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First World War (Commemoration)

Part of Bill Presented – in the House of Commons at 12:44 pm on 26th June 2014.

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Photo of Dan Jarvis Dan Jarvis Shadow Minister (Justice) 12:44 pm, 26th June 2014

I am proud to open this debate on behalf of the Opposition, and I know that Members on both sides of the House are grateful for this opportunity to mark this important year of remembrance.

Let me begin by paying tribute to the Minister. He and I have been discussing these commemorations for over three years, and I commend him on both the way he has opened this debate and his diligent and genuinely cross-party approach to leading these commemorations.

There are few moments in modern society when we come together as a country to reflect on our shared history, and as we approach Armed Forces day and the 100th anniversary of the shooting of Archduke Franz Ferdinand this weekend, and the other centenary anniversaries later this year, many people around the country will pause and think, perhaps for the first time, about the first world war and what relevance those events of a century ago have to our lives today. I know the Minister and I are agreed that these moments of reflection are not only rare but precious, and that is why our commemorations must be inclusive, engaging and, above all, respectful. Let us be clear—we are all agreed on this—that this is a commemoration, not a celebration.

On Armistice day 1918, the Prime Minister, David Lloyd George, came to this House and announced the end of what he described as the war to end all wars. Today we know that it was not that, but it was the war that changed life in this country for ever. The first world war touched every family, affected every community and fundamentally altered our country’s place in the world. It took the lives of 16 million soldiers and civilians across the globe, including around 900,000 servicemen from Britain and the Commonwealth. It was a conflict that transformed society, bringing about profound social, political and economic changes that we can still feel today. The centenary commemorations provide us with a unique opportunity to reflect on that, to pay tribute to those who served and sacrificed for us 100 years ago, and to pass those memories on to future generations. The Minister outlined some of the ways in which the commemorations programme will help to enable that over the next four years.

The programme has our full support, and I would like to put on record our thanks to the thousands of organisations, community groups and dedicated volunteers who are making this happen across the country. I would particularly like to pay tribute to the following: the First World War Centenary Partnership, led by the Imperial War museums, which has brought together nearly 3,000 member organisations from 49 countries and is delivering more than 2,000 events; the 14-18 NOW programme, which is bringing the centenary to life with 50 artistic creations and exhibitions across the country; the Woodland Trust, which is planting four new centenary woods across the United Kingdom as a lasting memorial to the fallen; the BBC, which will deliver 2,500 hours of programming on the subject over the next four years; and the Royal British Legion, the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, the Heritage Lottery Fund and many, many others. There are more than I could ever hope to have time to mention, but we applaud all of these groups for what they are doing. Each of them is helping to retell our national story. By bringing people together to revisit our shared history, they are making an important contribution.

I would like to say a particular word about the battlefield tours programme for schools, which is being delivered by the Institute of Education. There are few better ways to connect our young people with those who made the ultimate sacrifice on the western front than by taking them to walk the battlefields where so many fought and died. Anyone who has visited those cemeteries will know what a moving and powerful experience that is. There were 16,000 towns and villages across Britain in 1914, but only 40 of them—40 thankful parishes—would reach 1918 without having lost someone in the conflict, so every visiting school will be able to follow in the footsteps of soldiers from their own community.

Last month, I travelled to Serre in northern France to retrace the route taken by the Barnsley Pals battalions from my constituency. These were the men who responded to Lord Kitchener’s famous recruitment poster in 1914. They included miners, glassworkers, clerks, stonemasons and clerics, many of them friends and neighbours. They joined up together; they trained together; they went to war together; and ultimately, many of them died together. I walked the ground over which the Barnsley Pals fought at the battle of the Somme, and I stood in front of their graves in the pouring rain. Looking out from those trench positions that still scar the French countryside, I imagined what it must have been like. It was hard not be overcome by the emotion of what happened there.

Later that day, we visited the memorial to the missing at Thiepval. As I read the names inscribed on the memorial, that I suddenly saw my own name, “D. Jarvis”, staring back at me. It was a sobering moment that brought home the scale of the sacrifice, and an experience that so many visitors to the battlefield will have had.

Our country’s deployments over the past 13 years in Afghanistan and Iraq have now lasted over three times longer than the first world war; 632 servicemen and women have lost their lives, and we have felt the pain of each and every one of them, so it is hard to imagine now what it must have been like to live through a conflict that took the lives of six times that many soldiers every week, or to appreciate how much the country was wounded by the first day of the battle of the Somme, when 20,000 men were cut down on a single beautiful summer’s day on 1 July 1916.