Motion to Take Note
That this House takes note of the centenary of the Battle of Passchendaele and of Her Majesty’s Government’s plans to commemorate it.
My Lords, to lead a debate commemorating the horror and savagery of the third battle of Ypres, black-edged in the annals of British and European history in which half a million men lost their lives, were wounded or went missing in the most appalling conditions imaginable, is both a privilege and deeply humbling. A century on, it is still a struggle to find the right words to describe what became known as the Battle of Passchendaele and to do justice to the tale of sacrifice, killing and loss that characterised the three-and-a-half months of the late summer and early autumn of 1917, which the historian AJP Taylor has perhaps most succinctly summed up as,
“the blindest slaughter of a blind war”.
I am exceptionally grateful to all noble Lords who are joining me today in commemorating those who suffered and died at Ypres and trying to find those right words.
I have wanted this House to take time to remember since I toured the First World War battlefields last autumn. With friends, I visited first the Menin Gate, one of the world’s most iconic memorials. It bears the names of more than 54,000 men who died serving the forces of Britain and many other countries from what is now the Commonwealth who have no known grave, their bodies sucked into the thick, glutinous mud of Flanders, and where to this day “The Last Post” is still sounded at 8pm every evening. From there, we went to the haunting cemetery at Tyne Cot, the final resting place of almost 12,000 Commonwealth servicemen, of whom more than 8,000 are unidentified, their graves bearing the inscription only that they are: “Known unto God”. I spent more than an hour there, looking not just at the graves but watching the faces of young people who arrived on coaches. They entered the cemetery often in boisterous form. Within moments they fell silent and their faces became ashen not just as they realised the scale of the loss—something unintelligible to a generation which has known Europe at peace—but as they realised, looking at the ages of those whose names were etched on to the gravestones, that these were people of their own age who had made the ultimate sacrifice.
For that reason alone, the powerful message that these memorials send anew to each generation—a terrible warning from history—they deserve to stand cared for and tended for all time, and we as a nation are immensely lucky that we have the Commonwealth War Graves Commission to do just that. I am sure the Minister will join me in paying tribute to its outstanding work.
A debate still rages today about the rights and wrongs of Passchendaele and whether things could have been done differently. There will never be a resolution to this debate—it will probably be raging a century from now—and, for me, today is not the place to rehearse those arguments but simply to remember. The battle was conceived by Field Marshal Haig to break out of the Ypres Salient where the British had been stuck for several years. The aim was to punch through the German lines and get to the coast in order to stop the devastating loss of vessels crossing the Atlantic being destroyed by U-boats that was threatening our survival as a nation.
As noble Lords know, it began on 31 July 1917. A century ago this month, it was grinding its bloody, grimy path to a conclusion on 10 November and, in doing so, in Churchill’s words,
“disgorged its streams of manhood”.
By this time in October, the village of Passchendaele had been all but wiped from the map. A soldier with the 13th Reserve Infantry Regiment wrote almost 100 years ago to this day:
“In all directions there was yawning emptiness, ruins, ruin and destruction.”
By the time the battle had finished, a quarter of a million men on both sides were dead or wounded in exchange for an advance of just five miles by British troops. The small strip of land over which they fought had been turned to desolation. A few years later, the brave war reporter, Philip Gibbs, who saw the battle at first hand, said that,
“nothing that has been written is more than the pale image of the abomination of those battlefields, and ... no pen or brush has yet achieved the picture of that Armageddon in which so many perished”.
Apart from the extraordinary tale of sacrifice, this “Armageddon” was a battle marked by two things in particular. It was marked first and foremost by the bravery of the men. More Victoria Crosses were won on the first day of Passchendaele than on any other single day in the First World War. It would be useful to hear from my noble friend what is being done to commemorate their particular sacrifice.
It was marked above all by the most dreadful physical conditions imaginable because of the heavy rainfall which accompanied the start of the battle and turned the area into a quagmire which trapped soldiers and immobilised their weaponry. Indeed, the battle has become defined by what Lloyd George called,
“the campaign of the mud”.
In his extraordinary poem about Third Ypres, Siegfried Sassoon describes the horror of death in the Salient:
“I died in hell -
(They called it Passchendaele). My wound was slight,
And I was hobbling back; and then a shell
Burst slick upon the duck-boards: so I fell
Into the bottomless mud, and lost the light”.
Many of your Lordships will know that I have spoken a number of times in this House about the welfare of animals. In describing the horror of the conditions in the battle, I want briefly to mention the plight of the animals that served and died in the war and whose suffering is so powerfully commemorated on the Animals in War memorial in Park Lane. Dogs and, above all, horses were particularly vulnerable in the swamp of land. In his superb book on the battle, Nick Lloyd describes the conditions as fighting raged in the lines around Becelaere 100 years ago to this day. One soldier wrote afterwards how horses just disappeared into the muddy quicksand. He wrote:
“Officers and men attempted, in some cases up to their necks in icy water, to free the horses ... this proved to be impossible … There was nothing else … but to put them out of their … misery with a revolver shot … further on, another team fell into a crater where, before it could be rescued, all the horses drowned”.
It is right that we remember them.
The battle was marked by the great bravery of troops from today’s Commonwealth, particularly from Canada, Australia, South Africa, New Zealand, a country whose worst casualty figures of the Great War came from Passchendaele, and from Hindus and Muslims alike. Indeed, it was the Canadian 27th Battalion from Winnipeg which with British assistance finally took the village of Passchendaele on 6 November in an assault that took place, according to one Canadian soldier, in absolutely nothing but mud and water. Men came from every race, every faith, every culture, across the seas—as in the saying,
“from the uttermost ends of the earth”—
to fight and die for their king. And many did so on the Ypres Salient. It is essential that we pay tribute, as we have throughout the commemorations of the Great War, to the indispensable role that Commonwealth troops played in Passchendaele and in securing our ultimate victory.
We should also remember how important women were to the fighting at the front and the waging of war. Some of course served as nurses, 260 of whom died in the line of duty throughout the war. One was Nellie Spindler, from Wakefield, who was killed by the blast from a shell at a hospital just three miles from the front line at Passchendaele and who is the only woman buried at Tyne Cot, alongside 12,000 men. Her headstone bears the inscription “Staff Nurse” and in its simplicity sums up the heroism of all the women who endured the rain, the mud and the horrendous conditions to tend the sick and dying. Well away from the front, tens of thousands of women of course played a vital role in the war effort, producing munitions for the artillery which was so critical to the fighting at Passchendaele. Many suffered the most dreadful conditions and illnesses—we think of the canary girls whose repeated exposure to toxic TNT used in munitions production turned their skin yellow. I hope that at some point before the four years of commemorations of the Great War come to an end, this House will have an opportunity to mark their role. I would be grateful if my noble friend could tell us what is being done to pay the most profound tribute to women and their role in the war.
One enduring characteristic of all the battles of the Great War is the loss of youth and of so much potential, particularly in the worlds of music, art and poetry. Passchendaele is no exception. On the opening day of the battle of Pilckem Ridge, the talented Welsh poet Ellis Evans—better known as Hedd Wyn—a pacifist conscripted into the army, was killed. A similar fate that very day befell the gifted Irish poet Francis Ledwidge, known as the “poet of the blackbirds”. From the world of music, the brilliant young composer Ivor Gurney fought valiantly in the battle. Gurney was a student at the Royal College of Music where he was taught by Charles Villiers Stanford, who described him as potentially,
“the biggest of them all”.
Gurney survived 15 months at the front and, having been shot and gassed, returned home with five of his most enduring songs. One mud-spattered manuscript, “By a Bierside”, was written by the light of a stump of candle in a trench. But war had destroyed Gurney in other ways: as a result of shell shock, mental illness overwhelmed him and he spent the rest of his life in a mental hospital, writing little more. The loss of these artists as a result of Passchendaele underlines the pity of war and the waste of potential, for who knows what they and countless others who died in those four bloody years might have achieved had they lived.
There are a number of reasons why I believe it is important for us to commemorate the battle. One is that it was in many ways a turning point in the war. It may have failed in its objectives, but as Nick Lloyd puts it in his book,
“it marked the moment when German morale on the Western Front began to collapse”.
Equally important was that it contributed to development in British tactical skill and weaponry which gave us a decisive edge over the German armies in the summer of 1918. Passchendaele was a milestone on the road to victory.
Secondly, it was a battle in which the whole nation—and, as I mentioned, much of what is now the Commonwealth—was involved. I doubt that there are many communities in the land that do not have a war memorial bearing the names of their many sons and fathers who did not return from the hell-hole of Ypres. It is important to remember in particular the contribution of troops from Scotland. Three divisions fought at Passchendaele and made what was probably a disproportionate sacrifice in the battle.
Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, the battle in so many ways epitomises the absolute essence of the Great War. On the one hand, it symbolises the nobility of war: the sheer scale of supreme sacrifice, the extraordinary acts of valour that was underscored by the number of VCs awarded, and the comradeship linking people of all backgrounds, faiths and cultures in a common aim. Yet on the other hand, it represents the futility of war: the immense loss of life and the squandering of so much potential—all for five miles of land which was then surrendered back in the blink of an eye to the Germans in the spring of 1918. A ridge that had cost so much blood was abandoned without a shot being fired.
Many organisations are involved in the commemoration of this great battle. I mentioned earlier the exceptional work of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, to which should be added the War Memorials Trust which works so hard to maintain the war memorials across the United Kingdom that house forever the names of the fallen. The BBC and the Royal British Legion have played significant roles as well. The Imperial War Museum—I declare my interest as a trustee of the IWM Foundation—has this year put in place a comprehensive programme of commemoration and education. It has supported organisations across the world through the First World War Centenary Partnership, not least to bring alive for today’s young people the horror of this campaign through film, images and social media. Its Lives of the First World War project contains a permanent digital memorial to all those who sacrificed so much on the Ypres Salient in those deadly days of 1917. Their story lives on, too, in the museum’s remarkable First World War galleries.
I commend the work of my noble friend the Minister and the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport. Together with the indefatigable work of Dr Andrew Murrison MP, they have done so much to make the commemoration of Passchendaele and all the significant milestones of the Great War, of which we have more to come next year, utterly memorable. I look forward to hearing from my noble friend more of what the Government have done and what impact they judge it to have had, particularly in terms of the education of young people. The department and the other organisations have between them generated a huge and almost insatiable public interest in the record of the sacrifice and heroism of those who died a century ago. I hope that today’s debate will contribute to the powerful record of commemoration of that fateful year, one which all those who are privileged to sit in this House, in this seat of freedom and democracy, should revere for all time.
Let me finish where I started, back at the Memorial to the Missing at the Menin Gate. It was opened in July 1927 with words of comfort for those who were never recovered from the battlefield: “He is not missing; he is here”. I like to think that all those who fell are here with us today.
My Lords, I congratulate the noble Lord on securing this debate and the very powerful way in which he has introduced it. It is an opportunity for us to reflect on this defining moment of the 20th century. I hope that he will forgive me if I cast my net slightly wider to talk a bit about the war in general as well as the battle of Passchendaele. I want, in particular, to talk about the way in which communities across the country have commemorated the war and about the role of the Heritage Lottery Fund and what it has done to make that possible. I declare an interest as chair of the Heritage Lottery Fund committee for Wales.
In introducing the debate, the noble Lord created some very graphic pictures for us. The casualty figures are of course still debated, but I think they seem to have settled at around 500,000 men lost in those first three months to October. The battle was dignified as the Third Battle of Ypres—we know it as Passchendaele. It has become associated with the story of those thousands who drowned in the mud. The mud itself became synonymous with the battle. Many others were sickened to death or froze. It was the last battle of Kitchener’s volunteer army, so it has a more poignant aspect as well. It was a reprise of the Somme, but it was worse. Although fewer men died, they died in worse conditions. It divided Lloyd George from Haig. So we must continue to ask whether it was necessary and why it was so prolonged. The noble Lord is right that much of the burden was borne by Commonwealth troops. Australia lost more men in the first few days of that battle than in the eight months at Gallipoli. The Canadians suffered equally.
The Great War continues to invade our minds, never more so than the past four years. Passchendaele is different, though. It is the battle that really grips us, and it will always do so. In the images of that hellish landscape, where the trees were—as Blunden, who survived the war, wrote—as “described by Dante”, the poetry of the war is imprinted in our minds, our imagination and our national psyche. No one who watched the ceremony at Ypres in July will ever be able to forget the words and images revealed through the incessant rain that was projected on to the great Cloth Hall. I felt then, as I do now, that in remembering the Great War we have to remember all those who fought and died. In his great anti-war novel, All Quiet on the Western Front, Erich Remarque might have been speaking of young men on all sides of the conflict when he described how his generation of young Germans was betrayed by the older generation who took them to war, when he wrote that,
“in our hearts we trusted them. The idea of authority, which they represented, was associated in our minds with a greater insight and a more humane wisdom. But the first death we saw shattered this belief. We had to recognise that our generation was more to be trusted than theirs … The first bombardment showed us our mistake, and under it the world as they had taught it to us broke in pieces”.
As I said, the Battle of Passchendaele was a defining moment for the 20th century. It is very easy to be overwhelmed by the scale. The quality of the talent lost, as the noble Lord described so beautifully, cannot be quantified: the best of physicists—men such as Henry Moseley; the best of poets, mathematicians and musicians; the brilliant son of the Prime Minister; and that golden generation. But when we seek to commemorate, it is vital that we ask who as well as what we commemorate. So far history has not given much space to the memory and experiences of the many, many more who also had such a lot to give—until now. The past three years have enabled some of this to be revealed for the first time, made possible in large part by the Heritage Lottery Fund and those who faithfully play the National Lottery, who deserve our most grateful thanks.
I will give the House some figures. Since April 2010 the Heritage Lottery Fund has awarded £90 million to more than 1,700 projects. In Wales alone, 100 grants have been made, totalling well over £1 million. Some of these have been massive capital grants, not least for the galleries and the Imperial War Museum, as well as the £15 million that went to the National Museum of the Royal Navy to save “HMS Caroline”. Just as important has been the £11 million awarded to 1,300 community projects, involving 7 million people drawn from every type of community in Britain: disability groups, Muslim groups, African groups, veterans’ groups, civic trusts, women’s health groups, YMCAs, prisoner education groups, faith groups and refugee councils. The research they have done has uncovered the most extraordinary stories of Indian, African and Caribbean soldiers, conscientious objectors, refugees in the UK, the German communities, advancements in medicine and race riots in Liverpool. For the first time they have brought into the light—as Sassoon described it—the names on the war memorials. They have told their stories for the first time, in oral and written form, in photographs, exhibitions, plays and films. With regard to Passchendaele, grants have been made, for example, to Portsmouth Poetry and Portsmouth Cathedral in partnership to put on a specific exhibition and film, and to the Whilton Local History Society to research the life of a local hero, Captain Henry Reynolds VC.
Finally, I turn to Wales and Passchendaele. Four thousand Welshmen died on the first day of the battle alone. Among those who died, as the noble Lord said, was a young man who was already a great poet: Hedd Wyn. He had volunteered to spare his younger brother from the war. He died, as so many other compatriots did, at Pilckem Ridge, not knowing that he would be shortly awarded Wales’ greatest prize—the Bardic Chair at the National Eisteddfod—for a poem that he posted from the battlefield. His bardic name was Hedd Wyn; his given name was Ellis Evans. His death, announced at the National Eisteddfod in Birkenhead in September 1917, came immediately to stand for what all Wales had lost.
As the years have gone by, more and more people have climbed the mountain to the farmhouse near Trawsfynydd where he lived with his family, which has been cared for lovingly by his nephew Gerald Williams. The farmhouse, Yr Ysgwrn, was given to the Snowdonia National Park a few years ago by Mr Williams, who deserves our great thanks for all he has done for Wales. I am delighted to say that this year the HLF, through the £3 million grant we were able to make, has worked with many people to conserve the cottage and the Bardic Chair, which he never occupied. The barns have become museums and places where young and old can learn about Hedd Wyn, his poetry and his life and times.
Contrast that with the unknown story of Mr William O’Brien, a policeman living and working in the small village of Abersychan in Gwent, who joined the Grenadier Guards and who was killed at Passchendaele just three days after Hedd Wyn. He wrote regularly to his girlfriend Rose, and his correspondence gives an intimate view of life on the front line—the routine and the traumatic—and his longing to come home to Rose. His letters are in the Gwent Archives and, with an HLF grant, children from Victoria Village Primary School and Ysgol Bryn Onnen have made a series of films. They have created a guided walk around the places that would have been known to Rose and William, and they have researched and created a roll of honour to the other men from Abersychan who gave their lives but who never had a war memorial.
Many of those who died at Passchendaele are remembered on the gravestones of Artillery Wood Cemetery. But, thanks to the huge efforts that have gone into remembering and commemorating in so many different ways, we have been able to bring the war back into the foreground of memory. People have discovered the hidden biographies and the lasting impacts. In the play “The History Boys”, one of them says that commemoration enables us only to remember, not to explain. But I think what has happened in the commemoration of the war contradicts this. In researching the war, and this battle, we have gone beyond commemoration to a greater understanding—perhaps not of the strategy of disaster but of what war did to those who fought and died or were left behind. I hope that this determination and duty to explain what we can as best as we can, to find the truth where it can be found, will intensify throughout the rest of the commemoration.
I, too, congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Black, for arranging this debate on an important topic. It is important not just to commemorate the past but to consider the present for our service men and women. I do not think that any of your Lordships would disagree with the fact that Passchendaele was a tragedy, with bloodshed and casualties that were excessive even by First World War standards.
One hundred years on, some have expressed the view that perhaps the sickening inhumanities should now be left on the battlefield, but Passchendaele lived on in the minds of its survivors and their families down the years. It left permanent scars on those who fought through it, plaguing their brains with lifelong nightmares that they could not escape, even in broad daylight. The psychological trauma initially had no name, other than shame, until it grew to be known as shell shock. We now know it as post-traumatic stress disorder. Unfortunately, we have a name for it because it still exists. Passchendaele was not the end of combat-caused mental illness. One would think that perhaps over the last century the nature of war would change or at least the numbers of those suffering from PTSD would decrease as advanced medical treatments and rehabilitation therapy became more readily available, but this does not seem to be the case. The dreadful experiences that our service men and women face remain common even 100 years later.
We know about the horrific sights, sounds and smells that those on the front lines of Passchendaele experienced because soldiers documented those experiences in writing. In my family, my grandfather, Arthur Coningham, wrote home to his mother throughout World War I. His writings covered everything from roughly drawn maps of the difficult terrain to describing the sadness he felt—far too often—when a friend or fellow soldier died. Other soldiers have used their writing to describe their endured suffering as well, including Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen. Their poems presented graphic and heavily realistic images of what trench warfare was like for those who lived within it. Sassoon’s poem “Sick Leave” specifically explains the torture of shell shock. It was written when he was in Craiglockhart Hospital with shell shock. I believe it bears reading:
“When I’m asleep, dreaming and lulled and warm,
They come, the homeless ones, the noiseless dead.
While the dim charging breakers of the storm
Bellow and drone and rumble overhead,
Out of the gloom they gather about my bed.
They whisper to my heart; their thoughts are mine.
‘Why are you here with all your watches ended?
From Ypres to Frise we sought you in the Line.’
In bitter safety I awake, unfriended;
And while the dawn begins with slashing rain
I think of the Battalion in the mud.
‘When are you going out to them again?
Are they not still your brothers through our blood?’”.
Wilfrid Owen’s “Dulce et Decorum Est” describes a poison-gas attack, the title giving a bitter twist to Horace’s ancient line:
“It is a sweet and proper thing to die for one’s country”.
Owen and Sassoon were unusual in their blunt way of speaking; it was not usual to be so blunt at the time. Either physically or mentally, it was much more important to keep that stiff upper lip. Ordinary combatants—although I suspect that none was truly ordinary—faced horrors that very few of us are asked to see or do, and to keep their feelings muted when they wrote home regularly.
My grandfather Arthur was no exception. He told his mother everything, as far as the censors would allow. He was a New Zealander and joined the Anzacs within days of war being declared. He had seen active service in Samoa in August 1914 and taken part in Gallipoli in 1916. He returned home at that point because his health, physical and mental, had completely broken down. But he was determined not to give up and made his own way back to England, joining the RFC in late 1916. Promoted to captain, he was making his mark as a fearless flyer and strong leader of men as Passchendaele began and the Army moved in on the ground in preparation for the Third Battle of Ypres. He was awarded the Military Cross for outstanding work on his 96th patrol, leading his men and the patrol to take on German fighters. This young man wrote to his mother:
“A great life. Am in for the MC or something, so the Colonel says, and he ought to know. Bucked as old Harry ... am looking ahead a little, Mum, (optimism!) but will be able to send you a cable the day of the investiture just for luck”.
He goes on in the same letter:
“Friday is a day I dread almost as much as Sunday, but it has been a lucky one today. But we must get on. Beginning to dislike talking of the number of officers down, Mum, but I always tell you”.
This was code because on Fridays and Sundays, deaths were discussed and talked about but not during the rest of the week.
A fortnight later on 30 July, he and his patrol downed two Germans. During the dogfight, he was hit by a bullet in his head. Despite losing blood, he continued flying for another half-hour and even managed to land his plane before losing consciousness and being taken to hospital. We have his letters to my great-grandmother as he recovered, as well as this delightfully positive note from RFC HQ:
“Dear Coningham, I am very sorry to hear that you have been wounded in the head. I hope it does not give you too much pain and that you are feeling better and fairly comfortable now, and will be fit again soon, yours sincerely”.
This was followed with the announcement of the award of a DSO to add to his MC. The note said that,
“the Army Commander was frightfully pleased with your show”.
As my noble friend Lord Addington said to me the other day, it really begins to sound like Biggles. Yet that bravery was covering up the personal cost. That November, in writing home to his old school, Wellington College in New Zealand, he said:
“I am prouder of being spared to keep up the reputation of the College and of New Zealand than of anything else. It is a treat to have one’s efforts recognised, but at the same time … saddening to think of all the other real top notches not so fortunate”.
He felt like that for the rest of his life.
The one clear message echoing down the century since Passchendaele is “Never again”, and yet the Second World War followed not too long after. Once again, the world said “Never again”, yet British service men and women still face physical and mental traumas following active service in Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere. The military understand and accept that mental health is vital. I am encouraged that over 6,000 service men and women are trained mental health first-aiders—including Prince Harry and my own daughter, who is a current Army officer.
We cannot remove the horrors of war, but perhaps we can help those who serve their country to recover from their experience. We also need to ensure that veterans get prompt and proper access to mental health services once they have left, but that is just not happening: shame to us as a society. We have to do better for our military, our veterans and our citizens, and for the rest of the world. We do this by having debates like this one and commemorating Passchendaele, not least to remind us how precious peace is to the world. What plans are there to mark the role of the RFC and that of the doctors at Craiglockhart and other places, who helped us to understand mental health problems 100 years ago? The voices of Sassoon, Owen and ordinary combatants such as my grandfather still need to be heard and heeded today. That would be a true memorial for Passchendaele.
My Lords, it is a privilege to speak in this debate commemorating the fearsome Battle of Passchendaele. As the noble Lord, Lord Black, mentioned in his very powerful opening speech, it epitomized the horror of trench warfare and combat on the Western Front during the First World War, but of course there was more to it than that. The fortitude and bravery of our men who were involved in the battle is very humbling but in hindsight, one has to wonder about how the battle was allowed to continue for over three months when it became clear in the first few weeks that there was limited strategic advantage to be won.
By that time of the war the British Army had begun to understand modern industrial-scale war, and the limited assault on the Messines ridge on 7 June 1917, using huge mines tunnelled under German positions and tanks, was a major tactical success. We were getting better at fighting tactically but fighting in a quagmire, created by nature and man, where tanks could not be used and men were bogged down—constrained by barbed wire and enemy blockhouses—was never going to achieve a strategic success. However, it did attrit and demoralise the German forces, far more than I think was realised at the time.
As has been said, one key reason for the battle was a desire to reach the Channel coast and stop German U-boats operating from ports there. Why was that considered so important? The Battle of Jutland, fought in the North Sea in mid-1916, had effectively decided the outcome of the war. The Germans knew their key adversary, which they had made clear was Britain, could be conquered only if they could defeat the Royal Navy. The Battle of Jutland, though not the crushing victory of annihilation that Britain expected, left the Navy pre-eminent and the Germans realized this.
On 22 December 1916, Admiral von Holtzendorff composed a memorandum which became the pivotal document for Germany’s resumption of unrestricted U-boat warfare in 1917. He proposed defeating Britain by sinking 600,000 tonnes of shipping per month, based on a study done in 1916 by Dr Richard Fuss, who had shown that if merchant shipping was sunk at such a rate, Britain would run out of ships and be forced to sue for peace within six months, well before the Americans—who were likely to enter the conflict because of the unrestricted U-boat campaign—could act. As an aside, is it not amazing that we had a shipbuilding industry that could build up to 600,000 tonnes of shipping each month? I leave your Lordships to reflect on where our shipbuilding industry is now.
On 9 January 1917, the Kaiser met with Chancellor Bethmann Hollweg and the military leaders to discuss measures to resolve Germany’s increasingly grim war situation. The German navy was bottled up in Kiel and the British blockade had caused food scarcity, which I am afraid in turn caused death by malnutrition in Germany. It is horrifying to think that by 1918, 900,000 German civilians had died of malnutrition as a result of the British blockade. There was a shortage of machine tools, copper and other essentials, which led to revolution and collapse within Germany. The German military staff urged the Kaiser to unleash the submarine fleet and on 31 January 1917, he duly signed the order for unrestricted submarine warfare, which started on 1 February. Germany had 105 submarines ready for action, of which 23 were based in Flanders. Its initial campaign was hugely successful: 500,000 tonnes of shipping was sunk in both February and March, and 860,000 tonnes in April, when Britain’s supplies of wheat went down below six weeks-worth. In May, the losses exceeded 600,000 tonnes and in June, 700,000 tonnes. Again, it is worth thinking that we still rely on ships for everything that comes into this country, 95% of which by volume comes by sea. We forget that at our peril.
By June 1917, there was a real possibility that Britain would be starved into surrender in a matter of weeks, and although the USA joined the allies in April as a result of the German campaign and the Zimmermann telegram, it was months before they could bring any military power to bear. At first, the British Admiralty failed to respond to the German offensive, refusing to consider widespread convoying. That changed on 27 April. In May and June a regular convoy system was established and after July, the monthly losses never exceeded 500,000 tonnes, although they remained above 300,000 tonnes.
With hindsight, we can see that the risk of Britain’s defeat by U-boats had been overcome by July, at the end of which the Battle of Passchendaele started. But when the battle was being planned there was a very real possibility of British defeat, and any action at all that could have some impact on the U-boats was worth considering, even a major battle such as Passchendaele, because if we did not stop the U-boat threat, Britain was going to be defeated.
When the Battle of Passchendaele juddered to a halt on 6 November, our gallant troops were no nearer to the key ports on the north Belgian coast, and for the loss of some 300,000 men or slightly more—the figure is disputed—the Ypres salient had been slightly expanded, by about five miles. However, many lessons had been learned and reinforced, and there were no more huge, meaningless, old-style offensive battles by the British in World War I.
By 1918, the British Empire Army was the best Army in the world. Having stopped the German spring offensive, it drove the German army back across the Siegfried line, defeating it daily, month on month, until the Armistice on 11 November. So perhaps Passchendaele had not been completely in vain, but it is completely appropriate that we should remember the gallant sacrifice of so many brave men during that battle.
My Lords, I, too, thank the noble Lord, Lord Black of Brentwood, and associate myself with the lovely phrase that it is both a privilege and very humbling to be part of this remembrance.
Passchendaele is, as we have heard, a symbol of war: the human cost, the sheer complexity of leadership and the sheer complexity of operations. Commemoration is not simply to remember but, as the noble Lord, Lord West, has just pointed out, to learn, to take something, to honour what people gave in their lives and commitment, and to see how that can inspire us and point us forward positively. It is a sign of huge issues in international relations, warfare and military and political leadership.
I want to offer some kind of commemoration and a platform for learning and looking to the future through what noble Lords might think is rather an esoteric and peculiar lens, although they will not disassociate it from me: the lens of chaplaincy. Chaplaincy was in one sense, almost totally peripheral. The soldiers were fighting and there were commanders and politicians, and chaplains could be seen as scrabbling around the edge, adding perhaps very little value. Yet it is a lens that allows us to ask some important questions.
In Derbyshire, where I live and work, we produced a book for the period from 1914 to 1918 which collected memories, like those we heard from the noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, and others, so that people could reflect, remember and perhaps learn. There is a lovely diary entry from someone called Harold Blaylock about all things we know—the mud and the frustration—but also about the laughter and the fun that they had to try to make to survive. There are lovely stories about chaplains burying German soldiers as well as English dead. There are some very important insights about when the dead were buried in shallow graves—the noble Lord, Lord Black, mentioned how many people have never been found—an effort was made every time to write their name down, put it in a bottle and make some kind of stopper, and then put the bottle in with the body. One wonders how many millions of bottles there were and how many survive. They reflect the deep human instinct to preserve the preciousness of each person.
The chaplains were faced with not just the big issues of international relations, political judgment and military tactics but with issues that affected everybody on the battlefield about life and death, good and evil and how life can have any meaning in all that mess, which is what so many of the letters and memories were about. The Church of England tried to learn because in 1917, before Passchendaele, it set up a school for chaplaincy, having gone through the first couple of years of the war thinking it knew what to do. We obviously had to learn and to do it better.
An example I want to share with the House comes from just before the battle. It is the practice developed by Geoffrey Studdert Kennedy, whom noble Lords may know as Woodbine Willie. He was very famous. He had been a vicar in Worcester. He was called up, and he went to be a chaplain in the First World War. He was stationed in Rouen. That is where the men assembled or came back to for rest. They went on trains to the front, into all the horror that the noble Lord, Lord Black, described so powerfully. How could you be a chaplain to people in Rouen who were about to face all that or who had come back for respite? Rouen was a place of brothels and bars because when we are under stress, it is very difficult to ask the big questions about good and evil and what the mess is about and much easier to look at more immediate satisfactions and look after yourself. It is a very understandable instinct. How could you help people look at these big questions of good and evil, the meaning of life and what the mess was about? The men knew from being there what the experience would be.
Studdert Kennedy had a very interesting way of trying to help people engage with those issues. He would go to the station and there would be 600 men in the canteen waiting to get on the train. Noble Lords can imagine what they were feeling about getting on that train. He had a lovely voice, and he would go to the piano, start playing and get them all singing. That is a bit like what can happen in a good church service sometimes. You lift people out of themselves and create a spirit of connection and hopefulness and of being in it together. You create a situation of being accompanied on a pilgrimage and not being alone. Studdert Kennedy got them singing and created a spirit that enabled the men to feel they were part of a movement that was worth being part of. After the singing that had created that atmosphere of solidarity, he would stand on a chair and say, “If anybody wants to give me the name and address of a loved one, when you’ve gone and while you’re at the front, I’ll write to say that I’ve seen you and you’re okay”. A huge queue would form. Studdert Kennedy understood that within these big questions of good and evil, right and wrong and mess, each of us needs to know that we are precious, that we can be loved and that we can give love to other people. He would spend several days afterwards writing all those letters to say, “I saw so-and-so, and he wanted you to know he’s all right and has gone to fight. I’ll pray for him”. Each person is precious and needs to be loved.
Then, when they got on the train, before it went, he went down the whole train with two rucksacks on his back. In one were Woodbines, and he gave everybody a packet of Woodbines. That just shows that the Church, like everyone, is not immune from making serious mistakes in trying to be kind and good to people, and we certainly would not be giving Woodbines to people today, but the pastoral thing is to say, “Here’s something for you which in your culture at this moment might be a comfort”. From the other rucksack, he gave the men copies of the New Testament. Why did he do such a bizarre thing? Of course, the New Testament is a story of these huge issues, of suffering that can lead to hope and of evil that can emerge in goodness. It appeals to that spirit of solidarity, that preciousness of each person. That is what Studdert Kennedy tried to understand. It gives people a chance to step into a story that is full of all the horrors, the big picture and the little picture, but where hope keeps rising in human hearts and life can triumph over death. That was his offering. He did not tell the men that; he just gave them a book and they could read it or not—they could throw it away—but in it there was a place where these deep questions could be explored and the men could step into that story themselves, facing they knew not what.
Chaplaincy will always be a peripheral thing, I suspect, but it is worth remembering and trying to learn, as we reflect on the sheer horror painted so graphically and eloquently by the noble Lord, Lord Black, that in the human hearts that we are commemorating and saying thank you for, there was powerful witness about solidarity and a spirit of togetherness—a powerful sign of the preciousness of each person and the fact that we, and they, are in a story. We are here today speaking because we believe that hope can triumph over suffering and that life emerges out of death. That is something that we need to put in our remembrance and renew our commitment to in honour of all those who gave their lives for us at Passchendaele.
My Lords, I warmly congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Black of Brentwood, on calling this debate, and on the tone of his remarks; he made a powerful and moving speech. Indeed, we have heard several such speeches today. Like him and others, I feel it is a great personal privilege to be able to speak today as we commemorate the third Battle of Ypres, the battle that became known as Passchendaele. I congratulate all those who have been involved in the commemoration events so far, both here and abroad. My noble friend Lady Andrews has reminded us of the excellent work of the English Heritage Lottery Fund as well.
What we are doing today in commemorating these events is truly right and proper. It is 100 years since that terrible battle took place. When we commit ourselves to acts of commemoration, even when we have debates in this Chamber, we strengthen the bonds that separate us now from our grandfathers and great-grandfathers who served with such distinction in the battle. As many others have said, arguments continue to rage over whether what was achieved during the titanic struggle in the second half of 1917 at Ypres was worth the cost. Every aspect of the battle—its inception, execution and continuance—has become a matter of great historical and public controversy. However, the commemorations of the battle are probably neither the time nor the place to take that controversy forward. Instead, our purpose should be to reflect on the courage, humanity and sacrifice of those who fought at Passchendaele, people from every part of our country and the Commonwealth, from every walk of life.
When I was thinking about saying a few words today, I thought the best words for us to hear were not mine—everyone would probably agree—but of those who fought, many of whom died. Sergeant John Carmichael of the 9th Battalion of the North Staffordshire Regiment was serving in September 1917 on Hill 60 on the Ypres battlefield. He was supervising a working party of his men who came across a grenade while digging a new communication trench. These are his words:
“One of the chaps was deepening the trench when his spade struck an unexploded grenade … and it started to fizz … I knew that there would be seven seconds before it went off unless I did something. I couldn’t throw it out, because there were men working outside the trench … All I had was my steel helmet. So I took it off my head, put it over the grenade as it was fizzing away, and stood on it … They tell me it blew me right out of the trench”.
When he woke up in hospital, he wrote a letter to his mother in Airdrie saying that he was fine and well, but he forgot to tell her that he had been awarded the Victoria Cross for his actions.
When it comes to humanity, I cannot think of anything more powerful than the image described by Private Bill Smith, who was serving with the 2nd New Zealand Machine Gun Company in October 1917. As the fighting inched its way towards Passchendaele Ridge, he witnessed something that still makes the hairs on the back of my neck stand up. He said: “We took advantage of a lull to lug three or four of our wounded mates down to Waterloo Farm, where our part in the advance had started the morning before … what a sight the place presented. Now we saw that it was a mass of shell holes full of water, and on the parts of firm ground between the holes there were scores, even hundreds, of wounded men lying there, 40 and also by their mates. In front, there were long lines of Northumberland Fusiliers and Durham Light Infantry, lying dead almost in formation when they had been mown down like wheat. Amid the fury and shelling, the Maoris were there. They had formed relays to get the wounded out but there were no stretchers, so they carried them to safety in their arms like children”.
Another example of humanity that really touched me was reported by Rifleman Jim Maxwell of the 11th Battalion The Rifle Brigade. Early in the battle he and his mates were laying new tracks to take materials up to the front line. He said:
“By dusk, we’d been at that job for eight hours or more and the wounded were still coming down. Two of the RAMC stopped just by our working party. They were carrying a young German private, obviously very seriously wounded. They laid the stretcher down … and asked if anyone spoke German. Our lance-corporal said, ‘Yes, I can speak a bit.’ ... one of them said, ‘Well, just have a word with this lad if you can, will you?’ So he bent over the stretcher”,
held the young German soldier’s hand,
“and said something to this boy. Some words of comfort in German. And the boy looked at him, and he said just one word, ‘Mutti’”—
“Then he died. We knocked off, but I kept thinking about him”—
this young German boy.
“They were in the same boat as ourselves”.
When it comes to sacrifice, one thinks of the First Battalion the Hertfordshire Regiment, which took part in the fighting at St Julien the beginning of the battle. Company Quartermaster Sergeant George Fisher, who was to survive the battle, was given rations to take up to his battalion. After several hours of work, George found his way to brigade headquarters. He said:
“‘I went down the stairs, saluted the Brigadier”—
usually a good thing to do—
“told him who I was and said, ‘Could you give me any instructions, sir, that would help me find my battalion?’. He just stood and looked at me. We were both standing on the steps and the pillbox was rocking like a boat in a rough sea with explosions. He said, ‘I’m sorry, Quarters, I’m afraid there isn’t any Hertfordshire Regiment”.
Of the 650 men who had begun the attack that morning, only a handful ever returned.
Those are some of the many poignant and moving stories that can be found about the battle of Passchendaele. Many things divide us in our country today, be they politics, faith, religion or whatever, but I hope our shared history, the recognition of the service and sacrifice of previous generations, should never be a cause for division.
My Lords, my noble friend Lord Black of Brentwood, to whom we are indebted for this debate, summarised the course of a truly terrible battle and the reasons why it must be held firmly and for ever in the public memory with his customary clarity and skill in his opening speech, which others have described quite rightly as most moving and powerful. The third Battle of Ypres came to be known at once by the name of the final ridge conquered at the end of it with huge loss of life. It is not difficult to argue that this final attack should never have been attempted; indeed, that was the view of the Canadian general who, in reluctant obedience to orders, led the assault. As my noble friend Lord Black remarked, a few months later that hard-won ridge was quietly evacuated without a German in sight.
Passchendaele: it is as if providence itself decreed that that should be the name to ensure that this terrible battle would reverberate powerfully down the years, stirring feelings of pride and outrage generation by generation—pride in the wonderful courage of our forebears fighting in defence of freedom; outrage that they should have been called upon to endure so much wretchedness and agony because of the battle’s flawed strategy and tactics for which both generals and politicians bore responsibility, each indecently seeking to pass the blame to the other when held to account.
In this year of commemoration, as the noble Lord, Lord Hutton, reminded us, we must also remember the formidable German forces ranged against Douglas Haig’s great Army. They too suffered most grievously in the same dreadful conditions. A British pilot flying over the battlefield said:
“It’s just not conceivable how human beings can exist in such a swamp, let alone fight in it”.
Our opponents were also caught in that ghastly swamp. Nick Lloyd’s new history of Passchendaele, published a few months ago, to which my noble friend Lord Black referred, is the first study in English to make full use of German archives, and it provides a superb account of the battle on both sides. He writes:
“the German soldier had to cope with the perils of seemingly endless drumfire, poison gas and low-flying aircraft … Even the best units could be reduced to a shambling, lice-ridden bunch of stragglers after a few days on the battlefield”.
The well-worn defence of appallingly high First World War casualty rates is that important military lessons were learned from them which assisted our ultimate victory in 1918. It is not obvious that Douglas Haig progressed to victory by absorbing useful lessons along his bloodstained path. He adopted more or less the same tactics at Passchendaele as he had a year earlier at the Somme—with better artillery but in much worse weather.
“It was the Somme all over again, except that a Somme battle fought knee-deep in marsh was so much the worse”,
wrote one officer who took part in both. A Private Carter recalled that,
“the ground very much resembled that of the Somme, every yard being churned up by shells, the only difference was that many of the holes were a good deal bigger”.
Should not a fearful question lurk at the back of the mind when comments by the combatants are read today: how would I have acquitted myself in those frightful circumstances? It is a question that goes to the very heart of the matter and should induce great humility in us, as other speakers have mentioned.
Then, as now, Douglas Haig had many critics. In 1917, they were lead in Cabinet by the Prime Minister, David Lloyd George. His dynamism and originality stood in stark contrast to Hague’s stubborn stolidity. The Welsh wizard was completely opposed to a long, large-scale campaign in Flanders in 1917. Lloyd George argued against Haig’s ambitious plans for a decisive breakthrough in the War Cabinet which he himself had created. At any point during the long battle he could have brought it to a halt. Why did he not?
Lloyd George later gave a number of reasons. Haig, a highly political soldier, cultivated newspaper proprietors. He enjoyed strong support within the Conservative Party, known almost universally at the time as the Unionist Party, on whose votes Lloyd George’s coalition Government depended. Nearly 20 years later, in a long section of his war memoirs, Lloyd George furiously denounced Haig’s conduct of the battle while insisting that he had not been in a sufficiently strong position to dismiss a commander in whom he had no confidence. By and large, historians have been unimpressed. His latest biographer, Roy Hattersley, our own Lord Hattersley, writes that, “had Lloyd George done what he knew to be right, he would almost certainly have succeeded in imposing his views on policy either by insisting on a change of strategy or making a change in the high command”.
Those who look to historians for a final, definitive verdict on Passchendaele will continue to be disappointed. More than 50 years ago the distinguished Tory historian, Robert Blake, later a Member of this House, wrote that, “Historians will long argue as to whether Passchendaele on balance weakened most of the British or the German Army. If there had been no Passchendaele, would the British have been better able to withstand the German offensive of spring 1918 or would the Germans have been in a better position to exploit their early successes and perhaps roll the British Army into the sea? No clear answer”, Lord Blake concluded, “has been, perhaps ever can be, given to this question”.
What can be said with some certainty is that neither the British Prime Minister nor the British commander-in-chief served our long-suffering soldiers well while this terrible battle raged 100 years ago. How different everything would have been if we had had a Wellington.
My Lords, it is always an enormous pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Lexden, who made a fascinating contribution, as have been all the speeches made so far in this Chamber.
For about three or four years now, a good friend of mine and councillor, Stuart Cameron, has been compiling a register of those in the eastern valley of Monmouthshire, my former constituency of Torfaen in South Wales, who perished during the Great War. In her very good contribution, my noble friend Lady Andrews referred to those who came from my home village of Abersychan in Monmouthshire. They, too, are commemorated by the register that Mr Cameron has been compiling.
I had a look at that register for the months of July to November 1917, covering, of course, the third Battle of Ypres. I discovered that at least 50 young men from my valley perished in that battle. That is 50 in a relatively small part of our country. Tragically, too, of those 50, seven of the men who died had brothers who had also died during the course of the war. Most of them were coal miners. Of course, the majority of coal miners were in a reserved occupation, as my grandparents were: they were finding the coal to fuel the ships to which my noble friend Lord West referred. Others, though, joined up. We have heard today of the poets and mathematicians, and the other tragic stories of people who died, but this is also the story of coal miners, steelworkers and other working-class boys who lost their lives at the same time. Most of those eastern valley men are buried in Tyne Cot, near the town of Ypres. They came from different regiments, but mostly from the South Wales Borderers or from Second Battalion, Monmouthshire Regiment.
The successor to those regiments is the Royal Regiment of Wales, and I have the great privilege of being the local president of the association of that regiment, led as it is by Captain Lewis Freeman and Mr David Thomas. They recently visited Passchendaele and Ypres, and this afternoon gives us an opportunity to pay tribute to those veterans’ organisations up and down the land—involving veterans who have fought in more recent battles than even the Second World War, to whom I think we should pay tribute on this occasion.
Almost exactly 50 years ago, I visited Menin Gate in Ypres for the first time and saw the ceremony of the Last Post. The veterans I saw lined up then to pay tribute to their comrades who had died were themselves veterans of the First World War. It is interesting to note now that when we return to the Menin Gate, year after year, there are literally hundreds of young people from our country and the Commonwealth who commemorate those who, a century ago, lost their lives. I wonder whether, if the same thing had happened at the beginning of the 20th century, people would, 100 years later, have commemorated Waterloo or Trafalgar. I doubt it. The reason is, of course, that those who fought and lost their lives in the Great War came from a much wider section of society, and hardly a family was unaffected by death or misery as a consequence of that war. Indeed, at the 90th commemoration of the Somme battle, the Last Post Association in Ypres visited Cwmbran, my home town, and played their part in the commemoration.
In some parts, as the noble Lord, Lord Lexden, said, the third Battle of Ypres was even worse than the Battle of the Somme. The divisional historian of the Monmouthshire Regiment, just a few years after the Battle of Passchendaele, wrote this:
“By universal consent, the Third Battle of Ypres represents the utmost that war has so far achieved in the way of horrors … the cramped theatre with its slimy canals, becks, bogs and inundations; its shelled duck-boards; its isolated outposts; its incessant shelling and incessant rain; its mists and fogs; its corpses and its pestilential miasmic odours outdid anything that the Somme or Arras could boast”.
That moved me when I read it last week in a very old history of the Monmouthshire Regiment, which endured five months under those circumstances. Rightly so, its battle honours included the title “Ypres, 1917”. That was richly deserved.
Our debate today plays its small part in our country’s tribute and remembrance of those brave men who fell on the fields of Flanders a century ago.
My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Black, whose debate this is, and other noble Lords mentioned Siegfried Sassoon. I went to school with his son in the 1940s. Siegfried Sassoon used to come around quite regularly but we knew nothing about Passchendaele at that time, which I find quite extraordinary knowing about it now.
The third Battle of Ypres, which the troops called “Wipers”, was the largest military operation in 1917, involving British and French armies for three and a half months in a series of operations to the east and north-east of Ypres. This battle is, historically, one remembered by all Australians for certain reasons which I shall try to address. This is completely different from what we have discussed so far.
Two battalions of the 3rd Australian Division were involved in the battle and their artillery formations contributed to the massive artillery bombardment for a fortnight. Some 4.25 million shells were fired from some 3,000 guns. The opening attack involved 17 divisions across a 17-mile front. The British Army captured the lower features east of Ypres but the massive bombardment destroyed the drainage system, with offensive stalling on 27 August, as the result of which flooding reduced the battlefield to a vast quagmire within a few days. The total British casualties at the end of August amounted to almost 70,000.
Hell on earth has a name—Passchendaele, the suffering of Christ—and suffering it was. The offensive continued until late November with 11 major attacks in which 1 and 11 Anzac Corps formed the spearhead of five, with the majority fought in appalling weather conditions and the notorious Flanders mud. The Australian divisions were involved in lots of battles in which huge numbers were killed or injured. I wonder how many people are aware of the fact that in October 1917 alone more than 6,800 Australians were killed.
Including a preliminary operation on 7 June, the third Ypres offensive cost the British Army approximately 275,000 casualties, with about 70,000 deaths. It is interesting to learn that the German army is estimated to have suffered a total of about 200,000 casualties and, of extreme relevance, 35 Australians were killed for every metre of ground taken. Nine of the Victoria Crosses awarded were to Australians.
The strategic gains were minimal and the captured Passchendaele salient constituted a defensive liability, exposed as it was to the German artillery fire. Within a month of its capture the British high command was considering a withdrawal to get a better defensive line. In March 1918, the German army launched a massive offensive and quickly overran the region. In the words of a couple of Australian military historians:
“what had taken 4 months to win was evacuated in three days”.
Mounted on the concrete blockhouse at the centre of the Tyne Cot cemetery, which we have already heard about today, is the cross of sacrifice. Amid manicured gardens, lawns and 12,000 graves, including those of 1,369 Australians, it bears the plaque:
“This was the Tyne Cot blockhouse captured by the 3rd Australian Division 4th October 1917”.
My Lords, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Black, on bringing this debate to the House. When I looked at it, I thought, “Where will I speak in it? Probably fairly low down, for all the normal reasons”. I thought, “Should I look at the stories of suffering?”. The answer was no because I know this House well and know that my colleagues would do that, and have done it extremely well. I could not add to any of these because I do not have enough special connections of my own.
However, I want to draw attention to the image that this brings up in the mind. I am just about old enough to remember parades of World War I veterans on Armistice Day. The passing of time tells me that now World War II veterans are much older than those men when they stopped doing it. We must look at the image of time and how it presents itself to us. The images coming out of Passchendaele are slightly different from those we get from the other episodes in the Great War. The initial period of “We will be home by Christmas” in bright uniforms with the French, then the terrible slaughter of the first day in the Somme, to Passchendaele, which becomes another image—of tiny men struggling in a sea of mud, making virtually no gain and dying in incredible numbers, almost for the most trivial of reasons and gains possible. That is the image that comes up.
Why did this happen? The attack—if attack is too strong, let us say criticism—of the noble Lord, Lord Lexden, on those in command at the time tells us exactly how anybody involved in any form of government or authority must always remember their responsibility to do the right thing at the right time. Taking that image back, and saying, “Do not commit these errors of judgment, and do not run away from them” is something we should also remember.
We heard from the noble Lord, Lord West, about the naval contingent in the battle in which he fought and how it brought it all together. That struck me. Passchendaele was when we were almost at total war. We did not want to get there; we resisted it and resisted rationing. We were co-ordinating and changing our lives and pretending that the war was not going on. That was something we did not do in the Second World War; we went straight in. Passchendaele brought us towards that situation. The volunteer army disappears and we are down to conscription—something we had never done before. The fact that there was a conscript national army meant that we had to reorganise our economy to fund and support the war. We had to throw everything into it.
This is what a big war costs. You have to change everything you do. You have to change your social order. Many of those changes would be applauded by many of us—women’s status was enhanced by this process. At that cost? Sometimes that is what it takes. Everything changed as a result of having a situation where men are reduced to statistics.
There is still doubt about the actual casualty figures. Although they were early 20th-century armies with mass literature and pay-books, we still do not know exactly how many died. It may be about half a million; we are not totally sure. It just goes to show how big and catastrophic this conflict was. What we take from this is that the whole nation is brought together to fund these types of activity. Everyone in power must take responsibility for the whole thing. They cannot stand back. They cannot ignore what is going on; it is not somebody else’s job. That is about the only thing I can say we can fully take forward from here. The individual suffering was catastrophic. The fact that it touched everyone is what we come back to and how the whole of society changed.
There is no way that we can remember this and try to get the full message without pointing out that the whole nation was drawn in, in a way that had never happened to us before. It was a new and traumatising moment in our history. Some people would take it as an example of what the state can do when it puts its mind to it. Half a million dead people in countries that are now our allies is quite a high price to pay for the control of the state. But let us please try to remember this when we go forward—remember exactly what was required to do this, and remember that, if we had tried really hard, we could at least have mitigated it, if not stopped it.
There are lessons to be taken here; some will be forgotten, some will be remembered properly, but we should at least challenge everybody when they talk about this and point out the fact that somebody, somewhere had to make those decisions.
My Lords, I join others in thanking the noble Lord, Lord Black of Brentwood, for securing this debate, and congratulate him on his brilliant opening speech. I had the privilege of attending the two days of commemoration in Flanders on 30 and 31 July, which I went to as a member of the Government’s World War I centenary advisory board—and I shall say a bit about that in a moment. I also want to talk about other aspects of the commemoration programme, as we move towards the anniversary of the armistice in November next year.
We have been reminded today about the horror that was Passchendaele and the unimaginable scale of the casualties on the allied and German sides. After the wettest summer for 30 years, the ground under foot was a quagmire, and the mud was so deep that men and horses drowned in it—described by Siegfried Sassoon in his heart-breaking poem, “Memorial Tablet”, quoted to such effect by the noble Lord, Lord Black, in his speech.
One soldier who fought at Passchendaele and survived was Harry Patch, who died in 2009 at the age of 111, the last British survivor of the trenches. I had the privilege of meeting him in Ypres the year before, when he paid his last visit to the Western Front. His Great War service was uncovered only in 2000, when he began to talk of his wartime experiences. He was an ardent spokesman for the promotion of peace, saying that war benefits no one but merely leaves individuals and families irretrievably scarred. He travelled back to the battlefields of Ypres regularly during the last decade of his life, and attended the “Last Post” ceremony at the Menin Gate, always promoting the same message: dialogue, rather than show of arms. He agreed to meet a German veteran while in Ypres in 2006, and their coming together was a powerful symbol of reconciliation. I think that he would have agreed with David Lloyd George, about whom the noble Lord, Lord Lexden, spoke, when he described Passchendaele in his war memoirs as,
“one of the greatest disasters of the war... No soldier of any intelligence now defends this senseless campaign”.
Looking back at the commemorative events held in Flanders this summer, I would like to put on record my admiration and appreciation for everyone who made it possible for those two days to be so memorable and appropriate. I have been to many “Last Post” ceremonies at the Menin Gate, but the one on 30 July was extraordinary, as was the event in the Market Square the same evening. The digital imagery projection on the Cloth Hall was effective and striking and, by using the words of the people who were there 100 years earlier, gave a real sense of the suffering, endurance and sacrifice. The events on the following day, 31 July, were also very special. The Commonwealth War Graves Commission organised a powerful and moving ceremony at their Tyne Cot Cemetery, which, like those in Ypres the night before, was attended by members of our Royal Family and the King and Queen of Belgium, with our Prime Minister and members of the Government—one of whom was the noble Lord, Lord Ashton, I think. The commitment of all of them to ensuring that those two days were so successful reflects great credit on everyone involved, and I would particularly like to put on record my appreciation for the hard work behind the scenes of the DCMS team, Dave Thompson, Jennie Shaw and Clare Pillman, who all went the extra mile to ensure that everything worked so well.
With regard to other events going on now and planned for the coming months, the Commonwealth War Graves Commission tells me it will be doing all it can to ensure that the flame of remembrance is kept alight. I share the admiration expressed for the CWGC by other speakers in this debate. It has opened a new visitor information centre in Ypres, which was visited by the Prime Minister during the UK commemorations in July. This centre enables it to help all those who make the pilgrimage to the Ypres salient to find out more about the work of the commission and the 400 cemeteries and memorials that it cares for in that small stretch of the Western Front. The commission is placing young interns at Tyne Cot, welcoming those who visit, and telling the stories of those who fell—an initiative financed by the LIBOR fund, perhaps proving the truth of the old saying that it is an ill wind that blows nobody any good. The commission’s new charity, the CWGF, will be fundraising to continue that work, and expand it to include young people from all over the Commonwealth in 2019.
We should also express our appreciation to the Government of Flanders, who continue to be so supportive of the CWGC and of all member Government commemorations, and who have this year pledged over €3.8 million to help maintain and conserve some of the historic structures. I take this opportunity to thank them for agreeing over a decade ago to abandon plans for the extension of the A19 motorway across the Ypres salient, which would have destroyed the tranquillity of Pilckem Ridge. They did that in response to representations by Members of this House, who, with me, founded the All-Party Parliamentary Group on War Heritage in 2002. All these initiatives will help ensure that visitors to the battlefields of Flanders will continue to be able to honour those who fell long after the centenary is past.
Now everyone is preparing for 2018. As the paper considered by the Government’s World War I advisory board last week says:
“Commemorating the centenary of the war in 2018 is one of our greatest challenges to date. So far we have focused on highlighting and telling the story of a specific battle or engagement. In 2018 we have a far more complex narrative to convey, together with issues of tone – both throughout the year and on 11th November specifically”.
How we commemorate 1918 will, I am sure, be the subject of a separate debate in your Lordships’ House. I just express the hope that the high standards set in the first three years of the commemoration period in terms of tone, nuance and content are sustained through to November 2018. I have consistently supported the non-partisan and cross-party way in which the Government have approached the commemoration programme. The combination of school battlefield visits, national events, the enhancement of the Imperial War Museum, the active involvement of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission and the encouragement of local initiatives is absolutely right.
In my own city of Worcester, a great many initiatives have been taken—the city of Woodbine Willie, as the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Derby reminded us. The next significant event is on 4 November in St Helen’s Church. It is planned to include exhibitions, short talks, Army, Navy and Air Force cadets, re-enactors and children’s activities. The day’s activities will start with a short service at 10 o’clock led by the Royal British Legion chaplain, which will include a one-minute silence and the “Last Post”.
There are countless other such events taking place across the country. I am happy to pay my tribute to the Prime Minister’s special representative, Dr Andrew Murrison, for the trouble he has taken to include as many organisations and individuals as possible in the plans to commemorate the centenary.
My Lords, I add my thanks to the noble Lord, Lord Black, for initiating this debate and join those who have expressed appreciation for the standard that he set with his introductory remarks—a standard which I think just about everybody who has contributed so far has also reached in their contributions.
I was general secretary of the European Trade Union Confederation and lived in Brussels for eight years. During that period, many family and friends visited Belgium and it became a pilgrimage to visit Passchendaele and Ypres. The repetition never bored: every visit stirred the emotions and burned into me and others the words, “Never again”.
We have to reflect from time to time on the origins of the Great War, how so few people saw it coming, how it erupted so volcanically after the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand, how the German emperor gave the Austro-Hungarians a blank cheque, which widened a local conflict into a European and global one, and, once the war had started, how it proved impossible to stop. It resolved none of Europe’s tensions while it bred plenty of new ones, which became fertile territory later for the dictators.
Yet the outbreak of war was totally unexpected by the mass of Europe’s population. There were, of course, many tensions: the rise of a sense of nationhood in the small countries which were part of Europe’s empires; the Prussianisation and militarisation of Germany under an erratic Kaiser; frontier disputes, social and class tensions and the rise of a powerful new political philosophy—socialism. But in 1913, none of these was expected to erupt into a European war. Is there a lesson here for today and tomorrow? I want to address that question briefly, because I think there is.
In the EU referendum, one argument I advanced, admittedly with limited success, was that the EU was a peace project to harness former enemies into a common endeavour. Yet it got very little traction. It was unthinkable to many that there was a risk of war in Europe—elsewhere yes, perhaps, but Europe, no, at least west of Ukraine. Peace is widely taken for granted in our part of the world. I just hope that those people are right. Yet the lesson of the start of the Great War is that peace should never be taken for granted. War can erupt with little warning.
Does the Europe of today generate complacency? We know that there is a new wave of nationalisms. Catalonia is today debating whether to declare UDI from Spain. We know, too, that extreme right-wing parties have gained support in many countries, now even surfacing quite noticeably in Germany. There is widespread disillusion with austerity and our economic models, especially since the economic crash of 2008. In addition, mass movements of migrants and refugees are under way and no one has a clear idea, beyond building walls, of what to do about it. However, you can say for sure that the EU and its member states have not risen adequately to all these challenges and so have fed scepticism and disillusion about the project. Into this tinderbox, the UK decision on Brexit has tossed a match—a match which we hope will not provoke other countries to think that they too need to “roar like lions”, to coin a current phrase.
One thing I remember from the time I spent in Brussels was the Europe-wide respect for Britain’s role in bringing peace and democracy back to Europe and for our stability and political maturity. We have to be very careful that we do not become a more nationalistic exemplar in the European world. Our Brexit negotiators should have Europe’s troubled history at the front of their minds, certainly not at the back.
So I advise all noble Lords who have not been—and many have, as has been said today—to visit Passchendaele and its cemeteries, especially Tyne Cot, the largest. Also, make a detour and take in the moving German cemetery at Langemark, which has affected everybody who has been there with me. Visit the Menin Gate and the wonderful In Flanders Fields Museum, which is in the Cloth Hall at Ypres. I hope that the many British visitors and schoolchildren who go there are as moved by all this as my family and my visitors have been. Reflect, too, not just on the sacrifice and the hopelessness then but on any contemporary lessons.
My own family came off lightly. There are Monks commemorated on the Menin Gate, but they are not of my immediate family, as far as we know. Six of my uncles were in the British Army in the Great War and all survived, although one was to die later of a wound contracted in Ireland. Nevertheless, we count ourselves among the lucky ones.
But while we remember and honour the past, the dead, the wounded and the disabled, we must resolve never to commit our young people to senseless slaughter and to work for a peaceful world. The hundreds of thousands of casualties of Passchendaele deserve no less.
My Lords, it is always a pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Monks. I have made a note of his words: “Never take peace for granted”. How important that is when we consider commemorating the centenary of Passchendaele. I too thank the noble Lord, Lord Black of Brentwood, for enabling us to have this exceptional debate, in which we have remembered and commemorated all those who were present at Passchendaele.
Last weekend I visited the Paul Nash exhibition at the Laing Art Gallery in Newcastle. Before I go any further, I publicly thank the Tate gallery for enabling the exhibition to go out of London, the Tyne and Wear museums service for its work in securing the exhibition, and the Arts Council and other funders for ensuring that it could be financed.
Paul Nash was an official war artist by the autumn of 1917. He began the war in the Artists Rifles and subsequently joined the Hampshire Regiment, but he took sketches and painted in the autumn of 1917 in the Ypres Salient and at Passchendaele. His paintings are legendary and are an outstanding contribution to our knowledge of the realities of war. The sights he saw on the front line at Passchendaele traumatised him. He described it in a letter to his wife in November 1917 as,
“one huge grave, and cast up on it the poor dead”.
He went on to say to her:
“It is unspeakable, godless, hopeless. I am no longer an artist interested and curious. I am a messenger who will bring back word from men fighting to those who want the war to last forever. Feeble, inarticulate will be my message, but it will have a bitter truth and may it burn their lousy souls”.
You can see the message in all his paintings of Passchendaele and the Ypres Salient. As we have heard, Passchendaele was described by Lloyd George as one of the great disasters of the war. There were 550,000 casualties on both sides, and the land gained was ceded just four months later.
It is very hard for us today to grasp the scale of what was happening. There were 300 British guns, firing over 4 million shells, which failed to destroy the heavily fortified German positions, particularly around Tyne Cot. The ground became the quagmire we have heard about, and so many soldiers drowned in the mud. There was an average of some 2,000 casualties a day on both sides.
I am particularly glad that this debate has recognised the contribution of Commonwealth troops in working in unity with British troops to capture Passchendaele; a number of speakers referred to that. My noble friend Lady Brinton talked about the permanent scars—the psychological trauma—of those who fought, and about her grandfather, who wrote home about how he endured suffering. She also talked about the problems that individual troops have had throughout history and in particular in the last 100 years—how they have had to manage suffering and how important support is for those who suffer from stress. Medical knowledge has advanced a great deal since 1917, when shell shock was officially recognised in Britain and a small number of war hospitals were asked to look after its victims.
My noble friend Lord Addington talked about veterans. He reminded us of the images of time and changes through time, and of how Passchendaele represented almost total war in which men become statistics. He also reminded us how important it was for people to come together in the face of war and in remembering war.
A number of contributors to the debate have thanked the organisations involved in commemorating the First World War, and I add my own tribute to the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. It maintains 2,500 cemeteries and plots, and the quality of its work is simply outstanding. The maintenance of very high standards demonstrates its care, and the design and quietness of the cemeteries are exemplary.
I was very glad that the noble Baroness, Lady Andrews, talked about the Heritage Lottery Fund. It has made a huge difference. She referred to the number of community projects that have helped communities to understand better what happened. The scale and role of the fund have been truly excellent.
We heard of the contribution of the War Memorials Trust, which is rescuing many memorials in a poor condition. There are up to 100,000 war memorials in the UK. I also thank the Imperial War Museum and the BBC for their work and resources, which are outstanding. I want to commend the Government too for their sensitive planning and for the appropriateness of events. They have been organised each year since 1914 and an excellent job has been done.
I was very pleased to hear from the noble Lord, Lord Murphy, about “The Last Post” being sounded at the Menin Gate by buglers from the fire brigade at Ypres every evening at eight o’clock since 1928—with a slight hiatus during World War Two. When I first went there, I wondered for how many years this would continue. Each time I have gone in recent years, there are simply more and more people. It is now quite hard to get a good vantage point because of the number of people, but I welcome that because it means that people are remembering and commemorating.
I understand that next year, 2018, there will be a national concert at Birmingham to bring an end to the four-year programme to remember those who fought and died in the conflict. It may bring an end to the programme but it will not end our need for remembrance. The noble Lord, Lord Black of Brentwood, said that we should take time to remember. He is right: it is important for our sense of who we are that we take time to remember the courage, endurance and sacrifice of all those involved at Passchendaele.
My Lords, I start by congratulating the noble Lord, Lord Black, on securing the debate and on his very moving and excellent speech, which set the tone for what followed. All speakers have risen to the challenge to come forward with compelling, moving and very interesting contributions, and it has, in totality, been one of the best debates that I have heard in recent years. As many people have said, it has been a privilege simply to be here and to be part of it.
It is also an important debate, and it has benefited hugely from the fact that your Lordships’ House has the capacity to bring into its discussions military expertise, political knowledge, compassion and understanding from all sorts of experiences that we have had. Bringing those experiences together and allowing them to play into the analysis of the issues before us is what we are good at and is something that I hope we will continue to do. Of course, in so doing, it is rather wonderful that so many people are able to work in contemporary issues and reflect on how some of the lessons of the past can be applied in near real-time. I am sure that the Minister will want to respond to this in a vigorous way.
Your Lordships’ House has debated World War I and the troubling questions of how to commemorate it on a number of occasions. I have taken part in a number of these debates, and the early ones were really about how to ensure that the accent that we placed on the national programmes was focused clearly on remembrance and education and on lessons to be learned, particularly avoiding the danger of glorifying the war. It became clear during that process that the emerging conclusion was that our national programmes should be a commemoration, not a glorification: they should concentrate—as many noble Lords have said—not only on the military aspects of the war, but on its impact on Britain’s social history. They should recall, for example, the way that the industrialisation of death and the devastating scale of the military carnage wiped out a generation of our young men, and all the loss of potential that that implied; the contribution of women; the sacrifice of Commonwealth citizens; the contribution of artists and war poets, who have shaped the way that the war is remembered; and, as the noble Lord, Lord Black, mentioned, the animals that lost their lives as part of that process, which is something that we often forget.
There will, no doubt, be opportunities to reflect on how these years of commemoration have gone after the final event on—appropriately—Armistice Day in November 2018. I certainly look forward to that. I agree with the sentiments expressed widely round the House today that the Government have got the balance about right, and that—as my noble friend Lord Hutton hoped—we have not been divided politically or otherwise over how we have, as a country, commemorated this battle and the war more generally.
Having said that, I hope that it will be of interest to your Lordships’ House if I use my time today to reflect on the process in which we are engaged rather than to detail some of the particularities of the commemoration. My first task is to ask, how certain are we about what happened? The poet in January 1936, nearly 20 years after he took part in the Battle of Passchendaele. When he was asked to choose a poem to represent all of his war poetry—and there is a great deal of it—he chose this one. In it, he asks himself if he can remember the war and describes his feelings when those memories return, often masked by what he calls “mists”, which, he goes on to explain are,
Evolved of countless circumstance
Of which I am sure;
Of which, at the instance
Of sound, smell, change and stir”.
The closing lines capture well the duality of these memories:
“And some of sparkling, laughing, singing,
Young, heroic, mild;
And some incurable, twisted,
Shrieking, dumb, defiled”.
My point is that while contemporary accounts are, as we have heard, a brilliant way of reliving the events, they can only be, at best, a partial solution to what we seek to understand and remember. We also need to take distance and time to give substance to what would have been the so-called first draft of history. Explanation of memory is not just simply important as a means of understanding a survivor’s experiences; it is also one of the ways that we have of building our own knowledge of our shared past, complementing the dry histories and challenging art works that flow from these lived experiences. As, inevitably, the distance between ourselves and our children and the events themselves widens, so society’s responsibilities to our past become greater. We must impart, in our very act of learning, an obligation to the young to be inquisitive about this narrative and others.
Secondly, what precisely are we commemorating? As we have heard, Passchendaele symbolises all the horrors of trench warfare. Indeed, it has been described as the worst battlefield in history. We have heard about the loss of life, which is almost unimaginable: in three months, 350,000 Allied and 260,000 German soldiers were killed. The conditions in which they fought, lived and died are really beyond contemporary understanding. Major Desmond Allhusen recalls in his diary:
“The mud and water reached our waists and it took us about half an hour to do a hundred yards … It was different from what we were used to. It had lost all form and consistency and all resemblance to the honest stuff one finds in peaceful lands. It was just the shapeless mess that remains when everything else is gone”.
Lieutenant General Sir Launcelot Kiggell, General Haig’s chief of staff, when he reached the edge of the battlefield, exclaimed, “Did we really send men to fight in this?”.
As I have been arguing, commemoration, in particular of a battle such as Passchendaele, must be multidimensional. It must be open to exploring the past not only through the lives of the individuals who experienced it but within broader continental and global contexts. Crucially, while we have a responsibility to seek the truth and to be inquisitive, we must be open to our own prejudices. If we can recognise our own preconceived notions, we will be best placed to get the most out of any commemorative act, whether it be a Paul Nash painting or a local council memorial—I would argue that both are as valuable as each other.
What about fake news, to bring it up to date? In the past few months, the threshold on accuracy and truth has being diluted and this could have important consequences for how we commemorate, if we allow the patterns of the present to impact the way in which we see the past. Perhaps the best antidote to such behaviour is to continuously renew our interest in our own past and not shy away from such debates, by being open to different types of commemoration as they come forward. I will return to that point at the end.
Truth, memory and commemoration are all inextricably linked. It is not just the responsibility of academics, teachers or even politicians to be mindful of this. The responsibility of interpretation should weigh heavy on all our minds. Edmund Blunden, the poet I quoted earlier, was acutely aware of how memory changes our understanding of war. It is therefore very important that we have commemorations that properly reflect that.
We need to interrogate what has worked well in the national programme and build that into our thinking and plans for any future commemorations. We have heard of local and national events and of the exemplary work of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, which I also salute. We heard also from my noble friend—I am sorry, but I have forgotten her name and she is not in her place but on the Woolsack. She cannot do this to me—she is like a ghost, appearing all around the place. I thank her for drawing our attention to the work of the Heritage Lottery Fund, which has been so important in bringing out the bottom end of the spectrum, including a range of responses and detail from the individuals involved.
However, we need more than this. We need writing, films, plays, art and performances if we are to fully understand it. I used to use a film made by Charlie Chaplin to exemplify this point, and it perhaps works in this context. You can understand history by looking at records and films of, for instance, events in Germany during the time of Hitler. But you will understand it much better if you see somebody taking off that, as Chaplin did in “The Great Dictator”. It is that duality that brings us to the nature of the understanding.
I want to leave the House with this. For me, the most impactful commemoration event I have experienced was the astonishing work by Jeremy Deller, “We’re Here Because We’re Here”. Noble Lords may recall this work. The participants were a volunteer army of non-professional performers who were sworn to secrecy while rehearsals took place across the country without anybody really understanding what was going on. The intention, as laid out by Rufus Norris and Jeremy Deller, was to create the complete opposite of,
“a static memorial that the public went to to be sad”.
It was something completely and unnervingly different and it,
“would take itself to the public rather than the public taking itself to the memorial”.
I picked up a very good explanation of the work by the Guardian arts correspondent, Charlotte Higgins. She recorded the appearance of these people in Waterloo station one morning, saying,
“they were dressed in the dull-green uniforms of the first world war. They were just there: not speaking, not even moving very much. Waiting, expressionless, for who knows what. A small crowd gathered, taking photographs. A woman caught the eye of one of the men. She tried to speak to him. Without speaking or dropping his gaze, he pulled a small card out of his pocket and handed it to her. ‘Lance Corporal John Arthur Green,’ it read. ‘1st/9th Battalion, London Regiment (Queen Victoria’s Rifles). Died at the Somme on 1 July 1916. Aged 24 years.’ There were similar scenes across the UK … There were more than 1,500 men in total. They gathered on the steps of the Gallery of Modern Art in Glasgow. They smoked roll-ups outside Bristol Temple Meads and marched … boots ringing, through Manchester Piccadilly. They stood in clumps by the entrance to Queen’s University, Belfast, and sat on the market cross in Lerwick, Shetland”.
It was a silent reflection and it was so moving. In some ways, it said it all.
My Lords, I start by saying how grateful I am to my noble friend Lord Black for initiating this debate and to all noble Lords, both for making such moving speeches and for their kind words about the commemorations so far. Being the Minister responsible for the First World War commemorations is an honour, a great responsibility and, frankly, having listened to your Lordships’ speeches, rather humbling. I am also humbled because how does one sum up in 20 minutes speeches that have covered, in typical House of Lords fashion, subjects as varied as life and death, the meaning of life, art, the Royal Flying Corps, comradeship, mental health, the meaning of memory, fake news, the nature of sacrifice, the role of animals, the debate over military tactics, links to the Europe of today and, inevitably, Brexit?
Let me concentrate on what we have done to commemorate the third Battle of Ypres and how the First World War commemorations have extended across the country, with a little about 2018. As noble Lords have explained, the Battle of Passchendaele and the whole third Battle of Ypres is hugely significant: significant for the huge losses sustained, the horrific conditions and the lessons learned; significant in the context of the wider war, in trying to break the stalemate and increase attritional pressure on Germany and in regard to the U-boat threat outlined by the noble Lord, Lord West; significant for the impact at home on families that lost husbands, brothers, sons, and some daughters and sisters; and significant for the way the country was galvanised and reorganised to support those at the Front. Those losses affected communities across the country and across the world, and I hope noble Lords will agree that that has been commemorated appropriately by the Government.
The three months of fighting around Ypres in 1917, that would come to be known colloquially as Passchendaele, were marked by a series of events delivered by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport and its partners. The events were attended by their Royal Highnesses the Prince of Wales and the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, their Majesties the King and Queen of the Belgians, and the Prime Minister, as well as thousands of descendants and members of the public.
The event on 30 July in Ypres, at the Commonwealth War Graves Commission’s Menin Gate, took place in the presence of 200 descendants of those commemorated on the gate, and built on the poignant service held there every night by the Last Post Association. It provided an opportunity for reflection and remembrance beneath the memorial, which records more than 54,000 soldiers who died before 16 August 1917 and have no known grave. That was followed by a public event in the Ypres market square, attended by thousands of members of the public and watched by some 1.5 million people at home in the UK. With performances by well-known actors, musicians, military personnel and the National Youth Choir of Scotland, it made the most of our artistic talent to pay tribute to those who passed through Ypres before us, many never to return. Of course, those losses were not just during the battle; in the days before the battle began, on average 500 men a day were killed by shelling alone.
The next day, a formal commemorative event at the Commonwealth War Graves Commission’s Tyne Cot cemetery focused on the third Battle of Ypres. Some 4,000 descendants of those who served at Ypres were present and another 1.3 million people watched live on the BBC in the UK. Those of us who were privileged to be there would, I think, also like to echo the comments of my noble friend Lord Black and the noble Lord, Lord Shipley, on the excellent work of the commission in maintaining those sites in perpetuity, in such a dignified way, and record our appreciation for the commission’s support in delivering the events. It was also particularly appropriate that, on the evening of the Menin Gate event, the chairman of the Last Post Association, Monsieur Benoit Mottrie, was awarded an honorary OBE in the Cloth Hall in Ypres by the Duke of Cambridge for,
“services to commemoration and remembrance of British and Commonwealth armed forces”,
recognising his huge contribution and that of the Last Post Association.
The events also saw the participation of nearly 100 National Citizen Service volunteers and participants in the Commonwealth War Graves Commission’s centenary intern scheme. They supported the delivery of events and were a visible presence throughout, interacting with descendants and families, from whom I heard many appreciative comments. They exemplified the theme of youth, to which I will come in a minute.
The events delivered huge media interest in print, online and on social media, reaching a broader audience than any of our previous events. The #Passchendaele100 hashtag reached 122 million potential impressions, engaging many people who had not previously connected with the centenary programme.
My noble friend Lord Black mentioned the impact on the Commonwealth. Australia and New Zealand have also recently delivered their own commemorative events in Ypres to mark their own significant dates. I understand Canada, whose troops finally took Passchendaele itself, will do so in November.
Throughout the centenary programme we have tried to reflect three themes: remembrance, youth and education. We believe the events ensured that the centenary was marked as widely as possible and that a new generation came to understand what Passchendaele means. This will also ensure that, as a nation, we appropriately commemorate the centenaries of 2018, which we will mark with a series of events. These include events to mark the appointment of Marshal Foch as commander-in-chief of the Allied armies in March, the centenary of the Battle of Amiens in August, and of course the Armistice on 11 November, which, suitably, next year falls on Remembrance Sunday.
There is also a wider government-led programme to help communities across the country to engage with the centenary. Historic England, working in partnership with the War Memorials Trust, Civic Voice and the Imperial War Museum, is helping communities rediscover, care for and conserve local war memorials. Funding is available for repair and conservation, and more than 300 projects have already shared £1.3 million of grants through the War Memorials Trust. There are also many projects taking place across the country funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund. I pay tribute to the work with the Heritage Lottery Fund of the noble Baroness, Lady Andrews, and for explaining that. Since April 2010, the fund has awarded more than £90 million to more than 1,800 projects. Grants of between £3,000 and £10,000 for community projects are available via the Heritage Lottery Fund’s “Then and Now” programme. Applications will be accepted at any time up to 2019.
As my noble friend Lord Black mentioned, the Imperial War Museum’s Centenary Partnership programme, which now has more than 3,700 members from over 60 countries, helps to deliver a vibrant programme of events, activities and resources to enable millions of people to engage with the centenary. The Imperial War Museum also announced yesterday its “Women’s Work 100” programme, which will develop projects, collections and stories across the Centenary Partnership to explore the working lives of women during the First World War, including the very brave women who worked as nurses, very much on the front line. The women’s work collection is closely linked with the formation of the museum itself in 1917, and almost immediately plans were put in place to ensure that the role of women would be recognised and recorded. The centenary is a fitting opportunity to revisit the collection and highlight the enormous changes that occurred during the war.
For many people, an abiding memory of the Somme commemorations was 14-18 NOW’s “We’re here because we’re here” project, which saw uniformed actors take to the streets of the UK. Its full plans for 2018 will be released early in the new year. So far its programmes have been experienced by 30 million people, of whom 4 million are aged under 16. The poppies sculptures, of which I know my noble friend Lord Black has been a great supporter, will also continue their tour of the country in 2018, having been to Derby, Belfast, Hull and Cardiff so far this year. Yesterday, my right honourable friend the Secretary of State announced that the poppies will appear at Hereford Cathedral, Carlisle Castle, Middleport Pottery in Stoke-on-Trent, the Imperial War Museum in London, Fort Nelson near Portsmouth and the Imperial War Museum North in Manchester in 2018.
As has been mentioned, the first day of the battle saw the most Victoria Crosses awarded on a single day during the First World War, including Army doctor Noel Chavasse’s posthumous bar to the VC that he had won on the Somme. I am pleased to say that the VCs of the First World War are being marked by the DCLG’s Victoria Cross commemorative paving stone project, which commemorates each Victoria Cross recipient by laying a memorial paving stone in their place of birth. Two Passchendaele VC winners, Captain Thomas Colyer-Fergusson and Second Lieutenant Dennis Wyldbore Hewitt, who were both born in Westminster, have been commemorated with paving stones in Victoria Embankment Gardens. They were also commemorated with the “Mud Soldier” statue displayed in Trafalgar Square in July by VisitFlanders.
More than 1,400 schools have visited the First World War battlefields as part of the Department for Education-led tour programme. The Great War Debate programme has seen 13 debates take place nationwide, with more than 1,200 young people having the opportunity to hear high-profile historians, including Sir Hew Strachan and Professor Annika Mombauer, bring a fresh perspective to their studies. The noble Lord, Lord Stevenson, asked how we could be sure what happened and suggested that the events should be multidimensional to address the subject in different ways. He might like to know that there is a four-day academic seminar on the Home Front led by Sir Hew Strachan. I hope that all the other events that I have described will achieve the multidimensional approach that we seek.
In conclusion, I pay tribute to the team at DDCMS who have worked so hard to deliver the commemoration—I was grateful for the kind words of the noble Lord, Lord Faulkner, about them; to the First World War advisory group, of which the noble Lord is a member; and to the work of the Prime Minister’s special representative for the First World War commemoration, Dr Andrew Murrison MP. Thanks to them and all our other delivery partners, I am confident that as we move to the final year of the centenary we will build on the achievements of the previous years and ensure we mark the tumultuous final months of the war in a fitting way. We owe it to those who served, fell or were wounded, in body or mind, to continue to ensure that they are remembered with admiration and gratitude.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for that comprehensive response. Even by the high standards of this House, as the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson, said, this has been an exceptional debate which has probed so many aspects of the dreadful Battle of Passchendaele in a series of incredibly thoughtful, poignant and moving contributions. I am most grateful to all noble Lords who took part.
One of the most striking features of the debate was what the noble Baroness, Lady Andrews, described as the hidden stories of the war, which she deployed to such effect. From the right reverend Prelate, we heard one of those hidden stories, of the chaplaincy, which I found fascinating. By the noble Lord, Lord Hutton, we were allowed the opportunity to hear the voices of the past in their own moving words. For me, the most telling moment was when the noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, talked about the ordinary combatants in the battle, but then added, quite rightly, that none of them was ordinary. How right she was. They were all extraordinary, as they faced up to what eye witnesses at the time said was like descending into Dante’s Inferno. My noble friend Lord Lexden said that it was as if providence had given Passchendaele its name, because it has become synonymous with so many different things: with suffering and courage. It lays bare our own humility and it lets us have lessons for the future, but, most of all, as the right reverend Prelate said, from the death of so many young men springs a message of hope.