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War Memorials

Volume 747: debated on Thursday 18 July 2013


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government whether they will discuss with the Church of England how to commemorate the 304 British soldiers who were executed by the British Government in World War I and who are currently not commemorated in any existing war memorials.

My Lords, the Commonwealth War Graves Commission commemorates by headstone or memorial the more than 1.1 million British and Commonwealth men and women who gave their lives in the First World War. This includes those executed for the more serious of what were called military offences. A memorial initiated by the Shot at Dawn association at the National Memorial Arboretum commemorates 306 British and Commonwealth soldiers who were shot for serious military offences during the war. All their names are part of the memorial.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that response. Does he agree that the total dead recorded for the First World War amount to 705,000? I believe that there are at least 10,000 names missing from the war memorials scattered around our country. It is quite disgraceful that the act of annual commemoration is in effect not complete because nothing has been done to restore those names. We should now look to the Government to lead, in line with the church and hopefully the education system, a national campaign to research and restore the names of every missing person. Can we please have some undertaking from the Minister that he will lead the department, with the co-operation of the church, in a national exercise to restore all the missing names by 11 November 2018?

My Lords, my understanding is that the Commonwealth War Graves Commission commemorates all names on headstones or, if they are missing, on the memorials. My noble friend’s main point is that new names are emerging. One of the interesting things from the research is that bodies are being discovered and named, and military ceremonies are being held to acknowledge them. A lot of work continues to be done.

My Lords, while I am sure the Minister is aware that the Church of England does not have sole responsibility to add names to war memorials but would be glad to work with others on this important issue, is he aware of the work being undertaken by the Church of England, the Imperial War Museum and the War Memorials Trust together to develop educational materials linked to the centenary of World War I to help school children and the wider public to learn more about all the people commemorated and to cherish these memorials and all that they represent?

I entirely agree with the right reverend Prelate and I am aware of the very important work being done by the Imperial War Museum, the Commonwealth War Graves Commission and the Heritage Lottery Fund. The important thing is that English Heritage is restoring, as we all see, the national memorial in Whitehall. I commend it for doing that and I hope very much that others will take that lead so that war memorials across the land, in whosever ownership or custodianship, are in very good order for the commemorations.

My Lords, like the noble Lord, Lord James, I would certainly like to see the 306 more widely memorialised around the country, but that is best left to the churches and local communities rather than to the Government. Would the Minister join me in paying tribute to my noble friend Lord Browne of Ladyton, who five years ago next month, against much opposition, as the newly appointed Secretary of Defence, sought and obtained a pardon for the 306? That has brought great comfort to the families. I know that there is a principle of other times and other customs, but this was long overdue. It took great courage to do, and I salute him for it.

The noble Lord has out-trumped me, because I was intending to acknowledge what the noble Lord, Lord Browne of Ladyton, did with the Armed Forces Act 2006. It was very important for the families involved, and very important for the nation as well.

My Lords, does the Minister not think that the rest of the United Kingdom, as well as England, should be involved in the very proper inclusion of these names? Should not the whole discussion include the churches in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland?

My Lords, all the commemorations will involve not only all parts of the United Kingdom but all parts of the Commonwealth. They will also very much involve partnerships with all the countries that were allies and on the other side. The noble Lord mentioned local communities. We have war memorials across our land. They are the responsibility and the pride of their local communities. It is there that we should be directing and encouraging, through the Heritage Lottery Fund and the War Memorials Trust, this important work across the United Kingdom.

My Lords, I am extremely grateful to my noble friend for his recognition and the response of your Lordships’ House to that. I am embarrassed by it, too, because I was merely the last actor in a long campaign. Many others deserve that gratitude. They campaigned in much more difficult circumstances than I had to work in on this challenging issue. Beyond the pardoning of these 306 who were shot at dawn, there is unfinished business. We can only imagine the horrors of serving in the front line of World War I, thank goodness. The Minister is right that all those who were shot at dawn are memorialised. Unfortunately, they are memorialised in the context that they were shot at dawn. On memorials across Commonwealth cemeteries, there is a legend that says that they were executed for the crime that they committed. They did, however, also serve, and it cannot be beyond the wit of man to amend slightly but significantly that beautiful memorial in the National Memorial Arboretum to record the fact that they served as well as the fact that they were executed.

The noble Lord presents an interesting scenario. It is one that those involved with the Shot at Dawn association and others would need to consider when deciding how to deal appropriately and best with changing circumstances and views. One of the problems is that 60% of all records across the military were lost in the Second World War blitz, and there are sometimes difficulties in verifying the records because of that. Indeed, the records of the Indian Army have already been destroyed, I believe.