I pay tribute to the Minister and Tom Watson for their introductions to the debate. I also pay tribute to the contribution of my colleague and Chair of the Defence Committee, Dr Lewis. Other Members will speak at length. My hon. Friend Chris Stephens, who cannot make it to the debate—they are in either Westminster Hall or Committee—would like me to mention the commemorations taking place in Nitshill this weekend.
The eloquence of commemoration is often beset by flurries of grandeur and peppered with words of valour and heroism. Those words are often spoken with full generosity and belief, yet more often than not, speeches are bereft of names, ages and commemoration on a human plane. When spoken, personal commemorations are like stones thrown upon a loch, sending ripples through time itself. Indeed, the greatness of war is the greatness of loss, and only as time passes do we come to understand the profound and unintended historical consequences of those individual losses.
For many, 100 years is an age; for historians, it is a mere moment in time. Yet by its end, the great war had justified its name, at least in our minds. Some 6 million UK troops were mobilised, with a loss of 700,000. It was also a war fought on all fronts: a war of the industrial age on land, at sea and even taking flight to the skies. While some would state that it was an un-won war, there is no doubt that the allied powers in fact forced the Kaiser and his advisers, such as Ludendorff, to accept that surrender was the only way forward for Germany. They, at least at that point in history, recognised that a hopeless struggle to the bitter end would be in no one’s interest.
Some have said that it was the best of times and the worst of times. For one family, I know that it was indeed the worst of times. Far from the front at the age of 24, James Timlin, son of Barbara and Richard and brother to Anne, Bridget, Thomas, Sarah, Maria and Anthony, joined the 2nd Battalion, Royal Scots Fusiliers, in Kilmarnock in that great county of Ayrshire, and undertook a journey that would see him, by the age of 28, travel through the horror of conflict. Little did he know that his great-nephew Sean would join us in the Under-Gallery for this debate; nor could he have known that his sister Sarah and her husband John would settle in the great industrial burgh of Clydebank, and that his other great-nephew would, on these Benches, utter his name and have his medals at his side.
Unlike James, many did not make it to the front, for one of war’s best-known supporters rode into battle, in three waves that lasted beyond the war: plague, or as we now know it, the Spanish flu—a reflection of the truly global nature of modern war. Even as they boarded troop ships in the United States, troops were marching to a fate that they could not imagine. On reaching the ports of Europe, many would disembark not as strong, valiant soldiers, but as corpses to be buried at haste and with no commemoration. Those troop ships sailed the seven seas, and there is no doubt that global war saw the plague of flu grasp the opportunity to wreak havoc, with nearly 100 million human beings dying in every corner of the globe bar Australia. In modern-day Bangladesh, India and Pakistan, the global movement of troops back and forth condemned at least 20 million of some of the poorest people on earth to a death most terrible.
It was a global war that saw battles on all fronts: the western front, the Italian front, the eastern front, the Romanian campaign, the Caucasus campaign, the Serbian campaign, Gallipoli, the Macedonian front, the Sinai and Palestine campaign, the Mesopotamian campaign—in which my friend Anne’s grandfather, George Harvey, served—and the ill-named Africa campaign, which covered vast swathes of that mighty continent. It was a war that even reached to the skies. And how could we forget the loss of life among those in peril on the sea? How could the hon. Member for West Dunbartonshire not reflect on the role of the Royal Mail Ship Lusitania—built in Clydebank—the sinking of which shifted opinion in the United States towards supporting the allied powers?
The victory of war was no solace to those lost. It was also a war that saw—I must disagree with the hon. Member for West Bromwich East—a revolution, even in this state, with effective martial law being declared in the great burghs and cities of Scotland. Workers there demanded that at its end, they, and their sons and brothers returning from the frontline, would no longer live and work as they had—in slums, with early death at home and at work. This was also a world in which women would at last rightly demand equality.
By 1939, we had marched blindfolded toward a war that would shake the very foundations of the earth. Fascism, founded on hate, antisemitism, lies, fear and the targeting of the weak, had filled a vacuum in Europe that many would say the League of Nations had allowed, with the failed peace offering a false hope.
This was a war that James Timlin’s sister, Sarah, knew at close quarters, through her two elder sons—one was in the merchant fleet and the other in the RAF—and her husband, who was in the workhouse of the Parkhead forge in neighbouring Glasgow. Those workers were on the frontline, and it is often forgotten that they are the other veterans of war. On 13 and
“proportionally, Clydebank lost more people and buildings than any other major community anywhere in the United Kingdom.”—[Official Report,
Vol. 607, c. 928.]
Sarah was lucky. She and her children survived. She lived a long and eventually happy life, but she did not live to see her grandson Ronald, my brother, serve twice, in Iraq and Afghanistan. No doubt she would have known the terror a family feel when their loved ones are on the frontline; the human cost of war was known to Sarah. Her brother, James, born in 1890 in Ballinglen, just south of Ballycastle, County Mayo, Ireland, fell on
As other hon. Members have said, my constituents and I will soon gather in my constituency—in Clydebank, Dumbarton, Alexandria and the surrounding villages—to commemorate the fallen. War comes about for many reasons, but at the end of it are always the dead, military and civilian. For all our disagreements on these Benches, let us commit again to that word, peace, for without it we live in a world in which democracy cannot flourish.