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

The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. Later in my contribution I will touch on some of the lessons learned, and perhaps the mistakes that were made, after the Armistice was signed.

This year the Royal British Legion has also produced gold leaf poppies specifically to commemorate the centenary of the war. What is most remarkable about the Legion is not just the inspiring work its people do in the weeks that are leading up to Remembrance Sunday; it is the work they do all year round, reminding us all that remembrance is something we should do all year round.

Armistice Day has always been a bittersweet commemoration in this country: sweet because it marks the end of a war that scarred Europe and the world, the end of four years of industrialised killing, the like of which had never been seen before; sweet because for Britain and our allies it celebrates a victory against a war of aggression by Germany and the Austro-Hungarian empire, so it was celebrated at the time. When the news of the Armistice came through, cheering crowds gathered in every town square. There was dancing and singing, and church bells rang out for the first time in four years. It is fitting that bell ringing—not just in this country, but around the world—is part of this year’s centenary commemorations. And yet it is far more bitter than sweet. Armistice Day is always a solemn event of reflection and remembrance, and it is treated as such in wreath-laying ceremonies at memorials all over the country that hon. and right hon. Members from across this House will be attending in their constituencies this weekend.

Millions of men never came home—nearly 1 million British dead alone, lying alongside hundreds of thousands from what was then the British empire. Millions more returned with physical or psychological injuries, and with memories of the friends and comrades they left behind in the trenches of Flanders and the Somme, in Turkey and Palestine, in the Atlantic and the North sea. Of 14,000 parishes in England and Wales, only 50 saw all their soldiers come home, and every single community in Scotland and Ireland lost at least someone. Many places lost far more. The small village of Wadhurst in East Sussex lost 25 men in a single day in 1915, and 149 men altogether over the course of the war, from a total of just 3,500.

The so-called Pals battalions, made up of men from a particular local area, especially from our industrial towns and cities, serving alongside each other, often suffered losses whose impact on their communities is almost unthinkable and unimaginable today.