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 thank my hon. Friend. He and I have spoken before about the tragic death of his father and about what that meant to him. I am always conscious, as I know we all are, of the impact that losses had in war, on families but on friends as well. One of the memories in the Commonwealth War Graves Commission archives, which are now being put on its website, is contained in the letters—the desperate letters—that the commission received from relatives trying to find their husbands, sons and brothers who had been killed.

I do not have to remind this House that some of the biggest memorials for which the Commonwealth War Graves Commission is responsible are to those who have no grave: the Menin Gate, Tyne Cot at Passchendaele, Thiepval and quite rightly—I know the Secretary of State mentioned this—the memorials at Portsmouth, Plymouth and London to members of the Royal Navy and the merchant navy who were lost at sea, and which at the time must have been totally and utterly devastating.

The Armistice did not end the first world war; the first world war was concluded at the peace conference in 1919, but, as other Members have mentioned, the conflict continued. The British Army was demobilised, but it was maintaining peace and order, as it saw it, in Egypt and Palestine and through the First British Army of the Rhine, and I would argue that the first world war did not really end until 1922 and the Chanak incident when we backed down over Turkey: Lloyd George had backed the Greeks; the coalition Government fell; and the rest is history.

I would like to leave the House with just one quote, if Members will allow an old military historian. I am holding the diary of Brigadier General Jack, which was edited by John Terraine in the early 1960s. Jack was born in 1880 and died in 1962. He was a conservative Scottish officer—a rather shy man. He was 33 in 1914, a platoon commander in the 1st Cameronians, the Scottish Rifles. He survived all that. He became a company commander and then became the commanding officer of the 2nd Battalion, the West Yorkshire Regiment. He was wounded in late 1917 and had nearly four months out of the line. He became a staff officer and was then put back into the line in 1918 to become the commanding officer of the 1st Cameronians, and in September 1918, he was made a brigade commander, commanding about 1,300 men. And off and on, he kept a meticulous diary.

The short quote I want to read out is from 11 November 1918, and it is his final reflections:

“At last I lie down tired and very happy, but sleep is elusive. How far away is that 22nd August 1914, when I heard with a shudder, as a platoon commander at Valenciennes, that real live German troops, armed to the teeth, were close at hand—one has been hardened since then. Incidents flash through the memory: the battles of the first four months;
the awful winters in waterlogged trenches, cold and miserable;
the terrible trench-war assaults and shell fire of the next three years;
loss of friends, exhaustion and wounds;
the stupendous victories of the last few months;
our enemies all beaten to their knees.

Thank God! The end of a frightful four years, thirty-four months of them at the front with the infantry, whose company officers, rank and file, together with other front-line units, have suffered bravely, patiently and unselfishly, hardships and perils beyond even the imagination of those, including soldiers, who have not shared them.”

And most of us did not share it either.