Centenary of the Armistice

Part of Assessment and Treatment Units: Vulnerable People – in the House of Commons at 3:46 pm on 6th November 2018.

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Photo of Tom Watson Tom Watson Deputy Leader of the Labour Party, Shadow Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport 3:46 pm, 6th November 2018

I thank the Secretary of State for what I thought was a solemn, dignified and thoughtful contribution to open the debate. I join him in paying tribute to the work of Dr Murrison and my hon. Friend Dan Jarvis.

It is genuinely a great honour to speak on behalf of Her Majesty’s Opposition to mark Armistice Day in this debate and the centenary of the end of what was then the greatest military conflict that the world had ever seen. It is both a privilege and a duty, shared by all of us, to honour the sacrifice of all those who served in that war.

Today, I want to talk of remembrance but also of reconciliation, of internationalism, conflict resolution and the lessons of war. I wish to touch on the work of some of the institutions that support our veterans and honour the memory of the fallen. Remembrance Day and the poppies that so many of us are wearing today have come to symbolise not just the sacrifices of the great war, but the sacrifices made in all wars by all who play a part in them.

I remember when I was a child, many of the veterans of the great war were still with us and the veterans of the second world war, my grandparents’ generation, did not seem old—although they seemed old to me at the time. Today, all of those who served between 1914 and 1918 have passed away. Even the number of second world war veterans is dwindling. Just over a decade ago, I was privileged to play a part, along with Mr Duncan Smith and other Members of this House, in efforts to ensure that the last great British war veteran, the last Tommy, to pass away, was properly honoured whoever they might have been.

Harry Patch, the last surviving British soldier to have fought in the trenches died in 2009. Claude Choules, the last English-born great war combat veteran, who served in the Royal Navy died in 2011. Florence Green, the last surviving great war service veteran, died in 2012. With them, the great war passed irreversibly from living memory to history. As Sir Edward Leigh said in his intervention, it is the responsibility of all of us to continue to recognise the sacrifice that that generation made and to learn the lessons of history. No organisation has done more to recognise the sacrifice and the contribution of that first world war generation than the Royal British Legion.

The Legion was formed just after the war—the poppy of Flanders Field is its emblem—but it does not just commemorate; it also runs impressive modern campaigns relevant to today’s veterans, providing them with financial, emotional and psychological support. The Legion is desperately short of members. People think it is necessary to be a veteran to join, but it is not. In fact, it is a pleasure to see so many civilians in my constituency of West Bromwich East supporting this important organisation. As the Secretary of State alluded to, the legion’s commemoration this year is particularly important. We welcome the special khadi poppies that honour the 74,000 Indian soldiers who lost their lives fighting for Britain.