It is a real pleasure to follow Anna Soubry and to speak in a debate that has already had so many excellent contributions, including from both Front Benchers.
Many people and many organisations have been involved in these commemorations, but I pay particular tribute to Dr Murrison. He and I have been discussing these commemorations for six years, and I commend him for the excellent job he has done in bringing people together to make the most of this important opportunity. The House, and indeed the country, owes him a great debt of gratitude. I say that because there are few moments in modern society when we come together as a country to reflect on our shared history, and these moments of reflection are not only rare but precious. That is why our commemorations must be inclusive, engaging and respectful, as they have been. This has been a commemoration, not a celebration.
On Armistice Day 1918 the Prime Minister, David Lloyd George, announced the end of what was described as the war to end all wars. Today we know that it was not that, but it was the war that changed life in our country forever. The first world war touched every family, affected every community and fundamentally altered our country’s place in the world. It was a conflict that brought profound political, social and economic changes that we still feel today. These centenary commemorations have provided us with a unique opportunity to reflect on that, to pay tribute to those who served and sacrificed 100 years ago and to pass on those memories to future generations.
At the beginning of the commemorations in 2014, I travelled to northern France to retrace the steps taken by the Barnsley Pals battalions. Looking out from the French positions, I tried to imagine what it must have been like for them. It was hard not to be overcome by the emotion of what had happened in that place. I walked the ground over which they had fought, and I stood in front of their graves. It felt like they were a long way from home.
Later that day, I visited the memorial to the missing at Thiepval. As I gazed at the thousands of names inscribed on the memorial, I saw the name D. Jarvis—my own name—staring back at me. It was a sobering moment. I finished the day by visiting the Devonshire cemetery near the village of Mametz. At the end of the first day of the battle of the Somme, over 160 men of the Devonshire Regiment were retrieved from where they had fallen in action. They were carried back to their starting trench positions and buried there. Their comrades from the Devonshires put up a makeshift wooden cross and on it were carved the words, which can still be read at this place:
“The Devonshires held this trench, the Devonshires hold it still.”
This centenary has also given us the opportunity to remember those who contributed on the home front during the war, not just because of the significance of their service, but because this is an important part of the story of how our country changed: the war led to more women in work than ever before; they took on roles that had previously been the preserve only of men; and with an estimated 2 million women entering the workforce, they joined countless individual heroines, such as nurse Edith Cavell and Doctor Elsie Inglis. Our democracy expanded, society became less deferential and the role of the state changed, and our politics would never be the same again.
Britain’s place in the world shifted, and men who had never before been to Britain would come here to defend it. Millions of people from across the Commonwealth served in the British war effort. Some 1.5 million came from the Indian subcontinent alone, fighting side by side with British troops, on land, at sea and in the air. They would, of course, be joined by soldiers from many other countries, including volunteers from Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the West Indies and parts of Africa. One hundred and seventy-five of those servicemen from overseas would be awarded the Victoria Cross for their courage and gallantry, and we must never forget them and their outstanding service.
As well as looking back, these commemorations should be about looking forward, as they are as relevant to the lives we live today and they will be in the future; 100 years ago nobody had heard of post-traumatic stress disorder, but today the issue is not just what we can do for our veterans returning from the frontline, but how we can prioritise the mental health of everyone. One hundred years ago, people from all over the world fought and died to protect our country, and today we need to remember the debt we owe people who were not born here but who helped to make our country what it is today. One hundred years ago, the first world war changed the role of the state; government took action on food, rents and wages. That links to one of the central arguments in our public life today: what Governments should and should not do in the 21st century.
A number of us in this place know from personal experience that this was not the war to end all wars; wars continue to scar our world. I hope that in due course we will remember not only those who fell in the service of our country in the first world war, but those who have fallen more recently.