First World War (Commemoration)

Part of Bill Presented – in the House of Commons at 1:12 pm on 26th June 2014.

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Photo of Keith Simpson Keith Simpson Conservative, Broadland 1:12 pm, 26th June 2014

It is a great privilege to participate in the second debate in this Chamber on the centenary of the first world war. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Minister and Dan Jarvis on two excellent speeches, outlining not only the programme but many of the issues that we are here to debate. I will touch on two areas, but first, let me declare an interest as somebody who, as a military historian, has written about this subject in the past. I am a parliamentary commissioner on the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, along with Mr Jones, and joint chairman of the advisory board on Parliament and the first world war.

We should not shy away from the fact that this centenary is controversial. It is not up to the Government to lay down views on every aspect of it, but we should recognise that it is controversial—that history is alive today. The Minister mentioned the fact that in two days’ time it will be the centenary of the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife in Sarajevo. That anniversary is controversial for Serbs, Bosnians, Croats and the successors of the old Austro-Hungarian empire, because it is about symbols as much as anything else.

As we speak, the leaders of the European Union are gathering in the Belgian town of Ypres. The Immortal Salient is something that resonates very strongly with the British empire and Commonwealth forces. As much as the Somme, it is a symbol of the first world war. This evening, those leaders will gather at the Menin Gate, the great memorial to some 57,000 men who have no known grave and who died in the salient. That figure only goes up to August 1917. They could not get on all the names; the rest of the names are at the Tyne Cot cemetery.

Friends and foes will gather tonight and thoughts will be going through their minds. The event is important for us because the old British Army died at Ypres in 1914. It is important because some of the first Indian troops were being deployed in late 1914 to 1915. It is also important for the Belgians and the French. Sometimes we tend to erase them from the folk memory of the first world war. Yes, they should be grateful that the British empire came to their assistance, but it is as much about their memories of the first world war. After all, Ypres was almost totally destroyed by 1918. Indeed, in 1919, Churchill, as the Secretary of State for War and Air, suggested that Ypres should remain a ruin to immortalise the sacrifice of the British and Commonwealth armies, not taking into account that the Belgians had a different view on all of that.

Tonight is also important for the Germans. Chancellor Merkel will be there. Just north of Ypres—some Members will have been there—there is the German cemetery at Langemark, which commemorates about 40,000 German soldiers, most of whom died in 1914. One man who had a narrow escape was an Austrian serving in a reserve Bavarian regiment; he was Grenadier Adolf Hitler. If only some old British soldier had taken him out, things might have been different.

Those leaders who are gathering tonight will discuss controversies such as the future of the EU. A number of my colleagues become enraged at the idea of linking the EU with the centenary of the first world war. I want to do not that, but to remember the fact that one of the reasons why the French, Germans and Belgians came together after the second world war was to prevent another major clash between the French and Germans. After all, they did it in 1870-71, 1914-18 and then 1940-45. We should be sensitive to that. It does not mean that we have to agree with everything, but we should realise that, for the French and the Germans, Verdun is probably a bigger symbol than what will happen at Ypres.

I propose to Ministers—I hope that this will find support among colleagues across the House—to add one other specific commemoration on the Government’s national commemoration list. On 21 May 2017, we should commemorate the centenary of the establishment of what was then called the Imperial War Graves Commission. I am parti pris to this because I am a commissioner, but most people recognise that the Commonwealth War Graves Commission is the biggest deliverer of much of the commemoration of the first world war. The Imperial War museum, the BBC and the Heritage Lottery Fund are very important, but the Commonwealth War Graves Commission is something that most people at some stage have come across or are going to come across, and it was not predetermined.

Many colleagues recognise the fact that before the first world war, when men in the Army died serving in Europe, they were usually thrown into a pit. Occasionally, officers got a separate burial or, just occasionally, they were brought home. We should not forget the fact that the overwhelming majority of men who served in the Royal Navy or the merchant navy have no known grave. Nelson was rare; he was brought home in a keg of rum, most of which was drunk at Gibraltar before he was put in a proper coffin. There is nothing like the old chief petty officers for getting to the heart of the matter.

The point is that in 1914 nobody thought that the casualties would be on such a scale, and it was by chance that a 48-year-old ex-Plymouth Brethren, former member of Lord Milner’s young people in South Africa, and former editor of the Morning Post, who was in charge of a Red Cross ambulance column, began to worry about what was going to happen to the dead—where they would be buried and so on. That man was Fabian Ware. As much as anything else, it was his determination, political nous and knowledge of French that enabled the setting up of what we know today as the Commonwealth War Graves Commission.

To give hon. Members some context, the War Office did not really want to know about war graves, but within three months the British Army had suffered 80,000 casualties in France. His Grace the Duke of Wellington’s Army suffered 3,500 at the battle of Waterloo. The sheer scale of the losses was enormous. Parents, wives and husbands were worried about this. Ware achieved in December 1915 an agreement with the French Government that they would allow a series of dedicated areas to be consecrated as proper war cemeteries, where British dead could be brought during the war and afterwards. It was logistically important but also perhaps emotionally important that Ware decided not to allow tens of thousands of people to bring their husbands and sons home.

So the Commonwealth War Graves Commission deserves to be part of the recognition of the centenary. It meets all the criteria that hon. Members are looking for. It is about more than Great Britain. It is about equality in death, which was a rare thing that Ware demanded. There would be no distinction in rank or background; the gravestone would be the same. It would be laid out in a way that British empire people would recognise as representing what Britain stood for. He brought in some of the best architects such as Lutyens and Blomfield, who designed the Menin Gate, and of course the great wordsmith Rudyard Kipling. Kipling pulled every string to get his under-age son into the Irish Guards and then had the tragedy, like so many parents, of learning that he was killed and missing. The irony was that, long after Kipling and his wife had died, we were able to identify a body that was his son. Kipling came up with most of the terminology that we know today.

I hope that, apart from debating the history and sometimes the controversial nature of the first world war, we will be able collectively to persuade Ministers to celebrate the centenary of the establishment of the Imperial War Graves Commission—its patent, if you like—with the national centenary. It meets every criteria, not least in educating young people about the first world war.