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First World War (Commemoration)

Part of Bill Presented – in the House of Commons at 2:47 pm on 26th June 2014.

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Photo of John Randall John Randall Conservative, Uxbridge and South Ruislip 2:47 pm, 26th June 2014

It was indeed a long time ago and I can just about remember it. Just after my 18th birthday, I was standing, literally, in the footprints in the pavement in Sarajevo, by the river Miljacka, where Gavrilo Princip stood and fired those fateful shots that sparked the conflagration we are discussing today. At the time, it was chilling to think what had happened and what the consequences were. As my hon. Friend the Member for Broadland and others have said, the causes of the war and who was to blame are matters for historians to discuss at great length. I have noticed that a certain amount of revisionism is going on in certain quarters, but I will leave that aside. Little did I realise then, of course, that Sarajevo, having been the trigger point for such conflict would in a few decades again become the very centre of more conflict and killing in Europe in our own era.

I am afraid to say that the folly of us all as human beings is that we never seem to learn the lesson of history. That is why these commemorations have to be held and why we have to educate generation after generation in the hope that somehow those mistakes will eventually be realised. We must remember, too, how easy it is to fall into violent conflict.

I congratulate the Government and the country as a whole on the way in which they are embarking on this anniversary. There will be many commemorations throughout the country—some grand, some major civic ones, some local, some individual ones. In my own small parish church, St Laurence in Cowley near Uxbridge, they are researching the names—not a great number—of those on the war memorial. We are still trying to track down the one lady whose name is on there—Olive Latham. We have not yet found out about her history, who she was and why she is on the memorial.

I am proud to say that when a memorial was built and consecrated in Uxbridge after the first world war, we called it a “peace memorial”. I grew up thinking that it might have been done in the ’70s—in a decade of awakening in which we felt that we should not be talking about war—but I found that that was the original name for our memorial. That is fitting, given that Uxbridge was, and to some extent still is, a centre of non-conformism. Alison Seabeck talked about her forebears in the congregational church, and that applies to me, too. For many of the local people, at heart, there was a degree of pacifism but perhaps there was a need for people to answer a stronger calling to serve their country.

As we have heard movingly from many Members, every family will have memories from those days that have been told down the generations. Both my grandfathers were in the forces. My maternal grandfather was in the Royal Flying Corps, principally because he was a woodwork teacher and the aeroplanes were made out of wood. He ended up doing important work mending the planes, so he did not have to serve on the front line. My paternal grandfather, Bert Randall, joined the Royal Horse Artillery and kept a diary. Being a good Randall, as I hope I have been, we always obey the rules. He wrote his diary every day, but it ceased as soon as he went overseas, when keeping a diary was not allowed.

It is fascinating to read what my grandfather had for breakfast, lunch, dinner and many other things from day to day, but it does not provide the sort of insightful, deep and philosophical thoughts of which we have heard from other diaries. I noticed from the diary that he started off with a boyish enthusiasm, joining up with his mates going off to war. While he was training, first in Reading and then in Norfolk, it is possible to see that enthusiasm being tempered, as he realised that some of his comrades were being sent off to France to fill the gaps as a result of all the casualties. The realisation that this was not a game was dawning on him.

One of the most poignant pieces of memorabilia pertaining to my grandfather is provided by a little note he sent. He was on the front line in France, manning a gun limber, and the horse was blown up underneath him, wounding him quite severely. He came home on a hospital train and I have the very note he scribbled out in pencil, which he gave to someone to deliver to his mother in Uxbridge, saying “I’m all right, I’m safe”. He said he did not know why he was being sent to Nottingham when he was only a few miles away from her, but he told her, “Don’t worry, Mum, I’m okay”. I find that incredibly moving, because these stories are all about people. I am sure that many of us here are parents and we can hardly begin to imagine the horror of seeing one’s children going off to war.

My grandfather never wanted to talk about the war—it could be an example of that non-conformism. On Remembrance Sundays, my father who had served in the second world war was very happy to wear a poppy, but my grandfather was not. I think it was the horrors he had seen. He never really wanted to talk about it. That stays with me.

Thankfully, both those grandparents returned home, but not everybody in Uxbridge was so lucky. Lord Hillingdon was one whose son, the honourable Charles Mills, died in action. He was killed in 1915 when Lord Hillingdon was the sitting Member of Parliament for Uxbridge. Everybody is affected and, as I said earlier, we have to educate every generation about what happened.

We have talked about some of the excellent schemes that have been put in place—that of the Institute of Education, for example—and there has been a concentration on the western front. It is quite easy to send schoolchildren across to France and Belgium to see the moving war cemeteries, the Menin Gate and so forth. We have to remember, however, that the war was fought on many fronts and that many people lost their lives throughout the world. In my own borough of Hillingdon, there is an obvious link with the wider world where graves of Australian and New Zealand servicemen can be found at Harefield church, which has an annual Anzac day service at which local school- children put a little Australian or New Zealand flag on the graves. Harefield is one of the smallest villages in Middlesex—it is still there, still a village and still in Middlesex—but it was home to two Victoria Cross recipients in the first world war.

Returning to my theme of remembering what happened elsewhere, I shall talk briefly about the conflict on the Salonika front. I shall do so not only because I studied the history and languages of the Balkans at university, but because I discovered recently the story of British women, particularly Scots but some English women, who served on that front. Although they are much feted in Serbia and elsewhere, we know very little about them over here—something we should try to rectify.

Those women mostly went out as nurses. One particular woman, not in the first flush of youth, had been rather snubbed over here. She wanted to join up and do nursing, but they did not think she had enough qualifications, so she joined the Red Cross and went over to Serbia, where along with various others who had volunteered, she was thrown into the middle of an horrendous typhus epidemic. In the early days of the war, more soldiers were dying there from typhus than they were from battle wounds. Many of the nurses and doctors succumbed to the disease, but these women gallantly turned some of these hospitals round.

Then, as the Serbian army pushed back, something began to happen in 1915. I hope that we shall take part in some of the commemorations of it next year, because the British were involved, although not as much as some. The Serbian nation—I say “nation” because this included the Parliament, the King, bishops, the army and many civilians—retreated across the Albanian mountains along to the Adriatic coast, and thence to the island of Corfu. It was a terrible retreat, during which hundreds of thousands of people died. It is interesting to note that the Albanian people allowed the Serbian army to pass freely. Some of the rivalries about which we hear today may not be as long-lasting as we probably assume.

At the time of the retreat, a nurse, Flora Sandes, decided to enlist in the Serbian army. She did not see why she, as a woman, should not be able, or allowed, to do what a man could do. The Serbian army were a little bit sceptical, but they needed every person they could get. They thought that somehow having one of their allies—a British person—alongside them would be a morale-booster, and so it proved to be. Flora joined up as a private, and she did not get many special favours. She was on that terrible retreat, and she went to Corfu. After the French and the British had enabled those on the retreat to convalesce and re-equip themselves, they arrived at the Salonika front. Flora Sandes was very seriously injured.

As I have said, I do not think that we in this country have fully recognised that at a time when women did not have the vote and it was very rare for them to be doctors, women such as Flora Sandes not only wanted to do such work, but were given an opportunity to do it in a place that was not their own. There is an excellent book on the life of Flora Sandes and others, and I have to say that the more I read such stories, the more of a feminist I become. That may seem unlikely, but it is true.

The Scots did not only send nurses. They, as well as the French, took some of the young people from Serbia who had gone on that terrible retreat—many of them had been orphaned—into their homes, where they were looked after. I think that some connections still exist. Scotland took a very proud part in those events, and is remembered very fondly in the Balkans as a result.

We know that we must engage in these commemorations for the reasons that I have already given, but I also remember an experience that I had a few years ago, just before we had to vote on the war in Iraq. I took two of my children—it was half term—to the site of the battle of Waterloo, and also to the cemeteries and trenches of the first world war. I am not a great military historian like my hon. Friend Mr Simpson, but I think it important for people to know about their history.

When I saw, face to face, the reality—the enormity—of what armed conflict means in terms of human life, it became very difficult for me to say that I had the right to send people to their deaths. There are times when we have to do it, and I recognise that: I am not a pacifist by nature. However, it makes us all have to think, because making such decisions is not an easy matter. For that reason, I am thankful that I had the opportunity to make that visit.

Let us go forward into these commemorations. Let us try to ensure, for the sake of those men and women who gave their lives—and those men and women whose lives were ruined for ever because of all the trauma, which might have been gassing or might have been just what they saw, and were never really mended afterwards—that those lives were not given in vain. We must do everything we can to try to avoid the follies that we end up going into.