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 can, and we should. I thank my hon. Friend for the work he did on the campaign to ensure that Gertie’s dying wish was met.

I am proud of my role in righting what I saw as the injustice of the 306 soldiers that my hon. Friend mentions. Many of them had clearly been suffering from what was then called shellshock and what would now be called post-traumatic stress disorder. Their families were not entitled to a military pension and often faced great hardship. Granting them a pardon did not change what was done to them, but it eased the stigma felt by their loved ones over the generations. Anybody who has ever visited the National Memorial Arboretum to see the commemoration to those who were shot at dawn cannot fail to be moved.

We should pay tribute to the work of the National Memorial Arboretum in the west midlands, which allows so many to pay their respects to the men and women of our armed forces. As a young Minister, newly in post, I remember feeling my heart in my mouth when I had to give what is called a ministerial direction to underwrite the cost of the magnificent armed forces memorial that was opened by Her Majesty the Queen in October 2007 to honour the sacrifice of those who, in more than 50 operations and conflicts since the second world war, lost their lives in service. Today, we understand the impact of war better than we did 100 years ago.

With a smaller professional military, we do not have to face the challenge of reintegrating millions of ex-service personnel into the civilian economy. However, we do owe a duty of care to veterans and their families that lasts beyond the last echo of gunfire. That has to include physical and mental health support, as well as efforts to ensure that they have the skills they need to find civilian employment.

Both the great war and what came after it show us the need for internationalism. It was rival nationalisms that caused the war—rival imperial ambitions, rival insecurities and the escalation of responses to perceived threats until it was easier for the great powers to go to war than for them to back down from it. There can be no greater failure of diplomacy than the resort to armed conflict, even if armed conflict sometimes is the right response to a failure of diplomacy.

One of the causes of the failure of the Armistice to hold was the disastrously punitive terms imposed on Germany by the treaty of Versailles in 1919 and its insistence on German war guilt, which both crippled its economy and fed the resentment that the Nazis were able to harness so effectively. As Marshal Foch prophetically said, Versailles was

“not a peace treaty, it is an armistice for twenty years.”

After the great war, the world failed to build a sustainable peace.

The post-war League of Nations was a well-intentioned attempt to stop such a thing happening again, but it proved inadequate to the task of responding to the nationalism, fascism and territorial ambition of Hitler and Mussolini, Soviet expansionism, or indeed America First isolationism. The failure of the League of Nations showed the need for stronger international institutions, and since the second world war, for all their flaws, institutions including the United Nations, NATO and the European Union have helped us to avoid any repeat of war on a global scale, even if they have been unable to prevent myriad smaller conflicts.

Building lasting, sustainable peace is not easy, but it requires a commitment to internationalism, development, diplomacy and the fostering of economic ties between nations. Where necessary, it requires conflict resolution, but also a strong defence posture and a willingness to countenance military intervention as a last resort, not as a first step, as well as a framework of international laws and justice. Too many of these were absent in the aftermath of the great war, and the whole world paid a terrible price for the fragility of the Armistice.

If ever there is a time to forgive and reunite, it is 11 November 2018. This year, of all the articles written on the great war, the one that moved me the most was that written by Lord Michael Ashcroft, who made the case that courage is something displayed by service personnel on both sides of war and conflict. We should never forget that. He made a strong case for reconciliation in his tribute to the courage of Manfred von Richthofen, the Red Baron.

There was some controversy last month when the Government revealed their plans to invite the German Head of State to the Cenotaph. However, it strikes me that in this year—100 years after men and women of courage gave their lives fighting for their countries—we should, in the spirit of reconciliation and peace, honour the valour and sacrifice of our opponents in the great war by inviting the German President to share in our remembrance. The Secretary of State was absolutely right to make that commitment.

I am grateful for the opportunity to speak in this important debate, and to colleagues for their thoughtful and humane interventions. We owe so much to all those who served and to all those who gave their lives in the great war that ended on 11 November 1918. One hundred years later, they still have much to teach us. As the Bishop of Lambeth said in his address to us in that very moving service: “War starts in the hearts and minds and souls of men and women like us. And peace, too, starts in the hearts and minds and souls of men and women like us.” Let us not just speak of peace, but let each and every one of us be the peacemakers.