First World War (Commemoration)

Part of Bill Presented – in the House of Commons at 4:47 pm on 26th June 2014.

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Photo of Helen Grant Helen Grant The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport 4:47 pm, 26th June 2014

I am afraid that I will not because I have so little time.

Jonathan Edwards spoke about the tone of the commemorations. The first world war continues to be a focus for strongly felt and widely differing responses. Some people see it as a squabble between empires; others as a just war, and all points in between. Let me be clear that it is not the Government’s role to accept or promote one view or another. We are neither celebratory nor apologetic. Although it is clear which side won, the enormous sacrifices on both sides and the horror of war referred to by Mr Smith and my hon. Friend Bob Stewart means that there is no cause for celebration. Instead, we wish to commemorate the war appropriately and with humility, though with pride in the courage of our ancestors.

The Government share the view of many hon. Members that the programme should be inclusive. We want people of all backgrounds to have a chance to get involved and not just by ensuring diverse attendance at national events. For example, the immense contribution of troops from all the present-day Commonwealth will be recognised on 4 August and beyond, including the sacrifices of the Indian army’s famous Jullundur Brigade at Neuve Chapelle; the exemplary record of the Anzacs during the Gallipoli campaign; the heroism of the Canadians at Passchendaele; and the considerable contribution of the Caribbean regiments in various theatres.

We are also exploring ways to mark the life of Walter Tull, the first black commissioned officer in the British Army, and to commemorate the tragic sinking of the SS Mendi in 1917, with the loss of 646 men of the South

African Native Labour Corps. Among the more than 600 world war one projects made possible by the Heritage Lottery Fund are many with a minority focus, such as “Hackney Remembers”, which will look at the Jewish experience in the war; and a major new exhibition at the School of Oriental and African Studies on the military contribution of Sikhs.

My right hon. Friend Sir John Randall and others have spoken about the important contribution of women. The empowerment of women was one of the most important ways in which the war shaped modern Britain. Not only did they enter the workplace as nurses, farmers and munitions workers, but they kept communities going when the men were away and when many were dealing with personal loss. Their huge contribution helped to bring about votes for women and it is right and proper that we should mark that now.

On international women’s day, my Department awarded the First Aid Nursing Yeomanry a £20,000 grant to aid its present-day mission, and the Heritage Lottery Fund has supported many local projects that tell women’s wartime stories, such as the digitisation of the British Red Cross’s volunteer women’s records and a theatre project in Leeds enabling young people to learn about the evolution of women’s roles during the war. Many projects and events linked to the Imperial War museum’s centenary partnership are wholly or partly about women, such as the exhibition on women in industry in the first world war at Imperial War Museum North in Manchester, to which Kate Green referred. The Imperial War museum’s new first world war galleries, opening in July, will include a section on the contribution of women. My Department’s arm’s length bodies are delivering various programmes looking at the home front, including the British Library’s new educational website, which explores topics such as class and gender during the war and its aftermath.

The hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston also referred to the exhibition at Imperial War Museum North covering conscientious objectors. I have not yet visited it, but I hope to do so. The Heritage Lottery Fund has recently awarded a grant of £95,000 to the Peace Pledge Union to help to explore the history of conscientious objectors during the first world war. It is right that the lottery programme should reflect a broad range of views and experiences of the war, and that is just one such example.

My hon. Friend Neil Parish spoke about the importance of how we engage with our young people. One of our key objectives for the centenary is to encourage young people by making connections between young people today and the young people who fought and died a century ago. Our battlefield visits programme will connect young people with battlefields and offer a special experience that they can share with classmates.

My hon. Friend Mr Simpson spoke poignantly about the work of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. We fully appreciate its wonderful work. Indeed, it is responsible for providing some of the sites for our national events. Recognition of the commission’s work is inherent in all we do. Nevertheless, I am grateful to him for his suggestion. I will look at what he said and come back to him on the proposal.

Many Members have spoken about the commemoration activities in their constituencies. I was delighted to listen to my hon. Friend Robert Jenrick, who delivered an excellent maiden speech. I was also delighted to visit his constituency recently, on at least three occasions, so I know what a beautiful constituency he has the honour to represent. Being Sports Minister, I was especially interested to hear about the recreation of a Christmas truce match on 24 August in his constituency, which I am sure will be a great success.

I was also pleased to hear from my hon. Friends the Members for Colchester (Sir Bob Russell), for Portsmouth North (Penny Mordaunt), for Worcester (Mr Walker) and for Folkestone and Hythe (Damian Collins) and my right hon. Friend Sir John Randall about a range of different activities in their constituencies, from Facebook sites, “Colchester remembers” 1914-18, silent vigils, pipes and drums, world war one museums, events to commemorate the bravery of the Worcesters, the construction of an incredible arch in Folkestone—today, I believe—and the special Step Short project, which my hon. Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe has worked very hard on, to the researching of local war memorials in Cowley. These are precisely the types of project that we want to hear about, and I wish them every possible success.

I want to mention that the original Military Wives performed a wonderful medley of first world war songs last night in Portcullis House. I hope many Members were able to be present, because they were incredible. They were guests of my hon. Friend Oliver Colvile, so well done to him. It was an excellent and very special event.

We have heard many personal recollections today, too, and it was humbling and emotional to listen to the individual stories of the right hon. Members for Tynemouth (Mr Campbell) and for Lagan Valley (Mr Donaldson), the hon. Members for Barnsley Central (Dan Jarvis), for Bridgend (Mrs Moon), for Plymouth, Moor View (Alison Seabeck), for Sedgefield (Phil Wilson), for Hartlepool (Mr Wright), for North Antrim (Ian Paisley), for Ogmore (Huw Irranca-Davies) and for Cardiff South and Penarth (Stephen Doughty) and my hon. Friend Dr Coffey—I hope that I have not missed anyone out. They related to a variety of individuals and groups ranging from the Barnsley and Pompey Pals, “Mrs Barbour’s army”, Edith Cavell, Fred Dancox, Matthew Brown and the Bevin Boys, Driver A. E. Ironside, Major Willie Redmond, Captain Arthur Edward Bruce O’Neill MP, Lieutenant George Ward, the sons of Trimdon who died on the Somme, the bombardment of Hartlepool, Robert Quigg, Horace Rees and his 14 rejections and, last but certainly not least, Lieutenant-Colonel Charles Doughty-Wylie. We can feel nothing but respect and awe when we hear about such personal suffering and sacrifice and bravery, and the commemorations will help us to mark such contributions. They will also make future generations aware of the history of the war, so that we can continue to learn from the past.

I again thank all Members who have spoken and made interventions today. Many Members have written to their constituents urging them to get involved in the centenary commemoration, and to great effect. I ask Members to carry on with a steady drumbeat of information about what is being planned over the next four years. Connections to the war can be found in our churchyards and in the names on our memorials and even in those photographs that we keep at home of family members who are no longer with us, but whose stories remain to be discovered again.

The war and its legacy is of such importance that it is right that the Government should be leading the commemoration of its centenary. However, it is relevant to everyone in this country and the ownership of it rests with the public as a whole. I hope that what we have said this afternoon assures the House that what we have planned, and what we continue to plan, will have a life beyond the next four years, so that our generation passes what we have learned to the generations yet to come, so that they may pay their respects to the service and sacrifice of those who did and endured so much 100 years ago.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved,

That this House has considered the programme of commemoration for the First World War.