Centenary of the Armistice

Part of Assessment and Treatment Units: Vulnerable People – in the House of Commons at 4:11 pm on 6th November 2018.

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Photo of Julian Lewis Julian Lewis Chair, Defence Committee 4:11 pm, 6th November 2018

It is truly an honour to follow two such humane and comprehensive opening speeches.

Seventy-nine men from the village of Brockenhurst in the heart of the New Forest lost their lives in the great war—21 of them in the last year of that war alone—so it is hardly surprising that the village of Brockenhurst should have been early in the process of commemorating this particularly poignant centenary. Only last Saturday, I attended an outstanding commemoration concert that was held in the village. Back on Trafalgar day, 21 October, the Tile Barn Poppy Pod village was dedicated to the memory of Enda Ryan, Hampshire County Council’s greatly respected outdoor-facilities manager who recently died, far too young, from cancer. Each unit in the village commemorates a first world war battle, and service families can have respite breaks in the poppy pods at weekends, free of charge. The Tile Barn where they are sited was one of three New Zealand general hospitals set up in 1916, during the first world war, to care for the wounded. Thousands of New Zealanders passed through it, and the 93 who did not survive are buried in nearby St Nicholas’ church.

I am sure that in this debate we will hear many tales of poignant recollection of the sacrifices made in villages such as Brockenhurst up and down the country, so I wish to list briefly what I regard as nine necessary lessons from the first world war. First, we must not think that we can successfully predict when a war will break out. I have often quoted in the House Sir Maurice Hankey—I shall not quote him again today—who in 1931 reviewed all the previous great conflicts in which the nation had been involved. He pointed out that, far from having 10 years’ warning—which is how far ahead people were saying in 1931 that we ought to be able to predict a great conflict—in the run-up to world war one, we had had barely 10 days’ warning of that war.

The second necessary lesson is not to sign up to multiple bilateral alliances rather than a single multilateral alliance. In the terrible connected development of circumstances that led to the catastrophe of 1914, we saw how individual separate alliances triggered one country after another in a process of what I suppose one could call falling dominoes, which meant that we ended up with a global conflict out of something that started on a relatively small scale. That is what explains the success of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation—the certain knowledge that any aggression against any one of its members will immediately trigger defence of that member by all the rest. I do not wish to be controversial in this debate of all debates, but that is why we have to be careful about other organisations, including the European Union, issuing security guarantees willy-nilly here and there, because we do not wish once again to get into a cross-cutting system of obligations and alliances that can lead to a chain reaction such as happened so disastrously in 1914.

The third lesson is this. Do not think that humanitarian restrictions on methods of warfare at the outbreak of a conflict will last very long. The idea, before the great war, that civilians would be deliberately targeted by the fighting services would probably have been scornfully rejected, yet as early as December 1914 we had the bombardment by the German navy of the seaside towns of Scarborough, Hartlepool and Whitby, when 137 people were killed in their own homes and 455 injured. That was followed by the Zeppelin airship raids, and the more lethal but less scary Gotha bomber raids—and who can forget that, in 1915, we saw the barbaric initiation of poison gas warfare?

The fourth lesson is, do not imagine that individual valour can overcome the mechanisation of warfare. We had the lethal combination of the machine gun and the barbed wire emplacements. Those defences could not be breached by hurling wave after wave of human bodies against them.

The fifth lesson is, do not repeat the failed methods of warfare time and again. My hon. Friend Sir Edward Leigh said that the troops were well led in 1918. Well, they were, at the tail end of the war; it is just a great pity that they were not a lot earlier, because time and again it was shown beyond doubt that attrition did not work, and time and again—at the Somme and Passchendaele most outstandingly—it was tried long beyond the point where failure was an absolute certainty.