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First World War: Centenary

Volume 740: debated on Tuesday 20 November 2012


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what plans they have to commemorate the centenary of the First World War.

My Lords, on 11 October this year the Prime Minister announced a series of measures to commemorate the centenary of the First World War. The Government’s preparations will include national commemorations for key events, including for the outbreak of the war on 4 August 2014. Key partners in this include the Imperial War Museum, the Commonwealth War Graves Commission and local groups and schools across the country.

I thank the Minister for that Answer and the Government for the way in which they are approaching this very delicate commemoration. As it is so delicate, is the Minister aware that it could be easily sidetracked? The Government seem to share the view of most of us that the aim of the commemoration in this country is to recognise the extraordinary bravery, courage, heroism and gallantry of the millions of conscripts and volunteers who came forward to do their patriotic duty before returning to civilian jobs. Will he therefore be vigilant that nobody seeks to sidetrack this commemoration into other purposes, such as glorifying militarism?

I entirely share the noble Lord’s concerns. The Prime Minister in his speech at the Imperial War Museum to launch this said that the important elements that the Government wanted to see in this process of commemoration, which will last about five years, are remembrance, youth and education. This huge series of events in our history and in the history of a large number of other countries included an awful lot of civilian and industrial issues. It transformed the role of women. The Bradford Industrial Museum will be among those leading a recollection of what happened in the transformation of the industrial base of that northern city. So we will be commemorating a great deal which is not simply about the Armed Forces.

What part will be played by the Commonwealth in this commemoration, since so many Commonwealth or imperial troops died in that war?

My Lords, the Australians and Canadians are ahead of us in their plans. I have read the extensive Australian report on what they plan. The variation between different Commonwealth countries as to how much they want to be engaged is marked at the moment. For example, the South Africans want, among other things, to remember the South African Native Labour Corps and in particular the sinking of a ship in the English Channel carrying 800 members of the South African Native Labour Corps from which, sadly, no one was rescued. So there are a number of sensitivities, including about the Indian army, which we are well aware of and which we are already actively discussing with other Commonwealth countries.

Will the Minister expand on the educative aspect of what he said, on the basis that mistakes were clearly made in the run-up to 1914, and that future generations must understand that the failures of diplomacy and politics at that time must be avoided in future?

My Lords, this is aimed at secondary schools. Of the £50 million allocated for the commemorations, £5 million has been targeted at secondary schools, with the intention that every secondary school in England will be supported in sending two students and one teacher to Commonwealth cemeteries on the continent associated with the local communities from which they are drawn. I should perhaps add that the advisory board which has now been set up for the commemoration of World War I is about to hold its first meeting in support of the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport. It includes eight Members of the current House, including the noble Lord and me.

I suggest that we use this opportunity to commemorate the women who played such a vital role in the First World War, working in the fire service, the police service and factories.

That is absolutely part of what we intend to do. To illustrate what we are thinking of, the Commonwealth War Graves Commission has suggested that on 4 August commemorations might take place at two of its cemeteries. The first is Brookwood Cemetery in England where a number of nurses who served in France are buried, as are soldiers from most Commonwealth countries who died in England while suffering from their wounds. The second is Saint Symphorien Cemetery outside Mons, which was established as a German war cemetery where the Germans buried the first British soldier killed in the First World War and where the last British soldier killed in the First World War was buried just after the Armistice was signed.

My Lords, should we not recognise—I think that the Minister wisely does—that the First World War was a very important chapter in our social and cultural as well as our military history? Should we not therefore focus on aspects such as the role of women, the centrality of trade unions in our life and the sensibilities of war poets, who were disgusted by that obscene episode? Should we not focus on that rather than, as I fear Remembrance Sunday is becoming, a celebration of militarism?

My Lords, this year I watched the Remembrance Sunday commemoration very closely from the Foreign Office and I did not think that it had become more militaristic. I was also struck and encouraged that a number of veterans from other countries were marching in the parade. That is also highly desirable. It is not entirely, therefore, a national or nationalistic occasion.

On the question of the wider social context, that is absolutely part of what we will do. In my area, the Saltaire History Club and the Bradford World War One Group—there is one—are already discussing how they will look at the impact on the mill in Saltaire, which turned over to producing khaki cloth and all the other dimensions. A large number of its workforce ended up being women.

My Lords, can we make 4 August 2014 a day of national reflection, with all the shops closed and with a proper opportunity for everyone to consider precisely what terrible things happened in a war on which, on the very last day, when the Armistice was signed, twice as many people were killed as have been killed in Afghanistan?

My Lords, 4 August is not the easiest day in the year to ask people to reflect solemnly on anything. One of the questions with which the Government are currently concerned is: which is the most appropriate day, and what to do? Perhaps I might also add that while the British wish to commemorate the beginning of the war, the Somme battle and the end of the war, many of our Commonwealth partners and allies will want to commemorate other dates: Vimy Ridge for the Canadians, Gallipoli for the Australians and New Zealanders. There is therefore quite a lot of delicate negotiation about how we manage all this. Finally, among the great expertise in this House, the noble Baroness, Lady Henig, has given me a copy of her volume, in Chinese, on the origins of the First World War, which I am very happy to lend anyone who would like to read it.