Question for Short Debate
My Lords, this is a very well supported debate and the time limit for contributions is three minutes. As soon as “3” comes up on the clock the time is up. This is very important so that we can hear from the Minister. I very much hope that your Lordships will assist.
My Lords, it is a very great pleasure to be able to ask the Government what assessment they have made of the work of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. I think that I am right in saying that today is the anniversary of news having reached London of the success of the Duke of Wellington at Waterloo. Of course, there are no graves or memorials to the many soldiers who lost their lives at Waterloo. Indeed, the First World War was the first occasion when individual graves were achieved for individual soldiers. That was thanks to the efforts of Sir Fabian Ware and the establishment of the Imperial War Graves Commission, as it was in 1917, under royal charter, which said that it should maintain “fit provision” for war dead in perpetuity.
The commission has done that with very great distinction. The scale of the operations is truly immense: graves and memorials for 1.7 million victims of World War I and World War II in 23,000 different locations in 153 countries. The Commonwealth War Graves Commission is responsible for maintaining, to a quality which I am sure many noble Lords will have seen for themselves, the equivalent of 994 football pitches in every corner of the globe. To do that it has some 1,300 staff, 1,080 of whom are gardeners, stonemasons and blacksmiths, with great expertise in horticulture, engraving and ironmongery. Indeed, in France, which I had the privilege of visiting privately earlier this year, there are even third-generation gardeners who come all the way from the First World War. In France the position now is peaceful but the commission also operates in some very dangerous locations, such as Gaza and the Sudan. I spoke to the director-general when I said that I was going to try to get this debate. I asked her, “What is your biggest problem today?”. She said, “My biggest problem today is that our gardeners’ hut in the Sudan is occupied by insurgents”.
The Commonwealth War Graves Commission has done a magnificent job in encouraging schools and visitors—1.6 million people every year visit the graves and memorials. Many of them are children. This organisation is not looking backwards; it is looking forwards with the use of new technology and apps to educate children and make sure that the next generation is involved in remembrance. It is a big challenge for it around the globe, but there is a particular challenge in the United Kingdom, of which I must say I was completely unaware, in that there are some 308,000 service men and women who are commemorated in the UK at 13,000 different locations with 170,000 graves. Of course, there are the great memorials at Chatham, Plymouth, Portsmouth, Tower Hill and Runnymede. That is the largest number in any country outside France.
I visited the battlefields of the Somme with my then-to-be son-in-law—now my son-in-law—earlier in the spring, just to make sure that he was okay and that we got on all right. I have to report that he is extremely okay and very interested in military history. We were able to look at the work that has been done on the battlefields of the Somme and for the Canadians at Vimy Ridge. It is magnificent. Even now, when bodies of soldiers are occasionally found, there is care and effort made through DNA to trace the families, to remove the names from those who are listed on memorials as unknown and put in place a grave and marker for those individuals. Each memorial has documents enabling relatives to find easily the place for their former loved ones.
Less well known are the operations in Palestine, Salonika, East Africa and north Italy—the forgotten corners of some foreign fields. There is the security challenge that the Commonwealth War Graves Commission has to meet in Libya, Syria, Gaza, Yemen, and in Iraq, where there are 54,000 Commonwealth war dead at 13 sites. Getting into Mosul today is pretty well impossible. In Baghdad North Gate the commission has been responsible for 511 new headstones, and in Basra 40,000 graves are in need of urgent attention. Nothing seems to faze this organisation and nothing seems to make it cut corners or reduce the very high standards that it sets.
I am conscious of the fact that many people wishing to speak in the debate have more knowledge and background than me. My purpose was simply, as an astonished bystander, to pay tribute to the work that the commission does. Many of our institutions are under attack in our country and many are subject to criticism. However, it is hard to do anything other than praise this organisation for a job well done—an organisation that does not seek publicity or to promote itself, but can take real pride. I ask my noble friend the Minister to acknowledge the work that it does, and to assure the House that there is no question but that it will continue to obtain the necessary government support and resources to continue that work and to meet its obligations under the charter to ensure that this continues in perpetuity.
My Lords, I am pleased to congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth, on securing this debate. I say at the outset that I agree with every word that he said about the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. The number of speakers in this debate indicates in what high regard the commission is held by Members of your Lordships’ House, and I am delighted to have this opportunity to say my own thank you to it.
I have two relevant interests to declare: the first as co-chair of the War Heritage All-Party Parliamentary Group and the second as a member of the Government’s World War I centenary advisory group. It is in respect of both those bodies that I want to speak this evening, because they are related to the Great War centenary. In 2013 the all-party group that I chaired started discussing with the Commonwealth War Graves Commission the possibility of mapping war graves in the United Kingdom—which the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth, referred to—to see whether there was a possibility of linking those to parliamentary constituencies.
The mapping was carried out by volunteers from the In From The Cold Project, and at the beginning of November 2013, all MPs and Peers received an email from Jeffrey Donaldson MP and me, as co-chairs of the group, giving access to a drop-box site from which they could source war graves by constituency or administrative area. Of the 650 constituencies in the UK, around 640 contain commission sites, usually located within cemeteries and churchyards. The remaining constituencies contain war memorials, and these were listed for the relevant MPs with the information taken from the Imperial War Museum database.
The data sheets provided the MPs with a means of accessing the war graves situated in their own constituencies, and provided a unique opportunity to assist constituents and to work with local schools and interest groups. We suggested a number of ways in which the MPs could engage with schools in their communities, such as schools selecting names on war memorials and linking them to casualties on the commission’s website in order to follow their stories. Schools could “adopt” a headstone, and trace the casualty on the commission’s website and through the Public Record Office. They could hold Remembrance Day services at commission sites, rather than just local war memorials. Sites with a cross of sacrifice or a stone of remembrance particularly lend themselves to that. Communities were encouraged to “adopt” sites that require maintenance. There are quite a number of those in overgrown churchyards.
An invitation was issued to Members to visit commission sites. That resulted in around 150 visiting the war graves in their constituencies, all of them accompanied by commission staff. We are about to start discussions with the commission about repeating the programme of visits, particularly for new MPs and also for Members of your Lordships’ House who have not already been.
My three minutes are up. I commend the noble Lord for having this debate, and the work of the commission.
My Lords, I am very grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth of Drumlean, for initiating the debate. I put my name down to speak because I want to pay tribute to the outstanding quality of the commission’s work. The noble Lord spoke about the distinction and scale of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission; I concur absolutely with that. I pay tribute, too, to the quality of its website. For those of us researching local history for our areas it is extremely user-friendly. I thank it for that.
However, it is the very high standard of maintenance in its cemeteries that I particularly want to commend—indeed in this country, where there are graveyards and churches with Commonwealth War Graves Commission graves and headstones. I notice that the attention to detail and to quality maintains headstones very well. At the slightest sign of damage or wear the headstones can be replaced. The mowing around the Commonwealth War Graves Commission headstones is also to a very high standard—usually much better than may be possible for churches to undertake. The point is this: wherever we are in the world, the standards are always the same and always very high. I congratulate the commission on that.
All this is partly to do with the quality of the staff it employs, who clearly take pride in their work. They have great knowledge of what happened in their areas and can explain to those who visit all that they know of the battles that took place, of the nature of those who fought in the area and of those who lost their lives. For that, the staff should be thanked and congratulated.
I want to say, too, that I find the Commonwealth War Graves Commission’s sensitivity in planning issues to be particularly impressive. A couple of years ago I visited the most northerly Italian World War II cemetery in Udine. I could not find it. I was surprised to find it next to a petrol station in the car park of a hypermarket—I spotted it in a copse of trees. When I went in I assumed I would be subject to the noise of car engines, of people and chatter and so on. Actually, it was a haven of peace and calm. From the inside, it was like any other cemetery that I have visited.
This weekend I shall be on the Somme with a group from Newcastle and the north-east to erect a memorial to the 16th Battalion the Northumberland Fusiliers, the Newcastle Commercials, on the church at a little village called Authuille in the centre of the Somme battlefield, where the losses of the 16th Battalion were particularly severe on 1 July. The Commonwealth War Graves Commission provides enormous leadership for those who seek to enhance the memory of what happened. I commend the commission for achieving that.
My Lords, I, too, have an interest as a member of the Government’s First World War centenary advisory committee. I join, too, in congratulating the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth of Drumlean, on securing this short but important debate. It is important because there are very powerful reasons for recognising and supporting the outstanding work of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission.
Those reasons were most powerfully brought home to me 11 years ago this month. I was in Normandy for the 60th anniversary of D-day. We were waiting in the Commonwealth Cemetery at Bayeux for the Queen and President Chirac to arrive for the start of the ceremony and I was talking to a group of cadets from the Air Training Corps. They were bright, enthusiastic young people, mostly around 17 years of age, who were helping with the administrative arrangements and looking after the veterans.
We were standing by a row of headstones and I asked the cadets whether they had really looked at the inscriptions. They had not, but they then started to read them in detail. They found words such as “Private Joe Smith, Died 9 June 1944, Aged 18 years”, “Private Arthur Brown, Died 10 June 1944, Aged 18 years”, “Aged 18 years”, “Aged 19 years” and so on. I could see from their eyes that for the first time they really understood: these were not just names from history. These were young people, much of an age with the cadets themselves, who had met their deaths in those days of June 1944. For the first time, the cadets truly understood this and thus made a personal connection with the past.
The same, of course, is true of the First World War. The three-quarters of a million who died were not just names on a wall or on a gravestone; they were not just appalling statistics. Each was an individual, and a lot of those individuals were not much older than those whose names we read in Normandy. Some would perhaps have gone on to be statesmen or diplomats, some to be businessmen, doctors or lawyers, artisans or farmers, factory workers or labourers. But it did not matter: the gravestones made no distinction of rank or status, and rightly so. For in that awful democracy of death, who dares say that any one potential life lost was worth more than another? They all loved and were loved. They all had hopes, aspirations, frustrations and disappointments. They all had value, and the full value of their lives was unrealised.
Herein lies one of the greatest achievements of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. The graves that it maintains and the headstones above those graves allow us to connect not just with the conflicts of the past, but with the people caught up in those conflicts, with the costs of those conflicts and with the individuals who paid the price. In the study of history, war can too often be represented mainly by the sweep of great events, but even in this technological age war is a very human business and the cost, even when the carnage is greatest, is measured in individual lives. The Commonwealth War Graves Commission helps us to realise and appreciate that basic truth. It enables us, young and old, to make the human connection. Its work enables us to say not just “We will remember them” but “We will remember them as the individuals they were”. Those who paid the ultimate price in the service of this nation deserve no less.
My Lords, I, too, thank my noble friend Lord Forsyth for initiating this very important debate. I wish to speak briefly about the Commonwealth War Graves Commission’s care for Irishmen’s graves, particularly from the First World War. I speak as a member, at least in the last Parliament, of the British-Irish parliamentary group.
In the 80 years following the establishment of the Irish Free State, the official policy of the Irish Government was to expunge from the national consciousness any participation in that war of men from the south of Ireland. Not unnaturally, it was politic for the families of those men to follow their Government’s lead. I am advised by the CWGC that it cares for 8,500 World War I battlefield graves from the two southern Irish divisions and 7,200 from the Ulster Division. It is probably true to say that because of the previous attitude of the Irish Government many of the graves of men from the southern Irish regiments would not have had a visit from any of their compatriots—let alone members of their family—for virtually a century.
Since the transformation of British-Irish relations in the wake of the peace process—culminating, of course, with the visit two or three years ago of Her Majesty the Queen—one of the more heartening developments has been the reawakening in the Republic of interest in the history of the southern Irish contribution. For many families the story has been similar; forebears who were treated as black sheep and airbrushed out of family histories have been in effect rediscovered.
So in the context of this debate I would like to pay particular tribute to the Commonwealth War Graves Commission for the close and cordial relations it now has with the Government of the Republic, and in particular—which is a little known fact—for the responsibility it accepted from the outset for the upkeep of no fewer than 3,342 graves in the Republic of Ireland of Irish soldiers who fought in the British Army, most of whom would have died of wounds in hospitals in Great Britain and Ireland and would have been moved at the families’ request and at their expense to be buried with the familiar Commonwealth war graves headstone alongside their families in the Republic.
My Lords, last week my wife and I were at Waterloo for the commemorations of the 200th anniversary of that battle, and we saw the unveiling of the magnificent new monument to the British Army at the Hougoumont Farm.
When I looked at the memorials, plaques and the other commemorations of those who fell, I was very struck to note that all of them were of officers—not just of officers but of officers from the smarter regiments such as the Guards and the cavalry, not from the Royal Waggon Train. There were no memorials for the non-commissioned officers or the other ranks; they were just the generic memorials. As others have said, it is impossible to overstate the importance of what was the Imperial War Graves Commission and is now the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, in making clear that equality of sacrifice requires equality of commemoration. I think of my maternal grandfather who was a major in the Royal Artillery buried at Cabaret-Rouge—a rather odd name for a cemetery—in northern France. He lies there with the men from his battery who fell in the same engagement and at the same time. This change that the War Graves Commission introduced reflects but also promotes an important change in our society. It embodies the principle that all are equal regardless of race, religion or social standing.
When I lived in Brussels as a Commissioner for many years, my wife and I found ourselves frequently taking visitors from home to the battlefields and cemeteries. They were always moving. They never palled. The shock and horror conveyed by the rows and rows of headstones made an impact whenever one saw them. Those headstones bring home the huge price paid by men and women—the fallen and their families—from all over Britain and the Commonwealth in the fight to resist tyranny and domination on the continent.
We are no longer a very religious country, but just as the great medieval cathedrals stand witness to the piety of an earlier age, and to the enduring values of the Christian religion, so must the graves and memorials of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission be eternally maintained in order to do exactly what the noble Viscount just said. It is very important that they should be maintained just as the cathedrals have been maintained. In this, happily, more peaceful age, we owe it to those who gave their lives to bring that situation about to ensure that this country always plays a constructive role on the continent in which so many of those graves are situated.
My Lords, I look to Asia in my short speech. I thank the noble Lord for initiating the debate.
In Burma the Army was nearly a million. It had men of every religion in the world and of none and who spoke some 30 different languages, which was quite a problem. It was totally integrated with the air forces who came from Britain, India, Canada and America. They fought together, trained together, carried each other’s wounded and died together. It was agreed that they would all be buried together in one cemetery down in Rangoon. You experience a very poignant and great feeling when you go into this cemetery. Hindus and Sikhs, of course, cremate but their names go up on the memorial. Muslims bury, Christians bury and Jews bury.
If you switch quickly to Kohima in Assam, you will find among the Muslim graves two stars of David commemorating two Jewish officers of the Royal Welch Fusiliers. There is a lesson there for the people of Dewsbury or anywhere else in this country— this is not multiculturalism with ghettos but total integration.
The second thing about the war graves concerns the people who visit them. I took an old lady to Kohima who had never left England or flown. Her husband—a sergeant—had been killed. I took her into the cemetery with one of my sons and said to her, “Don’t stand beside the headstone and the burial place of your beloved husband; sit on the grass. You can sit here for two or three hours or all night if you want. My son and I will stay with you”. The point of this is that, when she eventually got up three hours later, she was a completely different woman. She was in her 80s. Her eyes were bright and she had been crying. I heard her say—perhaps I should not repeat this but it was so moving—“Darling, I am sorry it has taken me 25 years to get here to see you”. But she was alive again. The effect of visits of widows, parents, whoever is absolutely vital: please let us keep this up.
I get fed up with the three-minute speech limit we have in this House. We really must improve our technique. This is the second debate where I have only been allowed to speak about something vitally important for three minutes. The Front Bench ought to have a damn good look at themselves.
My Lords, I join others in congratulating my noble friend on securing this poignant debate. I, too, concur with everything that he said. I declare my interest as a trustee of the Imperial War Museum, a post I hold, sadly, for only another eight days, when those baleful words “term limit” strike.
As we have heard today, the work of the commission is vital because there can be no more visible symbol of loss, sacrifice and courage than the cemeteries it maintains. Following on from the point made by my noble friend Lord Tugendhat, its work has always been based on one very fundamental principle originally outlined by Sir Frederic Kenyon in his report a century ago for the new Imperial War Graves Commission on the different approaches that might be taken to commemoration—that of equality. It matters not what rank you were or how you fell: all are treated the same in the eternity of those remarkable cemeteries.
As a trustee of the IWM, I would like to thank the commission for its effective partnership with us. We have worked incredibly well together in the nearly 100 years since we were both formed in 1917. We shared a beginning and share as much today. Together we have helped bring together all the dimensions of remembrance for the nation through, most recently, the First World War centenary to VE Day and beyond. Indeed, the commission is in so many ways a model of how to make effective partnerships work. The IWM is just one of the many organisations it works with. Other partners exist in veterans’ organisations, battlefield tours and in many museums across the globe—from the Juno Beach Centre in France to the Thai Burma Railway Centre.
One of the key areas of partnership is in photographic services. These have been crucial to the act of commemoration since the British Government first started getting requests for photos of graves at the height of the fighting in World War I. By 1917, 17,000 requests for photographs of graves had been filed. Today the War Graves Photographic Project continues that work. Over the years it has issued 1.6 million photos, allowing many to share in seeing the resting place of a family member even if they cannot visit.
I would also like to pay tribute to the work the commission has done in supporting the IWM’s Lives of the First World War digital project and working tirelessly on joint educational projects. The commission has an excellent website, as the noble Lord, Lord Shipley, said, and Discover 14-18 is a key part of the centenary commemorations. It all began last August and will continue until November 2018, allowing a new digital generation to learn the lessons of conflict.
A young soldier called John William Streets died on the first day of the Battle of the Somme, aged 31. He had hoped to become a poet after the war but all he could do was write poetry in the trenches. He wrote one poem with a good deal of foresight about the cemeteries that would one day criss-cross northern Europe and so much of the rest of the globe. He wrote:
“When war shall cease this lonely unknown spot
Of many a pilgrimage will be the end,
And flowers will shine in this now barren plot
And fame upon it through the years descend”.
Long may the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, whose important work we celebrate today, ensure that the fame of the fallen continues to shine on those cemeteries.
My Lords, as a former ex officio commissioner of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, I am very grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth, for obtaining this debate and enabling me and many other noble Lords to pay tribute to a jewel in the nation’s crown.
The tireless work of the commission’s gardeners in cemeteries all over the world is rightly admired by all who see it, and greatly appreciated by the relatives of those whose graves and memorials they maintain so devotedly. Although all different, every commission cemetery I have seen has the same air of dignified simplicity, honouring its motto: “I will make you a name”. Every nation has its own way of burying its war dead but for me the Imperial, now the Commonwealth, War Graves Commission way is supreme: everyone, whatever their rank or service, has the same headstone to which relatives are able to add some words of their own.
My assessment of the work of the commission can be summed up in two words, captured in two anecdotes. As a commissioner, I was invited to a showing of the film the commission made about its work following World War II, appropriately called “I Will Make You a Name”. When it ended, there was total silence, broken by the chairman, who asked if anyone wanted to say anything. Sue Ryder, another invitee, said, “Gosh”, immediately followed by her husband, Leonard Cheshire, who said, “No, more than that: gosh, gosh”.
My personal “gosh, gosh” commission grave is not in a cemetery but in its garden just north of Anzac Cove at Gallipoli. When our troops were withdrawn in January 1916, they were told to kill all the animals they could not evacuate. Some could not bring themselves to do that and turned their charges loose on a peninsula that remained unattended until 1919, when the Imperial War Graves Commission and its French and Turkish opposite numbers returned to bury their respective dead. Amazingly, some of the animals survived and were taken back into service by the commission. One pony, called Billy, eventually retired and when he died was buried in a marked grave where he once grazed.
I hope the Minister will agree that whatever the pressures on the Government, in the spirit of “gosh, gosh”, they will do nothing to diminish the ability of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission to honour and care for those who gave their all on behalf of our great country.
My Lords, I, too, thank my noble friend for initiating this debate. I wholeheartedly associate myself with his comments and those of others about the importance of the role of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission and the brilliant and imaginative ways in which it fulfils its obligations.
I will make three quick points. First, I studied military history at university and an important element in the study of conflict is the examination of the collateral damage to society: the destruction of many family units, of course, but, more importantly, the damage to civil society as a whole, which can take generations to repair. While of course it is absolutely vital and right that we should continue to commemorate the personal sacrifice of millions, in my view the commission has an equally important role in reminding us of our history. After all, those who do not remember the lessons of history will be condemned to repeat them.
Secondly, my noble friend Lord Forsyth and other noble Lords referred to the scale of the sacrifice. My military history professor had a statistic that I will share with the House: if the British and Commonwealth war dead from the First World War alone were lined up in column of route three abreast, as the head of the column passed the Cenotaph in London, the rear would be somewhere between Middlesbrough and Newcastle.
Thirdly and finally, because what gives the work of the commission its poignancy is so personal and so tightly woven into our society, I will give a personal example. In so doing, I am very pleased to be able to follow the noble Viscount, Lord Slim. My godmother’s father was killed by a Turkish sniper at Gallipoli. Colonel Palmer, as he was called, was commanding a battalion of the Royal Warwickshire Regiment. One of his junior officers was a certain Lieutenant Slim. Colonel Palmer’s body was lost after the Allies evacuated the Gallipoli peninsula so his only memorial is on the big memorial at Anzac Cove. Lieutenant Slim, of course, went on to other and greater things.
My Lords, I speak as honorary Commonwealth war graves commissioner for the federal Republic of Iraq. I thank very much indeed the wonderful team at Maidenhead, where I worked particularly with John Nicholls. In the rather unprepossessing situation of the federal Republic of Iraq, already an entire cemetery at Basra has been almost 99% recovered. That is absolutely magnificent. Moving on to Maysan, that is rather more difficult as the governor there was in the process of building over the war graves. We are now about to recover 4,000 war graves in Maysan. I thank the Maidenhead people very much indeed, and I bring to your Lordships’ attention the fact that the people of Basra and Maysan are just as proud of these graves as we are; they really care. This is a matter of local pride and national heritage. We have a shared sacrifice and suffering, and in that a shared future. It is for that reason that I particularly thank the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth of Drumlean. In Maysan province, for example, we had a guardian who, with his father, his grandfather and his great-uncle, has been looking after every single piece of paper since the early 1930s. That is the commitment that the Iraqi people have made to the war graves of the Commonwealth.
My Lords, when I put my name down to speak in this debate I was inspired purely by my image of what the war graves mean. I realise that the main reason that I did so was that they are individual graves. They are not monuments or something telling you that something great happened. Let’s face it: the thing about monuments is that we do not put them up for our defeats, do we? Here, we put up something for each individual person. As has been said time and again by all speakers in this debate, it is the fact that we remember those people as people. As the old quote says, if one person dies it is a tragedy but a million people dying is a statistic.
The war graves do not allow the dead, who died on an industrial scale, to become a statistic. That just does not happen. The image, whether you see it in the flesh, on film or in a picture—the row upon row of graves—means that you know there was an individual attached to each of them. This means that we can remember the history, and our interpretation of history changes over time. When reading up for this debate, I discovered that it was felt in the 1960s and 1970s that as the veterans of the Great War disappeared, interest would diminish. Indeed, for those who remember “Steptoe and Son”, Steptoe senior was not a great example to us all of a wonderful remembrance of the First World War. As this image disappears, it becomes something else: a way back into history and the individuals connected to it. Unless we are prepared to throw away a cultural asset of the first order, we must make sure that it is maintained and that we always remember.
If the Commonwealth War Graves Commission were replaced, it is difficult to see how anything could possibly do the job as well. I hope that when the noble Earl responds to the debate—I can just about remember when he answered me on a subject other than health—he will assure us that the Government will ensure not only that this work is carried on, but that the cross-party consensus clearly displayed here today is maintained and developed to enable it to be carried on in future.
I thank the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth, for securing this debate. The Commonwealth War Graves Commission is funded proportionately in relation to war casualties by its six Commonwealth member states and, on this basis, the British Government currently provide some 78% of the commission’s funding. Can the Minister confirm that the funding formula is related to those who died for whom there is a known grave, and does not include those for whom there is none? Can he also confirm that no Government, including our own, can make a unilateral decision to reduce their funding in actual amount or percentage terms without the agreement of all the other Governments involved?
Graves are maintained in 23,000 locations in just over 150 countries. In the United Kingdom, there are 13,000 different locations of which 10,000 have fewer than 10 burials. Some 4,500 maintenance agreements for the CWGC war graves are in place with local authorities, churches, councils, contractors and individuals. These agreements result in the CWGC graves being properly tended and cared for but unfortunately, given the significant cuts in local authority budgets, the difficult financial situation and limited number of active congregation members in some churches, the rest of the cemetery or churchyard in which the CWGC grave is located is often far from well looked after. That can have an adverse impact on the setting for Commonwealth War Graves Commission graves, however well tended they may be. Is this an issue of concern to the Government, and if so do they intend to pursue it?
Although the Commonwealth War Graves Commission commemorates those who died up to 31 December 1947 and not beyond, its work continues. With the centenary commemoration of the First World War, the number of people visiting the British world war cemeteries in France and Belgium has never been higher. The CWGC website provides information on the burial place or commemoration site of every British or Commonwealth soldier killed in the First and Second World Wars. The number of identification cases sent to the CWGC where someone believes they have worked out who is in an unidentified grave has risen nearly tenfold in the last 10 years. The Commonwealth War Graves Commission was not founded until 1917, and some have estimated that as many as 10,000 names of those killed may still not be included in the records. When such cases are verified, the CWGC adds the name to a memorial, and each year the remains of around 30 British and Commonwealth troops dating back to the world wars are still being discovered. Some can be identified but all are buried with full military honours at a Commonwealth War Graves Commission cemetery.
The Commonwealth War Graves Commission has helped us, continues to help us and will help future generations not to forget a vital part of our history. It ensures that the nearly one and three quarter million Commonwealth service men and women who died in both world wars are not forgotten.
My Lords, I warmly thank my noble friend Lord Forsyth for tabling this Question for Short Debate and for giving the House the opportunity to give due recognition to the work of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. Last year we paid national tribute to those who fell in their millions in World War I, at the centenary of the start of what was justifiably known as the Great War. It is now 70 years on from VE and VJ Day, and we are remembering those who fell fighting for the Commonwealth in the Second World War, liberating Europe and the Far East from tyranny. Recently this year we also paid tribute to the thousands who perished in the seas and on the rocky hillsides of Gallipoli. All this shows the importance that we all place on the act of remembrance, so it could not be a more apposite time to have this debate and to recognise the excellent work done by the commission, especially with its own centenary coming up.
It is worth reminding ourselves of the value and significance of what the commission does. The Commonwealth War Graves Commission ensures that 1.7 million people who died in the two world wars will never be forgotten. Its cemeteries and memorials are designed to be a lasting tribute to the war dead, and places where visitors can come to remember their sacrifice. The commission cares for cemeteries and memorials at 23,000 locations in 154 countries. Its principles, laid out in 1917, that no distinction should be made on account of military or civil rank, race or creed, are as relevant today as they were almost 100 years ago.
At the same time, we also have a responsibility to maintain what the commission’s founder Sir Fabian Ware described as that “immortal heritage”. With regard to the fallen:
“Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn”,
yet the gravestones of the fallen are prone to the vagaries of climate, pollution and even vandalism, so conservation and maintenance is an ongoing task. Each year around 20,000 headstones are either replaced or repaired. As well as existing graves, sometimes new stones and even new graves are required to inter the remains of those brave souls only recently discovered, as has been mentioned in this debate. In 2010, for example, 250 Australian and British casualties from the Battle of Fromelles required the construction of an entirely new cemetery, Fromelles (Pheasant Wood) Military Cemetery in northern France.
The CWGC is at the heart of World War I centenary commemorations and, working with the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, will support the UK Government in their delivery of a series of high-profile state-level events, the majority of which will take place at commission locations, to mark key World War I anniversaries. The focus for commemoration of the Battle of Jutland will be Lyness in the Orkneys, and Thiepval will host the event for the Battle of the Somme. The CWGC aims to mark these centenaries appropriately while engaging new generations in the importance of ongoing remembrance of the war dead and of visiting their sites.
Although when you think of a Commonwealth war grave cemetery you almost automatically think of those in Flanders and France, there are, as my noble friend Lord Forsyth mentioned, more than 300,000 Commonwealth service men and women who died in the two world wars who are commemorated in the United Kingdom. Their graves, numbering some 170,000, are to be found at over 13,000 locations. In addition, some 130,000 missing Royal Navy, Royal Air Force and Merchant Navy casualties are commemorated on the great memorials at Chatham, Plymouth, Portsmouth, Tower Hill and Runnymede. This is the highest total of world war commemorations in any country other than France, yet most people are completely unaware of this commemorative legacy on their doorstep. These widely dispersed and varied war graves are maintained directly by the commission’s staff or through more than 4,500 maintenance contracts and arrangements with individuals, contractors and burial and church authorities.
The CWGC has been working with the All-Party Parliamentary War Heritage Group, the education community and local communities to raise awareness of this nationally important commemorative heritage and to encourage communities to use these places as part of their efforts to remember those who died. New signage to help people identify sites containing war graves is being erected at more than 3,000 locations. Education and outreach initiatives are also under way. In the UK, the CWGC is aiming to raise awareness, appreciation and use of the war graves and memorials that exist here. It also seeks to raise understanding and acceptance of the fact that war graves in municipal cemeteries or churchyards cannot be maintained in the same way as those in dedicated war cemeteries—a point raised by the noble Lord, Lord Rosser. The unique approach to war graves in the UK—with the vast majority of graves scattered in burial grounds not owned or controlled by the CWGC rather than in military cemeteries or plots—means that they must inevitably be dealt with differently from the war cemeteries directly owned and managed by the CWGC overseas.
The noble Viscount, Lord Slim, highlighted the power and importance of visits. With so many locations, it is only natural that some are more visited than others. As a result of the public engagement in the World War I and World War II anniversaries, visitor numbers to the major cemeteries and memorials on the former Western Front are at an all-time high, yet many cemeteries get few or no visitors at all. Some places, such as Palestine, Salonika, east Africa and northern Italy, despite being significant visitor destinations, get few or no pilgrims to the war graves there. We would like to encourage visitors to take some time out when abroad, see if there is a British cemetery nearby and, if so, visit it. The level of sacrifice in both world wars is such that there are a very large number of such locations.
As the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Stirrup, rightly said, we should not forget that behind every single headstone and name on a memorial is a person, with a family, friends and a story to tell. The two world wars were global conflicts, and the contribution of the entire Commonwealth was vital to allied success. However, the sacrifice of men and women from undivided India, the West Indies and Africa is known but not extensively written about or recognised. Many of them are interred in the commission’s cemeteries. The CWGC has produced a series of award-winning education resources that attempt to address this overlooked aspect of our shared history, thereby ensuring an inclusive commemoration of the war dead.
The Government will never forget their responsibility towards the commission, and I reassure noble Lords that we remain committed to maintaining current levels of support in line with the official inflation rate. Apart from the UK, five other Commonwealth countries —Australia, Canada, South Africa, New Zealand and India—contribute to the cost in proportion to the number of graves that they have. The noble Lord, Lord Rosser, asked about unilateral funding reductions, and I am pleased to clarify that each of the CWCG member Governments has an equal say in the running of the CWCG. The UK contribution amounts to almost 80% of the total annual funding, which in 2015 was in excess of £47 million. In addition, the MoD provides £1.3 million to the CWGC for the cost of maintaining 20,000 Boer War graves in South Africa and a further 21,000 non-world war graves around the world.
As well as its numerous ongoing tasks, I know that the CWGC will be particularly busy this year. Arrangements are in place for the CWGC to continue the maintenance of post-war graves in cemeteries at Rheindahlen and Hanover as British forces withdraw from Germany. Discussions are also taking place on the maintenance of graves in the Falkland Islands. The commission continues to transform its business, delivering efficiency and financial stability, and making sure that the money it receives can go further.
The commission should be in no doubt of the value of its work to the Armed Forces, to the nation and to future generations. For almost a century it has played a critical part in the vital work of remembrance. It has made sure that those who fought for our freedom are given the honour and dignity they deserve in death. I know that all noble Lords will want to join me in giving the commission our thanks for everything that it does.