First World War Commemoration

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 2:42 pm on 7th November 2013.

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Photo of Dan Jarvis Dan Jarvis Shadow Minister (Justice) 2:42 pm, 7th November 2013

It is a pleasure to follow the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, Dr Murrison, and of course I join him in paying tribute to Warrant Officer Ian Fisher from 3rd Battalion the Mercian Regiment, who tragically lost his life in Afghanistan. It is the responsibility of all of us to ensure that his sacrifice is never forgotten.

It is an honour to open this debate on behalf of the Opposition, and it is heartening to know that there is such widespread interest across the House in the 100th anniversary commemoration of world war one. I look forward to what I know will be a good debate and to the eloquent and no doubt poignant contributions from Members of all parties. It is fitting that we will hear from Members representing every corner of the United Kingdom, expressing their interest in plans for the centenary commemorations and illustrating the huge impact that world war one had on the whole of Britain. Our commemorations here will also be part of what will be a truly global event, which will include contributions from our friends in the Commonwealth and events that are taking place around the world.

Let me take the opportunity at the outset to pay tribute to the Minister for the calm, measured and dedicated way in which he has prepared for the centenary commemorations. We look forward to continuing to work closely with him, with the Government and with all in this House to ensure that world war one is commemorated in a fitting manner.

The Minister has outlined some of the Government’s plans to commemorate the centenary anniversary next year. Aside from the multitude of events that will take place up and down the country, the Government have pledged over £50 million, which will be put towards the centenary anniversary commemorations. The plans include a refurbishment of the world war one galleries at the Imperial War Museum; a nationwide scheme that will allow school students from across the country to visit world war one battlefields; community projects funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund and designed to educate young people to conserve, explore and share local heritage of world war one; and a grant from the national heritage memorial fund to support HMS Caroline in Belfast—the last surviving warship from the world war one fleet. We support those plans and will work with the Government to ensure their smooth delivery.

Additionally, a huge number of other organisations are planning their contributions to the commemoration. There are too many to mention by name, but I would like briefly to mention, of course, the First World War Centenary Partnership, led by the Imperial War museum, which will present a programme of cultural events and activities to commemorate the centenary. Also as part of the commemorations, the BBC has commissioned over 1,000 programmes across various platforms, helping to inform and educate the public about the events and the impact of world war one. The Woodland Trust will launch a project in May 2014 to commemorate British and Commonwealth great war heroes through the simple, yet poignant act of planting a tree. I look forward to hearing from Members about how the commemoration will be marked in their constituencies.

As we commemorate the centenary of world war one, there will be those who say we should seek to understand the fundamental question of why Britain went to war in the first instance. A recent poll for British Future asked how much people knew about the war. Its polling showed that 66% of people knew that world war one began in 1914, that 47% knew that the war was in part sparked by the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and that 9% knew that Herbert Asquith was the British Prime Minister at the start of the war.

What polling will not capture, however, is the extent to which the public understand the original motivations for the war. A student of history might conclude that, aside from the strategic rationale, Britain’s motives for entering world war one demonstrated a conscientious effort to uphold international law and a desire to defend smaller, more vulnerable nations. There will be those who will seek to have this informed debate, but there should be no doubt about the profound impact of this war.

Many people may know that between 1914 and 1918, 1.2 million volunteers came from around the globe to serve alongside the allies, answering the call of “Your Empire Needs You”. Many people appreciate the scale of the loss of life that was to follow, and many people know something of the 750,000 British soldiers who died or the 1.5 million soldiers who returned home injured. They may have heard something of the 20,000 British soldiers who were killed on the first day of the Somme or they may recall Wilfred Owen’s imagery of choking soldiers drowning in a sea of chlorine gas. They will also understand that sacrifice on this scale must always be remembered—it must always be commemorated.

It is important to remember world war one for more than just the industrialisation of death that it brought with it. The war paved the way for numerous world events, including, of course, the outbreak of the second world war—events that have ultimately shaped the world we live in today. The war had a profound impact on Britain too, and many countries in the Commonwealth sought independence after it ended. Britain lost its place as the world’s largest investor, and the role of women changed for ever. By 1931, 50% of women remained single, and 35% never married while of childbearing age.

The other great social change that came from world war one involved voting. Before the war, neither working men nor women had votes. The sacrifice of men from all classes, combined with the fact that women were taking on jobs that had previously been seen as a male preserve and with the campaigning of the suffragists and suffragettes, compelled politicians to change the position.

In the light of that, Labour Members consider it essential for us to ensure that the right tone is struck when we are remembering world war one. I believe that we are all clear about the fact that this is not a celebration, but a commemoration. War should never be celebrated; instead, it should be remembered, and we should learn from it. Getting the tone right is therefore imperative. We agree with the Government that there should be no flag-waving, that there should be an absolute right to remember those whose opinions differed, and that there should be no rigid Government narrative. It is right for us to give people the facts, and then to let them conduct their own analyses and form their own judgments.

However, it is important that, as a country, we do not shy away from addressing some of the war’s complications. There is a strong public perception of what it was like, formed partly by war poets and reinforced by the 1960s production of “Oh! What a Lovely War” and television programmes such as “Blackadder Goes Forth”. Those cultural representations stand as powerful and eloquent testimonies to the savagery of world war one, but if they are all that we know of the war, they are poor history.

Those who have been schooled in stories of the “lost generation” may be surprised to learn that the fatality rate in the British forces overall was 12%. That is a terrible figure—and some communities were affected much worse than others—but the figure is not as high as people tend to imagine. Nor are public impressions of daily life during the war always accurate. Blackadder lived for years in a dugout, but in reality infantry battalions spent an average of about one week of every month in the trenches. There were notable exceptions, but they do not disprove the generality of soldiers’ experiences.