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 do join my hon. Friend in that. In remembering them and knowing their lives, we honour their sacrifice. These events are taking place up and down the country.

To take just one of many more examples, on 1 July 1916, the opening day of the battle of the Somme, 235 of the Accrington Pals—the 11th (Service) Battalion East Lancashire Regiment—were killed, and 315 wounded, in the space of just 25 minutes. The fighting continued right up until literally the last few seconds before the Armistice was signed. More men died in 1918 than in any previous year of the war. The last British serviceman to be killed, Private George Edwin Ellison, died just one and a half hours before the Armistice, on the outskirts of Mons in Belgium, almost exactly the same place where British forces had first seen action in 1914. Indeed, George Ellison’s grave now faces that of John Parr, the first British soldier killed during the conflict. Between the deaths of John Parr in August 1914 and George Ellison in November 1918, 1.1 million British service personnel lost their lives—more than in any other conflict before or since.

Almost every city and town and village in Britain has a war memorial listing those who never returned from the great war. Thanks to the work of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, the brave men and women who lost their lives during the war are remembered with gravestones and memorials across the world. I know the whole House would like to thank the gardeners and staff of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, who do so much to ensure that our service personnel are honoured in fitting resting places. [Hon. Members: “Hear, hear.”]

Yet perhaps the bitterest element of this bittersweet commemoration, as the right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green said, is that almost all of those war memorials have another plaque or another set of carvings listing those who never returned from the second world war, less than three decades later. The Armistice Day hopes of Lloyd George were dashed. Whatever else we might want to say about what was described as the war to end all wars, it turned out not to be the war to end all wars.

The great war was perhaps the last war in which people signed up to fight out of deference and patriotic fervour. We have all seen the photos of lines of young men, some of them perhaps lying about their age, desperate to join up and see action before the end of a war they believed would be over by Christmas. But in quite a short time, those deferential and patriotic sentiments were not enough to meet the needs of the military in a war on this scale, which is why conscription had to be introduced in 1916. The horrors of the western front made many in Britain doubt whether the war was worth it.

It was not only in this country that the success of the war effort relied on popular support. Russia’s experience on the eastern front, the gradual breakdown of its economy and the Russian people’s discontent with its leadership was a direct cause of the Russian revolution, which shaped global politics for the rest of the century and beyond. The mutinies of 1917 crippled the effectiveness of the French army. America’s entry into the war, which contributed so much to the allied victory, might not have been possible at all without the popular outrage generated by the German U-boat campaign sinking US civilian shipping, and the final German collapse owed much to the suffering of its population under the British naval blockade.

Leaders and generals do not operate in isolation, cold-bloodedly moving around blocks of troops, disconnected from the societies from which those troops are drawn. Political leaders have to earn and secure support for any military action, not just at the start but on an ongoing basis. That lesson has had to be learned again and again, from Algeria to Vietnam to Iraq.

The great war changed Britain forever in so many ways. This year we have also been celebrating the centenary of many women getting the vote—another momentous event in the momentous year of 1918. The achievement of women’s suffrage had many causes. The movement long preceded the great war, and achieving the vote was just one step on a path towards equality that still stretches before us. But the contribution of women to that war effort, in filling roles previously reserved for the men now fighting overseas, helped to solidify the argument that women were just as capable as men and had just as much right to political representation, making progress faster than it might otherwise have been.

In some ways—I realise that this could be controversial—Britain was lucky in 1918. Unlike France and Belgium, it was not scarred with bomb craters and ruined towns. Unlike Russia, it had no revolution or civil war. Unlike Germany, it had no reparations to pay or territory to concede. But its people bore the scars of war on their bodies and in their minds. They deserved and needed what Lloyd George promised them—a land fit for heroes. Instead, they got nearly two decades of economic slump, unemployment, poverty, poor housing and the great depression.

Both then and now, Britain has not always treated its service personnel with the respect they deserve. As a Defence Minister, I met Gertie, the daughter of Private Harry Farr, and her daughter, Janet Booth. They campaigned tirelessly for a pardon for their father and grandfather, who was shot at dawn for cowardice. Harry Farr was no coward. It was the dignity of his family and their tireless campaign that led to the pardons for the “shot at dawn” generation.