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World War I: Veterans

Volume 710: debated on Tuesday 12 May 2009


Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government, following the decision by the government of France to award the Légion d’Honneur to Mr Harry Patch and Mr Henry Allingham, whether they plan to grant similar recognition to these last two surviving veterans of the Great War.

My Lords, I am sure that the whole House will wish to join me in offering sincere condolences to the families and friends of Sergeant Ben Ross of 173 Provost Company, 3 Regiment, Royal Military Police; Corporal Kumar Pun of 1 Battalion, the Royal Gurkha Rifles; Corporal Sean Binnie of the Black Watch, 3 Battalion, the Royal Regiment of Scotland; and Rifleman Adrian Sheldon of 2 Battalion, the Rifles, who were killed on operations in Afghanistan on Thursday last week.

The French Government’s decision to award the Légion d’Honneur to Mr Harry Patch and Mr Henry Allingham was welcomed and my honourable friend the Under-Secretary of State for Defence was present on behalf of the MoD at the presentation. It is right that we should all remember and recognise the contribution of those individuals and their generation. The whole House will recall Remembrance Day last year, when the three remaining World War I veterans laid wreaths in that moving ceremony at the Cenotaph.

My Lords, I associate myself with the tribute paid by my noble friend to those four servicemen, and I thank her for her reply to my Question. I agree with everything that she said about remembering the contribution of that generation. I had the honour of meeting Harry Patch on a visit to Ypres last year. Does she agree that those two survivors have played an amazing part in creating understanding about warfare and conflict, and in promoting peace and reconciliation through such things as visits to schools and numerous visits to veterans in Flanders? That being so, why cannot we also offer those gentlemen some sort of official recognition? Next month, they will celebrate their 111th and 113th birthdays, which even by the standards of your Lordships' House are great ages. Will my noble friend please use her influence to see whether something can be done fairly quickly to achieve that recognition?

My Lords, I, too, had the privilege of meeting all three of those veterans last year at Remembrance Day and I certainly agree with my noble friend about their contribution to an understanding of what war was like in those days and the importance of peace. My noble friend and the whole House will know that national honours and awards are in the gift of the Sovereign and are always handled discreetly. It would be wrong to set a precedent by commenting further. I am sure that the House will also recall that a Statement was made on 27 June 2006 in another place in which the Government’s plans to honour the World War I generation were laid out. It is important to remember that work is in hand to take further that idea and other ideas of how we should recognise those contributions.

My Lords, from these Benches we also send our condolences to the families and friends of the four soldiers mentioned by the Minister who were tragically killed in Afghanistan. I turn to the Question. Whatever the Government may be planning after the death of the last of these veterans—whether it be a state funeral or something else—will they ensure that they take close soundings with the families of the veterans?

My Lords, the noble Lord is right that we have made a statement saying that, because the death of the last World War 1 veteran will be such a major milestone, there will be a memorial service, which will be an opportunity for the entire nation to remember not just that individual but the whole generation whom we are talking about. Obviously, these matters have to be dealt with extremely sensitively, and the wishes of the families have to be taken into account, which is why it might be appropriate to wait a little time following the death before holding such a service.

My Lords, while I and these Benches join in the thoughts expressed about the four soldiers who have died, would the Minister not agree that we have been very late to honour those people who have served us on active service? Will the Government undertake to look at how we honour those who survive conflict and have served the country? At the moment we are tremendously good at remembering the dead, and are starting to remember the wounded—but not those who make it through comparatively unscathed.

My Lords, a lot of work has been done recently, because of recent operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, to understand the needs of those who have been injured or who have served on operations. The service Command Paper that was published last year, and improvements in healthcare and the rights of former servicemen, take that situation a lot further, and there have been significant improvements. It is right to say that we should not forget those who survive conflicts, as well as to remember those who have died. As far as concerns about being late to acknowledge the contribution of those such as the veterans whom we were talking about, there have been many acknowledgements, and the 90th remembrance service last year was a very fitting occasion to recognise the contribution of those who had served in the First World War.

My Lords, I declare an interest as a former serving officer in the Royal Navy and a passionate advocate of defence manufacturing equipment from Britain in both the CBI and UKTI. The Minister recognised the sad loss last Thursday—I notice that one of them was a Gurkha. I would love to hear from the Government that we will honour not only these two amazing veterans of a faraway conflict, but also Bomber Command, which this and former Governments have never had the courage to acknowledge formally. Will the Minister confirm now that the Typhoon programme and the aircraft carrier construction programme will carry on? Will the Government please get behind the serving officers and men of the armed services of this fabulous country?

My Lords, I am very proud of what we have done in our equipment programme, but I do not intend to go into that in response to a Question about some very important people who have served this country well; we should spend our time acknowledging that. On the subject of awards, it is a good thing that it is not Ministers who make those decisions: we have appropriate mechanisms in place, we have so far done very well by our veterans and we should all remember their contribution.