Before I call the Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport to move the motion, I should advise the House that no fewer than 34 Back-Bench Members wish to contribute. I know that the Secretary of State and his shadow, with their usual and customary sensitivity, will wish to tailor their own contributions to take account of colleagues’ interest.
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the centenary of the Armistice.
In May 1915, my grandfather arrived in France to fight for his country. Three years later, he came back. Millions of others did not or, if they did, came back terribly damaged, visibly or invisibly. They went to fight in what they knew as the great war: four years of blood, mud and misery in which humanity found new ways to kill and injure on a previously unimagined scale. When the cost and enormity of it could be better grasped, they came to call it, in shock, horror and, sadly, unrealistic optimism, the war to end all wars.
On Sunday, the nation will come together as one to pause and remember all those who died during this conflict and all those that have happened since. This year’s act of remembrance will be particularly special and poignant, however, as we mark the centenary of the end of the first world war. We have sought to commemorate the war in many ways over the past four years. For everyone, different events will stand out, but I will always remember the commemoration of the battle of Amiens at Amiens cathedral, which I was fortunate enough to attend. I sat in that magnificent cathedral with representatives of many countries that fought on both sides of the battles that marked the beginning of the end of the war, and I listened to the words of those who experienced them. Their emotions were deeply felt by those in the cathedral and, I am sure, by the millions watching on television and online.
I remember that I prepared a scrapbook of cuttings at the 50th anniversary for my grandfather who had fought in the first world war, but I was rather embarrassed in front of him because the coverage in the 1960s was relentlessly negative. Will my right hon. and learned Friend confirm that historiography has now changed? Most people realise that it was a sacrifice worth making, that the alternative would have been militarism and that the soldiers were actually well led in 1918.
It is undoubtedly right that the vast majority of people in this country will come together on Sunday, as they have come together on many occasions over the past four years, to remember the sacrifice of those who gave their lives and who did so without a thought to their own interests and in the service of their nation.
Many Members will have had a family member who was involved in the first world war in one way or another, and some of us will have family memories of different battles. Like the Secretary of State’s grandfather, my grandfather took part in the battle of Loos, which is not as well remembered as other battles. Does the Secretary of State agree that we should not forget such battles and the people who fought in them?
I agree with the hon. Gentleman. We have not remembered every single battle over the past four years, but we have tried to remember a number of them. However, our collective effort to commemorate what happened is designed to encompass all battles and all those who fought in them.
I thank the Secretary of State for his generosity in giving way. In common with many other Members, I will be joining remembrance events in my constituency on Sunday. I understand that the event held at Mirfield is the biggest and most well attended outside of London, so will he join me in welcoming the people in Mirfield who attend that event?
I join the hon. Lady in welcoming that occasion. I am sure that it will be a particularly special year for her and for all those who attend.
The high-profile ceremonial events that I mentioned have been complemented by an extensive and engaging programme of cultural and educational activities. In 2012, the Government established the 14-18 NOW cultural programme to work with artists to tell these important stories through the mediums of culture and art. There has been a particular focus on engaging children and young people, with events including the great war school debate series and school battlefield tours, in which nearly 6,000 students and teachers visited the battlefields of northern France.
The groundbreaking 14-18 NOW programme has used its remit to enthral people from all walks of live. More than 35 million people have engaged with the centenary, including 7.5 million young people under the age of 25. It has clearly demonstrated that contemporary artworks in public places can attract large, diverse audiences. Whether it was turning the country dark as part of the “Lights Out” programme or the ghost soldiers that appeared across the country to mark the centenary of the battle of the Somme, these events have all captured the public’s imagination and have given remembrance prominence in our daily lives.
The ceramic poppies at the Tower of London were another moving tribute, bringing the programme to one of our most popular and cherished attractions. The poppies have since travelled to 19 locations, from Belfast to Southend and from Orkney to Plymouth, and have been visited by more than 4 million people. From next year, they will be part of the collection of the Imperial War Museum, where they can be viewed for many years to come.
As part of our programme, we have sought to highlight the enormous contribution made by those who came to our nation’s aid from across the world. Some 2.5 million men and women from the Commonwealth answered the call to fight, with 200,000 laying down their lives. They left their homes thousands of miles away to serve the allied cause with unstinting bravery, often in unimaginable conditions, and they must not be forgotten or overlooked.
Works by an extraordinarily diverse range of artists from the UK and abroad have helped us to highlight those contributions. Poets from the Caribbean diaspora, visual artists from India and Bangladesh, performers from South Africa, musicians from Syria and many more have all highlighted the global reach and impact of the war. That was shown vividly in March 2015, when an event commemorating the second battle of Neuve Chapelle took place at the Imperial War Museum North. The event was co-ordinated by British Muslim, Hindu and Sikh organisations, supported by the Government. It compellingly showed the partnerships and friendships that we hold so dear and that were so instrumental during the war.
We have seen all too well how history can divide, but one clear and ambitious goal throughout this centenary period has been to seek to use history to bring us together. The Government have worked closely with the Irish Government, for example, over the past four years to mark these events. That was most clearly demonstrated in the shared approach to the battle of Messines Ridge commemoration in June 2017, which was attended by both His Royal Highness the Duke of Cambridge and the then Taoiseach, Enda Kenny. The battle has considerable historic and symbolic significance for the UK and Ireland, as it was the first time that the 36th (Ulster) and 16th (Irish) Divisions fought alongside each other during the great war. The event provided a valuable opportunity to remember the service and sacrifice of those who fought, as well as to explore our shared history and support efforts to build a peaceful future.
Will the Secretary of State join me in welcoming the changing attitude, particularly in the Irish Republic, where for many decades there was little or no appreciation of that contribution? Does he agree that that should continue and, in fact, increase over the coming years?
I agree with the hon. Gentleman. The co-operation and full support we have received from the Irish Government has been most welcome, and I hope it will set a new tone for future commemorations. It is deeply appreciated by those on both sides of the border who have been involved in these commemorations.
Another way to commemorate the shared interest between Ireland and the UK is through the merchant navy. Many vessels sailed constantly through the great war between Ireland and Welsh ports, and there were many casualties. We have had commemorations of that this year, so will the Secretary of State put on record his thanks to the merchant seafarers of Ireland and Wales and the rest of the United Kingdom?
I will certainly do that. I am sure the commemorations that will take place in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency will make particular reference to those people, and that is entirely as it should be. It is also important to say that the German Government have been hugely supportive of our commemorations. Germany has been represented at very senior levels at all our events, and German military representatives have participated extensively.
One hundred years ago, the news of the Armistice was celebrated on these shores. On Remembrance Sunday this year, out of respect for living veterans, and the service’s wider purpose in remembering the fallen of all conflicts, we will share our usual sombre moment of remembrance, with the customary two minutes’ silence. Wreaths will be laid at the Cenotaph, including, uniquely, one by the President of Germany. In recent months, there has been an unprecedented amount of commemorative activity up and down the country, leading up to that day. The nation is truly coming together, because 11 November 1918 is a significant day in our history. In dispatches from the frontline, soldiers often struggled to articulate how they felt when the guns stopped firing. They reported a mixture of joy, relief, numb disbelief and grief. For many, there was also a sense of achievement and justice.
Those words put it well. It is evident in all the commemorations we have witnessed how much of what was done and sacrificed by those who fought was done in fellowship for those they went to fight with. I agree with my hon. Friend.
After the service of remembrance this year, we will give our thanks for the end of the war and show our support for those who returned. The traditional Royal British Legion parade of veterans will this year be followed by an additional procession of 10,000 members of the public paying personal tribute and giving thanks to the generation who served then. The procession will be complemented in the afternoon by the nationwide ringing of bells, across the UK, and throughout the rest of the world, echoing the bells that rang out after many years of silence 100 years ago. In the evening there will be a national service of reflection and thanksgiving in Westminster abbey, with similar services taking place across the UK. This will be a moving and inspiring day that will unite us all.
I am sure we will hear plenty more reflections on these events during this debate. Many people have been involved in making these commemorations a success: charities, including, of course, the Royal British Legion; civil society groups; officials from across the Government, including, in particular, those from my Department; and the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. They all deserve our thanks and congratulations. I would also like to thank the first world war advisory group for its guidance throughout this process. I want to make special mention of my hon. Friend the Member for South West Wiltshire (Dr Murrison), who has acted throughout this period as the Prime Minister’s special representative for the first world war. I hope the House will hear from him this afternoon, and I think it true to say these commemorations would not have had the same shape and resonance as they have had without his considerable efforts. I would also like to pay tribute to the work of the hon. Member for Barnsley Central (Dan Jarvis), whom I am also delighted to see in his place this afternoon. I know he has also been passionate in wanting these commemorations to have the widest possible reach.
The first world war started more than a century ago, yet these commemorations have brought that war to life in ways that feel tangible and within our grasp. It is so important that future generations have the opportunity to hear these stories. This was a war not about monarchs or generals, but about people like us. In fact, 264 Members of this House served in that war, 22 of whom were killed. We remember the remarkable challenges faced by all those who fought, but we also remember that they came from our cities, towns and villages. They were people like us, and that should give us hope, as well as pride and sadness, because in those whom we remember, we see the huge capacity for service, for sacrifice, in people just like us, just when history needed it. They went off to war with friends and neighbours and workmates, or contributed in other ways, not because they thought they were special, but because they thought they were ordinary. They did what they thought everyone did for their country in its hour of need, but we remember them, and honour them, 100 years later, not because we know they were ordinary but because we know they were special.
Over the past four years, we have done our best to remember them all. I believe that we have done it well and that we can be proud not just of the people whom we have remembered, but of the way in which we have remembered them, and this House, and this nation, will always remember them.
I thank the Secretary of State for what I thought was a solemn, dignified and thoughtful contribution to open the debate. I join him in paying tribute to the work of the hon. Member for South West Wiltshire (Dr Murrison) and my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley Central (Dan Jarvis).
It is genuinely a great honour to speak on behalf of Her Majesty’s Opposition to mark Armistice Day in this debate and the centenary of the end of what was then the greatest military conflict that the world had ever seen. It is both a privilege and a duty, shared by all of us, to honour the sacrifice of all those who served in that war.
Today, I want to talk of remembrance but also of reconciliation, of internationalism, conflict resolution and the lessons of war. I wish to touch on the work of some of the institutions that support our veterans and honour the memory of the fallen. Remembrance Day and the poppies that so many of us are wearing today have come to symbolise not just the sacrifices of the great war, but the sacrifices made in all wars by all who play a part in them.
I remember when I was a child, many of the veterans of the great war were still with us and the veterans of the second world war, my grandparents’ generation, did not seem old—although they seemed old to me at the time. Today, all of those who served between 1914 and 1918 have passed away. Even the number of second world war veterans is dwindling. Just over a decade ago, I was privileged to play a part, along with the right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr Duncan Smith) and other Members of this House, in efforts to ensure that the last great British war veteran, the last Tommy, to pass away, was properly honoured whoever they might have been.
Harry Patch, the last surviving British soldier to have fought in the trenches, died in 2009. Claude Choules, the last English-born great war combat veteran, who served in the Royal Navy, died in 2011. Florence Green, the last surviving great war service veteran, died in 2012. With them, the great war passed irreversibly from living memory to history. As the hon. Member for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh) said in his intervention, it is the responsibility of all of us to continue to recognise the sacrifice that that generation made and to learn the lessons of history. No organisation has done more to recognise the sacrifice and the contribution of that first world war generation than the Royal British Legion.
The Legion was formed just after the war—the poppy of Flanders fields is its emblem—but it does not just commemorate; it also runs impressive modern campaigns relevant to today’s veterans, providing them with financial, emotional and psychological support. The Legion is desperately short of members. People think it is necessary to be a veteran to join, but it is not. In fact, it is a pleasure to see so many civilians in my constituency of West Bromwich East supporting this important organisation. As the Secretary of State alluded to, the legion’s commemoration this year is particularly important. We welcome the special khadi poppies that honour the 74,000 Indian soldiers who lost their lives fighting for Britain.
I thank my hon. Friend for highlighting the contribution of soldiers from the Indian subcontinent, and for having signed the early-day motion for a national Sikh war memorial in central London. That is one of the reasons that he is held in such high regard within the global Sikh community, along with other right hon. and hon. Members of this House. Does he agree that it is wonderful to see many Sikh war memorials popping up in small towns across the country including in Gravesend, Coventry, the National Memorial Arboretum and now in Smethwick, and that those memorials are a symbol of people in those places displaying their pride?
The right hon. Gentleman is making a very measured speech. During the remarkable service that we attended, I was thinking that my wife’s great uncle signed up at 17 years old in 1914 and was dead just before his 18th birthday in 1915 in the Battle of Loos. Many of my own family also served. We talk about remembrance a lot, but 28 years later this country was back at war again and my father was fighting for his life, to save democracy and to save freedom. Although we may not forget them, we also have to remember that we never want to repeat that process ever again.
The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. Later in my contribution I will touch on some of the lessons learned, and perhaps the mistakes that were made, after the Armistice was signed.
This year the Royal British Legion has also produced gold leaf poppies specifically to commemorate the centenary of the war. What is most remarkable about the Legion is not just the inspiring work its people do in the weeks that are leading up to Remembrance Sunday; it is the work they do all year round, reminding us all that remembrance is something we should do all year round.
Armistice Day has always been a bittersweet commemoration in this country: sweet because it marks the end of a war that scarred Europe and the world, the end of four years of industrialised killing, the like of which had never been seen before; sweet because for Britain and our allies it celebrates a victory against a war of aggression by Germany and the Austro-Hungarian empire, so it was celebrated at the time. When the news of the Armistice came through, cheering crowds gathered in every town square. There was dancing and singing, and church bells rang out for the first time in four years. It is fitting that bell ringing—not just in this country, but around the world—is part of this year’s centenary commemorations. And yet it is far more bitter than sweet. Armistice Day is always a solemn event of reflection and remembrance, and it is treated as such in wreath-laying ceremonies at memorials all over the country that hon. and right hon. Members from across this House will be attending in their constituencies this weekend.
Millions of men never came home—nearly 1 million British dead alone, lying alongside hundreds of thousands from what was then the British empire. Millions more returned with physical or psychological injuries, and with memories of the friends and comrades they left behind in the trenches of Flanders and the Somme, in Turkey and Palestine, in the Atlantic and the North sea. Of 14,000 parishes in England and Wales, only 50 saw all their soldiers come home, and every single community in Scotland and Ireland lost at least someone. Many places lost far more. The small village of Wadhurst in East Sussex lost 25 men in a single day in 1915, and 149 men altogether over the course of the war, from a total of just 3,500.
The so-called Pals battalions, made up of men from a particular local area, especially from our industrial towns and cities, serving alongside each other, often suffered losses whose impact on their communities is almost unthinkable and unimaginable today.
The hon. Gentleman is giving an extraordinarily powerful tribute. Will he take into account the sacrifices in communities in Cheltenham, where, for example, in one street, Queen Street, of the 31 men who went to fight, a full 21 were killed—in one street alone? Does that not give an idea of the sense of the sacrifice and the extent to which communities were truly hollowed out by this ghastly episode?
On Saturday, I attended a Dewsbury Sacrifices event. One thousand and fifty-three local men perished during the first world war, and Dewsbury Sacrifices has taken it upon itself to build a profile of every single one of those men. Will my hon. Friend join me in welcoming what it is doing?
I do join my hon. Friend in that. In remembering them and knowing their lives, we honour their sacrifice. These events are taking place up and down the country.
To take just one of many more examples, on 1 July 1916, the opening day of the battle of the Somme, 235 of the Accrington Pals—the 11th (Service) Battalion East Lancashire Regiment—were killed, and 315 wounded, in the space of just 25 minutes. The fighting continued right up until literally the last few seconds before the Armistice was signed. More men died in 1918 than in any previous year of the war. The last British serviceman to be killed, Private George Edwin Ellison, died just one and a half hours before the Armistice, on the outskirts of Mons in Belgium, almost exactly the same place where British forces had first seen action in 1914. Indeed, George Ellison’s grave now faces that of John Parr, the first British soldier killed during the conflict. Between the deaths of John Parr in August 1914 and George Ellison in November 1918, 1.1 million British service personnel lost their lives—more than in any other conflict before or since.
Almost every city and town and village in Britain has a war memorial listing those who never returned from the great war. Thanks to the work of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, the brave men and women who lost their lives during the war are remembered with gravestones and memorials across the world. I know the whole House would like to thank the gardeners and staff of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, who do so much to ensure that our service personnel are honoured in fitting resting places. [Hon. Members: “Hear, hear.”]
Yet perhaps the bitterest element of this bittersweet commemoration, as the right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green said, is that almost all of those war memorials have another plaque or another set of carvings listing those who never returned from the second world war, less than three decades later. The Armistice Day hopes of Lloyd George were dashed. Whatever else we might want to say about what was described as the war to end all wars, it turned out not to be the war to end all wars.
The great war was perhaps the last war in which people signed up to fight out of deference and patriotic fervour. We have all seen the photos of lines of young men, some of them perhaps lying about their age, desperate to join up and see action before the end of a war they believed would be over by Christmas. But in quite a short time, those deferential and patriotic sentiments were not enough to meet the needs of the military in a war on this scale, which is why conscription had to be introduced in 1916. The horrors of the western front made many in Britain doubt whether the war was worth it.
It was not only in this country that the success of the war effort relied on popular support. Russia’s experience on the eastern front, the gradual breakdown of its economy and the Russian people’s discontent with its leadership was a direct cause of the Russian revolution, which shaped global politics for the rest of the century and beyond. The mutinies of 1917 crippled the effectiveness of the French army. America’s entry into the war, which contributed so much to the allied victory, might not have been possible at all without the popular outrage generated by the German U-boat campaign sinking US civilian shipping, and the final German collapse owed much to the suffering of its population under the British naval blockade.
Leaders and generals do not operate in isolation, cold-bloodedly moving around blocks of troops, disconnected from the societies from which those troops are drawn. Political leaders have to earn and secure support for any military action, not just at the start but on an ongoing basis. That lesson has had to be learned again and again, from Algeria to Vietnam to Iraq.
The great war changed Britain forever in so many ways. This year we have also been celebrating the centenary of many women getting the vote—another momentous event in the momentous year of 1918. The achievement of women’s suffrage had many causes. The movement long preceded the great war, and achieving the vote was just one step on a path towards equality that still stretches before us. But the contribution of women to that war effort, in filling roles previously reserved for the men now fighting overseas, helped to solidify the argument that women were just as capable as men and had just as much right to political representation, making progress faster than it might otherwise have been.
In some ways—I realise that this could be controversial—Britain was lucky in 1918. Unlike France and Belgium, it was not scarred with bomb craters and ruined towns. Unlike Russia, it had no revolution or civil war. Unlike Germany, it had no reparations to pay or territory to concede. But its people bore the scars of war on their bodies and in their minds. They deserved and needed what Lloyd George promised them—a land fit for heroes. Instead, they got nearly two decades of economic slump, unemployment, poverty, poor housing and the great depression.
Both then and now, Britain has not always treated its service personnel with the respect they deserve. As a Defence Minister, I met Gertie, the daughter of Private Harry Farr, and her daughter, Janet Booth. They campaigned tirelessly for a pardon for their father and grandfather, who was shot at dawn for cowardice. Harry Farr was no coward. It was the dignity of his family and their tireless campaign that led to the pardons for the “shot at dawn” generation.
As vice-president of the Greenford branch of the Royal British Legion, I am sure I speak for the whole House when I express gratitude for my hon. Friend’s words about the Royal British Legion.
Harry Farr was one of 306 British and Commonwealth soldiers executed for what was then called cowardice or lack of moral fibre. I would like to thank publicly my hon. Friend, who was then the Minister, on behalf of my constituent Joannie Farr, one of Harry Farr’s granddaughters, for the pardon that he was so instrumental in gaining, along with Des Browne, now Lord Browne. Will he put it on the record once and for all that if, God forbid, we ever face such a situation again, we will look to offer compassion, not condemnation, to young men who buckle and sometimes crack in the face of horrors that we in this House cannot begin to imagine?
I can, and we should. I thank my hon. Friend for the work he did on the campaign to ensure that Gertie’s dying wish was met.
I am proud of my role in righting what I saw as the injustice of the 306 soldiers that my hon. Friend mentions. Many of them had clearly been suffering from what was then called shellshock and what would now be called post-traumatic stress disorder. Their families were not entitled to a military pension and often faced great hardship. Granting them a pardon did not change what was done to them, but it eased the stigma felt by their loved ones over the generations. Anybody who has ever visited the National Memorial Arboretum to see the commemoration to those who were shot at dawn cannot fail to be moved.
We should pay tribute to the work of the National Memorial Arboretum in the west midlands, which allows so many to pay their respects to the men and women of our armed forces. As a young Minister, newly in post, I remember feeling my heart in my mouth when I had to give what is called a ministerial direction to underwrite the cost of the magnificent armed forces memorial that was opened by Her Majesty the Queen in October 2007 to honour the sacrifice of those who, in more than 50 operations and conflicts since the second world war, lost their lives in service. Today, we understand the impact of war better than we did 100 years ago.
With a smaller professional military, we do not have to face the challenge of reintegrating millions of ex-service personnel into the civilian economy. However, we do owe a duty of care to veterans and their families that lasts beyond the last echo of gunfire. That has to include physical and mental health support, as well as efforts to ensure that they have the skills they need to find civilian employment.
Both the great war and what came after it show us the need for internationalism. It was rival nationalisms that caused the war—rival imperial ambitions, rival insecurities and the escalation of responses to perceived threats until it was easier for the great powers to go to war than for them to back down from it. There can be no greater failure of diplomacy than the resort to armed conflict, even if armed conflict sometimes is the right response to a failure of diplomacy.
One of the causes of the failure of the Armistice to hold was the disastrously punitive terms imposed on Germany by the treaty of Versailles in 1919 and its insistence on German war guilt, which both crippled its economy and fed the resentment that the Nazis were able to harness so effectively. As Marshal Foch prophetically said, Versailles was
“not a peace treaty, it is an armistice for twenty years.”
After the great war, the world failed to build a sustainable peace.
The post-war League of Nations was a well-intentioned attempt to stop such a thing happening again, but it proved inadequate to the task of responding to the nationalism, fascism and territorial ambition of Hitler and Mussolini, Soviet expansionism, or indeed America First isolationism. The failure of the League of Nations showed the need for stronger international institutions, and since the second world war, for all their flaws, institutions including the United Nations, NATO and the European Union have helped us to avoid any repeat of war on a global scale, even if they have been unable to prevent myriad smaller conflicts.
Building lasting, sustainable peace is not easy, but it requires a commitment to internationalism, development, diplomacy and the fostering of economic ties between nations. Where necessary, it requires conflict resolution, but also a strong defence posture and a willingness to countenance military intervention as a last resort, not as a first step, as well as a framework of international laws and justice. Too many of these were absent in the aftermath of the great war, and the whole world paid a terrible price for the fragility of the Armistice.
If ever there is a time to forgive and reunite, it is 11 November 2018. This year, of all the articles written on the great war, the one that moved me the most was that written by Lord Michael Ashcroft, who made the case that courage is something displayed by service personnel on both sides of war and conflict. We should never forget that. He made a strong case for reconciliation in his tribute to the courage of Manfred von Richthofen, the Red Baron.
There was some controversy last month when the Government revealed their plans to invite the German Head of State to the Cenotaph. However, it strikes me that in this year—100 years after men and women of courage gave their lives fighting for their countries—we should, in the spirit of reconciliation and peace, honour the valour and sacrifice of our opponents in the great war by inviting the German President to share in our remembrance. The Secretary of State was absolutely right to make that commitment.
I am grateful for the opportunity to speak in this important debate, and to colleagues for their thoughtful and humane interventions. We owe so much to all those who served and to all those who gave their lives in the great war that ended on 11 November 1918. One hundred years later, they still have much to teach us. As the Bishop of Lambeth said in his address to us in that very moving service: “War starts in the hearts and minds and souls of men and women like us. And peace, too, starts in the hearts and minds and souls of men and women like us.” Let us not just speak of peace, but let each and every one of us be the peacemakers.
Order. Just before I call the right hon. Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis), I am moved to note for the benefit of the House the presence in our midst of members of the United Kingdom Youth Parliament, who spoke so movingly and so well in the service in St Margaret’s church. It is wonderful to have you with us today and I very much hope that I shall be seeing you again in this Chamber on Friday.
It is truly an honour to follow two such humane and comprehensive opening speeches.
Seventy-nine men from the village of Brockenhurst in the heart of the New Forest lost their lives in the great war—21 of them in the last year of that war alone—so it is hardly surprising that the village of Brockenhurst should have been early in the process of commemorating this particularly poignant centenary. Only last Saturday, I attended an outstanding commemoration concert that was held in the village. Back on Trafalgar Day, 21 October, the Tile Barn Poppy Pod village was dedicated to the memory of Enda Ryan, Hampshire County Council’s greatly respected outdoor facilities manager who recently died, far too young, from cancer. Each unit in the village commemorates a first world war battle, and service families can have respite breaks in the poppy pods at weekends, free of charge. The Tile Barn where they are sited was one of three New Zealand general hospitals set up in 1916, during the first world war, to care for the wounded. Thousands of New Zealanders passed through it, and the 93 who did not survive are buried in nearby St Nicholas’ church.
I am sure that in this debate we will hear many tales of poignant recollection of the sacrifices made in villages such as Brockenhurst up and down the country, so I wish to list briefly what I regard as nine necessary lessons from the first world war. First, we must not think that we can successfully predict when a war will break out. I have often quoted in the House Sir Maurice Hankey—I shall not quote him again today—who in 1931 reviewed all the previous great conflicts in which the nation had been involved. He pointed out that, far from having 10 years’ warning—which is how far ahead people were saying in 1931 that we ought to be able to predict a great conflict—in the run-up to world war one, we had had barely 10 days’ warning of that war.
The second necessary lesson is not to sign up to multiple bilateral alliances rather than a single multilateral alliance. In the terrible connected development of circumstances that led to the catastrophe of 1914, we saw how individual separate alliances triggered one country after another in a process of what I suppose one could call falling dominoes, which meant that we ended up with a global conflict out of something that started on a relatively small scale. That is what explains the success of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation—the certain knowledge that any aggression against any one of its members will immediately trigger defence of that member by all the rest. I do not wish to be controversial in this debate of all debates, but that is why we have to be careful about other organisations, including the European Union, issuing security guarantees willy-nilly here and there, because we do not wish once again to get into a cross-cutting system of obligations and alliances that can lead to a chain reaction such as happened so disastrously in 1914.
The third lesson is this. Do not think that humanitarian restrictions on methods of warfare at the outbreak of a conflict will last very long. The idea, before the great war, that civilians would be deliberately targeted by the fighting services would probably have been scornfully rejected, yet as early as December 1914 we had the bombardment by the German navy of the seaside towns of Scarborough, Hartlepool and Whitby, when 137 people were killed in their own homes and 455 injured. That was followed by the Zeppelin airship raids, and the more lethal but less scary Gotha bomber raids—and who can forget that, in 1915, we saw the barbaric initiation of poison gas warfare?
The fourth lesson is, do not imagine that individual valour can overcome the mechanisation of warfare. We had the lethal combination of the machine gun and the barbed wire emplacements. Those defences could not be breached by hurling wave after wave of human bodies against them.
The fifth lesson is, do not repeat the failed methods of warfare time and again. My hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh) said that the troops were well led in 1918. Well, they were, at the tail end of the war; it is just a great pity that they were not a lot earlier, because time and again it was shown beyond doubt that attrition did not work, and time and again—at the Somme and Passchendaele most outstandingly—it was tried long beyond the point where failure was an absolute certainty.
I am listening with great interest to my right hon. Friend and I recognise what he is saying about that issue. There is another feature, which is often not well reported; I think Keegan brought it out in his book on the first world war. The fact that communications had not advanced at the speed with which munitions had, meant that often news of what was actually happening on the front took nearly half a day to arrive back at divisional headquarters, so nothing could be changed. It is a really important issue. We tend to condemn the commanders, but we forget sometimes that they had no idea, quite often, what was happening for hours, let alone minutes.
I hesitate to disagree with my right hon. Friend, particularly because of his own gallant service and that of previous generations in his family, but I would refer to accounts at the time, such as that of such a considerable figure as Sholto Douglas, later Lord Douglas of Kirtleside, who became one of the most senior RAF officers in its history, who was flying over the battlefield of Passchendaele, and who observed in his memoirs, with all that retrospective knowledge, that it was still inconceivable that the troops were sent forward time and again into a sea of mud, when it was absolutely clear that the attack had failed and had no prospect of success. I know there is a revisionist view of history that says the lessons of the Somme and Passchendaele were needed so they could get it right for the 100 days campaign at the end of 1918, but frankly, with the greatest of respect, I do not buy it.
The sixth lesson is, do not underestimate the value of surprise. The decisive allied breakthrough on 8 August 1918, the so-called “black day of the German army”, depended crucially on the strictest operational secrecy and dominance of the airspace over the battlefield, just as the Normandy landings did a quarter of a century later.
The seventh lesson is, do not forget—we have heard a bit of this today—why the war was fought in the first place. The war was fought because Prussian militarism and sense of entitlement to invade, overrun and occupy Prussia’s neighbours proved to be something that could be stopped only by force. Again, there are revisionists who say it would have been better if we had just let Germany get on with it and done nothing about it. I would just briefly quote the former Cambridge professor of French history, Professor Robert Tombs, who wrote recently in The Daily Telegraph that
“democracy and liberal government would have faced a bleak future. Authoritarian regimes would have been in the driving seat.”
“If tomorrow the Russian army marched through Poland and we were faced with the prospect of hostile aircraft based just across the Channel, would we react any differently? Let us hope we never face such a choice as our great-grandparents did.”
The eighth lesson is, do not settle for anything less than unconditional surrender in a conflict of this sort. Germany did not accept that she had been fully and fairly beaten in the field. The myth of the “stab in the back” gave fuel to Hitler’s subsequent evil campaign to say that Germany had not been defeated but betrayed.
The final lesson speaks for itself and requires no elaboration because we have heard it time and again in the present day in this House: do not stint in peacetime on investment in our armed forces—or we will pay a cost thousands of times greater when we fight a war that we might otherwise have deterred and completely avoided.
I pay tribute to the Minister and the hon. Member for West Bromwich East (Tom Watson) for their introductions to the debate. I also pay tribute to the contribution of my colleague and Chair of the Defence Committee, the right hon. Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis). Other Members will speak at length. My hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow South West (Chris Stephens), who cannot make it to the debate—he and others are in either Westminster Hall or Committee—would like me to mention the commemorations taking place in Nitshill this weekend.
The eloquence of commemoration is often beset by flurries of grandeur and peppered with words of valour and heroism. Those words are often spoken with full generosity and belief, yet more often than not, speeches are bereft of names, ages and commemoration on a human plane. When spoken, personal commemorations are like stones thrown upon a loch, sending ripples through time itself. Indeed, the greatness of war is the greatness of loss, and only as time passes do we come to understand the profound and unintended historical consequences of those individual losses.
For many, 100 years is an age; for historians, it is a mere moment in time. Yet by its end, the great war had justified its name, at least in our minds. Some 6 million UK troops were mobilised, with a loss of 700,000. It was also a war fought on all fronts: a war of the industrial age on land, at sea and even taking flight to the skies. While some would state that it was an un-won war, there is no doubt that the allied powers in fact forced the Kaiser and his advisers, such as Ludendorff, to accept that surrender was the only way forward for Germany. They, at least at that point in history, recognised that a hopeless struggle to the bitter end would be in no one’s interest.
Some have said that it was the best of times and the worst of times. For one family, I know that it was indeed the worst of times. Far from the front at the age of 24, James Timlin, son of Barbara and Richard and brother to Anne, Bridget, Thomas, Sarah, Maria and Anthony, joined the 2nd Battalion, Royal Scots Fusiliers, in Kilmarnock in that great county of Ayrshire, and undertook a journey that would see him, by the age of 28, travel through the horror of conflict. Little did he know that his great-nephew Sean would join us in the Under-Gallery for this debate; nor could he have known that his sister Sarah and her husband John would settle in the great industrial burgh of Clydebank, and that his other great-nephew would, on these Benches, utter his name and have his medals at his side.
Unlike James, many did not make it to the front, for one of war’s best-known supporters rode into battle, in three waves that lasted beyond the war: plague, or as we now know it, the Spanish flu—a reflection of the truly global nature of modern war. Even as they boarded troop ships in the United States, troops were marching to a fate that they could not imagine. On reaching the ports of Europe, many would disembark not as strong, valiant soldiers, but as corpses to be buried at haste and with no commemoration. Those troop ships sailed the seven seas, and there is no doubt that global war saw the plague of flu grasp the opportunity to wreak havoc, with nearly 100 million human beings dying in every corner of the globe bar Australia. In modern-day Bangladesh, India and Pakistan, the global movement of troops back and forth condemned at least 20 million of some of the poorest people on earth to a death most terrible.
It was a global war that saw battles on all fronts: the western front, the Italian front, the eastern front, the Romanian campaign, the Caucasus campaign, the Serbian campaign, Gallipoli, the Macedonian front, the Sinai and Palestine campaign, the Mesopotamian campaign—in which my friend Anne’s grandfather, George Harvey, served—and the ill-named Africa campaign, which covered vast swathes of that mighty continent. It was a war that even reached to the skies. And how could we forget the loss of life among those in peril on the sea? How could the hon. Member for West Dunbartonshire not reflect on the role of the Royal Mail Ship Lusitania—built in Clydebank—the sinking of which shifted opinion in the United States towards supporting the allied powers?
The victory of war was no solace to those lost. It was also a war that saw—I must disagree with the hon. Member for West Bromwich East—a revolution, even in this state, with effective martial law being declared in the great burghs and cities of Scotland. Workers there demanded that at its end, they, and their sons and brothers returning from the frontline, would no longer live and work as they had—in slums, with early death at home and at work. This was also a world in which women would at last rightly demand equality.
By 1939, we had marched blindfolded toward a war that would shake the very foundations of the earth. Fascism, founded on hate, antisemitism, lies, fear and the targeting of the weak, had filled a vacuum in Europe that many would say the League of Nations had allowed, with the failed peace offering a false hope.
This was a war that James Timlin’s sister, Sarah, knew at close quarters, through her two elder sons—one was in the merchant fleet and the other in the RAF—and her husband, who was in the workhouse of the Parkhead forge in neighbouring Glasgow. Those workers were on the frontline, and it is often forgotten that they are the other veterans of war. On 13 and 14 March, hearing the siren along with her younger children, Kathleen, Mary, Irene, Joseph, Patrick and Francis—names are important, for it is individuals, people, who make up the communities we represent—Sarah sheltered from two nights of intense blitzkrieg by the Luftwaffe. As was testified to on the Floor of the House on 15 March 2016,
“proportionally, Clydebank lost more people and buildings than any other major community anywhere in the United Kingdom.”—[Official Report, 15 March 2016; Vol. 607, c. 928.]
Sarah was lucky. She and her children survived. She lived a long and eventually happy life, but she did not live to see her grandson Ronald, my brother, serve twice, in Iraq and Afghanistan. No doubt she would have known the terror a family feel when their loved ones are on the frontline; the human cost of war was known to Sarah. Her brother, James, born in 1890 in Ballinglen, just south of Ballycastle, County Mayo, Ireland, fell on 29 September 1918 during the third battle of Ypres. He lasted longer than most.
As other hon. Members have said, my constituents and I will soon gather in my constituency—in Clydebank, Dumbarton, Alexandria and the surrounding villages—to commemorate the fallen. War comes about for many reasons, but at the end of it are always the dead, military and civilian. For all our disagreements on these Benches, let us commit again to that word, peace, for without it we live in a world in which democracy cannot flourish.
I begin by offering my warmest congratulations to the Secretary of State and the shadow Secretary of State on two very thoughtful and moving speeches in this important debate. I also welcome the new Minister, who will be winding up. I am sure that she will understand if I say that it is with sorrow that I recognise that her predecessor had to resign.
Like a number of colleagues, I am haunted by the first world war. I am of an age to not have had to fight a war—I was too young for national service during the cold war—but my father and uncles served in the second world war, as did those of many hon. Members, and both my grandfathers served in the first world war.
I am by training a military historian. I have written books on the British Army in the first world war, and I interviewed dozens of survivors in the 1970s, but the question in my mind is that which my son, aged 27, put to me. He is interested in history, but he said, “Why do we continue to put so much emphasis and effort into commemorating the first world war and the Armistice, which are as far away from my generation as the battle of Waterloo and the Peninsular war were from that generation?” That is a crucial question. As the Secretary of State said, through the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, a lot of effort has been put into involving young people—much younger than my son—in understanding what the first world war was about.
I have been privileged to serve on two organisations as a parliamentary representative: the Prime Minister’s advisory committee on commemorating the first world war and, along with the right hon. Member for North Durham (Mr Jones), the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. Both of us finish in December. I will have done 10 years. The commission is an amazing organisation, as the shadow Secretary of State said. Formed in 1917 as the Imperial War Graves Commission, it owed its organisation and purpose for the next 20 years to a remarkable man, Fabian Ware. He was not a soldier—he was too old in 1914—but he organised a Red Cross unit that went out to France. In 1915, he was conscious of the question of what would happen to the thousands of men who were killed. In previous battles, that had been limited. Often the private soldiers had merely been dumped in a great pit and, if they were lucky, a single cross had been put over it.
Many wealthier parents, usually of officers, brought their sons home, and, indeed, a number of families tried to do so in 1914, but it was going to be on such a scale that Ware persuaded GHQ in France that another organisation had to be set up. The first was the Graves Registration Commission, which attempted to find out the names and the units of the men who had been killed; and, of course, in thousands of cases, it knew not where their bodies were. As a result of Ware’s determination, the Imperial War Graves Commission obtained its royal charter in 1917, although not without a great deal of opposition on the part of many people who, understandably, wanted to bring their husbands, fathers and sons home. Ware was also determined that there should be absolute equality in terms of the sites in which men were buried: that the aristocrat would lie next to the pauper, and the officer next to the lance corporal.
What we all see today in the gardens of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission—which also looks after the men who died in the second world war—is worldwide. The biggest number who are commemorated are not in Belgium and France, but here in the United Kingdom. Those who visit the south coast, by the old hospitals, will see many War Graves Commission cemeteries where lie the men who were brought back wounded from Belgium and France in two world wars, but who then died.
This is a Commonwealth War Graves Commission, and, as other Members have rightly pointed out, we need to continue to emphasise the role of what we then called the British empire. We did not fight the war on our own. We suffered horrendous casualties, but without the active participation of Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, the colonies in west Africa and, above all, the Indian empire, we would not have been able to fight the first world war. We went through the motions of recognising how important they had been, but I think that it is only in the past 20 years that we have given them the full recognition that they deserve.
The Australians and New Zealanders have, of course, concentrated on their role at Gallipoli, rather brushing aside the fact that they lost more men in Belgium and France. The Canadians are the unsung heroes of the two world wars. Canada put in so many troops: in the second world war, about a third of the Royal Canadian Navy was fighting the battle of the Atlantic. We could not have fought with our infantry battalions in Normandy and Germany in 1944-45 without what were called “Canloan officers” and non-commissioned officers. So in considering the Armistice, we should bear in mind the role of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission.
My right hon. Friend is making an excellent speech, and drawing attention to incredibly important matters. May I take the opportunity to say how grateful I am personally for the fact that my own father, who was killed in Normandy in 1944, is buried in one of those cemeteries? May I also take the opportunity to commemorate all those people from my constituency and from the whole of Staffordshire? I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford (Jeremy Lefroy) concurs with me in that. I want to commemorate, as we will on Remembrance Day next weekend, the bravery of the people to whom my right hon. Friend has already referred, and I should be most grateful if he would be good enough to accept that as my congratulations to him on a very fine speech.
I thank my hon. Friend. He and I have spoken before about the tragic death of his father and about what that meant to him. I am always conscious, as I know we all are, of the impact that losses had in war, on families but on friends as well. One of the memories in the Commonwealth War Graves Commission archives, which are now being put on its website, is contained in the letters—the desperate letters—that the commission received from relatives trying to find their husbands, sons and brothers who had been killed.
I do not have to remind this House that some of the biggest memorials for which the Commonwealth War Graves Commission is responsible are to those who have no grave: the Menin Gate, Tyne Cot at Passchendaele, Thiepval and quite rightly—I know the Secretary of State mentioned this—the memorials at Portsmouth, Plymouth and London to members of the Royal Navy and the merchant navy who were lost at sea, which at the time must have been totally and utterly devastating.
The Armistice did not end the first world war; the first world war was concluded at the peace conference in 1919, but, as other Members have mentioned, the conflict continued. The British Army was demobilised, but it was maintaining peace and order, as it saw it, in Egypt and Palestine and through the First British Army of the Rhine, and I would argue that the first world war did not really end until 1922 and the Chanak incident when we backed down over Turkey: Lloyd George had backed the Greeks; the coalition Government fell; and the rest is history.
I would like to leave the House with just one quote, if Members will allow an old military historian. I am holding the diary of Brigadier General Jack, which was edited by John Terraine in the early 1960s. Jack was born in 1880 and died in 1962. He was a conservative Scottish officer—a rather shy man. He was 33 in 1914, a platoon commander in the 1st Cameronians, the Scottish Rifles. He survived all that. He became a company commander and then became the commanding officer of the 2nd Battalion, the West Yorkshire Regiment. He was wounded in late 1917 and had nearly four months out of the line. He became a staff officer and was then put back into the line in 1918 to become the commanding officer of the 1st Cameronians, and in September 1918, he was made a brigade commander, commanding about 1,300 men. And off and on, he kept a meticulous diary.
The short quote I want to read out is from 11 November 1918, and it is his final reflections:
“At last I lie down tired and very happy, but sleep is elusive. How far away is that 22nd August 1914, when I heard with a shudder, as a platoon commander at Valenciennes, that real live German troops, armed to the teeth, were close at hand—one has been hardened since then. Incidents flash through the memory: the battles of the first four months; the awful winters in waterlogged trenches, cold and miserable; the terrible trench-war assaults and shell fire of the next three years; loss of friends, exhaustion and wounds; the stupendous victories of the last few months; our enemies all beaten to their knees.
Thank God! The end of a frightful four years, thirty-four months of them at the front with the infantry, whose company officers, rank and file, together with other front-line units, have suffered bravely, patiently and unselfishly, hardships and perils beyond even the imagination of those, including soldiers, who have not shared them.”
And most of us did not share it either.
It is an honour to follow the right hon. Member for Broadland (Mr Simpson). On the quote he just gave the House, it is interesting that the poets and writers of the first world war were overwhelmingly drawn from the intelligentsia and middle classes. I can only think of two working class writers—Isaac Rosenberg and Frank Richards—who are still read and talked about now, and indirectly I will come on to talk more about that later.
The first world war, or the great war as it was called then, changed British society irrevocably. In the 1960s, Zhou Enlai was asked what the consequences of the French revolution were, and he said “It’s too early to tell.” We could almost say that about the first world war today.
The trenches effectively destroyed liberal England, to paraphrase George Dangerfield, and led to the rise of the Labour party and far more class-based politics and to the rise of the trade unions. In 1923, the first Labour Government was formed, and in the 1920s, the Transport and General Workers Union, under the great Ernie Bevin, and the Miners Federation both achieved real industrial power. The question why the first world war led to such an increase in militancy and class consciousness has occupied historians since the 1920s, and it probably always will. I will say more about that in a couple of minutes.
In the meantime, I want to talk about my constituency. Like everywhere else, Leyton, Wanstead and Leytonstone made enormous sacrifices in the first world war. For instance, Leyton Orient lost three first-team players in the first few days of the battle of the Somme, and Jack Cornwell, the Navy’s youngest recipient of the Victoria Cross and the third youngest VC in the entire British forces, was born in Clyde Place in Leyton, on what is now the Beaumont estate. There is a blue plaque there commemorating his birth. He was born in 1900 and volunteered for the Navy in 1916, so he was only 16 years old when he found himself serving as a Boy Seaman on board HMS Chester. Boy Seaman was then a rank in the Navy, although it was abolished a few years later.
The Chester was heavily involved in the battle of Jutland, one of the turning points of the great war, which was where Boy Seaman Cornwell was mortally wounded. Two days later, he died in Grimsby Hospital, and he was awarded the VC three months later in the autumn of 1916. His father and brother were later killed in the war. The Navy established the Boy Cornwell Memorial Fund in his memory to help the dependants of those who had served and been lost in the Royal Navy, but when his mother applied to the fund for assistance in 1918, she was, incredibly, turned down. She died the following year. Apart from being almost the definition of rubbing salt into a wound, that tells us a lot about how society changed during and just after the first world war. A child of 16 was put on a very inadequately armoured ship and probably died partly from shock. To raise public morale—let us remember that this was in the middle of the Somme, when virtually every family in the country was losing relatives—he was given a VC in a populist attempt to appeal to popular opinion. His family had been plunged into poverty by the first world war, but when the opportunity arose for his mother to apply for funds, having lost her husband and their two sons, she was rejected and died in poverty the following year.
This was the same military establishment that was sending men on the Somme uphill in the rain, which Field Marshal Lord Haig argued was not a problem. He said that it was possible to attack heavily armoured German defences by going uphill in the mud and the rain. Personally, I am very proud to wear the poppy every year, but the one thing that stuck in my craw for a long time was that the black centre of the poppy had the words “Haig Fund” written on it. This was a man who sent thousands to their deaths without any good reason, because of his own stupidity and egotism, but that fund was named after him. I always found that a bit odd.
Some Members will have read a book called “The Donkeys” by Alan Clark, the former Conservative MP, who is now, sadly, no longer with us. The right hon. Member for Broadland will certainly have read it. It is quite rare and difficult to get hold of now, but I recommend it to anyone who gets the chance to read it. It is a scathing and contemptuous attack on the British military establishment in Edwardian England. When I was first elected to the House of Commons in 1997, Alan came back having been re-elected as an MP after five years out of Parliament. I remember talking to him about “The Donkeys”, and he said that he had not set out to write a scathing attack on the British military establishment. Indeed, he described himself as a fully paid-up member of the British establishment—he was: he lived in a castle, among other things—but he said that the more research he did into what happened during those four years, the more he became convinced that thousands of lives had been sacrificed unnecessarily.
In fact, that was one of Alan’s motivations for becoming an MP. He was always of the view that the Tory party was the natural party of the working class—[Interruption.] I hear a few “Hear, hears” from Conservative Members, but we on the Labour Benches find that view slightly odd. He felt that that link had been broken in the trenches, and it was his mission to re-establish it. That is a fairly abstruse reason for coming into Parliament, but it was entirely typical of Alan Clark. He never did anything by the book. Anyway, the more he read, the more he discovered that there had been an almost unbelievable degree of incompetence among the British leadership during the first world war. While Alan would not have approved of the sort of revolutionary instincts of some who came back in 1918, 1919 and 1920—demobilisation did not finally play out until 1920—he fully understood, because he said and wrote this, that many of those returning did not want to go back to and support the society that they had lived in before in which people were sacrificed, and their children were sacrificed, for the whims of their leaders.
It is a great pleasure to follow all today’s speeches, but I want to pick out and commend the excellent speeches of both Front-Bench spokesmen and the preceding speech from the hon. Member for Leyton and Wanstead (John Cryer). He touched on one of the outcomes of the first world war, talking about the rise of trade unionism. If there were benefits from the war, they were few, but we have also heard about the beginnings of the suffrage for women and the gaining of the vote.
I want not only to pay tribute to my constituents who gave their lives and made the ultimate sacrifice, but to say how much I have learned over the past four years since we have been marking the centenary of the first world war. Whatever our generation or background—I was proud to serve as the first female Minister for Veterans at the Ministry of Defence—we have all learned things. Only the other week—perhaps to my shame, but this will be fresh to many—I learned that some 2.5 million Muslims served with the allies, something which has not really been heard of or understood.
I mention my constituents and the sacrifices that many made, but the commemorations in Nottinghamshire did not begin only in 2014. In fact, they go back way before then, and I pay tribute to my constituent Dr David Nunn, who has led eight groups of mostly volunteer historians to create the most remarkable resource on Nottinghamshire County Council’s website. Building on some of the work done by the “Trent to the Trenches” programme, they have created a roll of honour by visiting every single war memorial in the county, looking at every name and then researching each one to create an online picture of all those who fell in the great war.
By way of example, there is John Fowler, whose father was the blacksmith in Trowell. There is Charles Clarke from Awsworth, who was killed aged 19. Like many of my constituents at the time, he worked down a pit—he was there at the coalface. Then, of course, there are some even greater heroes who are not on our war memorials. For example, Walter Parker, who earned a Victoria Cross, was not made in Nottinghamshire, but he certainly settled in the town of Stapleford after his great service. He was a marine who served with great distinction in Gallipoli, where he was a volunteer stretcher-bearer, earning his VC while acting with great courage in the face of appalling gunfire.
Like everywhere in the country, Nottinghamshire’s war memorials are numerous. Kimberley’s war memorial was unveiled in 1921 and has just been restored. It was dedicated by the vicar, whose own son was killed in action, and bears 60 names from world war one and, interestingly, 26 names from the second world war. It was in Kimberley in March that I was so proud to join children from a local school in creating a poppy stream, sowing the seeds that then flourished with such beauty in the summer, when we had a freedom parade and the Royal Engineers marched through the town. Unfortunately, Bramcote’s stream of poppies was not so successful. However, it put on a wonderful play, which gave to the children of Bramcote, in particular, an understanding of the lives of the 15 locals who were killed in the first world war.
I have mentioned the role of women in the first world war. We had a shell-filling factory in Broxtowe—the Chetwynd factory—that employed 1,000 people, many of them women. They were called “canary girls” because their skin turned bright yellow due to the chemicals they used. There was a terrible explosion, and it was the biggest loss of life in any explosion during the first world war. The explosion was of such magnitude that not only did 134 people lose their life but its effects were felt as far away as Beeston, some three to four miles away. We finally opened a proper memorial to them in July, 100 years later.
I have not yet mentioned Greasley, where the war memorial lists a woman, Lilian Holmes, who served in the Women’s RAF.
I conclude with an “in memoriam” that was placed in the Nottingham Post by Elizabeth Chettle. Three of her four sons were killed in the first world war, and she wrote:
“Bitterly oh bitterly we miss them: aching hearts alone can tell: the circle of our home is broken, for why none but God can tell.”
I am proud to say that, all these years later, at least she has a woman MP to read out that fitting tribute to the sacrifice and loss.
It is a real pleasure to follow the right hon. Member for Broxtowe (Anna Soubry) and to speak in a debate that has already had so many excellent contributions, including from both Front Benchers.
Many people and many organisations have been involved in these commemorations, but I pay particular tribute to the hon. Member for South West Wiltshire (Dr Murrison). He and I have been discussing these commemorations for six years, and I commend him for the excellent job he has done in bringing people together to make the most of this important opportunity. The House, and indeed the country, owes him a great debt of gratitude. I say that because there are few moments in modern society when we come together as a country to reflect on our shared history, and these moments of reflection are not only rare but precious. That is why our commemorations must be inclusive, engaging and respectful, as they have been. This has been a commemoration, not a celebration.
On Armistice Day 1918 the Prime Minister, David Lloyd George, announced the end of what was described as the war to end all wars. Today we know that it was not that, but it was the war that changed life in our country forever. The first world war touched every family, affected every community and fundamentally altered our country’s place in the world. It was a conflict that brought profound political, social and economic changes that we still feel today. These centenary commemorations have provided us with a unique opportunity to reflect on that, to pay tribute to those who served and sacrificed 100 years ago and to pass on those memories to future generations.
At the beginning of the commemorations in 2014, I travelled to northern France to retrace the steps taken by the Barnsley Pals battalions. Looking out from the French positions, I tried to imagine what it must have been like for them. It was hard not to be overcome by the emotion of what had happened in that place. I walked the ground over which they had fought, and I stood in front of their graves. It felt like they were a long way from home.
Later that day, I visited the memorial to the missing at Thiepval. As I gazed at the thousands of names inscribed on the memorial, I saw the name D. Jarvis—my own name—staring back at me. It was a sobering moment. I finished the day by visiting the Devonshire cemetery near the village of Mametz. At the end of the first day of the battle of the Somme, over 160 men of the Devonshire Regiment were retrieved from where they had fallen in action. They were carried back to their starting trench positions and buried there. Their comrades from the Devonshires put up a makeshift wooden cross and on it were carved the words, which can still be read at this place:
“The Devonshires held this trench, the Devonshires hold it still.”
This centenary has also given us the opportunity to remember those who contributed on the home front during the war, not just because of the significance of their service, but because this is an important part of the story of how our country changed: the war led to more women in work than ever before; they took on roles that had previously been the preserve only of men; and with an estimated 2 million women entering the workforce, they joined countless individual heroines, such as nurse Edith Cavell and Doctor Elsie Inglis. Our democracy expanded, society became less deferential and the role of the state changed, and our politics would never be the same again.
Britain’s place in the world shifted, and men who had never before been to Britain would come here to defend it. Millions of people from across the Commonwealth served in the British war effort. Some 1.5 million came from the Indian subcontinent alone, fighting side by side with British troops, on land, at sea and in the air. They would, of course, be joined by soldiers from many other countries, including volunteers from Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the West Indies and parts of Africa. One hundred and seventy-five of those servicemen from overseas would be awarded the Victoria Cross for their courage and gallantry, and we must never forget them and their outstanding service.
As well as looking back, these commemorations should be about looking forward, as they are as relevant to the lives we live today and they will be in the future; 100 years ago nobody had heard of post-traumatic stress disorder, but today the issue is not just what we can do for our veterans returning from the frontline, but how we can prioritise the mental health of everyone. One hundred years ago, people from all over the world fought and died to protect our country, and today we need to remember the debt we owe people who were not born here but who helped to make our country what it is today. One hundred years ago, the first world war changed the role of the state; Government took action on food, rents and wages. That links to one of the central arguments in our public life today: what Governments should and should not do in the 21st century.
A number of us in this place know from personal experience that this was not the war to end all wars; wars continue to scar our world. I hope that in due course we will remember not only those who fell in the service of our country in the first world war, but those who have fallen more recently.
Now that I have said about three words, it is obvious that I have dual nationality, so I want to support those who have mentioned the Commonwealth. When Britain is under attack, here or elsewhere, the formidable troops of the Commonwealth nations rally to help. In world war one, some, such as the New Zealanders, came from so far away that if they had gone any further they would have been going back. For some nations there is a huge kith and kin bond, whereas for others it is predominately the Commonwealth link, with some kith and kin. The second group includes the Caribbean, the Maoris, the Pacific islanders and India—we must bear in mind that India in 1914 included Pakistan, Nepal and Bangladesh. As we are well aware, the kith and kin nations are, in the main, Canada, Australia, South Africa and New Zealand. My grandparents’ generation in New Zealand and Australia were the world war one generation. I remember them talking fondly of the UK as home, even if they had never been here, unless they came to fight.
In world war one, the troops from those Commonwealth nations were at the forefront, volunteering to fight for Britain. For many of those nations, I found that the figures were unreliable, but millions of Commonwealth men came. Mostly they fought in the Army, but many fought in the Navy, and some in the fledging air forces. Their losses were huge and they were heartbreaking. Again, I found the figures to be unreliable, but one source said that the Canadians lost just over 50% of their troops, the Australians 50% and the New Zealanders about 60%. There is, as has just been mentioned, recognition of their bravery—something in excess of 170 Victoria Crosses were awarded to Commonwealth soldiers.
We in the United Kingdom have Remembrance Sunday. Australia and New Zealand have Anzac Day derived from the appalling Gallipoli battles. Equally, I understand that the Canadian equivalent derives from the Battle of Vimy Ridge.
I am most grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way. I pay tribute to all those New Zealanders who lie in my constituency on Cannock Chase in Stafford where every year we commemorate Anzac Day in the presence of representatives of the Australian and New Zealand high commissions. It shows how much we value the huge amount that the Australians, New Zealanders and indeed all those from around the world did on behalf of the United Kingdom.
I thank my hon. Friend for that. Interestingly, in my constituency, we looked after the Canadians.
In Vimy Ridge, 10,500 people died or were wounded. On Remembrance Day here, I attend a service in one of my villages. We always read out the names of the village men who were lost. That was not done when I was a child attending my small New Zealand village service on Anzac Day—there are just too many names to read out at a simple service.
I have spoken about the dead and wounded combatants from the Commonwealth, but we must not forget those who returned to their nations, many of whom were physically damaged and many, many of whom were left with mental nightmares, which we did not understand, but which we have better recognition of now. They tried to return to normality in their Commonwealth lands. Europe owes so much to these men who travelled so far to fight for the allies in a war that technically was not theirs, but Europe’s. They came and I suspect they would come again.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Mole Valley (Sir Paul Beresford) and so many eloquent speeches from the Front Benches of the Government, Her Majesty’s Opposition and the SNP. The SNP spokesman, the hon. Member for West Dunbartonshire (Martin Docherty-Hughes), spoke about port communities and in some of my speech I wish to concentrate on those communities.
As has been said, the great war, world war one, impacted on every community in our country. Every town, village and city was affected. The seafaring communities were very badly affected. Like many others, the seafaring community that I am proud to represent had service personnel in the battlefields, but they also guarded our trade links, which carried people, goods and service personnel during the great war, and indeed in subsequent wars.
The greatest loss of life on the Irish sea during the great war was on 10 October 1918, when the RMS Leinster left Dún Laoghaire, then Kingstown, carrying His Royal Highness’s mail to Holyhead in my constituency and was sunk just a few yards from the port of Dún Laoghaire. Among those who perished were children, crew members and service personnel from the Commonwealth—from New Zealand, Australia and Canada—and from the United States of America.
That vessel was carrying out its normal duty of moving people and the royal mail across the Irish sea. Many of the 500 who died had been just carrying out their normal duties; they were seafarers. They were given an exemption from going to war because of the essential duties that they carried out, keeping our sea links open. The tragedy unites the Irish community, the British community and the Welsh community. I am proud today to wear poppies from Ireland and Wales. On 10 October, we had a special commemoration in Ireland and Wales for the loss of those 500 people, and I met their families. It is right that Members have spoken about survivors and the families of the survivors, because those communities and families have been scarred by the great war. It was a tragedy.
Like my hon. Friend’s constituency, communities in Coventry also made contributions in the great war. As he and the House will know, Coventry suffered in two world wars and was bombed in the second world war. The people of Coventry sympathise with his remarks about the sacrifice that was made.
I know a lot about Coventry. My son-in-law comes from Coventry, as my hon. Friend knows; I think that he was his MP for some time. My speech is concentrating on the families of seafaring communities. I welcome the right hon. Member for Broadland (Mr Simpson) mentioning that many were lost at sea, so their bodies were never recovered and there were no proper funerals to honour them.
A lot of hon. Members have rightly spoken about the personal experiences of their own families. My grandmother was born in 1888. As a single parent who had lost her husband to disease, she became a nurse and worked in the convalescent home at the port of Holyhead during the great war. Many people came to her with severe shellshock, including her youngest brother, who did not recognise her for two years because of the trauma that he suffered on the battlefields. It is worth bearing it in mind that many mothers and other family members had such experiences.
The other stark memory that I am sure we all have after seeing first world war graves is the age of those who died. Many who suffered were young men and boys; I do not know the exact average age, but these men were in their 20s. Their parents will never have forgotten that throughout their lives. My grandmother’s son—my father—served in the second world war, and she always told me that every day that he was away was a dark day until he returned home safely.
One hundred years after the guns fell silent, the House of Commons is right to remember our communities, and those who sailed across the Irish sea and around the coastline. The RMS Leinster reminded me that vulnerable people were shot by U-boats. Going to sea—I speak as an ex-merchant seafarer who worked on that route—is dangerous enough. Crew members look after each other, but imagine being faced with the potential of being sunk by a U-boat, as cruelly happened to the RMS Leinster. The irony of that story is that the German submarine UB-123 was itself shot and blown up on the north coast of Britain as it went back to Bremerhaven.
My hon. Friend the Member for West Bromwich East (Tom Watson) is right that we must also respect the bravery of our opponents because they carried out their duties. It is hugely appropriate—I give the Government credit for this—that the German President is attending ceremonies this year, because we want to look forward as a nation.
Our forefathers made the pledge in 1918 that we would remember those who died, and we are honouring that pledge today, as we have done over the years. As an ex-seafarer representing a proud seafaring community, I will be proud to stand up on 11 November and say to all those people and their families, “We will remember them; we will remember.”
It is an honour to speak in this debate and to follow so many moving and erudite speeches.
War is a ghastly failure of all other possible negotiation methods to resolve disputes over territory and resources. As a mother, alongside every other mother since time began, the prospect of war makes me feel sick to my stomach; the prospect of our children, of those we love and are responsible for, having to put their lives on the line—a brutal and sometimes fatal last line—to defend our values and population. War goes against every possible mother’s instinct, except of course the most profound one—that every mother would give up her own life for her children’s to be saved. But in times of war, it cannot work out like that.
A hundred years ago, mothers across our country and around the world were mourning the loss of millions of young men who had gone to war in far-flung trenches, hundreds of miles from their homes, to places they had never heard of and could not pronounce, in support of their Government’s call to stand against an enemy trying to destroy a neighbour’s way of life and identity. This was brought home to me four years ago when my children and I visited the Somme and a number of those fateful battlefields, and went to a place called Ocean Villas—or so I thought—to explore a series of real trenches unearthed by a British lady who had retired to the area and found them in her back garden. On arrival, I realised, as a French speaker, that the name of the village is Auchonvillers, which, if you say it in an English accent, sounds like Ocean Villas. It sounds like a rather lovely place when you say it like that, but it is very far from the ocean and the view would have been unimaginably different from a pleasant sea view. So as young men in 1914 headed over the sea to northern France and elsewhere, mothers waited at home for news of their boys, willing them to make it back home, broken perhaps, but alive, rather than buried in far-flung fields.
In the far western part of my constituency is a large area of high moorland territory known as Otterburn Ranges. It is one of the Army’s largest training areas for young soldiers and cadets, and in the heart of this training area are some of Britain’s best- preserved world war one trenches. Hundreds of trenches were dug in Britain by some of the 1 million men who volunteered in 1914, as a way of preparing them for warfare.
From Northumberland went thousands of young men, many of them joining up to go to war as members of the Royal Northumberland Fusiliers. The regiment raised 52 battalions, with 29 of them serving overseas. It was awarded 67 battle honours and five Victoria Crosses, losing 16,000 men during the war. It had ever been the case that soldiers who die in battle are buried where they fall, and for all those mothers and wives whose menfolk never returned, the loss was compounded by the inability to say goodbye or to find any peace in their bereavement by visiting their graves. So the work of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission in the years that followed the war to end all wars, and the slaughter of a generation of young men, to help those who remained to learn to cope, is extraordinary. I thank all those across the world who care for them.
Some of Northumberland’s young men, however, went further afield than Alnwick to join the Fusiliers and headed to the sea, to Tyneside, to join the Royal Navy—or, indeed, to join the Submarine Service. It is of those young men—the submariners—and the maverick, unconventional and challenging new part of the Royal Navy’s fleet of weaponry that I want to speak for just a few moments. The Submarine Service is often referred to as the silent service, because of course a submarine can sneak up on an enemy unheard and unseen, and because we never really talk about the incredibly dangerous work that it does.
In the early 20th century, submarines were considered somewhat shocking—not really sporting—by our own naval chiefs, but a few who understood their military potential for advantage quietly got on with building these strange underwater tubes; or, as one modern-day submariner described it to me, a caravan with no windows with a gang of friends in it, and you have no idea where you are. Modern-day submarines are highly technical, very expensive bits of kit, some more complex than a space station, but back in 1914 they were simpler and less safe, and the chances of survival as a submariner were very low. If a submarine was hit or had mechanical failure, it nearly always ended up at the bottom of the sea: a cruel and brutal death, and for the whole crew. The technology moved fast as the Germans built up their U-boat fleet and demonstrated how they could sink our ships, so the Royal Navy encouraged more use of this maverick weapon, with the support of the then First Sea Lord, Winston Churchill.
A young lieutenant commander, Max Horton, said to have been an aggressive and self-confident gambling man, daring by nature—we do not get those these days, somehow, in the world of peace and safety that we can enjoy—took on the challenge of demonstrating the power of the submarine. He later became an admiral and commander-in-chief of the Western Approaches in the second world war, responsible for the battle of the Atlantic. But back in 1914, Horton and those young Northumbrians who had joined up were living in inhuman conditions in those early submarines. We might consider today that their work was guerrilla warfare. Both our submarines and, as the hon. Member for Ynys Môn (Albert Owen) mentioned, German U-boats targeted enemy military surface fleets, and both took hits. In fact, out of 17,000 German men who served in submarines, more than 5,100 lost their lives. Serving on a submarine was, without doubt, one of the most dangerous occupations of that entire war.
We read the historical records about the battalions and their battles; the bravest young men with battle honours; statistics and events; moments of critical importance in those battles; and leaders’ decisions made always with imperfect information, some leading to victory, some not. But human conflict was always the ultimate consequence. Armistice—that moment when a cessation of hostilities is agreed by all parties; the start of the negotiations to find a solution for a lasting peace—has to be the moment that we must celebrate and remember that every mother always has to carry this burden.
May I begin by congratulating the Secretary of State and the shadow Secretary of State on their excellent opening speeches?
My constituency office is in the Fulforth community centre, in a small pit village called Sacriston. In the entrance to the community centre is a war memorial that was rescued from the memorial hall, which was pulled down several years ago. On that beautiful mahogany memorial, inlaid with gold lettering, are the names of 122 men just from Sacriston and the surrounding area—it is a very small area—who lost their lives in the first world war. This Sunday, the local community will plant 122 crosses and a few more, because some people are not on the memorial, in the garden of remembrance next to the community centre, and I congratulate the community on doing that. I know that similar ceremonies will take place throughout the nation.
The individuals marked and remembered on that memorial were sons, brothers and husbands. When I look at their names, I think of the sacrifice that they made for this country, but I also remember that their ambitions and dreams were unfulfilled, and their loved ones left behind were worrying and thinking about what could have been.
There was an outpouring of remembrance after the Armistice. Throughout the nation, memorials such as the one in Sacriston were built, as well as clocks, parks and memorial halls. I live across the road from the Pelton Fell Memorial Park, which was dedicated to those who lost their lives in the first world war, with the money raised by local miners and the mine company.
Those are physical memorials, but I would like to join the Secretary of State in congratulating the Heritage Lottery Fund. Over the last four years, it has allowed local communities to bring to life the stories behind some of the casualties and tell the wider story of the effects of the first world war. I had the privilege last week of going to the exhibition it has funded, where I met two young ladies from North Durham, Jade Hay and Caitlin Dobby. They had worked on a project that told the story of what happened to children who lost their fathers during the first world war, and, in some cases, their mothers to Spanish flu after the war. They were horrendous stories of children committed to industrial schools or transported to Australia and Canada—stories never told before. Their only crime was that they were poor, but society just left them. It is thanks to the HLF funding for the project that a spotlight has been shone on that human face, not on the battlefield, but on the home front.
The right hon. Member for Broadland (Mr Simpson) and I have had the privilege of being Commonwealth War Graves Commissioners. I have been a commissioner for the last eight years; unfortunately, all good things come to an end, and that will end in December this year. He explained how the commission came into being. Like many great things in this country, it came into being by accident. Today the commission is held in high esteem, but it was not just after the first world war. At the time, some argued that we should repatriate the dead and that people should be able to put up their own memorials and crosses. It was a hugely controversial event but, thankfully, the commission saw through and became the great organisation it is today.
The commission commemorates the dead of the first and second world wars in 23,000 locations in more than 150 countries. I want to thank the staff of the commission and the partner nations that have contributed—Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and India—and make it all possible. It has been a great privilege working with them.
May I say to right hon. and hon. Members that, while they should remember the great iconic sites in France, they should also visit their local cemeteries? We have over 300,000 casualties in cemeteries in this country, and if they can visit them, they should do so. We have an ongoing project to put up signs to commemorate them. They should give recognition to the sites that we in the Commonwealth War Graves Commission look after in their local communities.
In finishing, let me say that remembrance is important not just in remembering the sacrifice that individuals made, but, as was eloquently put forward by both the Secretary of State and the shadow Secretary of State, in learning some of the lessons for the future.
Some full tributes have been paid this afternoon, and I add mine to them. In particular, I pay tribute to the civil servants who have worked tirelessly throughout this centenary period, and to colleagues, who have been unstinting in their advice; perhaps I can single out the hon. and gallant Member for Barnsley Central (Dan Jarvis) for all his wise counsel over the six years that we have been debating these matters.
My fullest tribute is to the public, because they have made this centenary. Their appetite for this was unknown when we started on this journey seven years ago, but it has exceeded all our expectations. The centenary has been a tonic in a rather shouty and cynical age, and the public’s maturity and reflectiveness have shown through. Throughout, there has of course been pride, yes; but jingoism, no. I have been enormously proud of them.
When the President of Germany lays his tribute at the Cenotaph in a few days’ time, it will not be an act of reconciliation. The people of our two countries are well beyond that now. It will be the solace of a friend, and of an equal in all the acts of remembrance that we will carry out on Sunday, when we look to the future while respecting the past.
Two small villages in my constituency, Upton Scudamore and Chicklade, last month unveiled new memorials to villagers—ordinary men who had been forgotten for decades, and are now remembered. When we commemorate events of this sort, we very often remember the great men—generals and politicians—and perhaps less so the ordinary men, but society is the poorer for the loss of them. They are men such as Private Fred Barnes, Bombardier William Beak, Private Job Daniells, Private William Hinton and 19-year-old Serjeant Albert Greenland MM—military medal. Now, after a gap of 100 years, they are memorialised in the village of Upton Scudamore, overlooking Salisbury plain. Stalin is alleged to have said that one death is a tragedy, but 1 million deaths is a statistic. Interestingly, Mother Teresa said more or less the same thing from the opposite end of the moral spectrum. Reflecting on those five ordinary men, we begin to understand what those two individuals were thinking of.
Of all the projects and initiatives throughout the past five years, it is invidious to pick out any, but I will pick out just two. One of the most striking, backed by the Government, was called the Unremembered, about which I wrote to colleagues in the summer. Its poster boy is the remarkable Lieutenant Walter Tull, a footballer and black Army officer. He was a truly inspirational individual whom the centenary has taken from obscurity and given the prominence that he so richly deserves. Projects such as the Unremembered and No Barriers have touched those in society who may have felt, quite wrongly, that they had no equity in this material. It has all been about drawing people together and facilitating, as it were, the big society—not by distorting facts for political ends or photoshopping history, but by shedding light on it.
I will not rather presumptuously try to draw the lessons from the four years of the great war, but I want to make some observations. The first is that once we have committed to a war, it has a momentum and a life of its own; we cannot predict it, and we certainly cannot control it. My second observation is on the need for eternal vigilance. There never was, and probably never will be, a war to end all wars. That is not in our nature. Instead, war just mutates, and we need to be prepared for that. My third observation is that peace is even more difficult than war. What happened in 1945 suggested that we had learned the lessons of 1918, but the events in the Gulf in 2003, in which I was involved in a small way, suggested that those lessons were quickly forgotten.
My fourth observation is that war most definitely has consequences that are difficult to predict. Some of them are good and some of them are very bad. More died from world war one-related Spanish flu than in the trenches, but then we got universal suffrage. Society was never the same again—in the main, very much for the better. My fifth observation is that we should always pursue war criminals. The German people were dealt with very harshly in 1918, but their leaders certainly were not.
My sixth observation is that the loose concert of Europe failed so spectacularly in 1914 that we spent the next 50 years forging institutions that would underpin the international rules-based order. Today, the people of America, the greatest nation on Earth, go to the polls. I very much hope that they reflect on the duty that they owe us all in attempting to underpin that rules-based system.
It is an enormous privilege to serve in this Chamber, and especially to take part in this debate. I wish to pick up on one comment by the hon. Member for South West Wiltshire (Dr Murrison): he talked about how the public have engaged with the commemoration of the first world war, and I completely agree with him on that. I disagree with whoever said earlier that young people have not shown quite the same engagement. In my constituency, young people have absolutely engaged. The schools have been engaged and have taken part thoroughly, encouraged and educated by the Sefton libraries and many volunteers throughout the constituency. They are taking forward that knowledge and understanding of history for future generations.
On Sunday morning, I shall be at the Alexandra park memorial in Crosby to remember the 4,000 people from Sefton who were killed during world war one. We will then go to the Royal Naval Association comrades club—another fine institution to go with the Royal British Legion, which my hon. Friend the Member for West Bromwich East (Tom Watson) mentioned in his fine opening speech for the Opposition.
Today is the launch of the Sefton libraries project Beyond the War Memorials, supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund. The journalist Peter Harvey has explained the project on Twitter. It includes the sending of letters to the last known addresses of some of those named on the memorials. It also includes a short film in which the current occupant of one property in Crosby, 70-year-old Terri Whitaker, reads her letter to the three Grossart brothers who were killed in the war, aged 19, 20 and 21. They had lived in her house before they went off to war. It is a fitting tribute from her to those from Sefton who were killed.
On Sunday, on the beach at Formby, the National Trust will hold its Pages of the Sea commemoration to recognise the many people who left for war by sea. The event will centre around the drawing of large-scale portraits of casualties, which will be washed away by the sea, representing and reminding us of the millions of lives lost or changed forever by the war.
That brings me to my main point. The hospital at Moss Side, Maghull, in my constituency is now part of the Ashworth high-security psychiatric hospital, but in world war one, Moss Side hospital pioneered the treatment of shellshock. The work there paved the way for much of our understanding of post-traumatic stress disorder, and for modern mental health practice and medicine. At the time, the British Medical Journal described the treatment at Moss Side, which is recognisable today, as
“suggestion, persuasion, therapeutic conversations, re-education. The physician masters the patients, gains his confidence and analyses his troubles and morbid ideas and sets his mind at rest”.
This was the forerunner of both cognitive behavioural therapy and EMDR, which, for those of us who have not come across it before, is eye movement desensitisation and reprocessing. We can trace their origins straight back to the work done 100 or so years ago at Moss Side.
At the same time that treatment was starting at Maghull, soldiers who were ill were being executed. Arbitrary decisions were taken about whether a man was suffering from shellshock and should be sent for treatment, or should be deemed a coward, convicted and sentenced to death. There is no adequate explanation for the gross injustice suffered by those labelled cowards and shot at dawn in world war one.
Take the case of Private Jimmy Smith of the Liverpool Pals. Jimmy survived Gallipoli. He was decorated at the Somme, where he was seriously injured, but he was forced to return to duty on the frontline, despite clearly suffering from shellshock. He was found guilty at court martial after going absent without leave, and sentenced to death by firing squad. The officer in charge ordered Jimmy’s friend to fire the fatal shot after Jimmy was only wounded by the firing squad, most of whom deliberately missed because they did not agree with the sentence. They knew Jimmy was not a man lacking in moral fibre.
As my hon. Friend the Member for West Bromwich East mentioned, 306 men were shot for cowardice, and he spoke of his role in achieving the pardon of those 306. I am very pleased that he did so, and that the Labour Government gave that recognition to those men. The military cemetery at Kemmel Chateau, where Jimmy is buried, has the inscription, “Gone but not forgotten”. How appropriate for him and for all the 306.
Today, veterans are still suffering. In my constituency we have a fantastic support group, Veterans in Sefton, who counsel other veterans. The stigma, and the lack of parity of resource and esteem with physical health, in the military and beyond, are the reality today. It would be a fitting mark of respect to those who came home bearing the psychological scars of world war one; it would be right, too, for those who were shot at dawn; and it would be a tribute to those pioneers at Maghull for their groundbreaking work if we were to make good today on the shortfall in mental health support for veterans, and for everyone else.
Mr Speaker, thank you very much for allowing me to participate in this important debate, in which we have heard excellent Back-Bench and Front-Bench contributions in commemoration of all those who gave their life in that epic conflict which became the first world war. Although I do not come from a military family per se, my father Reginald Francois fought in the second war, on a minesweeper at D-day, and my grandfather Matthew John Francois served in the first war in the Rifle Brigade, joining up in his 30s. He lost his leg as a casualty.
The first world war massively influenced the development of this country in social, economic, military and political terms, but I would like to focus on another area in which it greatly influenced this country: our cultural history. The first world war has been depicted in many art forms, not least in film. Famous movies such as “Oh! What a Lovely War”, “All Quiet on the Western Front”, “Gallipoli” and, more recently, “War Horse” have given us vivid depictions, both satirical and brutally realistic, of life in the trenches. There have also been books and plays of many kinds; “Birdsong” and “Journey’s End” are two that spring readily to mind.
However, some of the most evocative memories from the first world war are brought to us by the soldiers who became known as the war poets. These were young men, mainly—although not exclusively—from English public schools, who served as junior officers or in other ranks, predominantly on the western front. One of the earlier, arguably more optimistic, war poets, Rupert Brooke, was born on 3 August 1887, the son of a housemaster at Rugby School. Educated at Rugby and then King’s College, Cambridge, he was commissioned into the Royal Naval Division in 1914, before being redeployed to Gallipoli in March 1915, where he became fatally ill and died of blood poisoning that April. However, while on leave in December 1914, Brooke wrote his five war sonnets, of which the most famous is undoubtedly “The Soldier”.
“If I should die think only this of me:
That there’s some corner of a foreign field
That is forever England. There shall be
In that rich earth a richer dust concealed;
A dust whom England bore, shaped, made aware,
Gave, once, her flowers to love, her ways to roam;
A body of England’s, breathing English air,
Washed by the rivers, blest by suns of home.
And think, this heart, all evil shed away,
A pulse in the eternal mind, no less
Gives somewhere back the thoughts by England given;
Her sights and sounds; dreams happy as her day;
And laughter, learnt of friends; and gentleness,
In hearts at peace, under an English heaven.”
As the war progressed, the mood of the war poets changed. In Siegfried Sassoon’s “The General”, he expresses great scorn for those who gave the orders that led men to die. In the latter stages of the war came Wilfrid Owen, who was born on 18 March 1893, the son of a former mayor who had fallen on hard times. He never attended university, but in 1916 he was commissioned into the Manchester Regiment. In 1917, Owen wrote arguably the most famous of all the war poems, “Dulce et Decorum Est”. The final verse refers to a casualty:
“If in some smothering dreams, you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,—
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.”
Contrary to the “Blackadder” theory of world war one—of senseless slaughter in the trenches, with no gains by either side—in the summer and autumn of 1918 the British Army did get it right. It breached the impenetrable Hindenburg line and broke the back of the German army. Using new tactics of combined arms, short and sudden artillery bombardments and the mass use of tanks, the British Army comprehensively defeated the Germans in the field and brought about the Armistice. By a great irony, Wilfred Owen was awarded the Military Cross in October 1918, and on 4 November, just one week before the Armistice, he was killed leading his platoon in an assault on the Sambre-Oise canal.
The great writings of these men live on today to remind us of the horror of war, and of trench warfare in particular. We must never forget the sacrifices that were made so that we can continue to live in a free country. Lest we forget.
I want to speak about two men who never came home from the great war: my great uncle Oliver Williams Benn and George Edwin Ellison.
Oliver was little spoken of in our family when I was growing up, I suspect because the pain of his loss was still too raw despite the passing of the years. What we do know about him now is thanks to my son James, who wrote a book about his life. He was commissioned into the Somerset Light Infantry and arrived in Gallipoli on 26 May 1915, landing on W beach at Cape Helles, where he was posted to the 1st Battalion the Essex Regiment. Ten days later, on 6 June, he was posted missing after the third battle of Krithia. The family desperately searched for news in the hope that he had been captured. His mother wrote to him regularly, but gradually hope faded and at the end of the war all her letters were returned unopened.
A few summers ago, we retraced Oliver’s journey from the beach to the place where he died. The trenches, their edges softened by the years, are still visible in the woods, but the site of trench H12, where he was last seen, is now a field of sunflowers. As we stood there in the burning midday sun, my son James read from Oliver’s last letter to his mother, in which he wrote:
“Good-bye mother darling... Please don’t worry… All my best love, your very happy boy. Nol.”—
Nol was the family nickname for him. His body was never found and he is one of over 20,000 British and Commonwealth soldiers whose names are inscribed on the Helles memorial. He was 27 years old.
George Edwin Ellison lived in Leeds and joined the 5th Royal Irish Lancers at the outbreak of war. He fought at the battle of Mons in 1914 and in the years that followed, at Loos, Ypres and Cambrai, before returning to Mons on 11 November 1918, when, while scouting in the woods on horseback, he was shot and killed by a sniper—a “goodnight kiss”, in the slang. It was around 9.30 in the morning, an hour and a half before the Armistice. George Ellison was 40 years old. As my hon. Friend the Member for West Bromwich East (Tom Watson) reminded us in his magnificent speech—as was the speech of the Secretary of State—he was the last British soldier to lose his life in battle in the great war, and he rests in the St Symphorien cemetery, as beautiful in its own way as the field of sunflowers in Gallipoli. How quickly nature covers up the horror of war.
Whether by design or fate, George Ellison’s grave is just a few footsteps across the grass, as we heard, from the resting place of the first British soldier to die in action on the western front, John Parr, who was with the 4th Battalion the Middlesex Regiment. He was just 17 years of age. The first and the last, and in between them in time, if not in place, lie the millions who gave their lives in the war that was meant to end all wars, but did not.
Philip Parker wrote this poem inspired by the life and death of George Ellison and John Parr. It is part of “The Centena Collection” of Armistice poems, produced in collaboration with the Imperial War Museum by a group of writers known simply as 26. Each poem is exactly 100 words. It is entitled “Goodnight Kiss”:
“Five strides apart, five summers past, I saluted you and the old sweats riding to War.
I fell first. And waited: while you mined the frozen mud. Ducked into crump holes. Pinched lice from your seams. Felt the pear drops’ sting at Wipers.”—
“pear drops” was the slang for gas—
“You drink Hannah’s words from home; Jimmy’s walking now.
Then you’re following the tank tracks from Cambrai. The chase draws you to Mons, where your War began. In the woods on the eleventh day, a goodnight kiss. Ninety minutes to Armistice.
My wait ends. First and last in a bunker for pals, we lie five strides apart.”
May those who fell forever rest in peace as we who are left resolve always to remember them.
I thought the speech by the right hon. Member for Leeds Central (Hilary Benn) was very touching; I thank him for giving it.
I want to talk about an incident in my life that connected me to the first world war. On Friday 17 December 1982 at St George’s church, Stockport, I attended the funeral of a young soldier from my company who had been killed in Northern Ireland. Sadly, it was the sixth funeral that I had attended that week; all were for men from my company—the company I was commanding was A Company of the 1st Cheshires. In all, 11 soldiers and six civilians—five of them young women, one of whom died in my arms—were killed by an Irish National Liberation Army bomb on Monday 6 December at Ballykelly, County Londonderry.
As I came out of St George’s, a very old lady was weeping quietly on the far side of the road. I had not noticed her in the funeral, but she might have been there. I crossed the road and spoke to her. I think I said, “The soldier is out of his pain now, you know.” She looked up at me and replied, “You don’t understand.” To be honest, I was somewhat irked by that comment, as I was with my soldier when he died and I was grieving, too. I must have shown unworthy irritation to her, because she said, “No, you really don’t understand.” I remember asking her why, and she said something like, “When I was a young girl, I stood where I am now and watched 800 young local boys of the 6th Cheshires go into that church. I knew many of them. That must have been in 1915. They went off to the war. When they came back home there were only enough of them to fill three pews in that church.”
That brought me up short. That lady was recalling hundreds of boys who certainly did not want to die in battle—battles such as the Somme, where, as we all recall, 19,240 of our soldiers died on the first day alone. Those soldiers had very little choice. Of course, we must remember them, but personally I always remember everyone, soldiers and civilians, killed in conflict, and right now I am remembering every day the soldiers, the girls and the one boy killed at Ballykelly on 6 December 1982.
It is a huge responsibility to follow the last two extraordinary speeches from my friend the hon. Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart) and my right hon. Friend the Member for Leeds Central (Hilary Benn). I think that everyone in the Chamber was touched by both.
We use the phrase very easily, but it is a genuine privilege to take part in this debate and to pay tribute to all those who serve and have served and especially to the memory of all those who fought in the great war of 1914-18 and their families. For the first time in history, an entire generation was touched by the horrors of war. One hundred years on, there are still no words to articulate the sacrifice they made or the debt we owe. There can be no tributes to meet the measure of the price paid, lives lost or impact on our society.
In the spirit of honour and remembrance, however, we try as best we can. As we approach the centenary of the Armistice, it has been awe-inspiring to see the outpouring of support and commemoration across the country, especially in my own constituency. I recently had the great pleasure of visiting the Weeping Window installation at Middleport pottery, installed in the heart of my constituency. As well as being a powerful and beautiful commemoration of our fallen heroes, the ceramic poppies that cascaded from our bottle kiln served as a beautiful tribute to our own city’s heritage and craftsmanship.
These commemorations convey so clearly and so movingly the Potteries’ wartime history and the people of our community who lived in the shadow of war. North Staffordshire has a proud military tradition, past and present, and my constituency is home to many service families, for whom this season of remembrance holds a deep importance. I am sure I speak for everyone in this place when I say to them: thank you. Thank you for what you have done for our country and for the sacrifices you have made in our defence.
In each of the six towns of Stoke-on-Trent and the villages and communities in between, our permanent memorials have been joined by other tributes as our community comes together to pay our respects. One example is the brilliant There But Not There project, which was honoured in the recent Budget. It is an art installation whose aim is to put figures representing every name on local war memorials in the places around the country where their absence was felt, whether in schools, workplaces or places of worship. From St John’s Church in Burslem and its beautiful poppy display to Milton parish church, where parishioners have knitted more than 3,000 poppies to adorn their building, local people are doing their part to mark this historic occasion.
As part of the Stoke-on-Trent Remembers campaign, a series of silhouettes—made and designed locally by Andy Edwards and PM Training—has been installed in each of the six towns. The 8-foot-high steel figures depict a real account of a local person’s experiences of war. There are stories such as that of Corporal A. P. Oakes, of Scotia Road, Burslem and the 1st Battalion, North Staffordshire Regiment, who was present for the Christmas Day truce at Flanders in 1914. In his diaries, Corporal Oakes described his experience of that all too brief moment of humanity between the trenches:
“Our chaps started to shout across good humouredly, and the Germans replied in the same spirit. Then both sides got on top of their respective trenches, and one man from both sides met half way. Then peace on earth, good will to all men! was the order of the day, or rather the night... They all seemed anxious for a speedy termination of the war and one fellow made us all laugh by saying that both sides should stand back-to-back and advance.”
Across our community, there have been so many wonderful stories of commemoration. I was particularly struck this week by news that a quilt embroidered by 60 soldiers who had been recovering at the Stoke War Hospital had been rediscovered more than 100 years after it had been stitched. The quilt had previously been unveiled at Newcastle-under-Lyme’s municipal hall in 1917, and raffled to raise funds for the hospital. It is a beautiful and touching reminder of the hardships that so many faced in those years. I hope that that beautiful quilt will end up alongside the recently found “Bayeux tapestry” of world war one, painted in 1923 by members of the 5th Battalion, North Staffordshire Regiment to remember 960 of their fallen comrades. It is now on display at the Potteries Museum in the constituency of my hon. Friend and neighbour the Member for Stoke-on-Trent Central (Gareth Snell).
It would take far more time than I have today to offer a full account of North Staffordshire’s contributions to the war effort. Undoubtedly, such a history would include the likes of Corporal Albert Ernest Egerton, a Potteries soldier with the Sherwood Foresters, who earned the Victoria Cross during the Battle of the Menin Road Ridge on 20 September 1917. Corporal Egerton single-handedly charged a machine gun nest, shooting three German gunners, and forced the surrender of 29 enemy soldiers. His comrades in that assault included another Stoke-on-Trent soldier, Sergeant Major E. Kelly, who led a charge in which four machine guns were taken out of action and 30 enemy troops captured. He received the Distinguished Conduct Medal for his actions.
These were incredible acts of heroism, but such acts were repeated a thousandfold by so many men, from the Potteries and beyond, who risked, and so often lost, their lives in the defence of their country and of the men serving beside them. These were the extraordinary deeds of ordinary people.
The right hon. Gentleman is a good man.
This Sunday, one century on, we will honour and remember those people. We will remember, too, all those who have lost their lives in all the conflicts since and pay our respects to today’s serving and veteran armed forces personnel. However, as chair of the all-party parliamentary group on the armed forces covenant, I am all too aware that we owe much more than respect. We owe a duty of care to those who continue to serve in our military. That means ensuring that the armed forces covenant is really delivering and that our service personnel are getting the support that they need. It also means supporting local groups such as the brilliant Staffordshire Tri Services and Veterans Support Centre, so that they can continue to work to support veterans.
At the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month, we will remember them. But we must ensure that our history informs our present and that our commemoration of those who have gone is matched by our commitment to those who remain.
It is a great privilege to speak in this debate and a great pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Ruth Smeeth) and all who have spoken.
I want to concentrate on a theme that was brought up by I cannot remember which Front Bencher: how we will remember them. I want to give three examples from my own past of how I have participated in these acts of remembrance.
Ten years ago, before I came into this House, I used to conduct a choir, and I decided on one occasion that it would be a great thing to take that choir to Ypres. The choir consisted both of young children and a 90-year-old lady—who could still sing, I should say—whose brother had fallen in the trenches at the battle of Ypres. It was a wonder to see her wandering around the trenches. We sang choral evensong in the Anglican chapel at Ypres, which was a wonderful experience. Then we went to sing under the Menin Gate. I had been asked to do something different—they were used to the usual Anglican repertoire—so I decided to do an arrangement of the negro spiritual “Steal Away”. As we were finishing that, we got quieter and quieter as the verses went on, and at the end of that rendition the only thing that could be heard under the Menin Gate was the sobbing of those who had been listening and remembering. To this very day, people who went on that trip cannot recall it without tears coming to their eyes as they remember the experience they had.
My second experience is with the town of Thame, which started a project a couple of years ago to lay a Thame cross—it is like the cross of Lorraine—on the grave of every soldier killed in acts of conflict since the first world war. The people of Thame have done this, and that has included marine graves, where they have sent divers down to place the cross on the grave. So far over 300 people have travelled 150,000 miles to lay a cross on the graves of 212 people who lost their lives.
I was very privileged to be able to do this for Second Lieutenant Richard Hewer, who had fought in the battle of Jaffa and was observing for the infantry at the attack on Jerusalem when he was killed. His body lies in the cemetery in Jerusalem, and I went to it and laid the cross on his grave. And I pay tribute to those who look after our cemeteries; the cemetery is absolutely immaculate, and that made the experience of going there to lay this cross all the more telling and emotional.
The third experience involves a gentleman from my constituency called Mike Willoughby, who has over many years undertaken a project called “Bringing them Home” in which he has set out the lives of 298 soldiers who were killed or who died between 1914 and 1921. That has resulted in a number of memorials, and I was privileged to go to the Townlands Memorial Hospital, named after the first world war, only recently and see a memorial unveiled by the lord lieutenant for Oxfordshire. That, too, was a very moving experience, as we read the names on the brass plaque that had been produced there.
Earlier in this debate, many institutions were mentioned as playing a part in keeping the peace in Europe since the end of the second world war, and I would like to mention one that was not mentioned, because I think it has played a phenomenal part in that process: the Council of Europe. The Council of Europe is not part of the EU; in terms of its membership it is almost twice the size of the EU, and although it was set up with a human rights focus in its initial creation and it looks after the European Court of Human Rights—the only court in Europe to which we elect the judges ourselves—it goes far beyond that.
If anyone is looking for an organisation that, alongside NATO, has helped to keep the peace in Europe over this time, they need look no further than the Council of Europe. I sincerely hope that it will rise to the challenge again in the future. It is unusual in having both the Israelis and the Palestinians on it, but it has not yet made a great effort to try to get them to engage in peacemaking rather than simply standing up and posing their usual views when they speak.
In giving the House those three examples, and setting out the importance of the Council of Europe, I hope I have demonstrated that I attach a great deal of importance to remembrance.
This has been an excellent debate, with many touching and enlightening contributions. This is a moment when Parliament rises to the occasion and speaks for all the people of Britain and beyond.
In the limited time that I have, I want to highlight the role of all the women and men from the far-flung parts of our globe, in addition to those from the UK, in the first world war, whose contribution often seems forgotten or understated in modern-day Britain. That may sound controversial, but even in the arts and culture, in our war movies, there is a palpable lack of black and brown faces. For some, it almost seems as though they were not there. This omission, or lesser emphasis, is a mistake, and I feel that it is one of the reasons why we as a nation are unable to effectively counter the rise of the far right, which seeks to divide us and to sow the seeds of suspicion and hatred.
Many thousands who gave their lives were cremated and hundreds of thousand lie at peace in Commonwealth war graves in 150 countries. Thousands of troops from across the mighty continent of Africa lost their lives, and 166 were decorated in recognition of their valour. The British West Indies Regiment, which provided 15,000 troops, fought in France and won 81 medals and 51 mentions in dispatches. The Canadians who fought at Vimy Ridge and Passchendaele earned a fearsome reputation among the enemy on the western front. The Australians and New Zealanders suffered disproportionately huge losses fighting alongside the French and British on the western front, in Mesopotamia, in Palestine and in the fateful Gallipoli campaign in 1915.
Then we come to the contribution from the Indian subcontinent. More than 1.5 million people came from what is modern-day India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, and they were overwhelmingly volunteers. This was the largest volunteer army in history, and it contained Hindus, Muslims, Christians, Sikhs and others. Khudadad Khan, the first Indian soldier to win the Victoria Cross, for heroism in Flanders in 1914, was followed not many weeks later by Darwan Singh Negi, who was also awarded the VC. The House will note from their names that the first of them was a Muslim and the second was a Sikh. It would be remiss of me, as the first ever turbaned Sikh in our Parliament, not to dwell on the incredible gallantry of serving Sikh soldiers and the contribution that they have made.
Sikhs made up just over 2% of pre-division India, but 20% of the Indian army in world war one. The Sikhs are rightly proud of their distinct heritage and their rich military tradition, which dates back centuries and was demonstrated on many occasions during the great war. More than 83,000 turbaned Sikh soldiers laid down their lives, and more than 100,000 were injured, during both world wars. We are so proud of our forefathers who fought so bravely, and every family has its story to tell, including mine.
In the first months of the war, some Sikh soldiers even refused to take shelter in the trenches because they felt that this suggested cowardice, but where is their monument in our capital city? The National Sikh War Memorial Trust, of which I am president, has campaigned for a memorial in a prime central London location, and many hon. and right hon. Members have signed our early-day motion, including all the leaders of the parliamentary Opposition parties and the Mayor of London. The EDM has been signed by 266 Members—the highest number for many years—and I encourage those who have not yet signed it to do so. I also encourage people to sign the online petition, launched in December 2017, which already has more than 46,000 signatures.
At the parliamentary launch of the campaign for a national Sikh war memorial, a staggering £375,000 was pledged by 15 generous donors. I place on the record my immense gratitude to you, Mr Speaker, for agreeing to our humble request that you preside over the launch. The fact that you took over one and a half hours out of your busy diary and made stirring introductory and closing speeches was not lost on the global Sikh community.
The Government have since pledged their support, for which I thank them, and I am sure that they will impress upon Westminster City Council the need for a prominent location. It would be fitting if we could have a statue of two turbaned Sikh soldiers representing the contribution of Sikhs in each world war. I believe it should be close to Parliament and a place where little Sikh boys and girls can see a representation of turbaned soldiers and feel a deep connection to their history. It should symbolise our unity, our diversity and our integration.
In the first world war, soldiers, sailors and airmen came from every faith and background. The allied armies were racially, religiously and ethnically diverse—just like modern-day Britain. If anything, those armies are a true representation of modern-day Britain, and that is why we will remember them.
It is a real privilege to speak in this debate and to follow such wonderful, heartfelt speeches.
H. G. Wells, who attended school for a time at Midhurst in my constituency, described the great war as the war that will end all wars. However, the fact that we refer today to the first world war shows that his belief was sadly misplaced. Only two decades after the war to end all wars, the world was again plunged into conflict, with millions of British and Commonwealth soldiers slain on faraway battlefields after fighting, for a second time, for the survival of our democratic institutions, our freedom and our liberty.
Not far from H. G. Wells’ school is a village called East Wittering. It was the only parish in Sussex not to lose a single soldier during the great war. Just 53 parishes in the country can claim that and together they make up the thankful villages. More than 16,000 villages across Britain were not as fortunate as the 53. The names of the 6,800 servicemen from the Royal Sussex Regiment who gave their lives are fittingly inscribed on the regimental walls in Chichester cathedral, which also commemorate the 351 soldiers from the Chichester district who gave their lives. Soldiers died in lands they had only heard of in books so we can stand here today as free men and women. Private Samuel White was born in Chichester. He enlisted in Brighton and is now buried in Jerusalem’s war cemetery after being assassinated by a sniper in 1917. Private William Turner, also born in Chichester, drowned in the battlecruiser HMS Queen Mary, which was sunk in the North sea during the battle of Jutland in 1916. He was just 20 years old.
For many like William, their final resting place is on the ocean floor. The ships they once served on are now their coffins. It is for that reason that I welcome the work of organisations such as the Maritime Archaeology Trust, which raises awareness of the forgotten shipwrecks of the first world war along our coastline. Thanks to Heritage Lottery Fund money set aside to mark the centenary of the Armistice, the trust’s online interactive map serves as a poignant reminder of not only the sheer volume of ships that were destroyed, but crucially the number of crew members who went down with them. Not far from the Selsey coast lies His Majesty’s Australian Transport Warilda. Converted to a hospital ship from a requisitioned transport vessel, she was torpedoed by a German submarine on 2 August 1918, with 123 of the 801 passengers and crew on board losing their lives. Violet Long, who had received an OBE earlier that year for her service in Queen Mary’s Army Auxiliary Corps, was one of those who drowned that night. Thanks to the hard work of researchers and funding, her story is now available for us all to hear and commemorate. It is appropriate in this Armistice debate that we call for everything possible to be done to preserve these war graves.
Equally, it is vital that we continue to honour everybody who has given service in defending us. Although this centenary year has made us all more aware of the sacrifices made by past generations, we cannot let names like Samuel White and William Turner vanish from the record. It will be a humbling experience again to join city leaders at Chichester cathedral to pay our respects in this Sunday’s centenary commemorations and to remember the bravery of the people who gave their lives.
Over the past year, volunteers at the University of Chichester have been researching the accounts of local residents who were sent overseas during the war, and that work allows us to remember and honour their role in the conflict. As part of the Priory Park 100 Armistice celebrations in Chichester, a life-size model of a local soldier, Maurice Patten, was created by our celebrated local sculptor Vincent Gray. Maurice enrolled in Chichester and died in battle in France in 1916, aged just 24. One can hardly imagine the bravery of those young men as they huddled together in their trenches, awaiting the order to go over the top and face death in no man’s land. Vincent’s sculpture of Maurice is a fitting tribute to his memory.
The guns fell silent at 11 am on the 11th day of the 11th month of 1918, 100 years ago. Our voices in this place should never fall silent in honouring, respecting and remembering the sacrifice and bravery of these young men and women who gave their today for our tomorrow.
I am delighted to take part in this debate. I have had the honour of chairing the Northern Ireland world war one centenary committee since 2012 and of representing Northern Ireland on the national advisory group that advises the Secretary of State and his Department.
It has been a privilege to be involved in helping to organise the main events in Northern Ireland to mark the centenary of the war, and I commend the committee I have chaired. Its members have come together from all walks of life to prepare and organise these events in the spirit of cross-community remembrance and reconciliation. Those were the two themes we chose for the centenary in Northern Ireland, because we recognise that remembrance has not always been a unifying theme in Northern Ireland.
Sadly, we saw that all too well in Enniskillen during our troubles, when men and women who had gathered to remember the dead of the first world war were cut down by an IRA bomb. The poppy became a symbol of that but, sadly, there were some who sought to make it a symbol of controversy, of division. I am proud to stand in this House of Commons today wearing a symbol that has become common in both parts of the island of Ireland: the poppy set into a three-leaved shamrock. The three-leaved shamrock represents the three divisions that were raised in Ireland and that served in the first world war, the 10th and 16th Divisions and the 36th (Ulster) Division. It is good that Members of the Irish Parliament are now wearing this symbol, and I am proud to stand in solidarity with them, as a Unionist Member of Parliament here in the House of Commons, wearing this symbol to reflect the sacrifice of Irish men of both traditions on the island who gave their lives in common cause in that war.
As we have navigated our way through this centenary, through the centenary of the Easter rising—a historic event that is important to Irish republicanism—and the centenary of the Somme, an event that is not only marked by Unionists, we must recall that as many nationalist soldiers as Ulster volunteers died at the Somme. We have sought to reflect that, because this is our shared history. I am proud that in every county in Ireland today there is now a war memorial, representing the men from those counties who sacrificed their lives during the first world war, and that out of the lofts of many Irish homes have come the medals of those Irish men who served, as families once again lift the lid on this part of our shared history. More than 40 Irish men won the Victoria Cross in the first world war. Today, the British Government have provided to the Irish Government a memorial stone for every one of those men, and those memorial stones sit today in Glasnevin cemetery in Dublin, under the shadow of a cross of sacrifice, erected in the cemetery that holds within its grounds people such as de Valera, Michael Collins and the leaders of the Easter rising. Those graves stand alongside the graves of British soldiers, a cross of sacrifice and tablets memorialising the Irish VC winners. That is a mark of the progress we have made in the past four years in making commemoration and remembrance of the first world war a shared experience on the island of Ireland, and not just something that is commemorated by one tradition on one part of the island.
I am struck by the fact that three Members of Parliament from this House of Commons from the island of Ireland fought and died in the first world war: Arthur O’Neill, a Unionist representing Mid Antrim; Tom Kettle, a nationalist from East Tyrone; and Major Willie Redmond, who died at Messines in 1917.
I have always been struck by the story of Willie Redmond. He was carried off the battlefield, mortally wounded, by an Orangeman from County Antrim, from the 36th (Ulster) Division, because at Messines the Irish Division and the (Ulster) Division fought side by side, in common cause. In the winter of 1916, Willie Redmond, writing home to his friend Arthur Conan Doyle, the famous author, in the aftermath of the carnage of the Somme, where Irish men and Ulster men had fallen in that terrible battle, stated:
“It would be a fine memorial to the men who have died so splendidly, if we could over their graves build up a bridge between the North and South.”
That is what we have sought to do in the past four years through remembrance of a war in which Irish men from all parts, in every county, in every village and town across the island of Ireland, came forward and fought under the Crown, in common cause. We have recognised this period of our shared history. That inclusive approach to commemoration is surely the greatest tribute we can pay to the Irish men, to the Ulster men, to the Unionists and nationalists, to the republicans who put on the uniform of the Crown and fought in common cause for the freedom of so many in Europe.
A hundred years ago on Sunday, a deafening silence broke out over the vast battlefields of Europe. Then, as now, there must have been very mixed emotions. There would have been that great sense of loss and remorse that so many people had been slaughtered, and so many people maimed and incapacitated. I guess that for those in the trenches there was apprehension. Was this for real? Could they trust the enemy? Would this truce hold? Could they stumble out of those muddy dungeons that had been their safe houses over all those long weeks and months of toil into a more open and free world where they could behave more normally? But they were, and we are, also permitted some joy that at last this murderous, bestial war was over. After four years of mass industrial slaughter, with millions of individual tragedies between the men and the families of the different combative nations, at last the slaughter was over. There was a chance to build something better.
When I lay a wreath in the morning in Burghfield and in the afternoon in Wokingham, I will be very conscious of two things. I will be conscious that there are war memorials in every other village and town in my constituency that time does not permit me to visit that day. As I look up at those lists of names on those two war memorials, I will be very conscious of how long those lists are and of how many brothers are together on the same list, with a double or treble tragedy for the family. That scale of loss is difficult to comprehend and to wrestle with.
It reminds me of my two grandfathers. As is the case with most of us, our great grandfathers or our grandfathers were the survivors. They were young men who fought as young men and then tried to build a more normal life when they got back from the trenches. They had not had time to have girlfriends and to marry and produce children before they went off to war. My two grandfathers, like many others, went at the earliest possible opportunity, or may even have misled those involved about their age so keen were they to volunteer. Both fought on the western front. One was badly injured, but, fortunately, recovered. I wanted to know from them, as a boy and as a teenager, more about these terrible events. Like many of their generation who had been through the war, they did not really want to share it with us. It was obviously so awful. They did not seek my praise and they did not seek my sympathy. They wanted to shield me from it. I wanted to know more about it, but I think that they took that view because it was so awful.
We have heard many moving remarks today, particularly about those who died, but let us think about those who survived. Let us think about what it must have been like to have four years of no normal life—as someone who was 17, 18, 19, 20 or whatever they were—where they had no normal social life and no normal family life apart from very rushed periods of leave, when they could not pursue their normal sports and leisure pursuits because space would not allow it, when they had no privacy, and when they had very repetitious food. The dreadful things they fought are obvious—the shells, the bombs, the rifle bullets, the snipers and the machine guns. You can just about imagine how awful it must have been to have that fear that you were going to be asked to advance on barbed wire and machine guns, knowing that you had very little chance of surviving, but what about the boredom? What about the relentless discipline and the inability to know how to fill the time while you were worrying about what was going to happen next? All of those things must have been dreadful. So this is what I think we need to do. We owe it to them, to all those who directed the war, and to all those in this Parliament who sent our army to war—time does not permit this afternoon—to have a proper analysis and discussion about how we can do better in future. I am no pacifist. I think we have to arm ourselves well to protect ourselves and to preserve the peace. We have fought too many wars and, too often, we sent our Army into wars where they had limited chances of winning. We did not have a diplomatic and political strategy to follow the war. There is no use in winning a war, unless we win the peace as well. We know that the sequel to the first world war is the second world war—the tragedy that it all had to be done again on an even vaster scale with even bigger munitions and more terrifying bombs, eventually ending with the explosion of two atomic bombs to bring it to a very sad conclusion.
We need to ask ourselves how we can make sure that diplomacy and politics does not let people down so much again. How was it part of our strategy that, twice, this Parliament sent small highly professional British Armies on to the continent to fight a war against a far bigger, better armed foe when they had no chance of winning because they had too little resource, the wrong weapons and the wrong tactics? In the first world war, it took four years to recruit a mighty citizens’ army, to invent a lot of new weapons and to develop new tactics during the war. We were sadly unprepared. We asked them to do too much and it is amazing what they did.
It is a great honour to represent my party in this debate. I simply thank all the speakers across the House who have made some truly magnificent speeches.
Mr Speaker, may I take you north to the Cromarty Firth, beneath the waters of which lies the wreck of HMS Natal, a heavy cruiser and the pride of the Royal Navy during the first world war? On 30 December 1915, the captain decided that there would be a film show on board, to which were invited mothers and children from the shore. At 25 minutes past 3 o’clock, on that same day, there was a massive explosion that ripped through the cruiser, which sank very, very rapidly. We do not know whether it was a German torpedo. It is probably unlikely. It is more likely that it was what sealed the fate of the HMS Queen Mary, which has already been mentioned in this debate—an explosion of the magazines because the cordite was notoriously unstable. A few months later, the Admiralty published a list of 390 casualties, but no mention was made of the mothers and children who died on HMS Natal. Today, the estimate is between 390 and 421. This incident in my constituency, not far from my home town, underlines to me the absolute horror of the first world war. As time goes on, I hope that we may be able to establish some kind of memorial to the mums and children who died so cruelly and suddenly.
My grandfather’s elder brother, Arthur Stone, joined up in 1914. By 1917, he was oddly enough in a Pals battalion as a major and was awarded the Distinguished Service Order for gallantry. It was a matter of great family pride when he went to collect it from Buckingham Palace with his parents. But I now turn to my grandfather’s youngest brother, Walter Stone, also known as Wally, who was a bit of a tearaway. Before the war, he had fathered a child out of wedlock in Canada—something that did not become evident until quite recently, although my father had long suspected that there had been something like that lurking in the background.
Wally also joined up in 1914, going into the Royal Fusiliers. By 1917, he was a captain. On 30 November 1917 at Bourlon Wood near Cambrai, there was a massive German attack and my great uncle was at the front. As the attack seemed to centre on his position, many soldiers were ordered to retreat, but he opted to stay at the front. He died, it is said, fighting to the last, along with the soldiers who stayed with him. It is a point of family pride that some time afterwards it was announced that he had been awarded a posthumous Victoria Cross. Now, that is family pride and I boast not of it, but I do wonder about the soldiers who stayed with him. Those soldiers did not desert him. They all lost their lives; none of them survived. None of their bodies was ever found, although it is hoped that the Germans buried them. The award that my great uncle received is about all those who stayed at the front. In a way, I think that all honours and medals awarded apply to a much broader spectrum than just to the people who won them.
To return to the present in the short time available, on Sunday I shall lay a wreath in my home town of Tain in the northern highlands. There will be a parade from the Church of Scotland parish church to St Duthus church, where the war memorial is located. I dare say that it will probably be a cold day. For all I know, the wind could be in the north, coming straight from the Arctic, and may be seasoned with a dash of sleet. That is all part of the job of laying a wreath in the highlands. I have done this for many years, and each time I go into the church where the memorial is and read the names on the plaque, it is the nature of the highlands that I recognise so many of the families, who are still living in the area. And that is what I shall think about.
I think about the past, what my great uncles did and what my father told me. He was a man who always wore a poppy. He told me that, when he came down from the highlands to work in London in the 1930s, the whole city would fall silent at the stroke of 11 o’clock—that people would stop in the street for the two minutes’ silence. He told me how extraordinarily moving it was, and that memory stayed with him. I did not know my great uncles, but I knew and loved my father, who fought in the second world war in the 14th Army, and on Sunday I shall think of him. Let me just put it this way: he wore a poppy and so do I, with some pride.
We always say it is a great pleasure to talk in this place, but today it is actually a great honour. It is a remarkable occasion, and it is very fitting to commemorate the Armistice in this way.
I start by paying tribute to my British Legion branches in Ilkeston and Long Eaton for their relentless selling of poppies, aided by cadets. I will join them on Friday and Saturday to add to their collection, I hope. Like every other constituency, I am sure, mine is full of poppies of different sizes, made out of different materials, be they made of paper, knitted, made from the bottom of plastic bottles sprayed red, or khadi poppies. Every single type of poppy is around. I am sure that the schoolchildren, seeing the swathes of poppies everywhere, will be inspired to look into the history of the first world war, and hopefully it will help them to remember and appreciate what happened.
The commemorations have really captured the imagination in many different ways. Last Friday, I attended a performance of a very humbling and moving piece called “Standing in Line”. It is a story of the great war, but specifically about Albert Scrimshaw, one of the performers’ great-uncles who bravely marched to war but never came home. He died at Passchendaele, and left a widow in Derbyshire who never remarried.
Two local people did come back, one of whom was the great-great-uncle of my hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight (Mr Seely). He was called Major-General Jack Seely. He was the MP for Ilkeston from 1910 to 1922, and Secretary of State for War in 1912. He was the only serving Cabinet member to go the front in 1914 and still be there in 1918. He took part in one of the last great cavalry charges in history on his beloved horse, Warrior. Many people think that the play “War Horse” is based on the character of that horse. The other great political war hero that Erewash can lay claim to is Lord Houghton of Sowerby, who was born in Long Eaton. He survived Passchendaele, unlike Albert Scrimshaw. Lord Houghton had a distinguished political career, but is quoted by Lord Graham in Hansard as describing Passchendaele in one word—“mud”. I have talked about three people whose stories we know, but across my constituency, on every war memorial, as other Members have said, there is name after name—sometimes more than one with the same surname—of those who gave their lives for our future.
Members have touched on the contribution that women made. My right hon. Friend the Member for Broxtowe (Anna Soubry) talked about the Chetwynd munitions factory. Some constituents of mine who went to work there lost their lives because of the industrial explosion. Women also worked at Stanton ironworks, making casings for shells. In the 1939 to 1945 war, they made concrete air raid shelters. Pressed concrete is still made at Stanton today for smart motorways and HS1, and hopefully HS2, so production continues. The suffragettes were great in the way that they campaigned for women to have the vote, but, to me, it would have been incomprehensible if politicians had not given women the vote after women gave so much in the great war.
I will briefly touch on something very personal, and move on to the second world war. We have talked about not being able to remember the first world war or talk to the people who lived through it. Last Sunday, I was polishing my father’s medals for him to wear next Sunday as he watches the service on TV; sadly, he is no longer well enough to go to any commemoration. He has a Burma Star. My sister and I tried to encourage him to write his story down, and he wrote some scribbled notes, but sadly, because of his stroke, he can no longer communicate, so once again a whole story is lost. It made me realise that nobody under the age of 90 will have experienced the second world war. Obviously, we have lost the last surviving participant in the first world war. We need to make sure that we can capture history at first hand before it is too late. We always say “Lest we forget” and “We will remember them”, but let us make sure that we say those phrases with great meaning, and that we remember them for many years to come.
It is a great privilege to speak in this debate. We started with two wonderful contributions from the Secretary of State and the shadow Secretary of State, and have heard from many Members across the Chamber.
We all have our own family references, and I want to start by referencing two individuals. The first is my uncle, Sergeant Vernon Coaker, who is buried in Normandy, in Ranville cemetery near Caen. He served with the 3 Commando Devonshire Regiment and was killed on 6 June 1944, so this is always a particularly poignant time for me. The second is my wife’s grandfather, Captain William Roper Weston of the King’s Shropshire Light Infantry, who won the Military Cross, and whom I had the honour of meeting on a number of occasions before his death in the mid-1980s. I have been trying to reflect on what people like them would think if they looked at our commemorations and our remembrance today.
We should be particularly proud of the number of young people who are involved in these commemorations and ceremonies. I have no evidence for this, but I think that the numbers have been increasing over the last few years, thanks to the uniformed organisations—the Scouts, the Guides and the cadets, who march with such pride and are phenomenal young people—and our schools. My colleague from Nottinghamshire, the right hon. Member for Broxtowe (Anna Soubry), mentioned the schools in our area, but all of us can see this happening.
When you talk to these young people, they have an understanding—some at a very young age—of what they are remembering. All of us need to think about why that is, because it is so important that it carries on. I think it is happening because the schools and uniformed organisations teach the values; they teach that these people died because people failed to work together, to be tolerant, to respect one another and to co-operate. People sacrificed themselves to try to win that back, but it was also because of the failure of us all to respect those values that those people are in graves or became veterans. I may be wrong, but I think that young people understand that. It is really moving to go to a primary school and hear children of 10 or 11 years talking about the need for us to work together. It is with great pride that all of us, I am sure, will look at the uniformed organisations marching this weekend. The contribution they make is quite phenomenal.
Something else has changed in my area, and it is a great credit to us all. As well as the sacrifice that was made at the front, the sacrifice that was made on the home front is now respected and talked about. The role of women, the way they worked and all they did is respected and spoken about in a way that it has not been before, and we see that in the exhibitions all over the country.
I want to finish by reflecting on what this should mean for all of us now. I went to the marking of the 100th anniversary of the start of world war one at the St Symphorien cemetery, to which the Prime Minister is going on Friday. As has been mentioned, in that cemetery are the graves of the first British soldier killed, and the last British soldier killed. The horror and the poignancy of that brings home to all of us across our nation the sacrifice that was made. What was so powerful at the ceremony to mark the 100th anniversary of the beginning of world war one was the fact that in that very cemetery are German soldiers. On the occasion at which we marked the outbreak of the war, German military officers and German Government officials stood alongside our royalty and our politicians. Their standing together at that ceremony reminded us that the horror of what happened must be a challenge and an inspiration to us all to ensure that we do not let it happen again.
It is an honour to follow the hon. Member for Gedling (Vernon Coaker), and indeed all hon. Members on both sides of the House, in what has been an extraordinarily powerful and emotional debate.
I have not been able to think of anyone other than my great-grandmother this afternoon. She was born in 1895, and she lived with me and my parents until she died when I was nine, in 1987. She was a great woman—a forbidding matriarch—and I loved her dearly. She gave me my first job, which was to take her her tea in the morning and to put whisky in it, for which I received the princely sum of 10p a week. That was a great deal to a seven-year-old in 1985. I would sit on her bed while she sipped her tea and whisky, and she would tell me stories.
One morning, I remember asking her why her friend—I will call her Miss H—had never married, and she told me about this terrible war in which all the young men had gone away and had not come back. It made me cry; it makes me cry now. I found out subsequently that my great-grandmother’s husband, a guy called Harry who was a cider farmer in Somerset, had not gone to war because he had a heart murmur. It was a very curious moment in history when biological weakness actually caused someone’s DNA to be passed on. Miss H did not have any such luck. I also found out subsequently that she had worked in a butcher’s shop, and when the butcher died, he—much to the shock of the town—left the business to her, not to his wife. We do not know whether it was love, but if it was, it perhaps speaks of a time when there were not very many men around.
I think of the norm now. In the first census after the great war, in 1921, it was revealed that there were 1.7 million more women than men in Britain. The press and politicians rather coldly and cruelly dubbed them the “surplus women”. I also think of a speech given in a school in Bournemouth, quite close to where I grew up, in 1918, when the headmistress is said to have told the girls, “I have come to tell you a terrible truth: nine out of 10 of you will not marry. This is a mathematical fact. The local men whom you would have married have been killed, and you must make your way in the world as best you can.” Indeed, they did: they went out and made the best of it, and went on to ensure that their gender was no longer quite so defined by its relationship to men.
All those men who died were sons; many were brothers, and many were husbands. A great many of them were not married, and the women they did not marry did not marry either. This generation of maiden aunts were widowed before they wed. I dare say a great many of them had enormous satisfaction from the jobs and the lives that they built, but as D. H. Lawrence wrote, if mutual love is
“Like a magnet’s keeper
Closing the round”,
then for a great many, the years to come were incomplete. I say their sacrifice deserves no less remembrance.
It is an honour to speak in this important debate. I pay tribute to all those speakers who have made such moving contributions today.
Let me start by making a special mention of the contribution made by the officers and men of the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders. The regiment raised a total of 16 battalions and was awarded 68 battle honours in the first world war, including six Victoria Crosses. They came at a terrible price, though, with almost 7,000 Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders losing their lives between 1914 and 1918. Although the regiment recruited throughout west-central Scotland, I wish to single out the 8th Battalion, the Argyllshire, which was stationed in Dunoon and raised no fewer than eight companies from the towns and villages throughout Argyll. Of course, many others from Argyll and Bute joined other regiments or, indeed, other branches of the service. Their contributions are equally valued. As the Member who represents the submarine base at Faslane, I am pleased that the sacrifice made by those in the submarine service has already recognised in the debate.
I have no doubt whatsoever that come Sunday at 11 o’clock, there will not be a town or village in Argyll and Bute that will not stop and remember all those we have lost. As we have heard, every family has their own story to tell, and I wish to share with the House that of my grandfather, John O’Hara, who as a 17-year-old from the Calton district of Glasgow joined the Royal Army Service Corps in the autumn of 1916 and was sent to London to be trained as a transport driver. Having completed his basic training, however, he was spotted, singled out and seconded to the Machine Gun Corps, and then sent to Clipstone camp, near Mansfield, for basic training as a machine gunner.
In the summer of 1917, John O’Hara was sent to France, where he joined No. 13 Machine Gun Company, which was preparing for what would be known as the second battle of Passchendaele, in which he was injured when a bullet entered his shoulder and went through his hand. He was admitted to the military hospital in Flanders before being repatriated back to the UK. Every soldier who was sent back injured was accompanied by what was known as a soldier’s character reference. The report on machine gunner Private John O’Hara described him as being “sober, reliable and intelligent”. I like to think that that was the start of a long family tradition. Back in the UK, he was treated for his injuries at Old Park military hospital before being sent back to France in early 1918 to join the Machine Gun Corps of the 52nd Lowland Division.
For reasons which I have never managed to fathom, when he was back in France, John O’Hara was stationed at the town of Armentières and was part of a group tasked with salvaging sacred relics from the bomb-damaged church of St Vaast in the town. While they were working there, the celebrated Daily Mirror photographer turned official war photographer David McLellan happened by with his camera and took a series of photographs of my grandfather and his comrades at work both inside and outside the church.
The photograph of those otherwise anonymous Tommies, one of them my grandfather, standing to attention on the steps of the church, carrying the rescued wooden statues, has become very well known and, I think, rather poignant. It is one of the great images of the final days of the great war. I refer Members who have not seen the photograph or who do not know the story to the excellent article by Tom Parry in the Daily Mirror just last month, for which he recreated the photograph, with the villagers of Armentières on the steps of the church of St Vaast—on the exact spot—carrying the original statues rescued by my grandfather and his comrades exactly 100 years ago.
Thankfully, and rather obviously, my grandfather survived the last terrible months of the war, but I have always wondered what happened to his four comrades. What fate befell them in those last awful months?
My grandfather was discharged in October 1919, and in the years immediately following, he enrolled at Glasgow University, where he gained a medical degree. He worked as a general practitioner in the east end of Glasgow for many years and was for a while the official doctor to Celtic football club, which brings great pride to the family.
Ours is just one of the millions of stories that families across the UK have. We are in the fortunate position that ours also comes with a remarkable photographic record. So when I lay a wreath at the war memorial in Helensburgh on Sunday to remember all those who gave their lives, I will say thanks for my grandfather’s safe return, but I will spare a thought for his four comrades and hope that they, too, made it back home safely to their loved ones.
It is a great honour to speak and to listen to so many moving speeches today, including the excellent speech by the hon. Member for Argyll and Bute (Brendan O’Hara), and to be able to pay tribute to so many Thirsk and Malton constituents of yesteryear, including in my home town of Easingwold, where it is my great privilege to lay a wreath on Sunday and pay tribute to all those who gave so much in the great war and to the sacrifices of their loved ones, their friends, their families.
Even 100 years later, every family is touched in some way by world war one. For the story I am about to tell, I should like to thank my relatives, Richard and Penny Booth, born Hollinrake, of Wells, Somerset. Some time ago, they wrote to me to tell of the incredible feats of Penny’s father, my grandfather’s brother, Ernest Hollinrake. It is a striking example of the millions of individual contributions on both sides of the conflict.
Ernest enlisted on 7 September 1914 alongside his pals in the Loyal Regiment (North Lancashire), an infantry regiment. Defence of the realm against a foreign aggressor, of course, was every person’s duty. His Pals battalion was known as the Lydgaters. Lydgate is a small village just outside Todmorden, West Yorkshire, where my family originate. Ernest was only 18 years old. His occupation: cotton operator in the local spinning mill.
There are few accounts of Ernest’s infantry service other than the official records, the first of which is three years into his service. During the third battle of Ypres, where 77,479 men were lost in the month of September alone, for his action on 20 September 1917, Second Lieutenant Ernest Hollinrake was awarded the Military Cross. The citation reads:
“For conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty. He…led (his platoon) forward under covering fire from Lewis guns and rifle grenades, and assaulted a strong point which he captured with thirty prisoners. His courage and determination were a splendid example to his platoon.”
Then, on 27 May 1918, near Rossignol Wood, in the northern part of the Somme, Ernest Hollinrake was awarded a bar to the Military Cross. The citation reads:
“When two of his front line posts were attacked by a strong hostile raiding party, and one section, greatly outnumbered, was overrun, he dashed up, leapt on the parapet, shot the enemy leader with his revolver, and led his men in a charge on the remainder, putting them to flight. By his great courage and promptness he undoubtedly saved his section, and prevented the enemy securing a much needed identity, and gained what proved a valuable one himself.”
In 1919, in an undated newspaper cutting with the heading, “Todmorden Military Honour”, the following was published:
“It is officially announced that the president of the French Republic has been pleased to confer the Croix de Guerre, with Palm on Lieut. Hollinrake of Todmorden… He received his British decoration personally from the hand of His Majesty at Buckingham Palace a short time ago.”
He survived. Most of his pals did not. Ernest stayed in the Army until 1922 and later went into business in Leeds. He was lucky by comparison to many.
I am not sure what advice Ernest or any of my fallen constituents would give us today if they were here to listen to this debate or to speak in it. Whatever the unforgivable mistakes and unthinkable atrocities of war, I am sure, at the end of the day, they would be able propose no other alternative than the last resort of being prepared to send our troops into the tragedies of war. Today, all we can do is salute them and all those who made so many sacrifices. Today and every day, we say, “Lest we forget.”
The debate stood adjourned (Standing Order No. 9(3)).
Motion made, and Question put forthwith (Standing Order No. 15),
That, at this day’s sitting, the Motion in the name of the Prime Minister relating to the centenary of the Armistice may be proceeded with, though opposed, until 8.00pm.—(Iain Stewart.)
Question agreed to.
Main Question again proposed.
It is a privilege to speak in today’s debate and to follow the hon. Member for Thirsk and Malton (Kevin Hollinrake). I associate myself with the remarks of a number of hon. Members. I was particularly impressed by the speeches from the shadow Secretary of State, the hon. Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart) and the right hon. Member for Broadland (Mr Simpson), as well as those from other colleagues.
Like many Members, I lost relatives in both world wars and I have found today’s debate deeply moving. I want to briefly mention one particular relative, my wife’s great uncle Albert Woodhead, who died at the Somme aged 19. He has no known grave. Our family visited the Thiepval memorial a few years ago. It was incredibly moving.
My constituency of Reading East, like the whole of the UK, Ireland and the Commonwealth, was deeply affected. I pay tribute to all the men and women who served in our armed forces, as well as in other roles such as in the merchant navy and the munitions factories, and on the wider home front. Britain owes a huge debt of honour to the Commonwealth and to what was then the British empire. It is important to remember the bravery and sacrifice not only of British forces, but of all those who served from Ireland, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, Africa and the West Indies, as well as Australia, Canada, South Africa and other dominions such as New Zealand. Indeed, 1.5 million men served in the Indian army alone. Commonwealth and British empire forces were engaged on a wide range of fronts across the globe.
I would like to turn to the effect of the great war on Reading and Woodley and to mention some outstanding local people. Thousands of people from Berkshire served in many capacities. In particular, I would like to mention the story of Trooper Potts, who is the only person from Reading to have won a Victoria Cross. Frederick Potts, who came from the Katesgrove area of Reading, which I used to represent as a councillor, was awarded a Victoria Cross for his outstanding bravery. He saved the life of an injured comrade by dragging him to safety from no-man’s land during extremely heavy fighting in the Gallipoli campaign. Although injured in the thigh himself, Trooper Potts dragged his severely wounded comrade 600 yards on a trenching shovel. Fred Potts ultimately survived the great war, dying at the age of 50 in 1943. Arthur Andrews, whom he saved, lived until he was 89. This moving story reminds us again of the service and self-sacrifice of the first world war generation. It is just one of many incidents we remember today.
In my own life many years later, my son used to play football with one of Trooper Potts’ descendants, and I got to know the family well, which was a huge privilege. In this strange way, our history is all around us. For me, it has been a personal privilege to take part in this debate and to commemorate a small part of that history with colleagues from across the whole House.
Before I finish, I would like to thank the many organisations involved in commemorating this important anniversary. In particular, I would like to mention Berkshire branches of the Royal British Legion and Wokingham and Reading Borough Councils. Woodley Town Council has put up an extremely moving display featuring some of the servicemen from what was then the village of Woodley. Woodley is now a large suburb of Reading, with thousands and thousands of residents. Sadly, many of the small number of soldiers from that once village never returned. I also thank the many clubs, charities, employers and other organisations who have helped to mark this important commemoration and the local historians who have taken part.
It is a pleasure to speak in this debate. At the outset, I want to observe how well the debate was started by my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport and, in particular, the shadow Secretary of State, the hon. Member for West Bromwich East (Tom Watson). The tone they set was dignified, moving and absolutely appropriate for this occasion.
On Sunday, we will mark the Armistice and 100 years since the guns fell silent, although it is worth noting, as has been said, that the war did not formally end until the signing of the treaty of Versailles, so we still have all the stories of attacks being launched right up to the final moment that the guns stopped. Generals feared that the war could restart if a treaty could not be negotiated, so they wanted to have the best position possible. That is why we have the tragedies of people being killed a couple of minutes beforehand. When I was out in Belgium earlier this year on Great Pilgrimage 90, I saw that one of the casualties was at 10.58 that morning.
What really brought home to me the enormity of the sacrifice was attending, at the start of the centenary commemorations, one of the “Lights Out” events, held at the local St Marychurch war memorial in Torquay. At the time of the war, St Marychurch was a small, still relatively rural community on the edge of the town. Ninety-four names are on the war memorial. I was 35 then, which made me older than absolutely everyone on it, which I found particularly poignant. These men had been in the queue at the recruiting office, smiling. There are probably still some photos of them leaving some of the local stations, having signed up expecting the war to be over by Christmas, before finding themselves, two years later, on the Somme.
This is about remembering that it was a war on an industrial scale for the first time in human history, with gas, planes, tanks, trench warfare and mass artillery barrages, and lines that stayed still for years. These were all things that had never been seen before. It was also a crossover between two generations of warfare. New technology was coming in, but it was still the age of the horse. In the first part of 1914, the British cavalry was still advancing across France and attack cavalry charges were still being mounted. On Saturday I was in Cockington, where there is a plaque as part of the purple poppy campaign, which reminds us of many of the animals that went away to war with their owners. It was a unique partnership, as they faced the horrors of the battlefield together.
I mentioned that I went out as part of Great Pilgrimage 90 to revisit many of the sites from 90 years before. Old comrades and families went to see where their loved ones were killed. The battlefield from the battle of Loos was particularly remarkable. It was totally flat, easy to look across, and overlooked by a couple of slag heaps that provided superb observation points—the army could be seen forming from miles away. That is where, in about a five-mile stretch, about 20,000 of our soldiers were killed. It was particularly moving when we asked about the attack—it was in September 1915, and it failed. When did the line finally move? In about August or September 1918. For three years, the bodies lay in the field. In a distance not that different from the length of this Chamber, for three years British and German forces looked at each over this field, where so many of their comrades had fallen. This meant that, unsurprisingly, by the time that most of the bodies were recovered, they could no longer be identified.
It is moving to see where the first and last shots were fired and to note how close they are, and then to visit the cemetery where, as has been mentioned, the first and last casualties are buried. Interestingly, the cemetery was first constructed by the Germans in the war, and our troops were treated there in a respectful way. One mistake was made. They called a regiment “royal” when it was not royal. They assumed it was a royal regiment because it was from Middlesex. The plaque is still there. It is a sign that in the middle of that horror respect was still being paid.
Thankfully, Europe today is very different from the Europe of despots and dictators who just over a century ago drove us to war, and today some of our former foes are now friends. It is absolutely right that the German President has been invited to the Cenotaph on Sunday. My grandfather was badly injured in world war two. His mother got the thing that was second only to the telegram saying your loved one had been killed: a rail warrant to go to meet him coming off a hospital ship. He was always very clear that he fought the Germans to get rid of the Nazis. His fight was not with the ordinary German, but with the leadership of Germany, and the only way of removing them was to go to war and remove the evil of national socialism from Europe.
It is right that on Sunday we remember the sacrifice of a century ago and that we never forget, because the first step towards it happening again is forgetting the lessons of how it happened in the first place.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Torbay (Kevin Foster), whom I thank for his contribution, and to speak in this debate. Indeed, it is pleasure to follow all the incredible contributions from right hon. and hon. Members, particularly those of the Secretary of State and shadow Secretary of State.
I am proud to have served in the armed forces, in the Ulster Defence Regiment and the Territorial Army, in the Royal Artillery. I am proud to have worn that uniform and served my Queen and country. Northern Ireland has a very strong and proud service history. Newtownards, the main town in my borough, was home to the legendary Blair Mayne, who received the highest awards for bravery during the second world war and for whom we still await the posthumous recognition that so rightly belongs to him—his earned but withheld Victoria Cross.
I will take a similar theme to my right hon. Friend the Member for Lagan Valley (Sir Jeffrey M. Donaldson). A total of 206,000 Irishmen served in the British forces during the first world war, and another 130,000 were volunteers recruited from Ireland for the duration of the war; of these, some 24,000 originated from the Redmondite national volunteers, and 26,000 joined from the Ulster volunteers; and 80,000 of those recruits had no experience in either of the paramilitary formations before going to war. The recruitment rate in Ulster matched that in Britain itself, and that in Leinster and Munster was about two thirds of that in Britain, while Connacht lagged behind them. Northern Catholics enlisted just as often as Protestants. The German bullet did not distinguish between Catholic and Protestant, between nationalist and Unionist—anyone who fought the German empire was fair game.
Members might wonder why I have taken so long to outline the wholeness of Ireland at that time. The answer is this: I am tired of this remembrance event being politicised and turned so that wearing a poppy becomes a declaration of allegiance. Wearing a poppy is merely being respectful and thankful to those who laid down their lives to allow us the freedom we so unthinkingly enjoy today.
I was not surprised to learn that more than 50 contracted and former Celtic football players fought in world war one. William Angus was awarded the Victoria Cross. I once read an article that stated:
“The remarks attributed to National Volunteer and poet, Francis Ledwidge, who was to die in preparation of the Third battle of Ypres in 1917, perhaps best exemplifies the changing…nationalist sentiment towards enlisting, the War, and to the Germans and British.”
Those remarks were:
“I joined the British Army because she stood between Ireland and an enemy common to our civilization, and I would not have her say that she defended us while we did nothing at home but pass resolutions”.
They fought while maintaining their nationalism, but now it seems that some refuse to remember for fear of somehow losing their nationalism. It is a very sad state of affairs. I am not swayed by the affiliation of any person who fought against the Germans. I am equally grateful to them all and honour them today.
In this the centenary of the first world war, I long for an end to the discussions of white poppies, for an end to the discussions of British imperialism, for an end to the discussions of sectarianism. Like my right hon. Friend the Member for Lagan Valley, I long to stand as we did then.
Does the hon. Gentleman also recognise the great movement in recent years in terms of being able to recognise those who fought in the first world war from both Northern Ireland and the Republic? For example, the graves at Glasnevin cemetery are now marked by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, and the remembrance wall, which for years was at the back of the cemetery, now takes pride of place at the entrance to the cemetery.
I have given an analogy from the past, and when the hon. Gentleman intervened I was about to give an analogy for the future. I too have been privileged to visit Glasnevin cemetery, as have many other Members. I was greatly impressed when we had the opportunity to visit the graves and see what the Republic of Ireland had done to remember those who had given their lives. Some of the history that we heard about was incredible.
May I pursue that point? I understand from what I heard last night that, as support for the poppy has grown in the Republic of Ireland, there has been a surge in the number of people from the Republic who want to join the British Army again. Is that not wonderful?
It almost makes me cheer. I am very pleased to hear about it, but it comes as no surprise to me, because there has always been a tradition of service in the Republic of Ireland. As I said earlier, the fact that 130,000 people from the Republic volunteered to fight in the first world war was an indication of their wish to do so. The Irish Guards have a strong association with us, and in my town a large proportion of recruits are from the Republic. They are quite happy to swear allegiance to Her Majesty and to the British Army, and to do what they are instructed to do in their job.
I am also pleased—this is relevant to what has just been said by the right hon. Member for North Durham (Mr Jones)—that we are beginning to see a tradition of change. War memorials down south that were going to rack and ruin have been spruced up, and memorial services are now being held as we hold them in Northern Ireland, over a period of time. Great changes are coming, and indeed change has come, but some people may still be unwilling to accept the new future.
I want us to stand shoulder to shoulder, regardless of religious belief, political ideals or anything else. I long for us to stand in simple gratitude and respect for those whose blood has marked the way and allowed us our right to debate these issues in the House tonight, along with the right to abstain—if that is what people want to do—and the right to voice opposing opinions, as we often do in the House, although we are still friends at the end of it. All those rights we have for one reason only: the sacrifice that was made with us in mind.
Some Members have referred to the role for youth. In my constituency, there is an incredible turnout on Remembrance Sunday for all the parades that I go to. How proud I am—indeed, how proud we would all be—of the uniformed church groups and the Army, Air Force and naval cadets: young people who are just starting out in life, but who want to serve in uniform. We also have an opportunity to see some of our older soldiers, although every year we look around and see one or two fewer. It is the same for all of us. That is life, but a new generation is coming in, and that new generation will follow all of us, and all those who have left us. It is good to have a remembrance service of that kind in my constituency, and I suspect that the same applies to every constituency that enrols uniformed organisations and young people to make their contribution. They understand very well what is going on.
I wear my poppy, and so do my sons, who, in turn, have taught my granddaughters what it means to remember—not to idealise, not to seek to alter historical fact, and not to make any proclamation other than that, at the going down of the sun and in the morning, we will remember them. That is what today’s debate is about. I long, in this special year, for those who have determined to disrespect the meaning of the poppy, and who simply do not care enough to buy a poppy or perhaps even to attend a remembrance service, instead to stand shoulder to shoulder with those who attend annually, and to express themselves in that way.
Let us all stand and take a minute simply to say, “We remember, we are grateful, and we will seek to ensure that the lessons learned through your tremendous sacrifice will be passed on to future generations”—which I know that they will. That is not just a phrase, but my enduring promise: I will remember them.
It is a great privilege to follow my friend the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) and a great honour to participate in this debate and to give thanks for the service and sacrifice of the generation of the great war. I have been thinking a lot in these hours about my grandmother’s brother, Harry Blakemore, who as a boy signed up in August 1916 to the Shropshire Yeomanry—he was from Small Heath in Birmingham—ended up in the Cheshire Regiment and was killed in action on the western front on 28 February 1918.
Like many others in this House, I have the good fortune to be old enough to have actually known men who served on the western front. These old men of my boyhood had already outlived their biblical apportionment of three score years and 10, and when they said anything about the war it was only to speak of their pals and the horror of it all, with no detail.
As has already been said by an Opposition Member, my constituency of Stirling has a long association with the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, a regiment that gave extraordinary service to this country. Stirling is a remarkable place for another reason: 43 Squadron of the Royal Flying Corps was founded, established and headquartered in Stirling. In fact the Scottish headquarters of the Royal Flying Corps was at the Station Hotel in Stirling. To this day Stirling retains its proud links to the Royal Air Force and honours the successors of those original men in their flying machines.
Of interest in Stirling over the past few years has been the way in which the Stirling Observer has reported the 100th anniversary of the war. Each week it has reproduced reports from the time, bringing to life the way Stirling was during the great war. It has been sobering. The Stirling Observer reports that tourists travelled from all over Scotland to see the new flying machines of the Royal Flying Corps based in Stirling, but it also printed week after week lists of casualties, with pictures of young men in uniform. The newspaper talked about shortages and inconveniences at home, too. This has been a remarkable act of remembrance by the Stirling Observer, and I would like to put on record my thanks to John Rowbotham, its editor, and his team, because they have provided for Stirling a remarkable and telling memorial.
Stirling’s contribution to the war effort was not insubstantial and the number of people listed on each of the war memorials in all the villages of Stirlingshire give some sense of the sacrifice made by families, but there are two individuals I would like to mention today. The first is Lieutenant James Huffam. I recently had the honour of attending a ceremony in Dunblane to honour the 100th anniversary of the actions that led to him receiving the Victoria Cross for bravery. He rushed an enemy machine gun in France, crippling its attack, and under heavy fire he withdrew carrying a wounded comrade. Later on the same day, he led another attack, capturing eight prisoners and allowing the British advance.
I would also like to talk about 772 Private William Ebenezer Monteith, whose daughter, Margaret Davidson, I had the privilege of accompanying to the service of commemoration that we held earlier today in St Margaret’s church. Private Monteith joined the Seaforth Highlanders in 1910 and was a member of the British Expeditionary Force, so he was among the first to be deployed in 1914. They were called a “contemptible little army” by the Kaiser and so proudly called themselves the “old contemptibles.”
Private Monteith was soon captured at the retreat from Mons on 26 August 1914. He spent the rest of the war as a prisoner of war. It was his duty to try to escape, and he escaped from at least two prisoner of war camps, at Westerholt and subsequently at Friedrichsfeld. He was recaptured each time. During his separation from his family, they received a letter, which is reported in the Stirling Observer. He said in the letter that the “food is inadequate” and he concluded it with his favourite battle-cry: “Roll on, Bonnie Scotland”—a battle-cry we can echo to this day.
That story and the many others of this generation tell of service—they put themselves last, putting service to their family, their community and their country first. Those who answered the call and those who were separated from their loved ones all served equally and we will remember them.
Lieutenant Huffam and Private Monteith both came back from the war and went on to live their lives—to marry, to have families of their own and to have careers. They gave us the country that we have today, and in honouring the sacrifice of those with whom they served who did not return, we also honour them. It is our duty and our privilege to honour their memories by seeking to prevent such sacrifices from being necessary at any time in the future, and also to build a country and a world of which they could feel proud. Every day in this place we are reminded of the great titans of Parliament whose statues are all around the building, and I am grateful that on Sunday we will all stand before memorials etched with the names of those who have given us the country that we have today. Such is our heritage, and such is the price of our liberty.
It is somewhat overwhelming to speak at the end of such an amazing debate with so many moving speakers, and to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Stirling (Stephen Kerr). I was particularly moved by the comments from my neighbour, my hon. Friend the Member for Brentwood and Ongar (Alex Burghart), who spoke so movingly about the role of women.
The Essex Regiment Museum is based in Chelmsford and it is well worth a visit. We are proud of a number of the exhibits, not least the Napoleonic eagle captured from the French at the battle of Salamanca in 1812. There are also some grim memories there, however. There is a picture of the last stand at Gundamuck, when almost the entire 44th Regiment lost their lives in the first Anglo-Afghan war. We also have memorials to world war one, in which 9,000 members of the regiment died in Gallipoli, Egypt and Palestine, and at Arras, Cambrai, Ypres and the Somme. I visited Ypres four years ago and joined students from a British school based deep in the East Anglian fens and students from a twinned school in Germany. They visited the battlefields together and unveiled a memorial that they had jointly designed, at the site of the Christmas day football match in 1914. It was deeply moving to be there with the next generation as they came together to remember the previous ones. We must never forget.
My own childhood was spent, half a century ago, in Northern Ireland during the troubles, and I would like to put on record my personal thanks to those who stood up against terrorism in the United Kingdom. I first sold poppies 40 years ago on the streets of Omagh, County Tyrone. We had armed servicemen on our streets in those days. The weekend before last, I joined poppy sellers in Chelmsford and it was a very happy occasion. The town is covered with poppies, many of which are like the knitted one that I am wearing today. I am also wearing the shamrock poppy, to remember those Irish soldiers who lost their lives and who have never been commemorated.
I also want to remember another group. Chelmsford has a long history of Quakerism. Quakers are members of a peace church who take a moral stand against participation in armed conflict. At the beginning of the first world war, a group of young Quakers created the Friends’ Ambulance Unit. Its 1,200 members were all civilians, but they worked closely with fighting soldiers. The unit provided those conscientious objectors with a way to support the wounded, and an alternative to military service. They worked on the frontlines providing medical support for troops and civilians, and on hospital ships in the channel and the Mediterranean. They cared for everyone they found wounded, including Germans. By November 1918, 21 members of the Friends’ Ambulance Unit had given their own lives. In 1947, the Quakers were awarded the Nobel peace prize. Even today, Quakers act as ecumenical accompaniers, working in Israel and Palestine to provide a protective presence and to monitor and report human rights abuses. They wear brightly coloured jackets to accompany children to school across the battle zones. Jesus said:
“Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends”
but he also said:
“Blessed are the peacemakers”
and we must remember them, too. We must remember them all.
As many have said, it is a privilege to speak in this debate. I feel completely unworthy to speak, in a sense, following the many extraordinary speeches that we have heard this afternoon and this evening from right hon. and hon. Members. By my count, we have had 26 speeches from Back Benchers, and two excellent speeches from the Front-Bench spokesmen. The debate was opened by the Secretary of State for the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, who was extremely ably answered by my hon. Friend the Member for West Bromwich East (Tom Watson), the shadow Secretary of State, who spoke brilliantly.
There have been so many brilliant speeches that it would be invidious to single one out. What struck me, however, is that we have heard speeches from all four nations of the United Kingdom, and on a variety of aspects of the Armistice and the great war, ranging from the role of women and Ireland—being of Irish heritage, I found that deeply interesting and significant—to the role of the Quakers; I was glad to hear the hon. Member for Chelmsford (Vicky Ford) mention them at the end. It has been an extraordinary, illuminating and, at times, emotional debate. Hon. Members did well to hold it together at times, because there has certainly been a catch in the throat and a tear in the eye across the House from time to time.
We are grateful for the opportunity to commemorate the Armistice that marked the end of the great war, and for the chance to speak of our armed forces communities, and the sacrifices that were made and continue to be made for our safety. As we have heard, the Armistice put an end to over four years of tragic conflict between Germany and the allied forces, and mechanised killing on land, at sea and in the air. It was signed at 5 am on 11 November 1918 in a French railway carriage in Compiègne, and the guns stopped firing six hours later. As we heard earlier today in the service in St Margaret’s, the Prime Minister of the day, the Welshman David Lloyd George, when announcing the terms of the Armistice, expressed relief at the ending of what he called
“the cruellest and most terrible war that has ever scourged mankind.”
It is interesting to note how different people approach history, because I visited that railway carriage in Compiègne many years ago, and of course the same carriage was used by Hitler in 1940 to force the French into signing the surrender that resulted in Vichy France and Germany occupying most of France. However, when I visited it 25 years ago, there was no mention of that anywhere in the entire French presentation—there was reference only to the 1918 signing of the Armistice. We should acknowledge all aspects of history. This afternoon and evening, hon. Members have given an honest appraisal of the great war, the Armistice, its significance and all aspects of it, good and bad.
We have not talked about the French much today, but the French suffered incredible casualties. My wife’s family lost 17 members at Verdun. We have a biscuit tin full of Croix de Guerre, Légions d’Honneur and Médailles Militaire, but we do not even know to whom they were given. The French really suffered, as did the Germans.
I am glad that the hon. and gallant Gentleman has had the opportunity to put that on the record.
It is difficult to envisage the scale of the scourge that Lloyd George talked about. Four million men served in the British Army, alongside 3 million soldiers and labourers from what was then the British empire and Commonwealth. Some 1.27 million served from India alone, as well as over 10,000 from Jamaica. There were over 10 million military and 7 million civilian fatalities worldwide. Around 1 million British military personnel were killed, and the fighting stretched from Flanders to Gallipoli, from Pilckem Ridge to Palestine.
On this centenary of Armistice Day, we ponder three central thoughts. First, we honour the memories of those who fought and died. Secondly, we are solemnly grateful that the terrible tragedy came to an end. Thirdly, we are committed to preventing such devastation from happening again. I have been present in this Chamber when the House has been in a different mood—when the drums of war have been sounding. We should remember this moment when, inevitably, such events present themselves to us again. We should remember this kind of debate, as well as the mood the House sometimes gets into when we hear the sound of the drums of war.
These moments of commemoration are important, and I thank all those involved: the Imperial War Museum, the BBC, the Royal British Legion, the Commonwealth War Graves Commission—we have heard so much about the commission this afternoon—and the Heritage Lottery Fund. The fund held an important reception last week, and the hon. Member for South West Wiltshire (Dr Murrison), the Prime Minister’s envoy, was present. It really was a testament to the hard work done by him and by my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley Central (Dan Jarvis) on the commemorations.
I think my hon. Friend has missed them by mistake, but he also needs to thank the parliamentary authorities, which have done an excellent job. The Library and the archivists have shown the history not only of Members of both Houses who fought and died in the war, but of the Clerks and other staff who served.
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right, and I acknowledge the work he has done with the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, including with me in Wales; we did some work a few years ago on restoring some of the graves in my Cardiff West constituency.
Members will know that the legacy of the first world war resonates in all our communities. Most cities, towns and villages in the UK have a war memorial, and we will all be visiting those war memorials this weekend to lay wreathes and pay tribute to those who left our communities more than 100 years ago and did not return. I will attend the Welsh national wreath-laying ceremony in Cardiff, and a special service of commemoration at Llandaff cathedral in my constituency. Baroness Finlay of Llandaff and I will both lay wreathes at the war memorial in Llandaff city on Friday.
Every community has its own first world war story, and as many others have done, I will briefly pay tribute to those from my Cardiff West constituency whose courage has become part of our collective memory. On 7 July 1916, the 16th Battalion of the Welsh Regiment, known as the Cardiff City Battalion, fought at Mametz wood alongside other Welsh units as part of the 38th Division, which was devised by Prime Minister David Lloyd George and included the Welsh Regiment, the South Wales Borderers and the Royal Welch Fusiliers.
The Cardiff City Battalion was exposed to heavy machine-gun fire, and more than 150 men died, with many more injured. Welsh rugby internationals Dick Thomas and John Williams were among the dead. A survivor, William Joshua, recalled:
“On the Somme, the Cardiff City Battalion died.”
It might be of interest to you, Mr Speaker, that Fred Keenor, who subsequently captained Cardiff City football club when they defeated Arsenal in the 1927 FA cup final, was injured at the battle of the Somme, and it very nearly ended his football career.
We have the games of remembrance in Nottingham on Thursday. The German and British women’s army teams will play at lunch time at Notts County, and in the evening the British and German men’s army teams will play at Nottingham Forest. Although I am sure that the hon. Gentleman would love to attend, he probably will not be able to, but is it not a great event?
My hon. Friend will also be there, so I can supply the right hon. Member for Broxtowe (Anna Soubry) with some first-rate people in support.
I had better press on, Mr Speaker, before you call us all back to order. The following year saw the battle of Passchendaele, which carries particular weight in Welsh cultural memory, as my hon. Friends the Members for Llanelli and for Ynys Môn (Albert Owen), who is sitting at the back, will know. We commemorated the battle’s centenary last year with a debate in this Chamber. Every village in Wales was affected by the battle, and 20,000 first language Welsh-speaking soldiers alone were killed at Passchendaele.
1917 was the year of 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, with poetry, dancing and singing. That year, Ellis Humphrey Evans, under the now-famous pseudonym, Hedd Wyn, was judged as the winner of the chair at the Eisteddfod, the highest honour available in Welsh culture, which is awarded to the best poet writing in traditional strict meter. However, when the winner’s pseudonym was called in the traditional 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 Welch Fusiliers went over the top 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.
That poignant story of Hedd Wyn captured the mourning of a nation. Stories such as these help us to remember the humanity of each individual who lost their life, and we have heard many such stories this evening. Each one was a son, a daughter, a loved one who was missed by someone at home. As we have seen today, they are still missed by their descendants in this House and across the country.
In my constituency, in 1917, the Women’s Land Army was formed; 20,000 women across the UK enlisted to work in places such as Green Farm in the Ely area of my constituency, which is now a council housing estate. As a farm, it was run predominantly by female farmhands 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.”
That is where the soldiers were kept. I am proud, as I am sure we all are, of the efforts of Agnes and so many women across the country; we have heard about those in today’s debate. In rightly commemorating the enfranchisement of some women in 1918, let us not forget that working-class women such as Agnes, or my grandmother, Gwenllian Evans, did not get the vote until nearly a decade later.
My hon. Friend is talking about the effort of women during the great war. It is worth recognising that the Women’s Institute was founded during this period; as Mr Speaker knows, we held the centenary event in my constituency. These women were the stars of the home front as well, and they are worth mentioning.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right to refer to the founding of the Women’s Institute. May I also pay tribute to him for rightly drawing attention, as a former merchant seaman, to the sacrifice of the merchant navy? It is of course because of these sacrifices that the centenary of Armistice Day, and Remembrance Sunday each year, are an essential part of our cultural life. We must remember those who fought to keep us safe. We must recommit to ensuring that we never allow such division and devastation to happen again.
With your indulgence, Mr Speaker, I will close, as others have done, with poetry. I turn to the words of Hedd Wyn’s poem “Rhyfel”, which means war in Welsh. I will read part of it in Welsh first and then give the English translation. It reads:
“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.
It translates as follows:
“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.”
Mr Speaker, we will remember them.
Diolch yn fawr, Mr Speaker. This has been a privilege and an education, a reminder that no community was truly unaffected by the visible and invisible scars of a century ago. Both Front Benchers spoke about sacrifice, and we have heard not only about emancipation, courage, gallantry, equality, bravery, impact, loss, opportunity, reflection, contribution, community, family, survivors, duty and tragedy, but about home and coming back safely.
This weekend, we will mark the Armistice with silence and we will pay our respects. This is an opportunity for all the communities represented in this House to come together. The Secretary of State spoke about blood, mud and misery, about a collective effort of commemoration and about using history to bring us together. He said that we should give thanks for the end of the great war and be ready for the special sound of church bells as they ring out across the land 100 years on. It is bittersweet, said the hon. Member for West Bromwich East (Tom Watson), and what a magnificent speech that was. He talked about learning from living memories, not just from history, about the poppy from Flanders fields, about civilian support for our Royal British Legion, and, yes, about common cause and, again, about bell ringing for those millions who never came home.
It really has been the most poignant and often painful afternoon of debate. It has been touching, thoughtful, passionate, emotional and, above all, personal. I shall try to pay tribute to some of these heartfelt contributions this afternoon. There were Members of Parliament from across this land in the Chamber—from Aldridge-Brownhills, Eastleigh, Henley, Ynys Môn, West Dunbartonshire to Cheltenham.
Moving tributes will be made this weekend as we all give thanks. I, too, will lay wreaths in my constituency—nine will be laid across the day. In the afternoon, in Netley, I will be at the site of the Royal Victoria Hospital, where only a refurbished chapel stands. It is also the site of the Netley military cemetery, in which 636 Commonwealth service personnel from world war one and 35 service personnel from the second world war lay. The site is maintained by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. There are also the graves of 69 Germans, 12 Belgians and one Pole, all of which continue, rightly, to be cared for.
I am extremely grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way. It is always an honour to speak in this place, but, sometimes, it is also worth remembering that it is just as great an honour to sit and listen quietly, which is what I have done. I want her to do this, if she will. Many hon. Members have mentioned Victoria Cross winners—there were 627 in total in the first world war. Will the Government commit to ensure that every one of them, as a way to remember all those who served, are particularly marked in their locales—in the villages, towns and cities—perhaps by a plaque, by a road name, by a building or even by planting a tree? There will be war memorials, but I think that we can do more in this centenary year.
My right hon. Friend is tenacity itself. It is right that such important people are raised in this debate, and I thank him for making such an important point.
Where do I begin with some of the contributions this afternoon? My right hon. Friend the Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis) spoke about Brockenhurst. He said that we must not stint on defence and resources in peacetime. As we heard from the hon. Member for West Dunbartonshire (Martin Docherty-Hughes), we need to commit to peace, to remember the people who were in peril on the sea and to remember the pain that they felt. Also among us was a historian—my right hon. Friend the Member for Broadland (Mr Simpson)—who has headed off to talk some more on this. His speech focused on why these events matter to young people and why we must have the sites commemorated appropriately, particularly for those who lost their lives at sea.
This Department has given £10 million to deliver events over the past four years. In addition, there has also been a mix of programmes from the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government, the Department for Education and the Ministry of Defence, and that is absolutely right. My hon. Friend the Member for Cheltenham (Alex Chalk) spoke about the hollowing out of communities by the great war, and it is absolutely right that we remember those sacrifices.
The hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Ruth Smeeth) told us about the Weeping Window, an installation in the heart of her constituency showing the bravery of service personnel, who continue to do so much for this country. My hon. Friend the Member for Henley (John Howell) showed a passion for peace making by the Council of Europe. The hon. Member for Slough (Mr Dhesi) gave us some great, positive news about a statue to commemorate Sikh soldiers and spoke about unity, integration and all-important diversity. Creating such a memorial 100 years on is the right thing to do.
The right hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Sir Jeffrey M. Donaldson) told us about the shamrock poppy, which is rightly being worn in the House of Commons to show this is a common cause. My hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton (Kevin Hollinrake) talked about a devotion to duty, thanked his loved ones and mentioned the impact of the war on friends and family. The hon. Member for Reading East (Matt Rodda) spoke about the bravery of the Commonwealth—local heroes from Reading and those from across the world—and mentioned clubs and charities.
My hon. Friend the Member for Torbay (Kevin Foster) reminded us not to forget about our furry friends—the animals who were casualties of war and who were taken by their owners to an unknown fate. He also told us about learning lessons from his grandfather and said that the first step in preventing this from happening again is never to forget. In the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), we heard from a serviceman, who spoke about the new generation, uniformed cadets and young people always willing to serve.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Rayleigh and Wickford (Mr Francois) rightly raised the importance of culture. The 14-18 NOW project has engaged 35 million people, immersing them in cultural integration activities. We heard my right hon. Friend’s poetry oration, and he spoke about the horror of war and the sacrifice for rightful freedom.
The right hon. Member for Leeds Central (Hilary Benn) talked about the trenches and the sunflowers in Gallipoli, and he told us about emotional sacrifice and terrible stories of the “goodnight kiss”. It was a passionate and brave contribution, highlighting that, moments before the Armistice, we still lost our brave men.
My hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart) spoke about people coming home from war, including the story that the men left in one town were only enough to fill three pews in the church. He said that the huge effort of valour must always be remembered, and he reminded us that 20,000 men and boys were lost on the first day of the battle of the Somme.
The hon. Member for Barnsley Central (Dan Jarvis) gave us a precious reflection on the Devonshires and spoke of the emancipation of women that came through the war—the gallantry of our men, and the impact of our women. I thank him for the huge amount of work he has done for this commemoration.
My hon. Friend the Member for Mole Valley (Sir Paul Beresford) rightly told us about the bravery of our allies and the impact on Canadians, the US, Australians and people from New Zealand. He spoke of the struggle to return to normality after knowing such pain and of soldiers coming from foreign lands to do their duty.
The hon. Member for Ynys Môn (Albert Owen) mentioned the sacrifice given to continue trade links and the connections between the Welsh and the Irish through Holyhead. He told us of 500 lives lost one night at sea; we will remember them.
My hon. Friend the Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mrs Trevelyan) spoke about Northumberland’s proud work to put together such a huge amount of battalions. There were 52 battalions and the regiment was awarded five VCs. She made a passionate, brave and typically emotional speech. She also spoke about the submarines, and it was news to me how dangerous serving on submarines could be.
I thank the right hon. Member for North Durham (Mr Jones) for speaking about the importance of local cemeteries and about the Heritage Lottery Fund, which has done so much, contributing £96 million to over 2,000 projects to mark the centenary.
I find it so difficult not to mention everybody, but an important contribution for me was that of my hon. Friend the Member for Brentwood and Ongar (Alex Burghart), who spoke about his great-grandmother—the foreboding matriarch who paid him 10p to put whisky in her tea. He mentioned the 1.7 million “surplus women” and quoted a headmistress who is said to have told girls, “You must make your way in the world as best you can,” after they lost brothers and others lost sons and they could perhaps have become the maiden generation.
I pay tribute to the huge amount of people who have been pivotal in the commemorations that we have been discussing, including the Royal British Legion, which has been at the heart of so much important activity over the last four years. In my constituency, Norman Brown MBE personally raised £1 million over 25 years to give to the Legion. The tireless community work done by people across the UK is incredible, and they are rightly well regarded. The Commonwealth War Graves Commission, as we have heard, has sensitively maintained 23,000 sites in over 150 countries across the world.
I thank all hon. Members who have done so much. In particular, we have seen the remarkable contribution from the Prime Minister’s special representative for the first world war commemorations, my hon. Friend the Member for South West Wiltshire (Dr Murrison), whose work over six years in delivering these commemorations has been exceptional, alongside the hon. Member for Barnsley Central. I thank all our important devolved Administrations who, as we heard, do so much across the UK and across the world.
It has been heartening to see this House come together to pay tribute to those who tragically paid the ultimate price. We rightly thank all those who went to serve their country and all those who continue to serve their country, to show them that all they have done is right because it has protected our precious freedom. The parliamentary prayer said that we should unite and knit together, in the spirit of recognition and peace, as we reflect on the centenary of the end of a war that brought so much bloodshed and so much horror. Let us all pledge that the sentiments expressed today over in St Margaret’s Church will remain in our thoughts today and over the weekend and in our hearts forever. We will remember them.