It is an honour to speak in this debate and to follow so many moving and erudite speeches.
War is a ghastly failure of all other possible negotiation methods to resolve disputes over territory and resources. As a mother, alongside every other mother since time began, the prospect of war makes me feel sick to my stomach; the prospect of our children, of those we love and are responsible for, having to put their lives on the line—a brutal and sometimes fatal last line—to defend our values and population. War goes against every possible mother’s instinct, except of course the most profound one—that every mother would give up her own life for her children’s to be saved. But in times of war, it cannot work out like that.
A hundred years ago, mothers across our country and around the world were mourning the loss of millions of young men who had gone to war in far-flung trenches, hundreds of miles from their homes, to places they had never heard of and could not pronounce, in support of their Government’s call to stand against an enemy trying to destroy a neighbour’s way of life and identity. This was brought home to me four years ago when my children and I visited the Somme and a number of those fateful battlefields, and went to a place called Ocean Villas—or so I thought—to explore a series of real trenches unearthed by a British lady who had retired to the area and found them in her back garden. On arrival, I realised, as a French speaker, that the name of the village is Auchonvillers, which, if you say it in an English accent, sounds like Ocean Villas. It sounds like a rather lovely place when you say it like that, but it is very far from the ocean and the view would have been unimaginably different from a pleasant sea view. So as young men in 1914 headed over the sea to northern France and elsewhere, mothers waited at home for news of their boys, willing them to make it back home, broken perhaps, but alive, rather than buried in far-flung fields.
In the far western part of my constituency is a large area of high moorland territory known as Otterburn Ranges. It is one of the Army’s largest training areas for young soldiers and cadets, and in the heart of this training area are some of Britain’s best- preserved world war one trenches. Hundreds of trenches were dug in Britain by some of the 1 million men who volunteered in 1914, as a way of preparing them for warfare.
From Northumberland went thousands of young men, many of them joining up to go to war as members of the Royal Northumberland Fusiliers. The regiment raised 52 battalions, with 29 of them serving overseas. It was awarded 67 battle honours and five Victoria Crosses, losing 16,000 men during the war. It had ever been the case that soldiers who die in battle are buried where they fall, and for all those mothers and wives whose menfolk never returned, the loss was compounded by the inability to say goodbye or to find any peace in their bereavement by visiting their graves. So the work of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission in the years that followed the war to end all wars, and the slaughter of a generation of young men, to help those who remained to learn to cope, is extraordinary. I thank all those across the world who care for them.
Some of Northumberland’s young men, however, went further afield than Alnwick to join the Fusiliers and headed to the sea, to Tyneside, to join the Royal Navy—or, indeed, to join the Submarine Service. It is of those young men—the submariners—and the maverick, unconventional and challenging new part of the Royal Navy’s fleet of weaponry that I want to speak for just a few moments. The Submarine Service is often referred to as the silent service, because of course a submarine can sneak up on an enemy unheard and unseen, and because we never really talk about the incredibly dangerous work that it does.
In the early 20th century, submarines were considered somewhat shocking—not really sporting—by our own naval chiefs, but a few who understood their military potential for advantage quietly got on with building these strange underwater tubes; or, as one modern-day submariner described it to me, a caravan with no windows with a gang of friends in it, and you have no idea where you are. Modern-day submarines are highly technical, very expensive bits of kit, some more complex than a space station, but back in 1914 they were simpler and less safe, and the chances of survival as a submariner were very low. If a submarine was hit or had mechanical failure, it nearly always ended up at the bottom of the sea: a cruel and brutal death, and for the whole crew. The technology moved fast as the Germans built up their U-boat fleet and demonstrated how they could sink our ships, so the Royal Navy encouraged more use of this maverick weapon, with the support of the then First Sea Lord, Winston Churchill.
A young lieutenant commander, Max Horton, said to have been an aggressive and self-confident gambling man, daring by nature—we do not get those these days, somehow, in the world of peace and safety that we can enjoy—took on the challenge of demonstrating the power of the submarine. He later became an admiral and commander-in-chief of the Western Approaches in the second world war, responsible for the battle of the Atlantic. But back in 1914, Horton and those young Northumbrians who had joined up were living in inhuman conditions in those early submarines. We might consider today that their work was guerrilla warfare. Both our submarines and, as Albert Owen mentioned, German U-boats targeted enemy military surface fleets, and both took hits. In fact, out of 17,000 German men who served in submarines, more than 5,100 lost their lives. Serving on a submarine was, without doubt, one of the most dangerous occupations of that entire war.
We read the historical records about the battalions and their battles; the bravest young men with battle honours; statistics and events; moments of critical importance in those battles; and leaders’ decisions made always with imperfect information, some leading to victory, some not. But human conflict was always the ultimate consequence. Armistice—that moment when a cessation of hostilities is agreed by all parties; the start of the negotiations to find a solution for a lasting peace—has to be the moment that we must celebrate and remember that every mother always has to carry this burden.