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

I hesitate to disagree with my right hon. Friend, particularly because of his own gallant service and that of previous generations in his family, but I would refer to accounts at the time, such as that of such a considerable figure as Sholto Douglas, later Lord Douglas of Kirtleside, who became one of the most senior RAF officers in its history, who was flying over the battlefield of Passchendaele, and who observed in his memoirs, with all that retrospective knowledge, that it was still inconceivable that the troops were sent forward time and again into a sea of mud, when it was absolutely clear that the attack had failed and had no prospect of success. I know there is a revisionist view of history that says the lessons of the Somme and Passchendaele were needed so they could get it right for the 100 days campaign at the end of 1918, but frankly, with the greatest of respect, I do not buy it.

The sixth lesson is, do not underestimate the value of surprise. The decisive allied breakthrough on 8 August 1918, the so-called “black day of the German army”, depended crucially on the strictest operational secrecy and dominance of the airspace over the battlefield, just as the Normandy landings did a quarter of a century later.

The seventh lesson is, do not forget—we have heard a bit of this today—why the war was fought in the first place. The war was fought because Prussian militarism and sense of entitlement to invade, overrun and occupy Prussia’s neighbours proved to be something that could be stopped only by force. Again, there are revisionists who say it would have been better if we had just let Germany get on with it and done nothing about it. I would just briefly quote the former Cambridge professor of French history, Professor Robert Tombs, who wrote recently in The Daily Telegraph:

“democracy and liberal government would have faced a bleak future. Authoritarian regimes would have been in the driving seat.”

He concluded:

“If tomorrow the Russian army marched through Poland and we were faced with the prospect of hostile aircraft based just across the Channel, would we react any differently? Let us hope we never face such a choice as our great-grandparents did.”

The eighth lesson is, do not settle for anything less than unconditional surrender in a conflict of this sort. Germany did not accept that she had been fully and fairly beaten in the field. The myth of the “stab in the back” gave fuel to Hitler’s subsequent evil campaign to say that Germany had not been defeated but betrayed.

The final lesson speaks for itself and requires no elaboration because we have heard it time and again in the present day in this House: do not stint in peacetime on investment in our armed forces—or we will pay a cost thousands of times greater when we fight a war that we might otherwise have deterred and completely avoided.