Question for Short Debate
My Lords, I should like to draw the attention of the House to the centenary of the Battle of the Somme, which falls in a few months’ time. The battle took place at almost exactly the halfway point of the First World War. More lives were lost on the Western Front in 1916 than in any other year of that terrible conflict. The allies in 1916 sought victory in all theatres of war. Intense fighting also took place in eastern Europe, where the Russians launched massive attacks against the forces of Austro-Hungary and its allies. Strategy in the West was devised in the hope of assisting progress in the East.
There is certain to be widespread public interest in the official programme of commemorative events to mark the centenary of the Somme. That programme needs to be substantial and impressive, for it has to give heartfelt expression to the deep feeling that this bloodiest of battles never ceases to evoke.
A hundred years on, the Somme continues to haunt the collective memory of our nation. It is unforgotten in the Republic of Ireland and in the countries of our former empire, which sent gallant troops to fight and die alongside ours. It is unforgotten too in Germany, whose soldiers, like ours, displayed great courage. They also showed immense skill in the construction of defensive positions, many of which proved impregnable during the four and a half months of fighting. It all began on 1 July—that terrible, vividly remembered day of bloodshed—and finally ended on 18 November, when the two sides at last withdrew from their sea of mud, filth and gore.
The Somme brought together the largest armies that western Europe had ever seen for the longest and costliest battle ever fought there, apart from Verdun, which was fought alongside it, beginning in February 1916 and continuing until December. The total death toll at the Somme was over 300,000, and twice that number were wounded. On the British side, 51 VCs were awarded.
The Somme is synonymous with suffering and grief, just as Waterloo, fought a little over a century earlier, is synonymous with glory and hope. So many died at the Somme, their bodies torn, broken and often defiled. So many limped home, their bodies permanently maimed, without adequate welfare services to help sustain them during the remainder of their lives.
Whole communities were deeply scarred because Kitchener’s New Army of over 1 million volunteers amassed since 1914 contained many regiments composed of friends, relatives, neighbours and workmates, beginning with the Grimsby Chums, who were followed by the Hull Pals, the first of over 50 pals battalions to be raised and invested with intense local pride. The whole of Wales followed the fortunes of the Swansea Pals intently. In Scotland, the sportmen’s or football battalion, composed of players and fans, became the focus of great enthusiasm.
There were other elements of the Army which represented close-knit communities. The 36th (Ulster) Division was conspicuous among them. Five thousand five hundred Ulstermen died on the ferocious first day—more than a quarter of total British deaths. Sir Frank Fox, who had been a staff officer at allied headquarters, wrote:
“The losses of that day made mourning in many Ulster homes, but with the mourning there was pride that the Province had once again proved the steadfastness of its loyal courage”.
A service will be held in St Anne’s Cathedral, Belfast, on 1 July, attended by the Lord Lieutenant, to remember Ulster’s sacrifice. There and in many other places church services will remind us of the fine young musicians and composers who died.
A century later, the search for answers still goes on. Were the allies’ strategy and tactics misconceived? Were the allied commanders incompetent? Was Sir Douglas Haig a callous butcher of men? Many fine works of scholarship have been written—and more will follow—discussing and analysing the great, recurrent issues of the Somme. Unlike the meretricious Alan Clark, serious historians today do not deride Haig and his senior officers as donkeys, although it is clear that they had their limitations. The Somme lacked what it needed most: a man of the stature and genius of Wellington.
At the Somme, Haig sought a decisive victory by breaking through the formidable German trenches. Under his carefully laid plans, the greatest artillery bombardment ever seen would be followed by massive infantry attacks, clearing a route for the cavalry regiments, which would sweep the Germans from the villages and towns of northern France. Historians debate the extent to which grave tactical errors on the British side on the one hand, and the sheer strength of the German defences on the other, thwarted Haig’s ambitions.
Historians are united in recognising the importance of the Somme in enabling the French to survive an even greater struggle at Verdun by diverting German troops from it. Defeat there would have spelled disaster for the allies by opening the road to Paris to the forces of the Kaiser.
Above all, detailed scholarly studies of the Somme today tend to be sympathetic to the strategy on which both it and ultimate victory in 1918 were based. As Andrew Roberts puts it in his recent book Elegy: The First Day on the Somme:
“If there was a way of fighting the First World War that did not involve trying to smash frontally through formidable enemy defences, neither side discovered one”.
The words of historians, however eloquent, reach comparatively few people. The Somme lives on in the hearts of our nation mainly through the words left to us by those who took part in it—men of all ranks whose letters, diaries and poetry speak to us across the century so movingly. Some tell us of the strengthening of their belief in God and the hope of salvation; others of the collapse of faith amid the horrors of the battle. Many were sustained by high ideals. Tom Kettle, an Irish Nationalist MP, wrote a few weeks before he was killed on 5 September:
“I want to live to use all my powers of thinking and working, to drive out this foul thing called war and to put in its place understanding and comradeship”.
Others looked confidently to a better future for mankind. At the end of a poem entitled “Optimism”, the 29 year-old Lieutenant Alfred Ratcliffe wrote:
“Fell year unpitiful, slow days of scorn
Your kind shall die, and sweeter days be born”.
He was killed on the first day of the battle. What, I wonder, would he and his gallant comrades have thought of our conduct in the “sweeter days” that we are so fortunate to enjoy?
When the war was over, there were many more words. They were inscribed on the tombstones visible today from every road and every vista on the approaches to the Somme. The Commonwealth War Graves Commission maintains more than 60 cemeteries of haunting beauty on the Somme battlefield. Above them tower the great memorials dominated by the Thiepval Memorial to the Missing, the largest war memorial ever built, recording the names of 73,335 soldiers who have no known grave.
Those who have planned the forthcoming Somme centenary commemoration will have been conscious of how much was expected of them. I look forward to hearing from the Minister how they have fulfilled their task. I look forward, too, to listening to the speeches of noble Lords on all sides of the House who are joining me this evening in recalling this never to be forgotten battle a hundred years ago.
My Lords, I pay tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Lexden, for introducing this debate and for his knowledgeable introduction of it. It is no more than we would have expected from such an eminent historian. I do not intend to follow him in that sense but I would like to invoke some of the events of that dreadful battle and how they have affected me two generations later.
I do not wish to steal the Minister’s thunder either and so I will congratulate the Government now on marking the battle appropriately. It is also appropriate that organisations such as the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, the Imperial War Museum and the BBC are doing a fine job, with a wide range of events that will mark and commemorate the centenary.
I shall be on the Somme on 1 July this year, as I have been every 10 years since 1976. Initially, I was not sure why I did so. I happened to be studying at school on the 50th anniversary of the battle of the Somme and I had a grandfather who fought in the war with the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders. He was not on the Somme on that day but he was on the Western Front. He would never say a word about the war—he was too traumatised. That made an impression on me and I decided to go to the commemoration of the first day of the Somme in 1976.
What struck me that day as I stood on the Somme—as I will be this year on the Albert-Bapaume road—was the massive Lochnagar crater which, 100 years later, is still a huge testament to the horror and brutality of the war. It was exploded seconds before 7.30 am on 1 July 1916. It ought to have presaged greater advances on that day than it did. I am not going to enter into the culpability aspect of the battle but it ought to have been foreseen that the German defences were much stronger than the British Army had anticipated. I invite noble Lords to consider what a seven-day barrage, day and night, must be like. It went on 24 hours a day for seven days, so the men who went over from the trenches could not have had any sleep for seven days before they entered into the awful field of machine-gun fire that mowed down so many of them.
It is important, when we pay tribute to the men who gave their lives, to remember that many were Commonwealth soldiers. They were not only from Newfoundland, which was separate from Canada at the time, New Zealand and Australia but there was also the Second Indian Cavalry and the British West Indies Regiment. Sadly, when we studied the subject at school—certainly in my time—they were not mentioned. However, I am glad to see that in the commemoration of the war 100 years on, their sacrifices are being recognised.
There will be many opportunities for us to mark the occasion in a sombre way. We should remember the dead of all sides and all countries—something like 300,000 in that battle. On the first day, 19,240 British soldiers died, the worst date in the history of the British Army. That gives pause for thought. Much more could be said but, as time is limited, I shall leave it there and we will all pay our own respects on 1 July.
My Lords, I was drawn to this debate having read much of what has recently been written about the Battle of the Somme and the First World War generally which tends to sit badly with some of the myths with which I was brought up—as the noble Lord, Lord Lexden, suggested, the idea of lions led by donkeys marching forward.
As in all modern wars in Europe and the American Civil War, ranked men marching forward across fields into rifle fire—and particularly fire from a rapid-firing weapon—led to massive casualties. Effectively, given the First World War’s structures, hideous casualties were inevitable. It was always going to be that type of war, regardless of what people thought. Indeed, looking at what our rifles and weapons had done to some of our opponents in colonial warfare before might have given us a hint. There was always going to be a dreadful carnage caused by intensive manoeuvres of infantry for an assault on a position which would be met by massive force. The noble Lord is quite right to hit that myth hard. We should remember the way in which the history has evolved.
When the commemorations for World War I were being held, in an attempt to educate my daughter I asked her, “What can we do that tells you about World War I?”, and I got a copy of “Oh! What a Lovely War”. If ever something looked incredibly dated and like something written by someone who had taken on board the lions and donkeys attitude, it is that document. I will not comment any more about it other than to say that, after an hour, my daughter said, “This is boring. They all seem to be saying the same thing all the time”.
I urge the Minister to ensure that everyone continues to study this subject and to look at its history again and again. World War I is different because it is the first war from which we have a good, first-hand record from the people who fought it on the ground in massed ranks. We should largely thank the BBC, for making those recordings a while ago. We should be studying it and reminding ourselves what a pan-European war looks like.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Lexden, for initiating this debate. In both Northern Ireland and southern Ireland we look back to historic events and historic dates. The year 1916 is especially in our minds. Events in Dublin at Easter of that year and the Somme in July are embedded in our collective memories. These episodes in history helped in many ways to shape the politics and the creation of our two countries.
In Ulster, the Somme is in our DNA. Thousands and thousands from all nine Ulster counties—including Donegal, Cavan and Monaghan—went to war. Sadly, many thousands never returned. Three of my uncles left home to go to the Somme. Only one returned—I am told, a broken man. This was typical of so many Ulster families. It is said that there was not a town, a village or a hamlet that did not suffer with the loss of loved ones.
Let us not forget that men from the rest of Ireland also volunteered: men of the 10th Irish Division, who, with the Australians and New Zealanders, suffered at Suvla Bay; and men of the 16th Irish Division, who fought so gallantly alongside the 36th Ulster Division at the Somme and then at Passchendaele and Ypres. Then there were those men from England who have been mentioned, the pals battalions; men from Wales and Scotland; and the thousands and thousands of Commonwealth soldiers who fought and died for king and country in Flanders and elsewhere.
In southern Ireland, the Government are officially remembering and commemorating the Easter rebellion, with the President, Ministers and military personnel attending the ceremonies. At home in Ulster, as has been mentioned, several events are being orchestrated to remember and commemorate the service and sacrifice of our fellow Ulstermen in the 36th Ulster Division.
It would be entirely appropriate for our Government to organise an official event or events to do likewise for all who fought and died and suffered. It is a long, long way from the drumlins of County Armagh, from where Willie McBride, a young lad of 19, of the Ninth Royal Irish Fusiliers, left home to go to the green fields of France.
“For the sorrow, the suffering,
The glory and pain
The killing and dying were all done in vain.
Did they beat the drum slowly?
Did they play the fife lowly?
Did they sound the death march as they lowered you down?
Did the band play ‘The Last Post’ and chorus?
Did the pipes play ‘The Flowers of the Forest’?”
My Lords, I, too, thank my noble friend Lord Lexden for initiating this debate so movingly. No one can be immune to the horror and sacrifice of the Somme campaign. Standing on a bleak autumn evening watching the sun go down behind the Thiepval memorial was one of the most moving episodes of my life. Lutyens in stone captured the immensity of the thing but also the dignity and the space for contemplation that should inform remembrance this summer. I must say in passing how different from the shameful display in Whitehall with the Cenotaph enveloped in fumes as a prop for tawdry stunts for BBC’s “Top Gear”.
As my noble friend said, the Somme offensive followed agreement by the Allied powers to launch co-ordinated offensives in 1916, a need made ever more pressing in French eyes by the German assault on Verdun. As he said, on June 4, just three weeks before the Somme bombardment, our Russian allies, under General Brusilov, made what was to be the most striking breakthrough in the war before 1918—not by a massive, week-long artillery barrage followed by a formal human-wave advance on a relatively narrow front at the enemy’s strong point but instead by surprise, careful sapping and entrenchment, concealment of reserves, a brief if intense artillery bombardment probing the enemy’s weakest points and attacking at 20 points along a very broad front.
More than 400,000 Austrian troops were captured. Austria-Hungary suffered nearly 1 million casualties in that battle, and, arguably, neither the empire nor its army were ever the same again. The failure of other Russian commanders to support the offensive cost Russia dearly, but it is sad that neither those lessons nor ideas being advanced of infiltration came soon enough to be applied on the Somme.
Although the Somme has unique national resonance for us, it is as well to remember sacrifices made in the same cause by hundreds of thousands of young men of other nations that bloody summer. The bugles called from sad shires under the Urals as well as the Chilterns. I was sorry about the boycott of the Russian commemoration last year of the end of World War II. Surely honouring those who died in what was then our common cause should know no boundary of regime or politics.
The Somme was not an Italian or a Russian or a Romanian show. None the less, I hope that this spirit of openness and reconciliation will apply to former allies as well as to former enemies as we recall the cataclysmic events of 1916 in the Great War, which, on the Somme and elsewhere, left Europe bled white and exhausted, opened the way to revolution and changed its future forever.
My Lords, judging from the large number of speakers in this debate, the noble Lord, Lord Lexden, has certainly caught the interest of the House. I congratulate him on his initiative for the debate and on his very moving and inspirational speech.
I declare three unpaid interests. I am co-chair of the War Heritage All-Party Parliamentary Group, a member of the Government’s World War I Centenary Advisory Board and patron of the Guild of Battlefield Guides.
I start with the warmest of compliments to everyone who has so far been involved with the centenary programme. The range of events that since 2014 have already taken place in the United Kingdom and on the battlefields involving the general public, the inclusiveness of groups participating—particularly the large number of schoolchildren, the solemn programme of commemorations in churches and cathedrals, and the depictions of what life was like on the home front during those terrible times—have all been inspirational and demonstrated that the public’s imagination has been captured. The mood and tone of those events have been exactly right—something that many of us were worried about at the beginning of the programme but are now completely satisfied by.
As time is so limited in this debate, I shall leave it to the Minister to speak in detail about the programme surrounding the Somme centenary, particularly the events in Manchester on 1 July and the visit to Thiepval, in which I hope to take part.
I want to commend the Commonwealth War Graves Commission’s Somme Community Initiative, which we shall be launching here in the House on 11 April. Its aim is to reconnect the British public with the 300,000 war graves in the UK. Over the years, these graves have effectively become invisible to the public. A CWGC pilot study has encouraged community groups, schools, old people’s groups, veterans’ groups, football clubs and so on to visit their local CWGC site, do some research on the men, have a small event to remember them, and ultimately continue to champion the sites. It complements the programme of visits by MPs and Peers which we in the all-party group helped to get under way in 2014 and which has proved so successful that it is being repeated.
Now the CWGC has funding from DCMS and the Department for Communities and Local Government to undertake a much larger project from July to November this year which involves 141 community events linked to the 141 days of the Somme. In addition, the commission tells me that it would welcome many more visitors at its 230 cemeteries on the Somme, as some are visited only rarely. I hope that we will hear more detail from the Minister when he replies.
My Lords, I, too, thank the noble Lord, Lord Lexden, for his role in initiating this debate and for his excellent and striking opening speech. On 1 July 1916, the Ulster Division went over the top at the Somme, with dramatic, painful and horrifying effect. Two days later, Captain Wilfred Spender, an Englishman and Harrovian, wrote in the Times:
“I am not an Ulsterman but yesterday … as I followed their amazing attack, I felt that I would rather be an Ulsterman than anything else in the world”.
It is true that very few families in Northern Ireland were untouched by the tragedy of the Somme. Harold Cox, a former Liberal MP, spoke in Belfast after the war. His home was in Kent and,
“when the wind was from the south, at night they could hear the noise of guns booming on the Somme. Ulstermen on the Somme were fighting for the defence of Kent”.
When I draw attention to these things I do not want us to forget—far from it—the role of the Irish nationalists. The noble Lord, Lord Lexden, has already referred to the death a few weeks later of Tom Kettle, a nationalist MP. If one looks in the Great Hall, it is remarkable to find recorded there the deaths not just of nationalist MPs but of their sons. The losses were proportionate to those of the mainstream English parties. It gives an indication of the scale of the tragedy at that time.
One of the most remarkable things to happen in Ireland in recent years, and one of the signs of a real change of public mood and a move towards greater reconciliation between north and south, is the way in which, 10 years ago, the Irish Republic for the first time held a major commemoration for those who died at the Somme from both main traditions.
It has already been mentioned that the Prime Minister has an advisory committee on the First World War. I was delighted to speak to that committee on the subject of 1916. While the rising of 1916 in Dublin was not a political project I support or particularly admire, none the less I have no difficulty in explaining the proud motivation and bravery that led into it. I was very happy to talk to the committee on that subject. I would be very happy if the Minister was able to say to me that he will refer to the advisory committee chaired by his ministerial colleague in another place the content of the speeches that are made in this House tonight.
My Lords, I, too, congratulate my noble friend on securing this timely debate. My points will be very brief. As a small boy living with my father in Switzerland, every year he took me to visit many of the countless war cemeteries from the Great War, and in particular the Somme. These days I return often, and I have taken my children and my friends to experience these special places that are so beautifully tended by the War Graves Commission.
At the memorial to those who fell at the battle of Loos and many others, I find grave after grave and inscription after inscription to those from the North and South Staffords who made the ultimate sacrifice. I would guess that the reason my father was so keen to visit these wonderful graveyards with me was because his head forester, George Greatholder, lost four of his brothers on the first day of the battle of the Somme—and George himself was awarded a military medal and bar.
Staffordshire is my mother county and it is the home of the National Memorial Arboretum at Alrewas. Is my noble friend the Minister able to tell me what plans that excellent establishment has to commemorate this special centenary on behalf of the nation? Bearing in mind the sacrifice made by a great number of animals in the service of man during the Somme—in the main horses and dogs which were used for transport and communications—is any lasting memorial planned to commemorate them?
Finally, Staffordshire is also home to a large German war cemetery on Cannock Chase. We must never forget the sacrifice made by our enemies in that appalling conflict.
My Lords, my noble friend Lord Lexden as usual has done us all a great service by drawing our attention to one of the most significant events of the First World War. Mention has been made of the 36th Ulster Division and the 16th Irish Division. It is true to say that there is virtually not a school, town or village hall that does not have a memorial, some of them very substantial in size.
Let me put the thing into perspective. We have an Army today which I think is planned to reach something like 85,000. In proportionate terms, the losses incurred by the 36th Ulster Division on 1 and 2 July 1916 were equivalent in population terms to the obliteration of the entire British Army in one 24-hour period. That is the scale of the losses; they are almost inconceivable and unimaginable. It is akin to something like Hiroshima taking place in one day. But that did not include those who came back from the conflict as broken men—and, indeed, the brave women who served them in the tents and on the battlefields suffered greatly as well from what they had seen.
To follow what was said by my noble friend Lord Bew, however dreadful the conflict was, many of the soldiers fighting on those battlefields were from Ireland and came from opposing traditions. For a long time afterwards, and indeed until comparatively recently, the sacrifice of the men who came from the Irish Republic was barely recognised. But I am pleased to say that things have changed. Something that was a most horrible and divisive issue has gradually become a source of some form of reconciliation. Irish Ministers now come to Belfast City Hall on 1 July to join the rest of us in the commemoration ceremony there. An Irish Prime Minister now attends the Enniskillen memorial on Remembrance Sunday. Recognition is taking place on both sides of the border, and this is a small crumb of comfort that has come from such a dreadful set of circumstances. I hope and pray that in all our endeavours, in our foreign policy and in other areas as we go forward, never again will we allow the circumstances to arise that demand such a terrible sacrifice.
My Lords, I join others in congratulating my noble friend on so powerfully introducing this important debate, in which I declare an interest as a trustee of the Imperial War Museum Foundation. Between them, the Imperial War Museum, 14-18 NOW and the wider First World War Centenary Partnership have formidable plans to commemorate the centenary, perhaps most strikingly through the restoration of the UNESCO-listed film, “The Battle of the Somme”. And through the ambitious Lives of the First World War project, these organisations will build a permanent digital memorial to those who died at the Somme, bringing new meaning to our exhortation that, “We will remember them”.
In his extraordinary account of Europe from 1914 to 1949, Ian Kershaw said of the two great battles that dominated the middle years of the war that while for the French Verdun came to symbolise the saving of their country, for the British the Somme symbolised,
“the pointlessness of such immense loss of life”.
Perhaps the most tragic aspect of the Somme, the most pointless of all, was the way in which it robbed us of so much bright young creative talent that was mown down in the flower of youth.
In his director’s address shortly after the outbreak of war to students at the Royal College of Music, on whose council I sit, Sir Hubert Parry had this to say:
“One thing which concerns us deeply is that quite a lot of our happy family … have been honourably inspired to go and chance the risks of a military life; and among them are some very distinguished young musicians. We feel a thrill of regard for them ... But then we must also face the facts with open minds. Our pupils ... are gifted and rare in a special way. Some of them are so gifted that their loss could hardly be made good”.
Among the young musicians who died during the war were Ernest Farrar, Willie Manson, Cecil Coles and, at the Somme itself, perhaps the most talented of them all, George Butterworth, whose early works such as “A Shropshire Lad” and “The Banks of Green Willow” foretold a life of great musical genius that was not to be.
At the outbreak of war, Butterworth joined the British Army and accepted a commission in the 13th battalion Durham Light Infantry. Soon after the start of the Somme, he and his men were sent in to capture a series of trenches near Pozières on 16 July. For his role in doing so, Butterworth was awarded the Military Cross. He did not live to receive it as he was shot through the head by a sniper during the desperate battle to hold Munster Alley on 5 August. Hastily buried that day, his body was one of the hundreds of thousands never recovered. His remains lie there still today, perhaps the most obvious case of “what if?” that is left to us in the earth of the battlefields of northern France. He joins the Frenchman Albéric Magnard, the Spaniard Enrique Granados and the German Rudi Stephan as losses from the First World War to the world of music who, as Parry said, can, “hardly be made good”. As we commemorate the battle this year, I hope we will find time to think of the “what if?” generation of composers, poets, authors and artists whose talents would have so enriched our lives had they not had to make the ultimate sacrifice.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Lexden, for giving such an excellent account of the historical significance of the Battle of the Somme and for highlighting the importance of commemorating the bravery and sacrifice of 100 years ago.
I shall not attempt to analyse these tragic events in depth in the short time available to me, but it is impossible to overestimate the extent of the suffering and sacrifice of those who took part in the battle and, indeed, of their next of kin. However, I should like to congratulate the Government and all the other organisations involved in drawing up the excellent and extensive programme of commemorative events, which will enable full participation by all sections of the community at the national, regional and local level.
In particular, I should like to outline the outstanding work of the Somme Association of Northern Ireland, a registered charity formed in 1990 to co-ordinate research and educate the community on the role played by Irishmen in the First World War and to commemorate their heroism and sacrifice. Before proceeding further, perhaps I should declare an interest in the association, as I have been a board member for many years. On behalf of the Government, we manage the Ulster Memorial Tower at the site of the Somme battlefield which was the first official memorial to be erected on the Western Front, and was dedicated on 19 November 1921 to the memory of the officers and men of the 36 Ulster Division and all other forces who laid down their lives on the opening day of the offensive.
In 2003, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland secured a grant which enabled us to purchase the nearby Thiepval Wood, the location from which the attack on the German lines on 1 July 1916 was initiated. In addition, in April 1994, we opened a fully accredited independent museum on the edge of the Clandeboye Estate in County Down, where the 36 Ulster Division trained before departing for war.
The Somme Association will naturally play a leading role in all the commemorative events to be held this year in the British Isles and in France and Belgium. We regard our future mission to improve community relations through the elucidation of the important role played by soldiers from all parts of Ireland in the First World War in defence of freedom as of great significance. The whole community of Northern Ireland will benefit through the development of a common understanding of the commitment and sacrifices of individuals from both unionist and nationalist backgrounds as they stood and fought together on the Western Front. A key aim of the Somme Association is also to work closely with the education sector in developing material to support schools’ curriculum requirements and to expand our education and outreach facilities. It is indeed encouraging that last year a record number of school students from both communities in Northern Ireland visited our museum. The Government’s initiative to send two student ambassadors and a teacher from every state school in the United Kingdom to visit the First World War battlefields and take part in remembrance ceremonies is very welcome. I hope that these events will provide a lasting legacy and a fitting tribute to the sacrifices of the brave men who gave their lives at the Somme in 1916.
My Lords, I, too, thank my noble friend Lord Lexden for his sombre but first-class introduction to this debate.
On the 60th anniversary of the Somme, a lady called Rose Coombs wrote a book detailing its memorials and graveyards, which my noble friend mentioned. She called it Before Endeavours Fade. Now, on its 100th anniversary, we know that, alas, when this year is over the stories of the endeavours of those thousands of young men and women who served and died in the First World War will indeed inevitably fade, unless we can pass the responsibility of remembering them to the next generation. Therefore, it is extremely important that today’s young, this year particularly, can be helped to do so in their schools and colleges, and, indeed, in the cadet units of the three services. Last week, while giving awards to some sea cadets, I was reminded that youngsters of the same age as some of those I met served and died in the Royal Naval Division on the Somme. A 12 year-old from Tooting in south London, Sidney Lewis, fought at Delville Wood before his mother demanded his safe return home.
One school that I know set its students a task of investigating the names on its local war memorials and unlocked the stories of many of those commemorated. Some pupils found that they were related to those who had died, and, with the help of the marvellous Commonwealth War Graves Commission website, located their gravestones on the Western Front. Diligent research at another school revealed a Somme Victoria Cross winner who had been a pupil there, and a subsequent visit to a military museum enabled the pupils to see the medal and to learn more of his life and the courageous act that ended it. Experiences such as this are useful introductions in the classroom to the concepts of community, patriotism, bravery and duty.
I remember well my grandfather and his brothers, who, to the end of their lives, often told me of ordeals and dangers in the trenches and at sea, of comradeship and of the loss of their four cousins. These were very real to me when I was young. Many of your Lordships will have had the same advantage that I did. My noble friend Lord Shrewsbury mentioned that. Our grandchildren, however, do not have that privilege. I very much hope that our schools and youth organisations will this year ensure that the stories of those who fought at the Somme are passed on to those who come after us, for remembering tomorrow.
My Lords, like others, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Lexden, for securing the debate and for his fine, balanced and very moving speech.
We have begun to see the Great War as more than just the industrialisation of death that it brought, and recognise the profound impact it had on the political, social, and cultural aspects of Britain. As we have heard, the Battle of the Somme is, for many people, the symbol of the horrors of warfare, but it is important that the commemorations also extend our understanding of the impact these battles had on our national outlook.
Today is Commonwealth Day, and it is right that we acknowledge that the British and Empire Army that fought the First World War a century ago had more in common demographically with the Britain of 2016 than it did with that of 1916. This does more than just explain the facts of our imperial past; it speaks to a powerful shared history that can help us understand why modern Britain functions as well as it does.
Many noble Lords drew attention to the contribution made by men of Ireland. Of course, the way the two communities can now come together is important, perhaps helped by the events of May 2011, when Her Majesty the Queen honoured the Irish war dead as she laid her wreath in the Garden of Remembrance in Dublin.
At home, the First World War led to changes in the role of the state, with the Government having to take previously unparalleled action on food, rents and wages. It affected the franchise, too: a reform of the electoral system was deemed necessary after the First World War as millions of returning soldiers were not entitled to the vote. The 1918 Act saw the size of the electorate triple from 7.7 million to 21.4 million, with women making up 43% of the electorate.
Indeed, the war brought many changes in the lives of British women. It is often represented as having had a wholly positive impact, opening up new opportunities in the world of work. Indeed, it is true that the number of women in the workforce rose to more than 1 million. But, as a forthcoming exhibition, “From Corsets to Bras”, will show, it also presaged changes in other ways, such as clothing, when female workers threw off the confines of their tight Edwardian clothing to adopt shorter skirts, looser shirts and even, in some cases, trousers. As we dig deeper into their lives, we recognise, of course, that the reality was more complex. Women’s wages, although routinely portrayed in the wartime press as high, remained significantly lower than those of their male counterparts—a battle that continues to this day. It took until 1928 for women to get an equal electoral franchise.
Such complexity will be found in every component of the First World War, but it is through commemoration that we understand it more completely. I pay tribute to what has been planned for July 2016 by the BBC, 14-18 NOW, and the AHRC, as well as in situ, and look forward to these events throwing new light on these issues.
My Lords, I join with other noble Lords in congratulating my noble friend Lord Lexden on his speech and his choice of debate. A hundred years ago, our country was preparing for what was to become our bloodiest battle. For many in Britain, the Battle of the Somme was the most remembered episode of the First World War. As my noble friend said, there are few communities across the country that were not affected by the Somme.
At this point, I think it would be useful to illustrate how those at the front felt by reading an extract from my grandfather’s diaries of the day. This is from Friday, 15 September 1916:
“A day of very great things. A very fine day. Advance has been made satisfactorily in most cases. So far as one can hear the objectives have been reached. The new caterpillar things have done wonders and fairly put the wind up the enemy. Went to Mametz this afternoon and walked towards Montauban. Wonderful night—masses of troops and very large bodies of cavalry”.
The Somme centenary comes at the midway point in the Government’s First World War commemorative programme, as set out by the Prime Minister in 2012, which has already included marking our entry to war on 4 August 2014 and the start of the Gallipoli campaign in April 2015. On 31 May this year, we will be commemorating the Battle of Jutland, along with our German friends, and the wider war at sea.
There will be a number of events taking place to commemorate this important centenary of the Battle of the Somme. This is our opportunity to commemorate the courage and sacrifice of all those who gave their lives at the Somme and to ensure that their legacy lives on. Plans to commemorate the Somme are our most ambitious yet. Several events are planned. On 30 June, the eve of the battle, there will be a service at Westminster Abbey, attended by Her Majesty the Queen, followed by an all-night vigil around the Grave of the Unknown Warrior. Also on 30 June there will be a military vigil at the Thiepval Memorial to the Missing, in France. The memorial will be fully restored and lit for the first time, thanks to government funding. Vigils will also take place in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. They will be held at the Scottish National War Memorial in Edinburgh Castle, the National War Memorial in Cardiff and Clandeboye and Helen’s Tower, in County Down.
On 1 July, the centenary of the first day of the Battle of the Somme, a national commemorative service will be held at the Thiepval Memorial in France, along with our French comrades. The service will reflect the story of the whole battle, capturing the scale and reach of the conflict, and the impact it had on all the lives of all communities in the United Kingdom and France. This event will be attended by around 10,000 guests, including members of the royal family; heads of state, senior politicians and representatives from all the nations involved, and around 8,000 members of the public.
Here in the United Kingdom, there will be a Somme parade through Manchester, featuring military bands and representatives of the battalions that were present at the Somme; a commemorative service will then take place at Manchester Cathedral. In keeping with Government's key themes for the centenary—remembrance, youth and education— there will also be cultural and educational events at the city’s Heaton Park, featuring an experience field, a national children’s choir, film, dance, and the Hallé Orchestra performing works of George Butterworth, the young English composer who died at the Somme who was mentioned by my noble friend Lord Black. Manchester is a highly suitable location, northern England having been the heart of the Pals Battalions and the country’s huge industrial effort for the Somme. Many of the commemorative events in London, France and Manchester will be televised, which will ensure that the whole nation has a chance to remember. The Government will also encourage communities across the UK to hold acts of remembrance on 1 July in a way that feels appropriate to them. Further details will be published in April.
The battle itself lasted 141 days, up to 18 November. There will be a daily service of remembrance at the Thiepval Memorial hosted by the Royal British Legion and the Commonwealth War Graves Commission throughout the 141-day duration. A range of events will also take place at Commonwealth War Graves Commission cemeteries across the region throughout this period. This will allow regimental associations, communities and descendants to participate on a day of particular significance to them.
The Government are also funding a series of regional debates for schools, a project that will enable pupils to debate the causes, conduct and consequences of the war, including the Battle of the Somme, with a panel of experts. The first of these is due to begin in June. As well as the national commemorative events, government partners will be involved in Somme-related activities. The 14-18 NOW culture programme recently announced its arts events for this year, which focus on the Somme and the home front. Remembrance, youth and education are key government themes. They are at the heart of the culture programme and will engage young people and new diverse audiences.
The Imperial War Museum will open to the public overnight on 30 June and “The Battle of the Somme” film will be made available to centenary partnership members to show in public venues. Around 200 organisations have so far signed up to screen the film. The Heritage Lottery Fund has funding available for local communities to explore their First World War heritage and I encourage them to apply.
My noble friend Lord Shrewsbury drew attention to the Staffordshires and their losses. The noble Lords, Lord Bew, Lord Rogan, Lord Empey and Lord Browne, also mentioned the losses from Northern Ireland. I remember from my youth the losses in the memorials further south, where my family were at the time.
Many noble Lords also mentioned the Commonwealth and the sacrifice of those countries. It is Commonwealth Day today, as the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson, said, so it is only right and proper that we remember that sacrifice and the enormous contribution from what is now the Commonwealth. We could not have prevailed without them. Representatives from all Commonwealth countries are invited to all our commemorative events. My noble friend Lord True drew attention to other countries and their losses.
There have been more announcements in the last week to 10 days. Her Majesty’s Government announced further plans to mark the centenary of the Battle of the Somme in Manchester on 1 July. These include the Somme 100 parade throughout the city and the remembrance service in Manchester Cathedral. Nearly 3,000 people have applied for free tickets to attend the concert. There will also be an experience field, as I mentioned before. I am delighted that the Heritage Lottery Fund awarded almost £100,000 to this experience field, which will explore what life was like for people serving at the Somme as well as those left at home.
Of course, we should also not forget the role of women in the First World War, as touched on by the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson. I emphasise that all UK Government commemorative events for the Somme will recognise the important role that women played in the war effort, be it as factory workers, nurses on the western front and at home, or as loved ones sending letters to the battlefield. My noble friend Lord Lingfield referred to the role of young people. As I said earlier, children and young people are at the centre of our First World War centenary programme and will play a key role in all our commemorative events.
It is entirely appropriate that this House should take a moment to honour this centenary. One hundred years on, our thoughts and gratitude are with all those who were affected by this battle.