Centenary of the Armistice

Part of Assessment and Treatment Units: Vulnerable People – in the House of Commons at 4:31 pm on 6th November 2018.

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Photo of Keith Simpson Keith Simpson Conservative, Broadland 4:31 pm, 6th November 2018

I begin by offering my warmest congratulations to the Secretary of State and the shadow Secretary of State on two very thoughtful and moving speeches in this important debate. I also welcome the new Minister, who will be winding up. I am sure that she will understand if I say that it is with sorrow that I recognise that her predecessor had to resign.

Like a number of colleagues, I am haunted by the first world war. I am of an age to not have had to fight a war—I was too young for national service during the cold war—but my father and uncles served in the second world war, as did those of many hon. Members, and both my grandfathers served in the first world war.

I am by training a military historian. I have written books on the British Army in the first world war, and I interviewed dozens of survivors in the 1970s, but the question in my mind is that which my son, aged 27, put to me. He is interested in history, but he said, “Why do we continue to put so much emphasis and effort into commemorating the first world war and the Armistice, which are as far away from my generation as the battle of Waterloo and the Peninsular war were from that generation?” That is a crucial question. As the Secretary of State said, through the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, a lot of effort has been put into involving young people—much younger than my son—in understanding what the first world war was about.

I have been privileged to serve on two organisations as a parliamentary representative: the Prime Minister’s advisory committee on commemorating the first world war and, along with Mr Jones, the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. Both of us finish in December. I will have done 10 years. The commission is an amazing organisation, as the shadow Secretary of State said. Formed in 1917 as the Imperial War Graves Commission, it owed its organisation and purpose for the next 20 years to a remarkable man, Fabian Ware. He was not a soldier—he was too old in 1914—but he organised a Red Cross unit that went out to France. In 1915, he was conscious of the question of what would happen to the thousands of men who were killed. In previous battles, that had been limited. Often the private soldiers had merely been dumped in a great pit and, if they were lucky, a single cross had been put over it.

Many wealthier parents, usually of officers, brought their sons home, and, indeed, a number of families tried to do so in 1914, but it was going to be on such a scale that Ware persuaded GHQ in France that another organisation had to be set up. The first was the Graves Registration Commission, which attempted to find out the names and the units of the men who had been killed; and, of course, in thousands of cases, it knew not where their bodies were. As a result of Ware’s determination, the Imperial War Graves Commission obtained its royal charter in 1917, although not without a great deal of opposition on the part of many people who, understandably, wanted to bring their husbands, fathers and sons home. Ware was also determined that there should be absolute equality in terms of the sites in which men were buried: that the aristocrat would lie next to the pauper, and the officer next to the lance corporal.

What we all see today in the gardens of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission—which also look after the men who died in the second world war—is worldwide. The biggest number who are commemorated are not in Belgium and France, but here in the United Kingdom. Those who visit to the south coast, by the old hospitals, will see many War Graves Commission cemeteries where lie the men who were brought back wounded from Belgium and France in two world wars, but who then died.

This is a Commonwealth War Graves Commission, and, as other Members have rightly pointed out, we need to continue to emphasise the role of what we then called the British empire. We did not fight the war on our own. We suffered horrendous casualties, but without the active participation of Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, the colonies in west Africa and, above all, the Indian empire, we would not have been able to fight the first world war. We went through the motions of recognising how important they had been, but I think that it is only in the past 20 years that we have given them the full recognition that they deserve.

The Australians and New Zealanders have, of course, concentrated on their role at Gallipoli, rather brushing aside the fact that they lost more men in Belgium and France. The Canadians are the unsung heroes of the two world wars. Canada put in so many troops: in the second world war, about a third of the Royal Canadian Navy was fighting the battle of the Atlantic. We could not have fought with our infantry battalions in Normandy and Germany in 1944-45 without what were called “Canloan officers” and non-commissioned officers. So in considering the Armistice, we should bear in mind the role of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission.