understand how it is being balanced when we hear from some of my colleagues, particularly my hon. Friend the Member for South West Wiltshire (Dr Murrison).
I will reflect, as I said I would, on the CWGC, which commemorates 54,000 of the missing on the Menin Gate and a further 35,000 on the memorial wall at Tyne Cot. When the names on other nearby memorials are added, the total comes to some 100,000 soldiers who have no known grave, numbers that are unimaginable in modern-day warfare.
Following the ballot for free tickets launched in January, I am delighted that around 3,900 descendants will attend the event at Tyne Cot. The content and staging of the event will evoke, I hope, a strong sense of place, making full use of the poignancy and historic significance of the cemetery. There will be readings by military personnel and descendants, musical performances by UK military bands, a choir and solo performances, and a formal act of remembrance. Readings of soldiers’ recollections, letters and diaries, as well as poetry, will tell the story of the third battle of Ypres and the experiences of men who fought there. Content will reflect the contribution of men from across the UK and Ireland, as well as from the Commonwealth.
In addition, from 29 to 31 July, the Passchendaele centenary exhibition will be held at Passchendaele Memorial Park in Zonnebeke. We have been working with Memorial Museum Passchendaele, and the exhibition will include contributions from a range of UK and Belgian museums and organisations. There will be artefacts, exhibition-style display boards and panels, living history groups and areas for historical talks and musical performances in open-air and covered areas. Memorial Museum Passchendaele will also have an exhibition entitled “Passchendaele, landscape at war,” which will be open to visitors.
I thank and acknowledge the help and support given to us by all the local organisations and local communities in and around Ypres and Zonnebeke during the planning stages over the last year. Their support has been invaluable, and my thanks go particularly to the mayors of Ypres and Zonnebeke, who have led that contribution.
We have also had a huge amount of support from the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, which is celebrating its own centenary this year. This organisation is one of our key partners, and it does outstanding work in ensuring that 1.7 million people who died in the two world wars will never be forgotten. The CWGC cares for cemeteries and memorials at 23,000 locations in 154 countries and territories across the globe, making sure that our war dead are honoured with dignity. The CWGC recently launched a new scheme for interns who have been welcoming and guiding visitors at major cemeteries and memorials this summer, including at Tyne Cot. Also, the Ministry of Defence is a key partner that is contributing military assets to these events. I am delighted, too, that the BBC will be broadcasting the events on both Sunday night and Monday.
Our key themes across the entire first world war centenary programme are remembrance, youth and education. On youth and education, I am pleased that the National Youth Choir of Scotland will perform at all three commemorative events and that around 100 graduates of the National Citizen Service, aged 16 to 19, will be part of the delivery team at the commemorations. The graduates have undergone an educational programme on the first world war in readiness for their roles in Belgium.
I am grateful for what the Minister is presenting to the House. I completely agree that it is only right and fitting that we should commemorate the loss of life at Passchendaele. Will he talk about the role of the medical profession after Passchendaele and the trench warfare of the first world war? We are commemorating those who lost their lives, but many of those who came home suffered from shellshock, and so many advances in psychiatry were made by dealing with that on the frontline and with the impact on families. Will that play any part in the commemoration of those who survived?
Given our understanding of many of the impacts of war, certainly psychologically, we will have those things in mind as we remember the events of Passchendaele, but it is very difficult to go back and reinterpret events as they were at the time and as they were experienced at the time. The hon. Gentleman makes a perceptive and worthwhile point.
The Royal British Legion’s National Memorial Arboretum in Staffordshire is also hosting a special service on 31 July, which will include a broadcast on large screens of our national event at Tyne Cot. Members on both sides of the House are encouraged to attend this free event, if they can. They should encourage their constituents to attend, too.
More Victoria Crosses were won on the first day of the battle of Passchendaele than on any other single day of battle in the first world war, and 61 VCs were awarded during the campaign as a whole. All 61 recipients will be honoured with a commemorative paving stone in the town of their birth on the anniversary of the action for which the Victoria Cross was awarded. The commemorative paving stone initiative forms part of the Government’s first world war centenary programme. In the case of those men born overseas, their commemorative paving stones have been placed at the National Memorial Arboretum.
Passchendaele also saw Captain Noel Chavasse, a medical officer, receive his second Victoria Cross. He was wounded on the first evening of Passchendaele but, under heavy fire and in appalling weather, he continued to search no man’s land to attend to the wounded. On 2 August, while he was taking a rest, his first aid post was struck by a shell. Although he had at least six injuries, he managed to crawl away and was picked up and taken to the 32nd casualty clearing station, Brandhoek, where he died on 4 August 1917.
We are also supporting Passchendaele at Home in partnership with the Big Ideas Company. There are over 400 graves in the UK that are very likely to belong to servicemen injured at the battle of Passchendaele who died of their wounds afterwards. The project will work with schools and communities across the country to identify graves in their area and to find out more about the brave men who fought at Passchendaele.
As the House has heard, and I hope Members agree, these commemorative events to mark the battle of Passchendaele will be both educational and poignant, and they will help us to reflect on this terrible war and battle 100 years ago.
May I thank the Minister for his speech and, as this is my first opportunity to do so, may I welcome him to his new post? Although they have already left, may I, on behalf of Her Majesty’s Opposition, add our gratitude and thanks to Mr Nicholls and Mr Wright, the two police officers who helped to apprehend the killer of our beloved late colleague Jo Cox, whose plaque is now here behind me on Opposition side of the House? It is rightly standing with all the plaques of hon. Members who gave their lives on behalf of the country in previous conflicts, including the first world war.
Across this House, we are immensely grateful for the opportunity to commemorate Passchendaele, the third battle of Ypres, and the chance to speak of our military history, our armed forces communities, and the sacrifices that were made, and are still made, on our behalf. I should also like to take the opportunity, on behalf of the official Opposition, to pay tribute to those who have served in our armed forces and those who continue to serve. We are all grateful for their courage, as they serve to keep us safe.
As we have heard, the battle of Passchendaele stretched from July to November 1917, as the allied forces and the German empire battled for control of the ridges around Ypres on the western front. It was the first major British offensive on the Ypres salient. The stalemate lasted for months, marked by the battles within the battles of Menin Road Bridge, Polygon Wood, and Broodseinde. As has been said, the casualties on both sides are difficult to calculate, but there were well over half a million, and yet the village of Passchendaele itself was only 5 miles away from the starting point of the allied forces’ action.
The battle is notorious, not only for the number of casualties, but for the conditions in which it was fought. The first few days of the offensive were marked by the heaviest rainfall in 30 years, turning the field into a quagmire which trapped soldiers and horses, and immobilised weaponry. A century on, in the safety and grandeur of this place, it is difficult, if not impossible, to imagine the mud, the blood and the horror, and the sheer scale of the losses of Passchendaele—but that is why it is absolutely right that we remember.
There were 325,000 allied casualties, a fact that is difficult to comprehend, as is their bravery, valour, and sacrifice. In the minds of many, Passchendaele has come to epitomise the senselessness of war. So these moments of commemoration are important, and I would like to join the Minister in thanking all of those involved: the Imperial War Museum; the BBC; the Royal British Legion; the Commonwealth War Graves Commission; and all the other organisations, including those he mentioned, that work so hard to ensure that we do not forget. We are fortunate at the moment to have an exhibition in the Palace, in Westminster Hall, about Parliament and the first world war, which I encourage all hon. Members to visit if they have not already done so.
The scale of the great war was such that, today, most cities, towns, and villages have a memorial that lists the names of the local people who died while fighting for Britain in that war. Members will not be surprised to hear me, as a Welsh MP, observe that the sacrifices made in the first world war continue to resonate in Wales, despite the passage of 100 years. The first significant losses of Welsh life came during October and November of 1914. The Germans rushed for Belgian seaports, but were repelled by units of the Welch Regiment and the South Wales Borderers, who suffered many casualties. The Minister made reference to the fact that of all the events of that war, Passchendaele, in particular, is a part of Welsh cultural memory: every village in Wales was affected; 20,000 first-language Welsh-speaking soldiers alone were killed; the soldiers of the Welch Regiment, South Wales Borderers and Royal Welsh Fusiliers all fought alongside each other in the 38th Division; and further, the Welsh Guards fought at this, the third battle of Ypres. The 38th Division was devised by David Lloyd George, who went on to become Prime Minister, whose statue flanks the entrance to this Chamber and who was himself a first language Welsh speaker. The division first shipped to France in 1915 and suffered heavy casualties in the Somme. By 1917, it had come to be seen as an elite division, particularly following the battle of Pilckem Ridge at the beginning of the third battle of Ypres. The De Sportsman cafe at Langemark, not far from Ypres, has been dedicated by the owner, Marc Dacaestecker, to the many Welsh soldiers who died in the area in 1917. The red dragon on a black background worn by the 38th Division is the inspiration for the shoulder flash worn by the Royal Welsh today, a testament to the cultural significance of the 38th Division.
It is for reasons such as this that sacrifice and public service are commemorated today right across the UK, but particularly by the armed forces community in Wales in relation to Passchendaele. When contemplating casualties on such a huge scale, we often turn to individual stories in remembrance, as the Minister did and as I would like to do. As the Minister said, it is 100 years since Passchendaele, and it is also a 100 years since Eisteddfod y Gadair Ddu, the Eisteddfod of the Black Chair. Some hon. Members will know that the Eisteddfod is the annual Welsh-language cultural festival where people compete at singing, dancing, and reciting poetry. It is held every summer; this year’s will be held in only a few weeks’ time, and I am pleased to say that next year’s will be a free event in the capital city of Cardiff, where my constituency lies.
In 1916, some people called for the Eisteddfod to be cancelled, as they did not think it would be appropriate to spend time singing while men were fighting and dying on their behalf in the trenches. But David Lloyd George insisted. He said:
“It is true that there are thousands of gallant men falling in the fight—let us sing of their heroism… Let us sing of our land that gave birth to so many heroes”.
So in 1916, the Eisteddfod went on. The following year, in 1917, as the battle of Passchendaele wore on, the Eisteddfod was directly touched by the tragedy of war. Ellis Humphrey Evans, under the now-famous pseudonym, Hedd Wyn, was judged as the winner of the Chair, the Eisteddfod’s highest honour, granted to the best poet writing in traditional strict meter, known as cynghanedd. However, when the winner’s pseudonym was called in the traditional dramatic ceremony at the Eisteddfod, no one stood up in the audience to reveal themselves as the triumphant poet. It was then announced that the winning bard had been killed in battle six weeks prior. Hedd Wyn had been one of 4,000 men killed on a single morning when the Royal Welsh Fusiliers went over the top near Passchendaele, in the Battle of Pilckem Ridge. The poet from Trawsfynydd has become the subject of poems and history lessons in classrooms across Wales, and even of an Oscar-nominated feature film. The poignant story of Hedd Wyn captured the mourning of a nation.
So in a way it is doubly appropriate that the Front-Bench lead in this debate today is the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, because in the greatest perils, it is poetry, songs and the arts that often keep people going, and miraculously, even though we would not want this to happen, manage to turn the horrors of war into the beauty of artistic inspiration.
The war effort in the UK was made up of not only the men who went to fight, but the surgeons and nurses on the battlefields. At home, women became the backbone of industry. Here, I would like to mention my own constituency. In 1917, the Women’s Land Army formed and 20,000 women across the UK enlisted. Green Farm, in the Ely area of my Cardiff West constituency, is now a housing estate, which was built to deliver homes “fit for heroes” after the great war. As a farm, it was run predominantly by female farm hands during the war. One of the workers, Agnes Greatorex, left domestic service to work on the farm. She said:
“Every morning, we would get up at five o’clock and milk a hundred cows. We would then take the milk to Glan Ely Hospital.”
I am proud—I am sure that we are all proud—of the efforts of Agnes and of so many women across the country. Of course, Agnes is part of Cardiff West’s history, but I am both proud of and humbled by the sacrifices that we still see from our armed forces communities across the UK today.
The UK armed forces continue to protect us. They are currently involved in more than 30 operations in over 20 countries. Abroad, our forces continue to work in Afghanistan, in non-combat roles. They support the EU and UN in peacekeeping missions in South Sudan, Somalia, Nigeria, and Mali. They are part of NATO’s forces in eastern Europe, and, as we heard earlier today in the House, are responding to the continuing threat posed by Daesh.
At home, they support responses to terrorist incidents, protect our aerospace, and are supported by the entire armed forces community of families, reservists, veterans, and cadets. During this debate to commemorate the sacrifices made in Passchendaele, we should also remember the sacrifices that have been made, and are still being made, every year since then by the brave men and women of the UK armed forces.
To close, I turn to the words of Hedd Wyn’s “Rhyfel”, which means war. I will read it in Welsh and then in the English translation.
Mae'r hen delynau genid gynt,
Yng nghrog ar gangau’r helyg draw,
A gwaedd y bechgyn lond y gwynt,
A’u gwaed yn gymysg efo’r glaw.
The harps to which we sang, are hung
On willow boughs, and their refrain
Drowned by the anguish of the young
Whose blood is mingled with the rain.
May I begin by thanking the Minister for outlining the various ceremonies that are to take place over the next two or three months to commemorate the battle of Passchendaele? I also thank the spokesman for the Opposition, the hon. Member for Cardiff West (Kevin Brennan), for talking about the wider impact of the war, which we are also commemorating.
It seems to me that, at times, this commemoration is a bit like the first world war in that, year by year, we remember another campaign, another battle. I wanted to speak in this debate for a number of reasons. I am so old that I interviewed dozens of first world war survivors in the 1970s for a writing project—I published two or three books. I have a deep, connected memory of the first world war, as my grandfather served in it. As a member of the Prime Minister’s advisory panel on the first world war, I am also conscious of the fact that we need to get the balance right—this point was made in an intervention on the Minister—between commemoration and not glorifying war. How do we bring the war to young people? I have a personal connection as I can remember talking to survivors of Passchendaele, but for my son, who is 26, the battle of Passchendaele is as far away from him as the battle of Waterloo.
Secondly, why are we remembering Passchendaele? Is it just because we have got into the habit of putting hooks on our commemoration? In other words, it was obvious that, in 2014, it was going to be the battle of Mons. We glided through 2015, but there was of course Gallipoli, which was very, very important to the Australians and the New Zealanders. The great irony there is that the Australians and New Zealanders played a far more important and significant role as part of the British Armies in Belgium and France in ’16, ’17 and ’18 and, indeed, suffered far worse casualties. Now, in 2017, we are largely, but not wholly, commemorating Passchendaele. Next year, we will end up commemorating the great German Spring offensive, which nearly broke the allied line; the Hundred Days offensive, which was the more mobile campaign; and then the collapse of the Germans in October and November 1918. That is it—the end of the first world war, but of course it was not.
As the Minister pointed out, the Commonwealth War Graves Commission celebrates its centenary this year. It was the work of a remarkable man, Fabian Ware, who served with an ambulance unit—he was too old to serve in a frontline unit—in 1914. He was struck by the extent of the casualties and what was going to happen to them. Through the adjutant general, one of the chief of staff officers in the British Armies’ general headquarters, he began to collect bodies together—he began some form of formalisation. In 1917, the Imperial War Graves Commission was established. Its work really began after the Armistice in 1918. As the Minister pointed out, Tyne Cot—named after a reference on a map—outside Passchendaele, became the largest cemetery for the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. Nearly 50,000 men are commemorated there, the majority of whom have no grave.
That brings me on to my next point, which is that, for younger people, Passchendaele is about the sheer extent of casualties. I suspect that it is also associated in their mind not only with poetry and literature, some of which we have heard, but with film and photographs. The great thing about the first world war—if there is a great thing—is that we can actually see it. There is cine film, which is slightly more difficult, and a raft of photographs, many of which were taken on the frontline. It was against King’s regulations for servicemen to take cameras onto the frontline. Most of them ignored that, and sent their photographs back home, which has given us a graphic display of what happened.
I talk to children and young people about the war. They say to me, “Another three or four years and I would have been old enough to have fought in the war. How did those people endure that? What did the Government do to force them to fight in the British Armies in the first world war?” It comes as quite a surprise to them when I say that there was no conscription until 1916-17 and that the majority of the servicemen were volunteers—either Kitchener volunteers or they were in the territorial army. There was a pretty dramatic and drastic military discipline code—we know, for example, that dozens of British servicemen were executed in the first world war, some for cowardice and some for murder. What I was struck by all those years ago when I talked to veterans and read their diaries and letters—it was clear that many of them were appalled by the death of their friends and the suffering—was that they volunteered partly out of a local interest. Many of them served with their friends, volunteering to serve in pals battalions or to serve alongside men from the same village or even the same streets. It was a Victorian concept of duty. Of course one of the most important stimulants and determinants in battle, which I was always told when teaching at Sandhurst by men who had done this, is small-group loyalty. They were doing it not for their battalion, but for the people in their section—I am talking about half a dozen people.
We must remember that Passchendaele, as the Minister and the shadow Minister pointed out, was not a one-day battle. It was a series of campaigns from the end of July right through until 10 November and was only one part of the work of the British Armies in Belgium and France in 1917.
The next point I want briefly to touch on is that one question that is asked, not just by young people but by people who are interested in the first world war, is why the generals were so stupid—the point made by the hon. Member for Newport West (Paul Flynn). I have never been particularly in that camp; what I try to remember is that they came from a limited background and had limited experience and perception of war. We also need to bear in mind that the British expeditionary force of 1914—mainly regular and reservist, with a few TA—was about 150,000 men. Douglas Haig commanded a tiny part of that. In 1917, the British Armies in France were roughly 1.3 million men—an enormous expansion in war. Many were not soldiers; they were on the logistics or support side. To use a modern academic term, the learning curve required to recruit, train, deploy and fight these armies was enormous.
That was the experience not just in Britain but in Belgium, France, Germany and Russia, and I have to say that bearing in mind the extent of the casualties at Passchendaele—we are talking about perhaps 500,000 to 600,000 men, give or take 10,000, and that sounds appallingly inaccurate—we need to think about this in terms of the casualties of the second world war. To give just one example, historians now tell us that the average British infantry battalion in Normandy had more casualties than its equivalent in France in 1917. Passchendaele was unique in one sense, but there is a commonality in major war on a vast scale.
Then there is the question of the coalition Prime Minister mentioned by the Opposition spokesman, David Lloyd George, and what became the battle of the memoirs—involving Lloyd George, Churchill and the politicians on one side and the generals on the other—about who was responsible for the casualties and whether there was an alternative. Lloyd George wanted, for very good reasons, to avoid engaging the German enemy in the main theatre of operations, the western front. He was always looking for a way to knock the props out from under Germany. On the whole, the generals were against that. As far as they were concerned, the main battle was in Belgium and France, where we were a subordinate and then an equal partner of the French. There is no doubt in my mind that Lloyd George had, in theory, the power to have halted the campaign in third Ypres after the first month, when General Gough’s army ground to a halt in the foulest of weather. He had that power—except he did not, because he felt weak up against Douglas Haig. Haig had the press on his side, and they were on his side until the end.
The debate is still going on today among historians about whether there was an alternative. There probably was not, but we did not have in place the methods and organisation to have proper debates about such matters during the first world war. That was the big lesson that Churchill learned. Churchill, of course, left the Government after Gallipoli, and went and served in France before Lloyd George reluctantly brought him back as Minister of Munitions. When Churchill became Prime Minister in May 1940, the one lesson he had learned from the first world war was that the Prime Minister pretty much had to have total power. He therefore made himself Prime Minister and Minister of Defence, but he also sought to have a continuous day-by-day debate with the chiefs of staff over the full range of strategy and to use Government Committees to run the war. Churchill was in many respects a dictator, but almost without exception he never overruled the chiefs of staff.
Lloyd George did not have that ability. Not only did the Navy not talk to the Army, but Lloyd George had great difficulty pinning down the Chief of the Imperial General Staff, Wully Robertson, the only man to go from working-class private to head of the Army and a field marshal. His contempt for Lloyd George was such that at one meeting he walked out; he just decided he was not going to continue the debate. These are the kinds of things with which I try to get young people engaged—issues that are still alive today.
My final point concerns the sorrow and pity of war. Putting aside the plans and personalities of the senior officers, the battle of Passchendaele was defined by two things as much as anything. The sheer weight of artillery firepower was on such a scale that it totally dwarfed anything that had taken place at the battle of the Somme. We are talking about an ability to bring down box artillery firepower in very small areas, and my right hon. Friend the Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis) has illegally shown us photographs of what Passchendaele looked like. The second element was the two periods of atrocious weather—absolute downpours of rain that ground everything to a halt. That is a phenomenon that we cannot deal with today.
If Members want to think about the impact of firepower, they should read the book “We Were Warriors” by our colleague, my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Moor View (Johnny Mercer). It is based on his three tours of operation in Afghanistan as a Royal Artillery officer attached to the Royal Marines. Members can see in that book that despite all the technology we now have—the firepower and the Cobra and Apache helicopters—it is still difficult, and there is an overwhelming desire not to kill or injure civilians.
I welcome this commemorative debate and I know that colleagues on both sides of the House will contribute to it. With your permission, Madam Deputy Speaker, I want to read out two short contemporaneous accounts that combine the shellfire and the strain on soldiers. The first is from Britain and Private Bert Ferns of 2nd/6th Lancashire Fusiliers, describing an attack in October 1917—in other words, halfway through the Passchendaele campaign. He said that Mr Kay—obviously a platoon officer—
“came up and said ‘Come on lads, it’s our turn,’ and we just walked round the corner of the pillbox and up the hill. The Germans didn’t have much to fear from me that morning—there was no fire in my belly—no nothing. I staggered up the hill and…froze and became very frightened because a big shell had just burst and blown a group of lads to bits; there were bits of men all over the place, a terrible sight, men just blown to nothing. I just stood there. It was still and misty, and I could taste their blood in the air. I couldn’t move. I stood there staring. Then an officer came across and shouted we were too far left and must go half right. I would have probably been dead but for him jolting me out of it. These men had just been killed and we just had to wade through them to get on. That’s one thing I’ll never forget, what I saw and what I smelt.”
The second short account is from the other side of the hill, as Basil Liddell Hart would have said, and a letter from an unknown German officer dated 20 September 1917:
On the morning of the 18th, the dug-out, containing seventeen men, was shot to pieces over our heads. I am the only one who withstood the maddening bombardment of three days and still survives. You cannot imagine the frightful mental torments I have undergone in those few hours. After crawling out through the bleeding remnants of my comrades and the smoke and debris, and wandering and fleeing in the midst of the raging artillery fire in search of refuge, I am now awaiting death at any moment.
You do not know what Flanders means. Flanders means endless endurance. Flanders means blood and scraps of human bodies. Flanders means heroic courage and faithfulness, even unto death.
I do not know whether he survived.
It is a pleasure to follow the right hon. Member for Broadland (Mr Simpson), who made an incredibly forensic, heartfelt and vivid speech—his two read-outs at the end were particularly emotional—and the House is better informed as a result of it, so I thank him most sincerely. I also thank the Minister for bringing the debate to the House, and pay tribute to the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Cardiff West (Kevin Brennan), who made a very fine speech.
It is absolutely right that we commemorate Passchendaele; the word is a trigger that brings up what it meant to go through industrial warfare. The sacrifice paid then must of course never be forgotten, and we pay tribute to all the bodies mentioned by the Minister that will take part in the commemoration services this year. Commemoration is of course important. It is always important to commemorate the large-scale loss of human life, as we do this week on the 22nd anniversary of the genocide at Srebrenica. We welcome the fact that the families of those lost in the battle of Passchendaele will have the opportunity to take part in these commemorations.
In Scotland, no community, and barely a family, was untouched by the carnage of Passchendaele. This tragedy highlights, as do many other tragedies, the importance of international and institutional peacebuilding and co-operation, shared values, shared interests, and working together to ensure that war does not become the norm of our time.
I turn to Glasgow, as I am sure that you will have expected me to, Madam Deputy Speaker, given that I am a Glasgow Member of Parliament. I understand that another honourable friend from Glasgow, the hon. Member for Glasgow North East (Mr Sweeney), may wish to catch your eye to touch on our city’s heritage and history in this respect. I would like to mention something fascinating that I came across on the website of the Scottish Football Museum, which is based in Hampden Park in my constituency. I would like to tell the House about an individual you can read more about on the website, or in the museum: the former Rangers player, Jimmy Speirs. His face will front the centenary commemoration of the Scots who did not make it back from Passchendaele. On 19 August, the unveiling of the life-sized steel silhouettes in Frezenberg will feature Jimmy Speirs, one of the many Glaswegians who never made it back from Passchendaele.
In addition to the excellent archives of the Scottish Football Museum, there is the fantastic portal at Glasgow University, which mentions a number of very distinguished people; I could read out their biographies and tell hon. Members lots about their lives, but there are a small handful that I would like to inform the House of. The first is Lachlan Seymour Graham, who was born in Glasgow on 19 September 1882. His father, Duncan, was a well-known Glasgow leather manufacturer with an interest in politics and public life. He was one of the founding members of the Glasgow Liberal Club, a past president of the eighth and Broomielaw municipal wards, the director of the Glasgow Agricultural Society, and a keen cricketer and golfer.
Seymour went up to the University of Glasgow in 1900 to begin an arts degree. He took many subjects, including Latin, logic, law and moral philosophy. In his final years in arts, he discovered his strong suit: he did extremely well in political economy and James Irvine’s civil law class. Perhaps it was that success that encouraged him to take up law. After graduating in 1905, he matriculated again for Scots law, and over the next few years he gradually put together a bachelor of law. He graduated for a second time in 1910. It was while he was forging his way in the legal profession that he decided to join up. Seymour took a commission as second lieutenant in the 7th Highland Light Infantry. It was at Passchendaele, the very name of which evokes so much loss—loss that hon. Members have adumbrated this afternoon—that he was fatally wounded. Lieutenant Graham died on 29 August 1917.
Again in my constituency, there was George Ernest Main, the second son of an oil refiner, George B. Main of Pollockshields on the south side of Glasgow. He was educated at Glasgow University from 1907, and prior to that at the Glasgow Academy. Despite excelling in political economy, he was not able to pass his examinations in Latin, maths or constitutional law and left without completing his degree. By the time the war had broken out, he had begun to study for the ministry at the United Free Church’s Divinity Hall.
Then there is Walter Ramsay Scott, born on 28 April 1893 in Pollockshaws, which was then part of Renfrewshire and not the city of Glasgow. He was the son of Robert Scott, a cashier, and Margaret Scott, and lived at 23 Barrington Drive, Glasgow, Lanarkshire.
It can be too easy, when we discuss these types of events, to remember numbers rather than people. I have selected a small number of extraordinary Glaswegians who took part in, and paid the ultimate price at, the battle of Passchendaele. Behind all those names are not just men, distinguished in education, politics, and public and military life, but their families—the children, wives, sisters and mothers who were left behind. My hon. Friend the Member for West Dunbartonshire (Martin Docherty-Hughes) makes an important point: it is absolutely correct to remember the dead and wounded, but what about those who supported our brave soldiers? What about the nurses, doctors, and those who were supporting people with mental health problems? They too have a rightful place in any commemoration of not just Passchendaele but any other major conflict with an enormous loss of life.
I pay tribute to the Government’s efforts in this commemoration. As a Glaswegian, I am very pleased and proud that the first of the Government’s first world war commemorative events was in Glasgow cathedral; there is no finer cathedral anywhere in the United Kingdom. [Interruption.] I hear other suggestions being made from a sedentary position. On behalf of the people of Glasgow—this will, I am sure, be reinforced by the new hon. Member for Glasgow North East—I say: we remember and salute these people, and thank their families for their sacrifice.
In debates of this sort, we have a tradition of fine oratory and thoughtful contributions, which we have certainly had today. I was interested in the intervention of the hon. Member for Barrow and Furness (John Woodcock); he rightly raised the issue of tone, which was the first question considered at the very beginning of this commemorative period, when the Government were drawing up their plans for the four-year centenary, because really on that hinges all the rest. Commemoration and celebration are phonetically very similar, but semantically they are very different indeed, and throughout this period the Government have rightly insisted that this is commemoration, most certainly not celebration.
Earlier in this commemorative period, we had to address issues such as whether this was a just war in Augustinian terms. Was it the right thing to do, and was it worth the price? Those are two very different things.
In Augustinian terms, it was a just war. It satisfied all the preconditions for a just war, and it is as well that it was a war that was won. But who among us would have signed up to such a thing if we had known in advance what the dreadful cost of the war would have been? We are reminded of that cost every day as we arrive here, when we look at our own war memorial at the end of Westminster Hall. That is replicated right across the country in our war memorials, which characterise every single settlement in the British Isles. It was a cost, indeed, and one that I suspect few of us today would be prepared to countenance.
The third battle of Ypres became known as Passchendaele. The word evokes such powerful sentiment, despite the fact that it was the part of the campaign that was right at the very tail end of the engagement. The battle began relatively well. It was preceded by Messines, of which we were reminded last week as we commemorated the death of a former Member of Parliament, Major Willie Redmond, who died at 56—think of that—at that particular battle. He was a truly great man, and his death reminds us of the great waste of life and lost opportunity.
In the Minister’s excellent opening speech, he rightly mentioned Francis Ledwidge, the so-called poet of the blackbirds, and Hedd Wyn, the bard of the black chair, who died at Pilckem Ridge. The hon. Member for Cardiff West (Kevin Brennan), who spoke from the Opposition Front Bench, was quite right to point out that this cultural loss of wonderful creative men really brings home what a wasteful period in our history this war was. Just think of what the world might have been had those men lived to become fathers, grandfathers, doctors, poets and artists—to achieve their full potential. It is almost unimaginable. Yet, that is where we are left as a result of this terrible war. According to A.J.P. Taylor, third Ypres was
“the blindest slaughter of a blind war.”
We have heard that close on a quarter of a million British and British empire troops were either killed or injured between 31 July and 12 November; it was a similar number on the German side.
Basil Liddell Hart was writing in the 1930s, when he said that Passchendaele was synonymous with military failure and that it was “black-bordered” in the annals of the British Army. He had some experience of serving in the trenches, and he wrote his great works on the subject between 1930 and 1934. I am particularly moved by the accounts of historians of that time because they could remember; it was pretty much fresh in their memory. As Hilary Mantel has pointed out so recently in her Reith lectures, the difficulty with history is that it seems to change all the time. As generations go by, they seem to reinterpret history all the time. Well, Liddell Hart was reporting more or less in near time with his own recollections. I hope my right hon. Friend the Member for Broadland (Mr Simpson) would agree that, when examining the historical record, we need to have a particular mind to those who were writing very close to the great war. They were there and had seen it with their own eyes. They were not seeing it through the fog of a century or so, as we now are.
According to Liddell Hart, Lieutenant General Sir Launcelot Kiggell, when driving up to the front line in his staff car, is meant to have said, “Good God, did we really send men to fight in that?” Nick Lloyd’s book “Passchendaele: A New History” was published this year, and his more contemporary account suggests that that was apocryphal. That may be the case, but it certainly served the narrative that this was a war all about chateau generals sending other men’s sons to die in terrible circumstances—a narrative that prevailed in the 1960s when we were commemorating the 50th anniversary of the conflict, and which has only recently been corrected.
Public appetite for this material appears to be pretty much insatiable. The Government have been surprised by the level of interest that the centenary has provoked. We have never done this sort of thing before, so we had no real idea at the beginning how much interest there would be in the material and, frankly, how sustainable it would be. Well, the public have surpassed all our expectations, as they are proving to be incredibly receptive. Evidence suggests that one of the legacies of this centenary period will be a greatly improved level of understanding of this seminal period in our recent history. All the evidence suggests that people better understand the circumstances that led up to the great war, and the conduct of that war. As we get further into the centenary, the right questions are being asked. People are asking, “What does this actually mean?” and “How does it impact on how we live today?” The big question, of course, is “How on earth do we prevent it from ever happening again?”
When we come to examine all this investment in time and effort over the four years, we should also look at the diplomatic deliverables. The value of commemorating shared history has really struck me. Some of this is actually quite uncomfortable, and it can be uncomfortable in surprising places. Our relationship, for example, with what is now the Republic of Ireland—more than our relationship with Germany—has been advanced quite significantly over this period. When we hear people in the Republic of Ireland talking about the service of their forebears in the uniform of George V, we know that something has changed. They would not have talked openly about that or displayed those campaign medals a generation ago. That is truly remarkable, despite the fact that a lot of this history is painful for many people, so the centenary underscores the importance of commemorating history, warts and all, and ensuring that at no point do we attempt to airbrush or finesse it.
Throughout the four years, we have focused on young people for obvious reasons. It was people of their age who, 100 years ago, were right at the forefront of all the action. It is salutary to stand at a place such as Tyne Cot and watch the reaction of young people arriving on bus tours. These are typically cynical youths, but not when looking around a place such as Tyne Cot. Just look at their faces; the penny has dropped, because they are looking at row on row of headstones above the remains of people their own age. One of the most powerful things we have done as part of the battlefield tours is to ensure, wherever we possibly can, the presence of a contemporary serviceman, so that the connection can be made. One benefit from initiatives of that sort is better understanding on the part of those young people who, with the contraction of our armed forces these days, perhaps do not have the first-hand connection with the armed forces that our generation might have had. That is an incredibly powerful thing, which brings the events alive to today’s young men and women.
I pay tribute—I am sure, on behalf of the whole House—to all the work that my hon. Friend has done personally to help to commemorate the first world war. He has put in a tremendous amount of time and effort, and it is right to acknowledge that today. He was talking about young people. I am sure he would agree that it is vital that young people of today’s generation are able to learn about the tremendous sacrifice that was made so that they could live in a free country. Therefore, will he join me in commending FitzWimarc School, Sweyne Park School and Beauchamps High School in my constituency for all the work they have done to organise tours so that their young people can go to the battlefronts of the first world war, and learn about the importance of sacrifice?
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. The thing that impresses one most of all about this commemorative period is the extraordinary amount of work that has been done right across the country—some of it sponsored and assisted by the Government, some of it not, and some of it quite spontaneous in its evolution. Together, that forms a wonderful patchwork of commemorative activity, and it just shows the passion the public have for commemorating this period in our history. That suggests to me that there will, indeed, be a very rich legacy when we come towards the end of our four years.
I commend my hon. Friend for the extraordinary work he has done to ensure that this commemoration period is given as wide a reach as it can be. Last year, he encouraged me to look at the Royal Northumberland Fusiliers—the young men from my constituency who went out to fight in the first world war. Those boys and young men were the same age as my son is now, which brings this home very bluntly to me. Last November, I went out to northern Italy to lay a wreath at the war graves at Tezze, in northern Italy. By chance, a group of Italian students of 17 and 18 was visiting. They had never been in the cemetery before, but they saw a woman in a red coat with a wreath, and they were curious, so they came over. Their teacher, who spoke perfect English, asked me to explain why I was there and why British soldiers had been fighting in their country. These children had had very little education about the first world war, because the fascist regime altered the way history was taught in Italy. To a young man and young woman, they were absolutely transfixed. They were enormously appreciative of, and slightly overwhelmed by, the fact that young men had come from far away—in this case, from Berwick in Northumberland—to fight for freedom. I commend my hon. Friend for the efforts he has made, which have given us the opportunity to share these things with those children across the water.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend, and she is absolutely right. That gives me the opportunity to say that this is, of course, not just about the western front. I am pleased that she mentioned Italy. It is important, as part of this four-year commemorative period, that people do come to appreciate that the first world war was, indeed, a world war, and the Italian campaign is an important part of that.
May I also mention centenary interns while I am talking about young people? I hope this project will become an important part of our presence on what was the western front for people wishing to visit commemorative sites. The Canadians have, for a long time, had young people guiding visitors from Canada around sites on the western front that are particularly important to Canadians. It struck me that if the Canadians can do so well from a distance of 3,000 miles, we can probably do something rather similar from a distance of 200 miles. Right now, we have established the first tranche of our centenary interns, who will guide people around the principal sites for us—Tyne Cot and Thiepval—under the supervision of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. When colleagues and others visit the western front and the cemeteries and sites of importance in northern France and Belgium, I hope they will look out for the very obvious orange T-shirt uniforms of our centenary interns. Those I met last week when I visited Tyne Cot were people of exceptional quality, and I am sure people will be very pleased to see them and to be guided by them around those sites.
It is remarkable that the third battle of Ypres was not only preceded by Messines—a victory that I think encouraged Hague in his dialogue with Lloyd George—but succeeded the success at Cambrai, which was remarkable for another reason, in that it introduced mechanised warfare realistically for the first time on the western front. That was the gathering note for what became a far more kinetic stage in the last 100 days of the war, and my referred to that.
For most people in this country, what makes Passchendaele special, as it were, is the mud and blood. It was quite different from the Somme, which resulted in far more casualties. That mud was caused by rain, of course, but also by the inundation of Flanders following the barrage of artillery that completely destroyed all the dykes and engineering that held back the sea from that part of the world. Flanders is, of course, pasture land, and crops cannot be grown there, because it is far too wet. The reason it can be utilised for agricultural purposes at all is that it has an advanced system of water engineering. Bombardment means that that is completely destroyed. It was not for the first time in the first world war that the British Army knew the full consequences of the destruction of that system. The combination of heavy rainfall and the destruction of civil engineering in that area made it a complete quagmire, which gave Passchendaele its particular awfulness.
I would like to finish on a contemporary note. In two weeks’ time, many of us will be privileged to attend the commemorations in Ypres and Tyne Cot. We will stand there among the row upon row of headstones, we will look at the Menin Gate, with its rank upon rank of names carved in stone, and we will be left with a sense of wonder. We will try to work out what it all means. In the context of the debate we are having about our future in Europe, one wonders perhaps what others think of us, too. There are those in Europe who say that this country is somehow less than European—that we are poor Europeans. I would just say this: it has always been the case, and it is the case now—this country was certainly demonstrating this full well 100 years ago—that there is no country in Europe that is more engaged in Europe than the United Kingdom.
I would just ask colleagues, as they look among those headstones and gaze up among those names carved in stone, to reflect on this country’s contribution to European history. Whether we are Brexiteers or not—and I am a completely signed-up Brexiteer—we need to understand that we are Europeans; that is what we have always been, and that is what we will always be. We should take absolutely no nonsense from those who, for their own purposes, try to suggest that we are in some way disengaged from Europe. I am proud of our history. This country has always been there when Europe needed us—when we needed to face down the general disturber of the peace. I am confident that we will continue to do just that.
Two weeks’ time will be a solemn time for our country. The media will most certainly be focused on Tyne Cot and Ypres. We will be among friends in Belgium—a country that is extraordinarily sympathetic to this country and a good friend of ours. It is important that, whenever we have the opportunity, we reinforce in the minds of our friends and neighbours in Europe our solidarity and comradeship with them. There can be no more enduring testament to that European engagement than the Menin Gate in Ypres and Tyne Cot at Zonnebekke.
Each time we have these debates, they get nearer to the reality of the first world war. My hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff West (Kevin Brennan) quoted Eisteddfod y Gadair Ddu, which is renowned in Wales as commemorating Hedd Wyn and that touching symbol he used:
“A’u gwaed yn gymyg efo’r glaw”—
their blood mixed with the rain. We could see that in the imagery presented by the right hon. Member for Broadland (Mr Simpson) in the two poems he quoted. We must see the lesson of this terrible event from the first world war and learn from it.
There has been one visual aid this afternoon, and the picture I have here shows my father—Machine Gunner James Flynn. He was not a distinguished soldier, but one who volunteered because he was a great patriot. He had soaked up all the propaganda that was around at the time, and he went there to sort out the Hun. He went as a volunteer at the age of 15; he lied about his age. He went through the whole lot—the Somme and Passchendaele. Eventually he was captured by the Germans, to his great relief, because he was dying after being hit by a mortar; he was in a shell hole and could not get out of it. He was eternally grateful to the Germans for the rest of his life—he lived to 43—because of the care they gave him. They carried him across no man’s land after the breakthrough by the Germans in 1918 and saved his life. He went out there to kill Germans, and he came back as a great admirer of the Germans who saved his life.
I was struck by a poem that the right hon. Member for Broadland (Mr Simpson) quoted in a previous debate, because it illustrates the truth of the first world war. It is one brief stanza by Rudyard Kipling, who was of course a great cheerleader for the war and all patriotic causes—so much so that he managed to pull a few strings to make sure that his son, who had defective eyesight, could pass the test to get in to become a soldier and then lost his life. Rudyard Kipling had a picture of what would happen when he died and went to heaven, and was forced to see the people he had encouraged to go to war and lose their lives. He said:
“I could not dig: I dared not rob:
Therefore I lied to please the mob.
Now all my lies are proved untrue
And I must face the men I slew.
What tale shall serve me here among
Mine angry and defrauded young?”
The youth of that generation were defrauded by the senior generation of officers and politicians. Although they were not wicked people, they had all kinds of heroic delusions.
We must not see Passchendaele through the fog of a belief in a false idea of heroism: it was not like that. It rapidly became a terrible scene of slaughter where men died like cattle and lives were not counted, with 16 million deaths. What is our lesson, and have we learned it yet? I doubt if we have, because today we have heard the word “wonderful” used about that battle. What it can mean, I have no idea. There is no way that anyone can describe the first world war as anything other than a terrible, terrible mistake and a series of tragedies.
The use of the word “wonderful” in this context is about admiration for the heroism and for the courage. My hon. Friend the Member for South West Wiltshire (Dr Murrison) used the word “wonder” with regard to how we feel when we look at what happened. Today happens to be the anniversary of my own father’s death in the battle of Hill 112, shortly after Maltot, on 13 July 1944. I have personal experience of this; I know that the hon. Gentleman has referred to his father. The word “wonderful” in this context is about admiration for the heroism and for the courage, and I am not going to resile from that.
I think it is entirely true to say that there is a nobility in the soldier’s craft and the soldier’s sacrifice, and we are grateful for that to this day. We see in Kosovo and Sierra Leone, with the humanitarian work that was done there, acts that are absolutely defensible and in which we can take a great pride. We have had a marvellous military history, and much of it showed the best of human nature. I do not disagree with the hon. Gentleman on that.
But what are we learning today? We should look at what happened in this Chamber in 2006, when a decision was made to send troops into Helmand at a time when only half a dozen of our soldiers had been killed there. We had already been there for nearly six years, since 2001. We went in in the belief that not a shot would be fired. The result was that 450 of our soldiers died there. We have yet to face up to the reality of that. Was it a mistake by us? The Chilcot report came out. A year later, Lord Chilcot has had to repeat some of the lessons that he drew from it, because those lessons have been glossed over. There has been a spinning of the reality of his conclusions. That is partly because so many people in this Chamber at the time were part of a mistake in our joining the Iraq war. We could not stop the war happening, but we could have stopped Britain’s involvement in it, which would have avoided the deaths of 179 of our soldiers.
I would like to slightly pursue this point with the hon. Gentleman, because there is probably not much difference between us in terms of the sentiments that lie behind his reasons for advancing rather different arguments. I simply make the point that although the pity of war, as it was so aptly put, is a terrible thing, we have to reflect on the fact that sometimes it is necessary. Unprovoked aggression, as indeed we experienced in the second world war, does lead to our having to fight back, and that necessarily involves the cost of people’s lives, like my father and others. When defining the boundaries of this matter, we must be very careful to ensure that we do not go overboard in suggesting that somehow the whole war is in itself unacceptable, because unfortunately it is a fact of life. We do have to fight back and respect and admire the heroism of those who take part.
There really is no difference between us. I never suggested that there were not entirely justifiable wars.
We should be recalling what lessons we have learned from Passchendaele and the rest of the first world war in the decisions we take in this House now. I once had five weeks’ enforced absence from this House for saying what I am about to say, although I will say it in a rather more delicate way. I said that Ministers of all kinds were mistaken in the claim they were making to potential soldiers that they could go to Afghanistan and thereby reduce the threat of terrorism in this country. I think that was an untruth, because the only reason the Taliban were killing our soldiers in Afghanistan was that we were there. Other people had an interest in terrorism here, but there was never any interest among the Taliban. Soldiers were called on to go there for that purpose, but it was not true. I believe we are still in a position where politicians lie and soldiers die. Unless we can be frank with them, we are going to find that a generation will reject war.
It was interesting that General Dannatt said recently—a matter of days ago—that he did not want people to believe what Chilcot was saying because it would suggest to those who had lost loved ones in Iraq that they died in vain. But sadly that is probably the truth, because we had nothing to gain, unlike in the first world war. The main result of the first world war was the second world war; it was a terrible error. We have a duty to look at the opinions of the soldiers who fought at the time. None of them is alive now. The last one who died left us a message when he said that he thought that war was legalised murder. There are many other soldiers whose lives were destroyed by that war. Lives were shortened.
I feel particular pain in the case of my own father. His life was ruined by the war, and he could never do what he called a proper man’s job again. In 1935, his pension was reduced by the Government, who said that his health problems—he went out there as a perfectly fit 15-year-old—were not attributable to his war wounds but were aggravated by them. That was a cheat by the Government, and he died a short time later. We do not have a record of treating our soldiers with gratitude, and that remains the case. The essence of this debate is that we should remember the truth of the first world war. We should never again repeat the old lie that it is sweet and decorous to die for the country. That is not true. It is an old lie to which, sadly, new people would like to give new credence.
I want to talk about the situation 100 years ago. At that time, one quarter of the vessels crossing the Atlantic were being sunk by U-boats coming from the Belgian coast. The Navy had warned the Government that unless something was done about it, we might collapse in 1918. The United States had entered the war on 6 April 1917, which was great from our point of view, but in May and June the French army was massively defeated by the Germans, resulting in a huge mutiny in its ranks. At the same time, the British generals wanted to break out of the Ypres Salient, so the Germans had very good reason to believe that they could win the war at that time. They felt that the Americans would not get into the war before they had won it. That is fairly true, because the American army was very small, a bit obsolete and did not have many weapons.
Field Marshal Haig, Commander-in-Chief of the British Expeditionary Force, desperately wanted to break out of the Ypres Salient where it had been stuck for several years. He wanted to get to the coast, because the strategic aim was to get to those U-boat pens and stop us being throttled by torpedo attacks.
The plan was simple. There was a preliminary operation, which other hon. Members have mentioned, to secure the southern flank of the British position. The first phase was to take out the railway junction at Roulers and to then swing around and advance towards the coast. That was the plan, but it went very badly wrong.
I want to talk about the soldiers. By mid-1917, machine guns had become what Correlli Barnett called the queens of the battlefield. They were devastating. The rifle by comparison was absolutely useless. The 1st Battalion Cheshire Regiment, which I was to command 74 years later, had been equipped the previous year with 16 Lewis machine guns, which were pretty heavy: they were 28 lb, not including ammunition. Our soldiers had to carry them. Nobody really wanted to take a machine gun as they crossed the frontline, for two reasons: first, it made them an easy target and, secondly, its weight. They scurried across no man’s land, going as fast as they could, but it was difficult to go fast in those conditions.
At the same time, by the start of the third battle of Ypres, Passchendaele, our soldiers had been issued with those awful helmets. They called them tin hats. I wore one when I first joined the Army—I am that old—and they were acutely uncomfortable and very heavy. Again, that made it difficult for our soldiers when they scrambled out of their frontline positions.
They had had one hell of a winter: 1916-17 had been incredibly cold. The soldiers received only one hot meal a day and it was usually supplied by the quartermaster in boxes lined with straw. They brewed tea themselves. They would usually fill old jam tins with grease and insert a wick to make a flame on which they would put a pot to heat up the water. Every day, the quartermaster tried to bring clean socks to the frontline positions, because trench foot was appalling. The conditions were so wet and the men needed to try to keep their feet dry, which was almost impossible.
It was good that some of the soldiers in my battalion were allowed leave. They went home and came back, but they knew damn well what they were coming back to. That is why they are heroes—because they came back. They came back from home, where they saw normality. War is not normality. War is disgusting and horrid, and it is something to be avoided. Heroism is going back to that because, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Broadland (Mr Simpson) has said, they did not want to let their friends down.
Even then, in the middle of the war, when reinforcements were coming, those that were supposed to come to my battalion, the 1st Battalion Cheshires, were diverted. The battalion was on the frontline near Cambrai and one would think that, before the battle, it would be fully manned, but it was not. It did not even have enough troops to go along the front. It had to have little posts on the frontline, in the hope that they could cover the area in front of the battalion position.
They knew damn well what would happen when the signal for advance was given—they had been there long enough. On 31 July, very early in the morning, at 3.50, just as dawn was breaking, the battalion’s officers blew the whistles. Can you imagine how absolutely terrified our soldiers were? They must have had a hell of a night up to that time. They were laden with ammunition, kit and Lewis machine guns. As H-hour—that is, the start time—was declared, some soldiers were being delivered by train right to the frontline. They disembarked and went straight across the start line and into battle.
When they went into no man’s land, it was not a run. It was not even a walk. It was more like a crawl, I would think. No man’s land was full of wire obstacles, which sometimes got worse under artillery fire. And then, within hours, the rain came—the worst rainfall for 30 years. The men could not even get into the shell holes, because they were full of water. They were sitting ducks. They were covered in filth, absolutely exhausted, trying to go forward. And that is what they did. Some of them sank right down to their waists in the mud, and it took six soldiers to pull each of them out. Stretcher bearers could not move—there was no chance at all of them moving in that mud.
Our soldiers were not brave—of course they were brave, but what they really experienced was terror—and they thought that within minutes, within seconds, they would be dead. Perhaps they prayed that it would be a head shot. The soldier’s prayer is a head shot, to die straight out, not a wound to the stomach or the abdomen, when no one can get to the wounded and they lie there in agony for hours or days, sometimes just slipping under the mud and drowning while they are at it.
I think I have some idea of what they felt, because I have advanced when someone beside me has been shot. I knew I had to go, because I had to go and get some civilians—I am talking about Bosnia—but I was not a hero; I was not brave, but bloody terrified. I was so terrified that I wet myself. That is not bravery, but what mattered was that we went forward and did our duty. Our soldiers did that. They did not want to die—it was the last thing they wanted to do. They wanted to survive.
Passchendaele was a stalemate for four months, while our men were sitting ducks. It was a disgusting, exhausting and traumatic experience for anyone who was there. It cost both sides dearly. I do not think we know the exact figures, but the British were about 310,000 dead and the Germans 260,000. That was the dead, but three times as many casualties survived. The ratio then was one dead to three wounded.
Haig later justified what happened by saying, “It was necessary. We could take more casualties than the Germans, because we had more resources. That made it worthwhile.” Can anyone imagine a general today trying to give such a justification for the mass slaughter that occurred at Passchendaele? “I thought it was okay, because we could take more casualties than they could, so in the end we would win.” We remember them all, British, German and Commonwealth, today.
I call Mohammad Yasin to make his maiden speech.
Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker, for allowing me to make my maiden speech in this very important debate.
It seems fitting to pay tribute to the Bedfordshire Regiment whose men also fought at Passchendaele. Many did not come back home. It is not lost on me that the sacrifices made by those men 100 years ago led to the freedoms, rights and opportunities that I am proudly expressing today. I am deeply honoured not only to have been chosen by the people of Bedford and Kempston to represent them as their Member of Parliament, but to be the first ethnic minority candidate to do so.
I made the journey from Kashmir to Bedford in 1992. Soon I was married and working in a factory. Later I became a taxi driver, which I continued to do until my election to Parliament. I can honestly say that from the moment I arrived in Bedford, I made it my home—but ever since, it is Bedford that has made me. I am very thankful for that.
I wanted to do more for the community that had welcomed me, so I became a councillor for Queens Park ward in 2006. Earlier this year, I took the next step and was selected by my party to stand as Labour’s candidate. Many people said that I stood no chance and that Labour could not possibly win Bedford back. Bedford and Kempston proved them wrong. With the support of my friends and fellow councillors, and my wonderful family—I am so thankful to my wife, Shakila, my mother, my four children and my new grandson, Imad—we fought a campaign that delivered Bedford and Kempston back to Labour. I am immensely proud to be on the Labour Benches, whose shadow Cabinet has the highest number of ethnic minority MPs ever, which means that the population is more fairly represented than it has ever been before.
I pay tribute to my predecessor, Richard Fuller, who has worked so hard over the past seven years for his community. The Bedford Community Business School set up by Richard has been a great success and is a legacy that he is rightly very proud of. I also thank Bedford’s previous Labour MP, Patrick Hall, for his 13 years of dedicated service.
People from more than 50 countries of origin live and have settled in Bedford and Kempston, which has made the area the most ethnically diverse town in the United Kingdom in proportion to its size. All kinds of people have settled there, from the eastern Europeans and Italians who arrived after the second world war to help rebuild Britain through work in the Stewartby brickworks, to others like me who arrived more recently. It is that which makes my constituency so very special.
Bedford is warm, welcoming, neighbourly and compassionate. Difference and diversity of faith, colour and creed is not only tolerated but celebrated in this town. Churches, mosques, gurdwaras, faith groups and charitable organisations throughout my constituency work together to build upon that diversity and to support those who have been affected by so many years of austerity and damaging cuts.
Bedford has a strong arts scene. Our cultural heritage is celebrated in Bedford’s many festivals, not least the biennial River festival that attracts quarter of a million people to the beautiful riverside. We are also a town of sportspeople, with the Bedford Blues, the Eagles, and the Queens Park and Kempston cricket clubs. We have rowing clubs, sailing clubs and our international athletics track. We have been proud to produce gold Olympians and Paralympians, and then there is Iva Barr, who was still running the London marathon at the age of 88. Bedfordians are amazing people.
People talked to me a lot during the election, about their concerns about schooling, the cuts to policing and, above all, the NHS. At the very heart of our town is Bedford Hospital, where my children and grandson were born. I want to make sure that the hospital stays at the heart of my constituency. Two years ago, Bedford Hospital saved my wife’s life when she suffered a heart attack. I can never repay the staff for all they did for us.
Let me say this now: the future of our hospital and its services have been in doubt for far too long. Since 2011, under this Government and the previous one, a string of expensive and inconclusive reviews have cast a shadow over the hospital, lining the pockets of management consultants while hard-working frontline staff have gone without pay rises. Threats to maternity, accident and emergency, and paediatrics make it hard to recruit and retain staff, and have caused much concern to the community.
As the As MP for Bedford and Kempston, I will fight every day to keep the services that we need in our growing town so that my constituents do not have to travel 15 or 20 miles to access life-saving services, or 60 miles to access justice if plans to close Bedford courts go ahead.
I want babies to continue to be born in Bedford and Kempston, where they can grow up in a fairer society, access equal opportunities and realise their true potential in families that feel proud and part of their community.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Bedford (Mohammad Yasin). I congratulate him on his maiden speech. I am sure it is the first of many contributions as he represents his community in Bedford and I wish him well.
Today’s debate is focused on the battle of Passchendaele. It has been described as a long campaign that took place over several months. It was an honour to be in the Chamber to hear my hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart) describing the fear that he knows at first hand and what it is like to be in combat. He made a very powerful speech, and he has the respect of all of us for what he said.
I want to focus on a particular time in the battle. At the end of August 1917, Field Marshal Haig decided to replace General Gough With General Plumer. The website “War History Online” reports that General Plumer was an efficient, methodical commander. He had assembled an outstandingly competent staff, who had demonstrated their abilities as a team in a previous operation in Messines Ridge. There would be no rushing a meticulous planner like Plumer. He was told at the end of August 1917 that he was leading the next big attack and he took three weeks to prepare and plan. There was a lull in fighting while he gathered his resources. However, in that lull more than 10,000 men were killed in just over two weeks.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham said, the weather was atrocious, but for the first time that year it turned to the advantage of the British. The continuous rain that had turned the battlefield into a quagmire let up for 10 whole days. In the relatively dry ground, Plumer’s men dug trenches and repaired roads.
The skills and techniques of artillerists had been refined over the preceding three years, and Plumer made use of that. When his artillery opened fire at 5.40 on 20 September, they did so in planned formation. Guns were concentrated to provide one for every 5.2 yards of ground to be attacked. Infantry advanced behind the shelter of a creeping barrage, one of the great innovations of the war. A wall of explosions helped to hide them from the fire of their enemies and to force those enemies to keep their heads down.
Today, we are rightly discussing and commemorating people who sacrificed their lives on the battlefield. However, in my city of Leeds, which I am proud to represent, we have Barnbow armouries. In the first world war, we had the Leeds canaries—women who made the munitions that would have been used in the battle. They were called canaries because the TNT turned their skin yellow. They knew that they were being poisoned and were likely to become sterile. Tragically, on Tuesday 5 December 1916, there was an explosion in which 35 women were killed instantly. They have been commemorated in this place previously, but I want to take the opportunity to do so again. When the explosion happened, the War Office realised that it could not release the names of the women in obituaries at the time because it did not want the enemy to know where the munitions were being made. Over the next year, one woman a week had her obituary in the Yorkshire Post. The obituaries glossed over what the women were doing. There were casualties back home as a result of involvement in the battles as well as people dying on the frontline.
Richard Pinkett, a constituent from Belper, posts regularly on Facebook about people from Belper who died in the many different battles of the first world war. Belper is much bigger than it was and the posts show that not only the people who were killed in the battles but the families in the local region were affected. So many families in so many communities were affected by the deaths of their sons. My hon. Friend mentions the women who bravely helped. We should remember the people back home as well as those on the frontline. In Belper, a flag in the memorial garden is lowered to half-mast every time we commemorate 100 years since one of the young men died. It is a testament to local people that we do not forget those who died.
I am most grateful to my hon. Friend for making that point so powerfully. We all have examples in our constituencies of people who were affected by the wars, and I am sure that we are all there on Remembrance Sunday to pay our respects, no matter how long ago the deaths occurred.
On 20 September 1917, there was an early morning mist and the temperature was about 66° F. The main thrust of the advance was on the Menin road, which led south-east across the ridge and toward the town of Menin. South of the road, the Germans put up heavy resistance, especially around their strong defence of Tower Hamlets. The advance was successful, but Tower Hamlets remained in German hands.
Remarkable advances were made on Menin road itself. The 11th Prince of Wales’s Own (West Yorkshire Regiment) and 69 Trench Mortar Battery took Inverness Copse, long a target of British attacks. Near Langemarck, the Germans held the strongly fortified positions of Eagle Farm and Eagle Trench. The task of driving them out initially fell to 11th Rifle Brigade, 12th Rifle Brigade, and 6th Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry. The 12th Rifles and the Light Infantry took Eagle Farm and moved on to seize the southern end of Eagle Trench. The 11th Rifles lost two thirds of their men before securing a section of the trench. For three days, Eagle Trench was divided between the Germans and the British.
I want to focus on 20 September 1917, the first day of the battle. When I was a child, our family visited the Tyne Cott cemetery, and on the memorial wall at the back are the words “Rifleman Harold Edward Shelbrooke, Kings Royal Rifle Corps”. My great grandfather—Ted as he was known—was killed on the first day of the battle. Harold Edward Shelbrooke was born on Christmas eve 1883 and married in 1915. On 16 January 1916 his son, my grandfather, George Edward Shelbrooke, was born.
Ted had three sisters and he used to walk through the Blackwall tunnel to court May, my great grandmother. By profession, Ted was an umbrella maker. His family lived in Poplar. His father, my great great grandfather, was killed in a gas explosion at Poplar gas works in April 1891.
Ted joined up in April 1916 because he had been white-feathered in Greenwich and it had played on his mind. He was not liable to be called up under the Military Service Act 1916 because he was a married man. That all changed later, in June 1916, when the second Act was passed and married men were included, but he signed up before then. His wife pleaded with him not to do it and to think of the baby, but he was determined to serve his King and country and, more importantly, he understood the consequences of our sitting and not doing anything. He joined the King’s Royal Rifle Corps, which was stationed at Winchester, and that is where he did his initial training. My family do not have his military records, so I am not sure when he embarked for France, but my aunt has a postcard dated 20 July 1916, when he was transferred to Seaford, Sussex, prior to embarkation. We know little more after that. His younger brother-in-law, John Culley, joined up with him aged 15. Uncle Jack was, in common parlance, a man of small stature, and he was only about 17 at the time of the battle. He was employed—I use the term loosely—as a bugler in the trenches, but he did fight.
Uncle Jack—as he was known—survived the war, dying in 1981. He told my grandfather, George, that he saw Ted being stretchered off when a shell burst near them, and Ted and the medics were not seen again. No one knows whether they were blown to pieces or fell into one of the flooded shell holes and drowned. His body was never found. That is why his name is on the wall at the back of the Tyne Cot cemetery, along with those of tens of thousands of other men whose bodies were never found.
May Shelbrooke, my great-grandmother, could not accept that Ted had died and his body had not been found. That very much plays into what many Members have said today about the lasting effects of the war. May wrote constantly to the British Red Cross for about three years to find out whether Ted had been taken prisoner. When she was sent the famous “war penny”, she threw it across the room, exclaiming, “I don’t want a bloody penny. I want my husband.” She was well supported by her family, and she lived with them for the remainder of her life. She never remarried, and she died in January 1977. She had to work to support her son, so she got a job in the office of Charlton Glassworks, where she stayed until she retired.
May’s son George became a precious member of the family and proved to be a bright child, but his grandmother was a strict matriarch and forbade him to take the entrance exam for John Roan Grammar School because she wanted him to leave school as soon as possible and work in a shop. That is another of the ongoing consequences of this terrible war. The only son of a widowed mother was told, “I am sorry, but you have to go out and provide for our family: you have to work.” To those who know me, it will come as no surprise that there is a streak of rebellion in my family. George rebelled at that, and when he left school at 14, he found a job as a laboratory technician in an oil company on the Isle of Dogs called Sternol. He went to Woolwich Polytechnic in the evenings to gain his science qualifications, eventually running his own department researching electrical insulation oils.
In September 1940, George married Helena Theresa Buck, whose father had also fought at Passchendaele. Alfred George Buck was born on 15 November 1885 in Meerut, Bengal, India. His father was in the Royal Horse Artillery in India. He was educated at the Duke of York’s Royal Military School and the Royal Hibernian Military School, and enlisted in the Royal Field Artillery at Woolwich on 29 February 1904. He transferred to the Army Reserve on 29 February 1912, reverted on 29 July 1913, and was mobilised in Glasgow on 6 August 1914. Having transferred to the Royal Engineers Signals in April 1916, he was awarded the Military Medal in July 1917 for gallant conduct and devotion to duty at Armentières. We do not have the medal or the citation, but we understand that he was repairing telephone cables in no man’s land under fire. I think that the experience outlined by my hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham must make clear to all of us the fear that he must have felt when he was in the middle of no man’s land, a sitting duck, repairing vital communications. He was gassed on 4 November 1917 at Passchendaele, two days before the battle ended, and was discharged on 15 March 1919. He died on 6 July 1952.
The trauma of the first world war was still at the front of people’s minds when, only a couple of decades later, this country was again at war. To the relief of his mother May and his new wife Helena, the rebellion that had led to his becoming a scientist placed my grandfather, George Edward Shelbrooke, on the Reserved Occupations list at the beginning of the second world war. He became an air raid warden and a fire watcher during the Blitz in 1940-41. He explained to my father, Derek Edward Shelbrooke—who, I am proud to say, is in the Public Gallery today—how he used to stand on top of the oil tanks at Sternol during a raid and, armed with just a broom, sweep the incendiary bombs down to the men below, who would throw them into the River Thames.
That, I think, is something that we can barely imagine, along with everything else that was happening. The danger, the threats and the loss of life were as great at home as they were at the front, especially during the second world war. George was eventually called up in January 1944, and joined the Irish Guards. After training, he volunteered for the Guards Armoured Division. He was very proud of his service in the Guards. Sadly, in August 1985 he died, too young, at 69.
The impact on families of the great war lasted decades longer than the war itself. My grandfather never knew his father, and the trauma that his mother felt must have been overwhelming when the second world war started and her only son was put in danger as a fire warden, and then eventually called up and sent to war.
The sacrifice that we make our young make is through the failure of politicians like ourselves and it must never be forgotten. I do not agree with much of what the hon. Member for Newport West (Paul Flynn) said, but I agree with him on this. At heart, every single person in the Chamber is fundamentally pacifist, but we understand that there is a necessity for war at times, that there is a consequence to not taking action and that, if we do not take that action, the loss of life can often be greater.
We are right to commemorate, at this time, the sacrifice made. We should learn those lessons and how to move on. My hon. Friend the Member for South West Wiltshire (Dr Murrison) has done an incredible job. I pay tribute to him for his work over the past few years in ensuring that the centenary anniversary is used not just to remember what happened, but to understand what happened and to educate new generations. I think it was my right hon. Friend the Member for Broadland (Mr Simpson) who made the point that the battle of Passchendaele is as distant to someone today as the battle of Waterloo, but we have to understand why it happened and how we move on.
On 20 September this year, my family will again visit Tyne Cot to see my great-grandfather’s name on that wall, to take part in the commemorations of his comrades, all our fellow countrymen and those on the opposing side who died as well, and to remember the sacrifices made in that terrible war.
It is a privilege to follow the hon. Member for Elmet and Rothwell (Alec Shelbrooke), who gave a poignant account of the canaries and in particular his family history. As someone who also grew up in south-east London, I appreciate many of the stories. I wonder whether this will interest the Minister as well. My grandfather, Oliver Frederick Noyes, enlisted with the Royal Wiltshire Yeomanry. He was from Salisbury. The Royal Wiltshire Yeomanry saw service in the third battle of Ypres. It is a sort of pride. There have been so many references already to the people of Wales, to all the people who were affected by the conflict and in particular to Hedd Wyn, to whom I would like to turn.
The county of Meirionnydd was the home of Ellis Humphrey Evans, one of the hundreds of thousands of casualties at the third battle of Ypres, a campaign described by the Prime Minister of the time, David Lloyd George, Earl of Dwyfor, as
“one of the greatest disasters of the war”.
To his superior officers in the 15th Battalion of the Royal Welch Fusiliers, 30-year-old Private Evans was most likely just another raw rural recruit, conscripted into the Army because of a surfeit of sons already working on the family farm. Ellis Evans died on 31 July, shot in the stomach—we have heard about the soldiers’ prayer; being shot in the stomach is one of the most agonising things that someone could suffer—on the first day in the battle of Pilckem Ridge. He is buried in Artillery Wood cemetery. There is a war memorial in the centre of Trawsfynydd, which commemorates his death and the loss of 32 other men from the community or nearby army camps. This is where the story changes key. Ellis Evans could just be the smudged portrait in a dog-eared photograph, forgotten by the third generation, save for the fact that we do not remember him as Ellis Evans; we remember him as Hedd Wyn—not as Private 61117, but as a chaired poet, prif fardd Eisteddfod Penbedw, eisteddfod y Gadair Ddu, which was held in Birkenhead.
Ellis Evans, whose literary name was Hedd Wyn, grew up in a community where poetry in the strict rules of cynghanedd flourished. Men—it must be said that at the time they were probably almost exclusively men—from all social backgrounds could win accolade in metrical, alliterative poetry whose unbroken tradition can be traced over a millennium and more.
Sixteen days before his death, Private Evans had posted his entry for the 1917 Eisteddfod of Wales to the adjudicators. He had come second in the previous year’s Eisteddfod and he was never to know that this time he would be victorious. The winner of the awdl in the Eisteddfod is awarded a chair. The winner’s chair at the 1917 Birkenhead Eisteddfod was draped in a black cloth, Y Gadair Ddu, the black chair, crafted by a Belgian refugee. It became, of course, the symbol of mourning for every Welsh-speaking farmhouse, manse and worker’s cottage—the bond of tragedy to unite mothers bringing telegrams to the chapel minister to translate from English into Welsh. Our stories are our common heritage, and what we choose to remember becomes our history. Some stories are more retold than others.
Parc Cenedlaethol Eryri, the Snowdonia National Park Authority, is to be commended on taking the initiative to bring together a national investment worth £4 million, with support also from the National Heritage Memorial Fund, the Heritage Lottery Fund and the Welsh Government. This money has enabled the purchase and renovation of Hedd Wyn’s family farm, Yr Ysgwrn. It has just reopened this year as a publicly owned treasure for the nation. Perhaps the Minister might appreciate visiting Yr Ysgwrn; it is an impressive place.
Before this initiative was taken, Hedd Wyn’s nephew, Gerald Williams, made sure the door was open to visitors. I remember taking my daughter, Lisa, there 10 years ago. Only the ground floor could visitors see: a kitchen to the left, parlour to the right; the kitchen with hooks in the rafters, a fire always in the range and—this made an impression on me—layer upon layer of wallpaper to keep the place smart, for this house-proud family.
The parlour was the place where people would keep their Eisteddfod chair, and there it was—it was full of Eisteddfod chairs and newspaper cuttings. Visitors could pore over the Gadair Ddu. It was there; we could put our hand on it, brittle with romantic Celtic ornamentation, and repaired—again, we could see this—with dark wax to match the colour of the dark wood.
Although this makes for a romantic story, it was, of course, history at its most vulnerable. There is a pathos in the solitary guardian, Gerald Williams, but it took almost a century for the authorities of Wales to committee —“committee” is a verb in Wales—their way to safeguarding the symbols of Wales’s national war poet.
The film “Hedd Wyn” was released in 2005 and became the first Welsh-language film to be nominated for an Oscar. It is to the credit of the director Paul Turner and script writer Alan Uwyd that this film has been shown to generations of school students.
To close, here is Hedd Wyn’s englyn to his friend David Owen Evans of Blaenau Ffestiniog, who was killed in the trenches—and we find this on gravestones across Wales and also on the memorial in Trawsfynydd:
“Ei aberth nid a heibio—ei wyneb
Annwyl nid a’n ango’.
Er I’r Almaen ystaenio Ei dwrn dur yn ei waed o.”
There has been some discussion in this debate about pacifist attitudes and celebrating war. It would be beneficial if we could put energy, time, emotion, imagination and funding into building peace as vigorously as we do into addressing war.
There has been a remarkable series of speeches in this debate so far, not least the one we have just heard from the hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd (Liz Saville Roberts), and I will not usurp the role of the Minister in singling any of them out for special mention, other than to say in respect of the maiden speech we heard that the pride that the hon. Member for Bedford (Mohammad Yasin) takes in his town will no doubt incentivise him to be sure that Bedford will be proud of him by the way he conducts himself in this place.
As other more knowledgeable speakers have already explained, a century after the appalling losses on the western front historians still debate whether any alternatives existed. Some blame political intrigue and poor generalship, others emphasise technology, with the battlefield dominated by interlocking fields of fire. This ensured that slowly advancing troops would be mown down by machine guns before making any worthwhile inroads into the enemy’s trenches. Minor advances, occasionally achieved, were usually reversed by counter-attacks or simply absorbed into a new, static confrontation a short distance from the original one.
A book called “Forgotten Victory” is a study of the western front battles that rightly draws attention to the 100 days campaign in which the allied coalition won a sequence of decisive victories between mid-July and early November 1918. Its author, Professor Gary Sheffield, regrets the extent to which the British success in those battles at the end of the first world war has been disregarded. For example, he says:
“The burden of fighting the German Army fell mainly to the French and Russians in the first two and a half years of the war, but in 1918 it was the turn of the BEF.”
That is, the British Expeditionary Force.
“Between them, the French, Americans and Belgians took 196,700 prisoners and 3,775 guns between 18 July and the end of the war. With a smaller army than the French, Haig’s forces captured 188,700 prisoners and 2,840 guns in the same period. This was, by far, the greatest military victory in British history.”
So it is absolutely right that, as well as commemorating all the disasters of world war one, one of which we are commemorating today, we will next year recognise the triumph of the battle of Amiens in August 1918. Like others who have spoken in the debate, I pay the warmest tribute to my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for South West Wiltshire (Dr Murrison) for all the great work he has done on this rolling series of commemorations of the events, failures and successes of the first world war.
Professor Sheffield, whom I mentioned a moment ago, takes his thesis a bit further than I feel able to go. He suggests that the catastrophic offensives prior to 1918 were in some way needed to enable the allied generals to learn the lessons they eventually applied to the successful campaign at the end of the war. I feel, however, that one should not have to waste the lives of legions of soldiers in the relentless repetition of unsuccessful tactics. Time and again, those tactics failed to break the stalemate, or to be exploited when, occasionally, they managed to achieve surprise.
After the catastrophe on the Somme in 1916, there was really no reason to believe that a breakthrough could be made and exploited with the available technology of the day, yet this was attempted not once but twice in 1917. First came the battle of Arras, which was the second of the three huge attritional offensives waged by the British Army in 1916-17. On the first day of the Arras attack—9 April 1917—the British Third Army took 5,600 prisoners, and the Canadians, who captured most of Vimy Ridge, took a further 3,400. This has been called the greatest success of the British Expeditionary Force since the beginning of trench warfare. However, the British advance soon ran out of steam as German reinforcements arrived, and the British Fifth Army had little to show for the heavy losses it sustained. Further major efforts on 23 April and 3 May 1917, partly intended to tie down forces that might otherwise be used against the French, simply added to the butchery on both sides.
In the spring of 1917, Russia was in revolution, albeit not yet a Bolshevik one, while unrestricted submarine warfare and the diplomatic disaster—from the German point of view—of the Zimmerman telegram had goaded the United States into entering the war on 6 April 1917. So did Britain and France really have to squander so many lives so fruitlessly after that date? Why risk the colossal price of failure when the balance of forces at the strategic level was shifting so dramatically? The German leadership fully understood the significance of American belligerency. They therefore gambled everything in the spring of 1918 to exploit the collapse of Russia before the United States could make a real difference. It was therefore folly for the British and French to wear themselves out in 1917 given that the balance of forces would change in their favour once the Americans arrived. Claiming that the Germans could stand the rate of attrition less than the British was no justification at the time, as we have heard already, and it is equally indefensible now.
After the Arras offensives of April and May came the unprecedented use of giant subterranean mines in a successful attempt to break the deadlock. Nineteen mines were exploded under Messines ridge on 7 June with a force that could be felt on the far side of the English channel. Although surprise was achieved, strategic gain was once again lacking. Nevertheless, on the last day of July 1917, the crowning effort of the BEF was made. The third battle of Ypres would endure until 10 November and imprint itself on the British psyche to an extent matched only by the Somme disaster of the previous year. The focus was on the Passchendaele-Staden ridge, and the main thrust was delivered by General Sir Hubert Gough’s Fifth Army along a 7.5 mile front. The flanks were defended by the British Second Army on the right and the French First Army on the left.
Having overrun some of the outer German defences on the first day, the British commander-in-chief, Sir Douglas Haig, then discovered that the weather was an even more formidable opponent than the enemy. The official history of the air war quotes Haig’s dispatch as follows:
“The low-lying, clayey soil, torn by shells and sodden with rain, turned to a succession of vast muddy pools. The valleys of the choked and overflowing streams were speedily transformed into long stretches of bog, impassable except by a few well-defined tracks, which became marks for the enemy’s artillery. To leave these tracks was to risk death by drowning… In these conditions operations of any magnitude became impossible, and the resumption of our offensive was necessarily postponed until a period of fine weather should allow the ground to recover.”
Thus it was that the second phase of the attack, known as the battle of Langemarck and lasting from 16 to 18 August, lacked any element of surprise. The Germans showed no sign of giving way. Next came the battle of the Menin Road ridge, beginning on 20 September and lasting for five days. Its aim was to capture objectives at a distance of between 1,000 yards and one mile, and that was largely achieved. The pattern was then the same in the fourth phase, known as the battle of Polygon Wood, which took place from 26 September to 3 October 1917, with the objective of securing a jumping-off place from which to attack the main Passchendaele ridge.
I thank my right hon. Friend for giving way; I had hoped to speak in this debate, but unfortunately I have been off site. He mentioned the battle of Polygon Wood, and I was going to mention that my great-grandfather, who had been in France since August 1914, was wounded there on 30 September and won the Military Medal. I wanted to mention that not only because I am very proud, but because it demonstrates how the war was fought by ordinary folk from normal backgrounds, who then went back to their ordinary lives—my great-grandfather was a postman in east Yorkshire. That is what was going on behind much of the conflict.
I am delighted that my mentioning of that phase of this terrible series of battles gave my hon. Friend the opportunity to pay that well-deserved tribute to his brave ancestor.
Whose name I wanted to get into Hansard but completely forgot to mention—John William Feasey.
The award of the Military Medal to John William Feasey is now well and truly, and most justifiably, recorded.
The next assault was planned for 4 October, and was persevered with despite a great deterioration in the weather. It was originally hoped that success at Ypres would drive the Germans away from the channel ports, as my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart) said, and an amphibious force to help achieve that had already been assembled. The reality, in the words of the official history, was very different.
My right hon. Friend is rightly describing the sea battle and what was happening at sea, which brought the Americans into the war. Does he agree that, when people ask whether we had to go into the war, the reality is that we could well have been starved out if we had not taken those actions?
Yes and no. We certainly had to resist German aggression, but that does not mean there was any justification, when faced with a stalemate, to keep repeating tactics and strategies that were wholly unsuccessful and counterproductive. The concept of the “big push” might have had something to recommend it, despite the obvious imbalance between the technology of the machine gun, on the one hand, and the lack of armoured vehicles to override it, on the other, in the earlier phases of the war. That might have justified a big push on the Somme in 1916, but it did not justify repeating the same lethal strategic nonsense a year later.
This is what the official history has to say about what happened after the outbreak of terrible weather:
“The British line had now been advanced along the main ridge for 9,000 yards… The year was already far spent and the prospect of driving the enemy from the Belgian coast had long since disappeared. The continuous delays in the advance as a result of the weather and its effect on the state of the ground, had given the enemy time, after each attack, to bring up reinforcements and to reorganise his defences. Although General Headquarters now recognised that the major objectives of the Flanders operations were impossible of attainment, they were still anxious to continue the operations with a view to the capture of the remainder of the Passchendaele Ridge before winter set in. The weather was entirely unfavourable but there were hopes that it would improve, hopes based on the somewhat slender foundation that the abnormal rainfall of the summer presaged a normal, perhaps even a dry, autumn.”
Instead of remaining a means to an end, the offensive had become an end in itself. At 5.20 am on 9 October, after two days of continuous heavy rain, the attack was renewed on a six-mile front. Sir Douglas Haig had decided that Passchendaele must be captured, so captured it would be. The cycle was repeated on 12 October in the hope of helping to prevent German forces from being switched to meet the impending French offensive on the River Aisne. Some ground was gained east of Poelcappelle and on the southern edge of Houthulst forest on 22 October, with fighter pilots doing everything they could to attack German infantry in trenches and shell holes, on the roads and in villages.
And so it went on and on—a little progress here, a forced withdrawal there, and the final taking of Passchendaele village on 6 November by the Canadians who, with British assistance, extended their gains on the main ridge four days later. According to the official air historian, Passchendaele was
“the most sombre and bloodiest of all the battlefields of the war”.
One of the pilots who lived through it, and later reached the highest rank in the RAF, was Lord Douglas of Kirtleside, who, as Sholto Douglas, commanded 84 Squadron’s SE5 fighters when he returned to the western front in September 1917. He, too, regarded third Ypres as
“the most terrible of all the battles of the Great War”.
He wrote the following:
“The Somme of the year before had been bad enough, and after that it was felt that the lesson of the futility of mass attacks must surely have been learnt. But it was not learnt, and less than a year later our Army was called upon to embark on an offensive that in so many ways was even more terrible than the Somme”.
He continued by saying that Passchendaele
“was the beginning of what was to become for those on the ground a long and indescribable misery…all the drainage systems were smashed in the opening bombardment, and eventually the whole area became clogged with mud. Over this devastated area, which had been reduced to the state of a quagmire, attack after attack was launched...For communication there were only the rough tracks which wound their way almost aimlessly across the mire, and wandering off them led to drowning. The Germans welcomed the rain as ‘our strongest ally’.”
Many of the pilots in the third battles of Ypres were tasked to carry out low-level attacks against enemy concentrations on the ground. As Sholto Douglas later recalled:
“In this job there was very little fighting in the air, and since we were flying at heights of only two or three hundred feet we were supposed to be able to see plenty of what was going on below us. What I saw was nothing short of horrifying. The ground over which our infantry and light artillery were fighting was one vast sea of churned-up muck and mud, and everywhere, lip to lip, there were shell holes full of water. These low-flying attacks that we had to make, for which most of my young pilots were quite untrained, were a wretched and dangerous business, and also pretty useless. It was very difficult for us to pick out our targets in the morass because everything on the ground, including the troops, was the same colour as that dreadful mud...it was quite obvious to anyone viewing from the air this dreadful battleground...that any chance of a major advance or a break-through was quite out of the question.”
We can see from Douglas’s memoirs that it was not just fashionable post-war opinion which came to damn the strategy of attritional offensives. The ordering of more and more attacks in such an appalling “morass” was seen at the time, by him and his comrades, as “the grossest of blunders”. They recognised the need to relieve pressure on the French by keeping the Germans fully stretched, but he said that
“as I watched from the air what was happening on the ground there were presented to me some terrible questions. Why did we have to press on so blindly day after day and week after week in this one desolate area and under such dreadful conditions? Why was there not some variety in our strategy and tactics? The questions that I asked then are the questions that have continued to be asked ever since; and the answers to them have never ceased to be most painful ones.”
As I said at the outset, I remain completely unconvinced by the argument, which some people deploy even to this day, that it was necessary to undergo the catastrophic failures of the Somme and Passchendaele offensives in order to learn the lessons necessary for victory in 1918. There is testimony enough from senior military figures in the second world war, writing of their experiences as junior officers in the first, spelling out the futility of relentlessly sacrificing huge numbers of British troops in fighting unwinnable battles. One does not have to explore every military cul-de-sac over and over again, in order to stumble across a strategy that might actually succeed.
Let us not forget that each one of these tragedies involved an individual personality, and I close with a quote from a young Welshman, Second Lieutenant Glyn Morgan, who wrote this to his father at the start of the Passchendaele offensive:
“You, I know, my dear Dad, will bear the shock as bravely as you have always borne the strain of my being out here; yet I should like, if possible, to help you to carry on”—
this was a letter that would be sent only in the event of his death—
“with as stout a heart as I hope to ‘jump the bags’…My one regret is that the opportunity has been denied me to repay you to the best of my ability for the lavish kindness and devotedness which you have always shown me...however, it may be that I have done so in the struggle between Life and Death, between England and Germany, Liberty and Slavery. In any case, I shall have done my duty in my little way...
Your affectionate son and brother, Glyn”.
Glyn Morgan, who joined the Army straight from school, was killed on 1 August 1917. He recommended for a posthumous Victoria Cross, and he was just 21 when he died.
To make his maiden speech, I call Paul Sweeney.
Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker, for calling me to speak. I also thank right hon. and hon. Members and distinguished strangers in the Gallery for their presence. I am grateful for this opportunity to deliver my maiden speech and to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Bedford (Mohammad Yasin) who made a remarkable and inspirational maiden speech about his journey from new citizen to Member of this House and we welcome him with genuine hearts.
It is a great privilege to deliver my maiden speech in a debate about such a tumultuous event in our nation’s history. I congratulate the right hon. Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis) on his re-election as Chair of the Defence Committee and thank my friend, the hon. Member for Glasgow South (Stewart Malcolm McDonald) for his kind introduction earlier today.
It is customary for a new Member to make some reference to his predecessors, and reflecting on the introductory remarks of Richard Buchanan in his 1964 maiden speech, I noted that he declared:
“If it were within my power to introduce a new tradition to this House, it would be that hon. Members who are making their maiden speeches should do so from the Dispatch Box so that they might lay their trembling hands upon it and give some support to their quaking knees.”—[Official Report, 5 November 1964; Vol. 701, c. 412.]
On rising to speak today, I can thoroughly attest to my sympathy for those sentiments. The only consolation is that I will not have long to wait for relief, as I will have the first opportunity to address this House from the Dispatch Box next week as shadow Under-Secretary of State for Scotland. I can only hope that it will provide more ample support for my trembling limbs.
Dick Buchanan was the embodiment of the finest political traditions of my constituency: he was a proud railway worker, socialist and trade unionist. During his tenure as a councillor on the Glasgow Corporation, it was not unknown for him to turn up at the city chambers from the Cowlairs railway works in his boiler suit, before changing into the dapper pinstriped suit of the city treasurer. He also left an eminent legacy to future Members of this House as Chairman of the House of Commons Library Committee during its transition from an old-style, gentleman’s-club library to the expert modern research facility that is at the disposal of Members of Parliament today. I am sure that that facility has been particularly appreciated by those new Members preparing their maiden speeches.
The area of Glasgow that I represent has a remarkable and diverse history, and that is reflected in the diversity and vibrancy of the people who live there today. From its early origins at the northern frontier of the Roman Empire, it has subsequently been vital to Glasgow’s development, even though it was formally incorporated into the city only in 1891, when Glasgow’s territory was doubled in size. The Molendinar Burn, on the banks of which the founder of Glasgow, St. Mungo, established his cathedral and with it the surrounding town, flows from Hogganfield loch, the fresh waters of which also nourished what is the longest established business in the city of Glasgow—Tennent’s brewery. The brewery was founded at the Drygate in the 1550s and its amber nectar has slaked the thirst of many a Glaswegian over the centuries.
When I attempt to visualise the evolution of my part of Glasgow, Danny Boyle’s epic opening ceremony of the London 2012 Olympic games immediately springs to mind. What was once an area of sylvan beauty and rural charm, a landscape of farms and weavers’ cottages, was rapidly swept away as the first harbingers of the industrial age emerged—the first canals and, later, the first railways in Scotland which, traversed the district. By happy coincidence of its position on the approach to central Glasgow from Edinburgh and the Lanarkshire coalfields, Springburn found itself at the epicentre of this frenetic growth as railway manufacturing and associated industries coalesced there to form the largest centre of locomotive manufacture in the British empire. At its peak, it employed 8,000 people and had the capacity to build 600 steam locomotives a year, most of which were for export.
Other engineering innovations were pioneered there, too, most notably the Johnston Dogcart, which, in 1895, was the first motor car to be built in Britain by railway engineer George Johnston in Balgrayhill. The first road trials took place in the dead of night, with Johnston driving the car at a reckless 12 mph on a 20-mile journey around Glasgow. For this apparently reckless behaviour, he was charged with contravening the Locomotive Acts by driving his horseless carriage during prohibited hours along Buchanan Street—then, as now, the main shopping thoroughfare in Glasgow.
Today my constituency retains this fine automotive industry pedigree in the form of Allied Vehicles, the largest manufacturer of specialist taxis and mobility vehicles in the United Kingdom, which employs more than 650 highly skilled people in Possilpark. This high-value manufacturer is also ingrained in the community, supporting many excellent projects such as Possobilities, which supports disabled people in the local area, as well as the highly successful Glasgow Tigers speedway.
As my friend the hon. Member for Glasgow South mentioned earlier, our engineering prowess was also critical to supporting Britain’s war effort during the first world war. Springburn’s railway works gave themselves over to the production of munitions for the duration of the war. Throughout this period, they were responsible for producing war material such as the first tanks and aircraft. The works also produced the first modern artificial limbs for wounded servicemen.
The directors of the North British Locomotive Company even offered their headquarters building to the Red Cross, as existing hospitals were insufficient to cope with the war wounded. It opened on Christmas eve 1914. Wounded troops would be transported directly from the southern channel ports to the hospital on specially converted ambulance trains. By the end of the war, a total of 8,211 servicemen had been treated.
Nearby Stobhill Hospital, the place where I first entered a more peaceful world some 75 years later, was also requisitioned by the Royal Army Medical Corps in 1914 and more than 1,000 patients were cared for there at any given time until the return of the hospital to civilian use in 1920. As an Army reservist, I have the sacrifice that my city made during the first world war impressed on me every year when I attend the Remembrance Day service in George Square. The stark enormity of the statement on the city’s cenotaph, that Glasgow raised over 200,000 troops—a fifth of its population—with 18,000 of that number losing their lives and a further 35,000 injured, never fails to move me with the sheer scale of the carnage that afflicted working people a century ago.
My constituency of Glasgow North East was created at the 2005 general election by the amalgamation of the Glasgow Springburn and Glasgow Maryhill seats. Both areas have previously enjoyed excellent representation from exemplary parliamentarians. Although my seat was once described as a Labour citadel, there were even two Conservative Members in the interwar period, though that was thankfully a brief dalliance. The metaphorically and physically towering legacy of my antecedents was brought into sharp focus when I recently had the opportunity to venture into the Speaker’s House and was confronted by a 14-foot-high oil painting of Lord Martin of Springburn and Port Dundas. If there was ever a more effective device to make his successors feel simultaneously inspired and inadequate I have yet to find one.
Michael Martin succeeded Dick Buchanan as the MP for Springburn from 1979 to 2009, which of course culminated in his election as Speaker of the House of Commons from 2000 onwards. His parliamentary career, spanning seven consecutive general elections, was selflessly committed to the service of others and epitomises the opportunity that the Labour movement has offered for the advancement of working-class people over the last century. He rose from being a Springburn sheet metal worker and shop steward to become the Speaker of this House. I was particularly gratified to meet Lord Martin just last week, and he told me of his delight that his seat was now back in “safe hands”, as he put it.
My first ever experience of party political campaigning was in the Glasgow North East by-election of 2009, after a telephone call from Gordon Brown’s wife Sarah drew me from my exam revision to help William Bain hold the seat for Labour. As someone who was also born and raised in the local area—we were both the first members of our respective families to benefit from a university education—William proved to be a dedicated, industrious and committed champion for our city and its communities during his time in the House, speaking vociferously in opposition to the coalition Government’s vicious and self- defeating austerity policies during his tenure as shadow Scotland Office Minister.
Before I had the opportunity to meet my immediate predecessor, Anne McLaughlin, I watched her maiden speech with great interest when she delivered it almost two years ago to the day, in July 2015. I was particularly impressed by her yearning passion for improving the lives of her constituents and restoring civic pride to our communities—a passion that I share deeply. Anne cited the example of the project to restore the historic Springburn winter gardens, the largest glasshouse in Scotland, as a totemic symbol of our mission to continue regenerating a community that is still contending with the challenge of urban dereliction. As one of the founders of the project, I was personally delighted that Anne made such a generous endorsement of our efforts in her maiden speech. I would also like to thank her for the friendly and good-natured election campaign we conducted in June and I look forward to working together in areas of mutual interest in the future.
All the maiden speeches of my predecessors reflect common challenges that have faced our constituents over the years. Though much progress has been made in certain areas, unfortunately many of the issues they identified decades ago remain all too stubbornly apparent today. Michael Martin referred to the urgent need to strengthen Government intervention in developing new industries to revitalise the local economy and alleviate the unemployment and despair caused by the collapse of locomotive manufacturing. That legacy of decline is something that my constituency has never fully recovered from. I felt that keenly from an early age, as I learned about Springburn’s past industrial glories from my grandparents. It is what inspired me to follow my grandfather and father into the Clyde shipbuilding industry, and later to move to Scottish Enterprise, burning with a zeal to rejuvenate the great Clyde-built industries that once gave pride and prosperity to our city.
Having recently been involved with the development of Labour’s new industrial strategy for Scotland, I am excited about the opportunity before us to unlock a new era of prosperity with the application of coherent, long-term thinking about the development of more high-value industries in our country, and I look forward to pursuing that vision with vigorous enthusiasm in this place.
Another recurring subject for my predecessors is housing, particularly exploitation by private landlords and the mass clearance of housing in areas such as Springburn. All Glasgow Labour MPs have stood firmly in the tradition of John Wheatley and his famous Housing Act of 1924, which provided state subsidies for house building to build a land fit for heroes. It led directly to the creation of Glasgow’s municipal housing system, and saw large-scale building of some 57,000 new homes in new districts such as Riddrie and Carntyne in my constituency between the wars.
Heroines such as Mary Barbour led the struggle against rapacious landlordism during the first world war; she led the women of the city in the 1915 rent strike that ultimately forced this House to legislate to control rents for the duration of the war. I am delighted that my predecessor Maria Fyfe, who represented Glasgow Maryhill for so many years, has successfully campaigned for a statue commemorating Mary Barbour and the Glasgow rent strikers—only the fourth statue of a woman to be erected in the city of Glasgow.
As a result of the efforts of my predecessor Michael and others, Glasgow pioneered the modern housing association movement that saved many of the traditional Victorian tenements in areas such as Dennistoun and Springburn. By writing off the city’s £1 billion housing debt, the last Labour Government enabled an unprecedented renewal of its housing stock, led by organisations such as ng homes; more than £100 million has been invested in improving housing standards in my constituency. These physical improvements are about not just the sandstone, glass and slate, but reinvigorating the very soul and character of our city, and what it means and feels like to be a Glaswegian from one generation to the next.
These efforts have, however, been frustrated by Conservative party policies that continue to undermine living standards in my constituency. Despite efforts to regenerate our communities, my constituents are still subject to the indignity of benefit sanctions, tax credit cuts and frozen wages. With unemployment and benefit claimant rates in my constituency double the national average, and child poverty at a disgraceful 36%, the continued onslaught of Tory cuts to living standards is too much to bear for many. When a constituent approaches me in the street to describe how she was forced to financially support her son and his partner, who was suffering from a terminal brain tumour, for nine months before his death, as he had been found fit to work and had had his benefits cut, it is clear to me that we have seen the creation of a new national minimum definition of dignity, under which anything short of starvation and anything above destitution is now seemingly acceptable —a definition that is apparently blind to any appeal to human compassion. That view was galvanised when I watched those on the Government Benches cheer with perverse triumph as our effort to remove the public sector pay cap was defeated last month, quite oblivious to the harm it causes to millions of people.
My duty as a Labour Member of Parliament has been crystallised by those observations. The people of Glasgow North East sent me here because they despair of the Tories and yearn for the vision of hope and prosperity that Labour has offered them under the inspirational leadership of my right hon. Friend the Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn).
In 1948, this House, having witnessed the disastrous effects of two terrible world wars, was told that the welfare state had been established to remove the shame from need and to create a society with solidarity at its foundation. Today it is our solemn responsibility to do everything in our power to defeat this Government and restore that abiding principle in our society. That is why the people of Glasgow North East sent me here, and I will do my utmost to repay their faith in me through how I acquit myself in pursuit of that endeavour in this House.
It falls to me to congratulate my compatriot, the hon. Member for Glasgow North East (Mr Sweeney), on his maiden speech. There can be little doubt that he will bring passion, commitment and conviction to the proceedings of the House. I look forward to many jousts across the Floor of the House over the coming months and, hopefully, years. I was delighted to hear him recognising previous Scottish Conservative occupants of his seat. That was very encouraging; we look forward to further success down the years. I also congratulate him on his new position, which he mentioned. I look forward to seeing him at the Dispatch Box as soon as next week.
I rise with a degree of humility to make a small contribution of my own, and to pay tribute to those who fought and died during Passchendaele, the third battle of Ypres—the biggest British offensive of 1917. I say that I rise with humility because of the calibre of speeches in this debate. I have been informed and deeply moved by the things I have heard. I was particularly moved by the contributions of Members who have spoken in Welsh. Something has been passed to me from my great-grandmother, Mary Ann Owen Blakemore, which thrills at the sound of the Welsh language. Her son and my great-uncle, Harry Blakemore, served in the great war and died in the early months of 1918. He plays an important part in our family history, even though his life was short.
My hon. Friend the Member for South West Wiltshire (Dr Murrison) spoke about the impact that first world war cemeteries and sites have on young people. My wife and I have made it a matter of course to take our children to these sacred places. My hon. Friend described the effect that those places have on young people, and I have witnessed that in my own children. He mentioned the dawning realisation of the sacrifice and slaughter of the great war, and it does make a massive impression on young minds. It reminds them and all of us of the price of our freedom. I have stood and witnessed the last post ceremony at the Menin Gate many times. It is an incredibly moving experience. I wish that every schoolchild in the country could have the privilege of standing there and visiting those sites because of the impact the experience has on our minds.
My hon. Friend is making a powerful point about the education of young people. On a slightly tangential but important point, may I urge him to make contact with the Holocaust Educational Trust, which does massively important work in taking young people to Auschwitz, which shows what unbridled power can lead to?
I thank my hon. Friend for that point of information. I will follow up on his invitation.
I was deeply moved by the account of my hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart), which I hope others who were not in the Chamber will have the opportunity to view and read. It was uplifting, and I thank him very much.
My constituency of Stirling has a long-standing connection with the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, who fought on the front line at Passchendaele. These things are all well documented, and the many war memorials throughout my constituency are filled with the names of local men who went off to fight, bravely answering their country’s call. Behind each of the names engraved on those memorials there is a family left behind and broken-hearted.
It is also important to note in this debate that the men who fought at Passchendaele and throughout the great war were gathered from across the British empire. The cemeteries of the western front are full of gravestones for Australians; New Zealanders, whose worst casualty figures came from Passchendaele; South Africans—Hindus and Muslims alike; Canadians; and Newfoundlanders. Men from all over the imperial territory, from every walk of life, from every race, and from every faith, background and culture came to fight for the mother country in its hour of need. In doing so, they came together in a common cause.
In later years, it has become a fashionable narrative that the men who went to fight for the British empire were victims whose blood was spent wastefully by British officers who had no concern for the men of the colonies. My dear friend Dr Iain Banks, who is a senior lecturer in history at the University of Glasgow and the executive director of the Centre for Battlefield Archaeology, refutes and counters this idea. He calls it
“a false idea, because the men coming from the colonies were not unwilling victims, pressganged conscripts being sent to die. Certainly, the men of the AIF”—
the Australian Imperial Force—
“who had arrived on the Western Front in 1915 were not sacrificial lambs; according to research carried out by the historical unit of the Australian Army, these men were confident and eager for the fight, and they had come to sort out the mess that the old country had made.”
The Scottish memorial in Flanders stands as a permanent reminder of the contribution that Scotland made to the British action at Ypres. This memorial is the only one on the western front dedicated to all Scots and all those of Scottish descent who fought in France and Flanders during the 1914-18 war. Scottish soldiers made a major contribution to the efforts of the British Army during the battle at Passchendaele, and it is worth pointing out that their sacrifice was proportionately greater—one might say, more disproportionate.
Between 31 July and 10 November 1917, all three Scottish divisions were on the western front. They were included in the 9th and 15th Divisions and the 51st Highland Division. These men came from all over Scotland, representing famous Scottish regiments: the Black Watch, the Seaforth Highlanders, the Gordon Highlanders, the Cameron Highlanders, the Royal Scots, the Royal Scots Fusiliers, the King’s Own Scottish Borderers, the Cameronians and the Highland Light Infantry. The famous local regiment from my constituency, the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, was in the thick of the fighting, with representatives in all three divisions, and it took casualties in every significant phase of the action.
I thank my very good hon. Friend for giving way. May I just remind the House that a lot of Scottish soldiers in reinforcement units were diverted to English, Welsh and Irish regiments? It is therefore absolutely apposite that there is a Scottish memorial to all Scottish soldiers, whichever regiment they served in. After all, some of us go abroad and command English regiments.
I thank my very good hon. Friend for his intervention. It is also a tribute to the fighting qualities of Scottish soldiers that they can be reassigned and deployed as he suggested.
However, there were not only Scots involved. The Canadians, the Newfoundlanders and the New Zealanders, in particular, included a lot of Scottish immigrants and sons of immigrants, who were committed to the battle. The Scottish memorial project reports that of the nine Canadian Victoria Crosses awarded in the last week of October and the first week of November alone, the majority were awarded to Scottish-born immigrants or the sons of Scots immigrants.
Those who came back lived with the legacy of what they experienced. We have heard some very apposite comments about that legacy in this debate. Those who did not return—we will remember them. We must not make the mistake of thinking that these soldiers were passive victims of a war they did not understand or support. That is a view that is often expressed in certain quarters, especially when people say that we have not learned the lessons of past wars. Whether or not they understood the war in the way that we might want them to understand it, they fought because they wanted to do their bit; because they had been conscripted and it was their duty to go; because they were with men who had become their mates and they were not going to let them down. We do our fallen no justice when we strip them of the dignity that comes with the recognition of their agency. They joined up, they answered their nation’s call, and they reported to the conscription hall. We can argue about the conduct of the war, but never let us downplay the sacrifice of the men who went to war and laid down their lives.
Whether a person loses their life in the service of their country in a vast battle in a global war such as the one we are talking about, or whether one person loses their life individually, without record or attention paid, such sacrifice is most worthy of remembrance. This is partly the inspiration behind the Unknown Warrior, who rests, anonymously, in the place of highest honour in our nation. While the war memorials, the remembrance services, the cenotaphs, the cemeteries and debates like these are a vital—indeed, essential—reminder of that sacrifice, the true honour and respect we must give to their memory is the kind of country and the kind of world we are building. The approach we take towards one another, and the way we work together as a country, within our borders and across borders, must always honour their sacrifice.
Those who died would no doubt have held a wide variety of opinions and views, as we do. They would have had the same broad diversity of opinion that the population of the country had at that time. Socialists, Liberals and Conservatives all fought and died together. They would have had their differences and disagreements, just as we do, as I said earlier, but demonstrating courtesy and respect to those whose opinions and beliefs differ from our own is one vital aspect of the way we honour the sacrifice of the fallen, as is enlisting ourselves in the pursuit of peace and justice for all, and the advancement of the civil society and democracy that I believe we all believe in. These aims are indeed a fit and proper memorial worthy to the memory of the sacrifice of so many souls.
Order. Before I call the next speaker, may I thank the last two speakers—the hon. Member for Glasgow North East (Mr Sweeney), who made an excellent maiden speech, and the hon. Member for Stirling (Stephen Kerr)—for what they said about the Highland Light Infantry, because my grandfather served with them and was injured at Passchendaele. I am not able to make a tribute from the Chair, so I thank those hon. Gentlemen for doing it for me.
It is a pleasure to be able to make a short contribution to this important debate and to follow so many interesting, thoughtful and informative speeches. It is a particular pleasure to have listened to two wonderful maiden speeches this afternoon. My hon. Friend the Member for Bedford (Mohammad Yasin) talked about making his life in Bradford, having moved here from Kashmir, and I wish my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow North East (Mr Sweeney) well for his Dispatch Box debut next week.
Like many other towns and cities up and down the country, on 30 July my constituency of Heywood and Middleton will commemorate the battle of Passchendaele. We will meet in Heywood memorial gardens as part of the programme of first world war commemorative events. I pay tribute to Rochdale Borough Council for its work and commitment in organising all those events, which are always very well attended by my constituents. They are observed with huge respect for those who gave their lives for our country, those who fought and survived, and all their families and descendants.
I want to give a special mention to Councillor Alan McCarthy, our lead member for the armed forces. I thank him for his work both in that role and as chair of Heywood Township, whose councillors, after consultation with the veterans, decided that commemorations of the centenary of the first world war should be held not in celebration, but rather in solemn reflection and in remembrance of all those who have died and served in our armed forces since the start of the great war.
It is important to remember that almost everyone in the UK has an ancestor directly affected by the first world war, and that nearly 1 million men and women gave their lives in service. My constituent Lynne Coxell, whose second cousin William Robinson died at the age of 18 in the first world war, will be among the many attending the memorial service at Ypres on 31 July, to remember their sacrifice. Lynne has donated William’s pocket watch and other artefacts, including his prayer book, to the Passchendaele Museum in his memory.
The Heywood war memorial, where our local commemorations will be held, has its own very special link to the battle of Passchendaele. The war memorial was unveiled in 1925. A statue representing peace stands in front of the cenotaph, with bowed head and bearing a laurel wreath representing victory.
The statue was sculpted by Walter Marsden, an English sculptor born in 1882 in Church, near Accrington in Lancashire, in the constituency of Hyndburn. In 1901 he was an apprentice at the Accrington Brick and Tile Company, whose owners, the McAlpine family, recognised his talent and encouraged him to study at the Accrington Technical School. From there he went on to study at the Manchester Municipal College of Art, and in the 1911 census he gave his occupation as “clay modeller”.
Walter Marsden himself saw active service in the first world war as an officer in the Loyal North Lancashire Regiment. He fought in the third battle of Ypres, the battle of Passchendaele, for which he was awarded the Military Cross. He was later taken prisoner at Cambrai in France and sent to a prisoner of war camp.
After the war he continued his studies and attended the Royal College of Art. He later worked on many war memorials, many of which are in Lancashire. As well as the memorial in Heywood, there are Walter Marsden war memorials in his hometown of Church, Bolton, Tottington in Bury, and St Annes-on-Sea.
His sculptures reflect his experience of active service. The memorial at St Annes-on-Sea depicts walking wounded returning from the battlefield, blinded by gas. A gaunt, exhausted, helmetless soldier is seated at its base. Walter Marsden said that he had wanted to capture
“the constant nervous rain of trench warfare and the ever-present feeling of danger that was the cause of so much mental agony.”
I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart), because I think he gave us the reality of that with his own experience.
Walter Marsden also depicted a husband going off to war, his wife clutching at him, with a small, sad child looking up helplessly. His memorials tread a delicate line, portraying the human cost of war while paying proper tribute to bravery and sacrifice. The war memorial in Heywood is inscribed:
“To the men of Heywood who gave their lives for us during the Great War 1914–1918”.
It commemorates by name the 300 men who died in service.
I finish by quoting the words on the Walter Marsden war memorial in his home town of Church, Lancashire. That is a fitting point on which to end. The memorial is inscribed:
“Let those who come after see to it that their names be not forgotten”.
I call Ben Lake to make his maiden speech.
Diolch, Madam Deputy Speaker. Thank you for affording me the opportunity to make my maiden speech this afternoon.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Heywood and Middleton (Liz McInnes) and, in particular, the hon. Members for Glasgow North East (Mr Sweeney) and for Bedford (Mohammad Yasin), who both made excellent maiden speeches. Indeed, they set an exacting standard. They spoke from the heart and I have no doubt that they will be a credit to their party, their constituencies and this House.
I welcome the opportunity to remember the third battle of Ypres in the House and to commemorate the first world war. As the years go by, it becomes increasingly important that we remember the conflict and especially the sacrifice of all those who lost their lives. We must ensure that we learn the lessons of the past and strive never again to subject people to such suffering and horror. While visiting one of the many Commonwealth war cemeteries that pepper the Flemish countryside, it was heartbreaking to stumble across seemingly never-ending rows of young lives cut short by the conflict.
As has already been mentioned this afternoon, perhaps the most famous of the casualties from Wales was Ellis Humphrey Evans, or Hedd Wyn, a son of Trawsfynydd, in the neighbouring constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd (Liz Saville Roberts). Hedd Wyn was a talented poet who, tragically, was killed before learning of his greatest literary triumph. Just a few weeks before winning the most prestigious prize for poetry at the National Eisteddfod, the bardic chair, he was killed at the battle of Passchendaele at the young age of 30.
A manuscript of the winning ode, “Yr Arwr”, or “The Hero”, in Hedd Wyn’s own hand, is one of the many precious treasures housed at the National Library of Wales in Aberystwyth. This sentinel of our nation’s heritage is perched on Penglais hill, overlooking Cardigan bay, a jewel of the Welsh coast, which I now have the privilege of representing as the Member for Ceredigion. I am truly humbled that the people of this great constituency have put their faith in me to speak for them in this place. I am looking forward to working hard on their behalf and serving them well, and I will strive to be worthy of this trust.
My immediate predecessor, Mark Williams, was elected in 2005. He gained the respect of this House and the affection of the constituency, thanks to over 12 years of tireless service. Thousands of people from across the county have benefited from his advice and assistance, and I hope to continue with his good work. I wish him and his family the very best for the future.
Ceredigion is my home. From the peak of Pen Pumlumon Fawr to the tranquillity of the Teifi estuary, its hills and valleys rarely fail to speak to its sons and daughters. It is no surprise that hiraeth should be such a common affliction of Cardis who find themselves absent from the county for too long. As the second most sparsely populated county in Wales, Ceredigion is largely a rural area. Agriculture is the backbone of many of our communities. Farming not only supports a significant proportion of the workforce, but also sustains a range of social activities and events that are the lifeblood of the county.
Ceredigion stretches from the banks of the Dyfi in the north to Cardigan Island in the south. It is bounded in the east by the magnificent hills of the Elenydd, and flanked to the west by spectacular coastline. Indeed, this year blue flags proudly fly above the pristine beaches at Aberporth, Aberystwyth, Borth, Llangrannog, New Quay and Tresaith. Tourism plays a vital economic role in the area, which is unsurprising given that Ceredigion is widely acknowledged to be the most beautiful constituency in Wales.
Ceredigion’s natural beauty is complemented by the diverse nature of her settlements, from the picturesque Georgian harbour town of Aberaeron to the historic mustering point of the drovers at Tregaron, which continues to hold a thriving livestock market to this day.
Although predominantly a rural constituency, we boast two university towns. The university at Aberystwyth was established in 1872, thanks to the pennies of the people—thousands of individual donations from across Wales; and Lampeter is home to the oldest degree-awarding institution in Wales, founded in 1822.
We can also justifiably claim to be the capital of Welsh culture. In addition to housing the National Library of Wales and two universities, Ceredigion has two thriving publishing houses in Talybont and Llandysul, and the recently restored castle in Cardigan played host to the first National Eisteddfod in 1176. The most famous of Welsh bard, Dafydd ap Gwilym, was born in Penrhyncoch, and my hometown of Lampeter is the birthplace of Welsh rugby, with the first recorded match being played there in 1866.
That rich mix of rural and urban defines Ceredigion—a tapestry of communities woven tightly by the emphatic landscape and the famous quick-witted humour of the Cardi.
Although we must speak to our strengths, we cannot be blind to the reality that the uncertainty surrounding our departure from the European Union poses a daunting challenge to the very fabric of our community. During my time in this place, I will strive to ensure that the best interests of the rural economy and higher education are at the forefront of the minds of Government Ministers as they conduct Brexit negotiations.
Madam Deputy Speaker, we cannot allow ourselves to be forgotten. Decisions taken in London have long overlooked the rural economy, with public investment too often bypassing the hinterland. For too long, amenities considered essential to the urban economy are dismissed as mere luxuries in more rural areas.
Several of my predecessors in this House have pointed to the tragic irony that Ceredigion bestows upon its youth an unrivalled education, but offers them a paucity of job opportunities and affordable housing. For decades, our county has lost the potential and the vitality of her youth. Around half her young people leave the county by the time they reach 25 years of age.
Many of the young who have left are Welsh speakers, which has meant that in my lifetime—which, I am sure hon. and right hon. Members will agree, is not particularly long—the percentage of people living in Ceredigion that can speak the language has declined from around 60% to just 47%. This steady, silent haemorrhage saps the life of nearly every town and village the length and breadth of the county.
During my time in this place, I look forward to working with those across the political divide to refocus the Government’s attention on the challenges facing rural areas, and to encourage greater efforts at developing our economy.
Madam Deputy Speaker, we are a proud people in Ceredigion, and we possess an historic resolve to buck national trends. We are also of independent spirit—over the years we have seen fit to elect Members to this House from across the political spectrum. I am particularly proud to follow in the footsteps of my distinguished Plaid Cymru predecessors, Simon Thomas and Cynog Dafis. They worked tirelessly for Ceredigion and were passionate about guarding rural areas from the negligence of a remote Government. Twenty-five years after the election of the first Plaid Cymru MP for Ceredigion, I am committed to building on this legacy. It is the greatest of honours to have been entrusted by the people of our county during this critical time. As we come together today to remember the sacrifice of those who gave their lives during the first world war, we can all be inspired by their deep sense of duty. It is that sense of duty and service that I will seek to embrace.
I would like to finish by quoting one of Ceredigion’s greatest sons and a founding member of Plaid Cymru, Prosser Rhys. He wrote:
“Deued a ddêl, rhaid imi mwy
Sefyll neu syrthio gyda hwy.”
Whether I am faced by opportunities or obstacles, the best interests of my county and my constituents will be at the very heart of all my endeavours. Diolch yn fawr.
I commend the hon. Member for Ceredigion (Ben Lake) for an impressive first speech. I thought his mention of Hedd Wyn, who died at Passchendaele aged 30 was particularly appropriate. It reminds us all of what talent was lost, what futures were lost, and what artistic flourishing could have taken place in this country but for that first war.
I was also pleased that the hon. Gentleman acknowledged his predecessor, Mark Williams, saying that he was held in affection throughout the House. He most certainly was. He was one of those Members who have friends across the political spectrum. People would support him just because he was Mark: the political differences dissolved.
I took exception a little to the hon. Gentleman’s suggestion that Ceredigion was the finest place in Wales to go on holiday—Porthcawl is obviously a great seaside town—but I hope that his speech inspired those who were listening to think of Wales for their holiday destination this year, because we have so many beautiful places. We must keep a welcome in our hillsides, no matter whether it is in the north or the south.
One thing is certain. There is not a family in the United Kingdom who will not, over the coming months, be remembering the first world war and the family members who were lost, the futures that were lost, as a result of that war. I have a tiny pocket diary that my grandfather took with him to the front. In it, he made a few comments every day about what he saw. I spent a lot of time tracking what he was talking about, and looking at the experiences that he made a note of. He left for war on 13 August 1914, noting:
“We left Limerick by train for Queenstown, embarked on the SS Matheron of steamers Liverpool.”
When he arrived in Belgium, the new idea of moving soldiers to the front quickly was in play. Off he went on a train journey. He spent many hours, indeed days, on that train, which went into sidings as those in charge tried to get all the trains with all the troops to the front as quickly as possible. On 20 August 1914, they finally arrived in a field, where they disembarked. They had nowhere to sleep: they had no tents and no blankets. They lay down in that field, exhausted by the journeys that had taken place from 13 August to 20 August, and slept.
Before they had a chance to sleep, however, they were addressed by Sir John French, who said:
“Our cause is just. We are called upon to fight beside our gallant allies in France and Belgium in no war of arrogance, but to uphold our national honour, independence and freedom.
We have violated no neutrality, nor have we been false to any treaties. We enter upon this conflict with the clearest consciousness that we are fighting for right and honour.
Having then this trust in the righteousness of our cause, pride in the glory of our military traditions, and belief in the efficiency of our army, we go forward together to do or die.”
We are still faced with that dilemma. What do we do as a nation when others violate neutrality and are false to the treaties that have been entered into? Do we then prove false to treaties that we have entered into to come to the support and aid of others? That is the dilemma that the House faces every time we have a debate about whether to go to war. In my time in the House, I have taken part in three debates in which we have had to decide whether to commit our personnel and to take that decision. Each time, it is the issue of neutrality and our treaty commitments that we consider. That is the thing that helps us to make our decision.
My grandfather’s diary recounts countless days of heavy shellfire, near escapes from death, exhaustion and countless movements, as he survived the battles of Le Cateau and Mons, and the great retreat from Mons and Marne. He then took part in the first battle of Ypres.
In the first battle of Ypres, the British expeditionary force lost 2,368 officers and 55,787 men. The British regular Army virtually disappeared, leaving only a framework for the new mass armies that were to come. The German army lost 130,000 men, the French 50,000 and the Belgian 32,000. Sometimes when I read the diary, I ask myself—what we have learned and what I need to learn as, hopefully to be again, a member of the Select Committee on Defence. In the Select Committee, we have many times looked at reports about equipment. It is one of the Committee’s major priorities.
On 17 October 1914, my grandfather noted:
“Very fine morning, all my chums congratulated me on my birthday. We got a blanket served out to us. We have had nothing to cover us since we came out. Severe fighting is going all along the canal”.
From August to October, they had no blanket—nothing to cover them, despite the battles that they had fought and survived. There was hardly a man of the original expeditionary force who possessed more than the clothing he stood up in and that was often woefully inadequate. It is no wonder the Defence Committee even today is concerned about equipment, logistics, preparation and planning for war.
On 29 October 1914, my grandfather noted:
“Terrific firing all day and night. The Indian troops came here to relieve us, they look a fine lot of men, Gurkha, Sikhs and Punjabis.”
It reminds us that, even then, alliances, coalitions and interoperability were the way in which wars were fought. We rarely stand alone. In that war, 90,000 Indian soldiers and 50,000 labourers served in two infantry and cavalry divisions.
On 1 November 1914, my grandfather noted:
“Damp morning had to clean our saddles and harnesses.”
My grandfather was a signalman and often rode out to ensure that communications between the trenches and senior military command were clear. He continued:
“This was a quiet day in Beuvry but it was the 23rd day of the First battle of Ypres”.
It was also a time of great destruction and horror for the civilian population living in that area. We have talked a great deal about the impact of the war on our personnel, but it was also a time of great horror for civilian populations, who had no idea of where to flee for security. They had no idea where there was safety, and where a bombardment would not lead to death and destruction. Many people were forced out of their homes.
My town of Porthcawl took in many refugees from Belgium, as did many towns across the United Kingdom. This is also a lesson that we still carry with us today—the importance of refuge, and of offering support to refugees and civilians, who, more often than our military personnel, are the ones who are slaughtered during warfare.
One of the things that happened as a result of the first world war was that we recognised that we needed to take responsibility for how we dealt with war, because in the second battle of Ypres the Germans used poison gas for the first time, and created alarm among the stricken British and French colonial defenders. Chlorine gas was a new experiment, and its success surprised the German commanders, but it also led us to look later at developing a law of armed conflict and international humanitarian law, and at what was going to be acceptable and unacceptable. It is horrifying that we still see the use of chlorine gas and mustard gas in Syria, something we thought we had stopped, and that everyone in this House, no matter of which political party, roundly condemns. It is viewed with the horror with which we viewed its first use back in 1915.
We also read with horror the stories of the impact of that relentless pounding on the mental health of the people who fought and the refugees who traipsed back and forth across the countryside trying to find safety:
“I’ll tell you this much, I might not have been wounded in the body but I was wounded in my mind. I don’t know if you can imagine it but obviously, when there is shell fire, you get down to get cover, only an idiot wouldn’t get down, so you get down and you can’t get your nails into the ground and your head under the ground and you can’t get down because you can’t go any further. You’re on the ground and your nails are dug in the ground and there you are and the shells are bursting around and there’s screaming bits of shells and they’re not just bits of metal, they’re hot metal flying all over the place and there are machine guns going and pandemonium all around. How the devil did you get out of that unscathed? How did you get out? It’s a miracle, if there’s such a thing as a miracle.”
That was written by Sergeant Bill Hay of the 9th Battalion, and I think it is one of the most graphic descriptions of what it must have been like to have been in that hell.
On Sunday 2 May 1915, my grandfather noted:
“Dull day, we rested to-day. Lots of troops went past suffering from poisoning from the gas. A terrific bombardment commenced about 5 o’clock, the noise is terrible…this is the heaviest bombardment I have heard. I had to go to Vlamertinge at 9 o’clock it was black dark and shells were bursting over my head. It was a terrible experience it being my first night out on the line in black darkness. The roads are full of our chaps suffering from gas poisoning.”
The diary ends on Wednesday 14 July 1915:
“Went and laid a line from signal office to 3rd Corps HQ finished dinner time. There was a very heavy bombardment last night in front of the Durham’s trenches between Messines and Ploegsteert. I left Bailleul at 4.38 for England on leave, arrived at Boulogne at 9 pm”.
That is the last we know of my grandfather’s day-to-day experiences. He died at the third battle of Ypres. We know that Driver Albert Edward Ironside, No. 17785, died on 22 July 1917. He is buried in plot 1, row F, grave No. 4 in Dozinghem military cemetery in Belgium. The advance dressing stations in the area were humorously named by the troops: Dozinghem, Mendinghem and Bandaghem. The cemeteries that were created perpetuate those names. We do not know when my grandfather was injured or how he died. We were told that he was poisoned by gas. From 10 July 1917, mustard gas was used every night against British positions. The Glamorgan Gem contains an article by Ceri Joseph of the Porthcawl Museum, which has been running amazing exhibitions on the first world war over this whole period to explain the local context, the service that the local people gave and the impact of the war on the town. In the article, Ceri suggests that German tactics had changed in that month. They allowed the British to cover an increasing amount of ground in the hope that they would lose momentum. Forward signal parties would often become involved in fighting, and Albert might have been trapped and died fighting.
What lessons can we learn? What knowledge can one man’s experience give us? Never again should we send people to war without full preparation and without the kit and equipment that they need. We have done that recently. Members of this House did not want to send anyone into Afghanistan with the wrong equipment, but that is what we did. This is something we must always question before we make these decisions. We have also learned that there are few short wars. All wars have long-term consequences. Those who came back from the first world war had to live with their experiences, as did their families and their communities. That war still resonates with us here and with their families, even today.
The accountability of generals has increased. The Defence Select Committee, and this House, demand to know why mistakes have been made and why certain things have happened. We are better at doing that now, and I believe that we play an honourable role here in that regard. All working men, and married women, achieved the vote after the war. The Government were frightened that those men, returning from the horrors, armed and experienced, would revolt against them if they did not give them the vote. They got the vote but they still had to face the horrors of the great depression. I should like to end on what is, for me, a positive note. In the first election following the conflict, Labour tripled its vote. Five years later, the party formed a Government for the first time.
With the leave of the House, I will reply to the debate on behalf of the Opposition. We have had an excellent debate with some extremely good speeches from both sides of the House. The right hon. Member for Broadland (Mr Simpson) made a knowledgeable and thoughtful contribution and enlightened all of us with his expertise. The hon. Member for Glasgow South (Stewart Malcolm McDonald) spoke eloquently, as ever, on behalf of the Scottish National party. We should all thank the hon. Member for South West Wiltshire (Dr Murrison) not only for his speech but for all that he has done to organise the first world war commemorations. He posed the important question: would we pay the price if we knew it in advance? We can never know the answer, for obvious reasons, but we should always consider that point when these decisions are before us in the House of Commons.
My hon. Friend the Member for Newport West (Paul Flynn), who is not in his place, told us of his father’s participation in the battles at Passchendaele. He also rightly reminded the House that, although we say that we must, we often do not learn lessons from such conflicts. He also rightly referred to the famous Wilfred Owen poem “Dulce et Decorum Est”. We were all moved by the contribution from the hon. Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart). As ever, he had the House transfixed with his personal and compelling account of the reality of being in a conflict. We thank him for his service to our country as well as for his contribution today.
We have been fortunate to have some wonderful maiden speeches during the course of the debate. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Bedford (Mohammad Yasin), who told us of his personal journey from Kashmir to Bedford. I was pleased that he rightly paid tribute to his predecessor Richard Fuller, whom I know from my university days and who was a fine Member of this House. My hon. Friend is clearly proud of his constituency and his constituents have every right to be proud of him, too, for his contribution today.
The hon. Member for Elmet and Rothwell (Alec Shelbrooke), who is also starring later in our proceedings today, told us a moving personal story from his own family and reminded us of the consequences of the aftermath of war, which we should all remember. He also paid tribute to his father, who is watching our proceedings today. The hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd (Liz Saville Roberts) spoke, as I did, about Hedd Wyn, the Welsh poet who was killed at the battle of Passchendaele. We then had a typically knowledgeable contribution from the right hon. Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis), the Chairman of the Defence Committee, who gave us a detailed and vivid portrayal of the futility and horror of the battle. He brought great wisdom and knowledge to our proceedings.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow North East (Mr Sweeney) on his excellent maiden speech. When a Member makes a maiden speech, it is customary to say that they have bright future, possibly at the Dispatch Box. It took me six years to get to the Dispatch Box, but my hon. Friend has rather beaten that record since he told us that he will be making his debut just next week. We wish him well in his role, and I am sure that he will do very well indeed. He also mentioned Michael Martin, the previous Speaker. When I was a young new MP in 2002, I had the temerity to ask a question in this House without wearing a tie, and I was rightly admonished by the then Speaker. Times have changed, but I never quite got over that, so I am still wearing my tie despite the new dispensation.
The hon. Member for Stirling (Stephen Kerr), who is another new Member—so new that I thought it might have been his maiden speech until he took an intervention—told us that he has visited the Menin Gate and witnessed the ceremony. He said that all schoolchildren should perhaps do the same, and I think we would all agree. He also referred to the war memorials in his constituency and reminded us of the contribution of Commonwealth troops in the first world war, including those from India. We should remember that 1.3 million people volunteered for the British Indian Army during that war, with 70,000 of them losing their lives.
My hon. Friend the Member for Heywood and Middleton (Liz McInnes) mentioned the events being organised in her constituency to commemorate Passchendaele. She also told us the fascinating story of Walter Marsden, who won the Military Cross at the battle and later sculpted the figure of peace on the war memorial in her constituency.
It was a pleasure to hear the fine maiden speech of the hon. Member for Ceredigion (Ben Lake), who paid appropriate tribute to his predecessor Mark Williams, who was genuinely liked by Members across the House. He introduced yet another Welsh word into the debate: hiraeth, which means a deep longing for home. He clearly loves his constituency, which he describes as the most beautiful in Wales. I should remind him that it is in fact the murder capital of Wales because, as those of us who occasionally watch it know, the television series “Hinterland” is made in his constituency. Although he has invited us all to visit, we are a bit nervous because the murder rate seems to be particularly high; almost as high as Oxford in “Inspector Morse.” He makes his constituency sound like the garden of Eden—I am not suggesting that original sin was invented there—and hon. Members should take up his offer to visit, as it is a very beautiful place. He has a bright future in this place, so long as he never achieves his ambition of Wales leaving the United Kingdom. In that case he would have to give up his seat, and the House would be the poorer.
I also congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgend (Mrs Moon), who told us the poignant story of her grandfather’s diary from the front and how she uses it as inspiration for the fine work she does on the Defence Committee. We were all moved immensely by what she told us.
It falls to me to pay tribute, as the Minister and I did at the beginning, to all those who gave their life in the first world war, particularly at the battle of Passchendaele, and to those who still give service to us in our armed forces. Today’s debate is a hugely appropriate tribute to them. The greatest tribute we can give, as other hon. Members have said, is to do all we can to promote peace. Let us all pledge today to do just that.
This has been an excellent debate that I hope puts the House in good standing with those who are watching. We have had 13 Back-Bench contributions and three excellent maiden speeches. I will not repeat the excellent words of the hon. Member for Cardiff West (Kevin Brennan), who speaks for the Opposition, in going through all of them, but I will mention the three maiden speeches.
First, I pay tribute to the words of the hon. Member for Bedford (Mohammad Yasin). The way he spoke about his predecessor does him great credit. The whole House will be aware of his commitment to Bedford, and we wish him well for his future in the House.
Secondly, I will not say too much to the hon. Member for Glasgow North East (Mr Sweeney) about quaking knees and trembling at the Dispatch Box, but it took me seven years to get here. I am pleased that it will only have taken him a few weeks. I wish him well in his career in the House.
Thirdly, I applaud the young hon. Member for Ceredigion (Ben Lake) on his composed and measured first contribution. He describes his constituency very fully as the capital of Welsh culture, which, from what I heard in other contributions today, is a contested title. I wish him well in the House, too.
I am grateful for all the contributions and, as I reflect on them, I will refer to my hon. Friends. As we have heard, the battle of Passchendaele, which touched communities across Britain and Ireland, and across the world, was a grim series of events. It is right that we take this opportunity to reflect on the bravery, endurance, service and sacrifice of those involved. We should particularly remember that conditions and casualties were horrific for soldiers on both sides.
In the spirit of the personal reflections that so many colleagues on both sides of the House have shared, I will read a first-hand account of Passchendaele given to me by my constituent Colonel Newbould, a distinguished battle tours veteran. It said:
“While I and others were taking supplies into the line at Ypres, we waded through mud all the way. It was very necessary to keep following the leader strictly in line, for one false step to the right or left sometimes meant plunging into dangerous and deep mud-pools.
One of our men was unfortunate enough to step out of line and fall into one of these mud-holes. Knowing from past experience that quick action was needed if we were to save him from quickly sinking, we got hold of his arms and tried to pull him out. This did not produce much result and we had to be careful ourselves not to slip in with him. We finally procured a rope and managed to loop it securely under his armpits.
He was now gradually sinking until the mud and water reached almost to his shoulders. We tugged at that rope with the strength of desperation in an effort to save him, but it was useless. He was fast in the mud and beyond human aid.
Reluctantly, the party had to leave him to his fate, and that fate was gradually sinking inch-by-inch and finally dying of suffocation. The poor fellow now knew he was beyond all aid and begged me to shoot him rather than leave him to die a miserable death by suffocation.
I did not want to do this, but thinking of the agonies he would endure if I left him to this horrible death, I decided a quick death would be a merciful ending. I am not afraid to say therefore that I shot this man at his own most urgent request, thus releasing him from a far more agonising end.”
That is the reality of the human misery that we are commemorating today. It is human misery that my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart) spoke of with such personal authority when he said that war is disgusting and horrid. But it is important that we as a nation commemorate what happened, and I wish to remind the House that after these events on 30 and 31 July our focus will be on the centenary of the Armistice in November 2018. I urge Members from across the House to consider the resources available to ensure that their local constituencies engage in the commemorative programme.
Many Heritage Lottery Fund projects are taking place up and down the country, in which local communities are exploring and learning about their first world war heritage. Since April 2010, the Heritage Lottery Fund has awarded more than £86 million to more than 1,700 projects covering the whole of the UK to mark the centenary. Some 7 million people have engaged in first world war heritage. As the hon. Member for Cardiff West so rightly said, poetry, songs and arts keep us going. Secondary school students continue to join the battlefield tours, with nearly 1,500 schools taking part so far. The Government want to ensure a lasting legacy of first world war remembrance, and education. After all, we owe it to all those who bravely fought 100 years ago on our behalf. So whether attending events in Belgium or the UK, or watching on television, we will remember all those affected by this dreadful battle 100 years ago and ensure that they shall never be forgotten. It is right that this House remembers all those who made the ultimate sacrifice in the service of their country.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the Commemoration of Passchendaele, the Third Battle of Ypres.