Centenary of the Armistice

Part of Assessment and Treatment Units: Vulnerable People – in the House of Commons at 4:43 pm on 6th November 2018.

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Photo of John Cryer John Cryer Labour, Leyton and Wanstead 4:43 pm, 6th November 2018

It is an honour to follow Mr Simpson. On the quote he just gave the House, it is interesting that the poets and writers of the first world war were overwhelmingly drawn from the intelligentsia and middle classes. I can only think of two working class writers—Isaac Rosenberg and Frank Richards—who are still read and talked about now, and indirectly I will come on to talk more about that later.

The first world war, or the great war as it was called then, changed British society irrevocably. In the 1960s, Zhou Enlai was asked what the consequences of the French revolution were, and he said “It’s too early to tell.” We could almost say that about the first world war today.

The trenches effectively destroyed Liberal England, to paraphrase George Dangerfield, and led to the rise of the Labour party and far more class-based politics and to the rise of the trade unions. In 1923, the first Labour Government was formed, and in the 1920s, the Transport and General Workers Union, under the great Ernie Bevin, and the Miners Federation both achieved real industrial power. The question why the first world war led to such an increase in militancy and class consciousness has occupied historians since the 1920s, and it probably always will. I will say more about that in a couple of minutes.

In the meantime, I want to talk about my constituency. Like everywhere else, Leyton, Wanstead and Leytonstone made enormous sacrifices in the first world war. For instance, Leyton Orient lost three first-team players in the first few days of the battle of the Somme, and Jack Cornwell, the Navy’s youngest recipient of the Victoria Cross and the third youngest VC in the entire British forces, was born in Clyde Place in Leyton, on what is now the Beaumont estate. There is a blue plaque there commemorating his birth. He was born in 1900 and volunteered for the Navy in 1916, so he was only 16 years old when he found himself serving as a boy seaman on board HMS Chester. Boy seaman was then a rank in the Navy, although it was abolished a few years later.

The Chester was heavily involved in the battle of Jutland, one of the turning points of the great war, which was where Boy Seaman Cornwell was mortally wounded. Two days later, he died in Grimsby Hospital, and he was awarded the VC three months later in the autumn of 1916. His father and brother were later killed in the war. The Navy established the Boy Cornwell Memorial Fund in his memory to help the dependants of those who had served and been lost in the Royal Navy, but when his mother applied to the fund for assistance in 1918, she was, incredibly, turned down. She died the following year. Apart from being almost the definition of rubbing salt into a wound, that tells us a lot about how society changed during and just after the first world war. A child of 16 was put on a very inadequately armoured ship and probably died partly from shock. To raise public morale—let us remember that this was in the middle of the Somme, when virtually every family in the country was losing relatives—he was given a VC in a populist attempt to appeal to popular opinion. His family had been plunged into poverty by the first world war, but when the opportunity arose for his mother to apply for funds, having lost her husband and their two sons, she was rejected and died in poverty the following year.

This was the same military establishment that was sending men on the Somme uphill in the rain, which Field Marshal Lord Haig argued was not a problem. He said that it was possible to attack heavily armoured German defences by going uphill in the mud and the rain. Personally, I am very proud to wear the poppy every year, but the one thing that stuck in my craw for a long time was that the black centre of the poppy had the words “Haig Fund” written on it. This was a man who sent thousands to their deaths without any good reason, because of his own stupidity and egotism, but that fund was named after him. I always found that a bit odd.

Some Members will have read a book called “The Donkeys” by Alan Clark, the former Conservative MP, who is now, sadly, no longer with us. The right hon. Member for Broadland will certainly have read it. It is quite rare and difficult to get hold of now, but I recommend it to anyone who gets the chance to read it. It is a scathing and contemptuous attack on the British military establishment in Edwardian England. When I was first elected to the House of Commons in 1997, Alan came back having been re-elected as an MP after five years out of Parliament. I remember talking to him about “The Donkeys”, and he said that he had not set out to write a scathing attack on the British military establishment. Indeed, he described himself as a fully paid-up member of the British establishment—he was: he lived in a castle, among other things—but he said that the more research he did into what happened during those four years, the more he became convinced that thousands of lives had been sacrificed unnecessarily.

In fact, that was one of Alan’s motivations for becoming an MP. He was always of the view that the Tory party was the natural party of the working class—[Interruption.] I hear a few “Hear, hears” from Conservative Members, but we on the Labour Benches find that view slightly odd. He felt that that link had been broken in the trenches, and it was his mission to re-establish it. That is a fairly abstruse reason for coming into Parliament, but it was entirely typical of Alan Clark. He never did anything by the book. Anyway, the more he read, the more he discovered that there had been an almost unbelievable degree of incompetence among the British leadership during the first world war. While Alan would not have approved of the sort of revolutionary instincts of some who came back in 1918, 1919 and 1920—demobilisation did not finally play out until 1920—he fully understood, because he said and wrote this, that many of those returning did not want to go back to and support the society that they had lived in before in which people were sacrificed, and their children were sacrificed, for the whims of their leaders.