First World War (Commemoration)

Part of Bill Presented – in the House of Commons at 12:50 pm on 26th June 2014.

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Photo of Andrew Murrison Andrew Murrison The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence 12:50 pm, 26th June 2014

I am pleased to hear my hon. Friend’s news. I have been watching the project with much interest. I know that it will be an important part of our commemoration. As I said in response to Mr Marsden, it is important to commemorate all elements of the centenary. The magic of Folkestone is the ability to plot the course of that final trip for so many thousands of servicemen as they embarked for France. Many, of course, never returned but many did—the majority did. Folkestone in those years held a particular place in the hearts of the service community, either because it was the point of embarkation or because, more happily, it was the point of return.

At 11 o’clock, the hour at which Britain entered the war on 4 August, the day will be closed with a vigil centred on Westminster abbey, which will run in parallel with similar services at St Anne’s cathedral in Belfast, Llandaff cathedral in Cardiff and other churches and faith communities across the country. At the same time, public buildings, workplaces and homes will be encouraged to participate in Lights Out to refer to the observation by Foreign Secretary Sir Edward Grey on the eve of war that the lamps were going out across Europe and they would not be lit again in his time. As part of that, the Royal British Legion plans to sell a million candles to remember a million fallen, each one extinguished at 11 pm. Here is the clever bit. In the darkness, a single lamp will be left burning, since hope never dies, and it never did.

The centenary is a marathon, not a sprint. Following 4 August, we have the 2014 season of remembrance, Gallipoli in April next year, Jutland and the Somme in 2016 and Passchendaele in 2017. In 2018, Amiens to Armistice will mark the last 100 days of the war. Interspersed will be myriad anniversaries from Coronel to Cambrai marking the waypoints of war, each commemorated appropriately with international participants and national units and their successors.

Big anniversaries, with their attendant large-scale national events, are pegs on which to hang the clothes of the centenary. The richness will come from 1,000 projects, from the flagship rebirth of the Imperial War museum on 19 July, to the Woodland Trust centenary forests to be planted in each of the four nations, to the small local initiatives that I heard about a week ago in Norfolk, as the guest of my hon. Friend Mr Simpson. Many of those are funded from the £56 million already allocated by the Heritage Lottery Fund. Many are part of the First World War Centenary Partnership, which now has 3,000 member organisations in 50 countries, and many already have the active involvement of constituency MPs.

The 14-18 Now cultural programme will add granularity and texture to the centenary and bring it alive. May I pick out its letter to an unknown soldier project, a literary memorial centred on the enigmatic statue of a soldier reading a letter on platform 1 at Paddington station? The statue makes us wonder what is in the soldier’s letter. Members of the public are now invited to write that letter. All sorts of celebrities have already done so, and MPs certainly should.

I recently sent a note to all right hon. and hon. Members about the centenary poppy campaign, which is a great way for MPs to get involved locally and in the process both proliferate wild flowers and raise money to help the Royal British Legion to support today’s service community. I urge colleagues to take up the Commonwealth War Graves Commission offer to visit its sites in this country. There is most likely to be at least one such site in or close to each UK constituency. There are at least two Commonwealth War Graves Commission commissioners in the House today. I know that they will underscore that point. It is a revelation to many of us how many Commonwealth War Graves Commission sites there are in this country. They are not by any manner of means all on the western front.