Centenary of the Armistice

Part of Assessment and Treatment Units: Vulnerable People – in the House of Commons at 5:19 pm on 6th November 2018.

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Photo of Kevan Jones Kevan Jones Labour, North Durham 5:19 pm, 6th November 2018

May I begin by congratulating the Secretary of State and the shadow Secretary of State on their excellent opening speeches?

My constituency office is in the Fulforth community centre, in a small pit village called Sacriston. In the entrance to the community centre is a war memorial that was rescued from the memorial hall, which was pulled down several years ago. On that beautiful mahogany memorial, inlaid with gold lettering, are the names of 122 men just from Sacriston and the surrounding area—it is a very small area—who lost their lives in the first world war. This Sunday, the local community will plant 122 crosses and a few more, because some people are not on the memorial, in the garden of remembrance next to the community centre, and I congratulate the community on doing that. I know that similar ceremonies will take place throughout the nation.

The individuals marked and remembered on that memorial were sons, brothers and husbands. When I look at their names, I think of the sacrifice that they made for this country, but I also remember that their ambitions and dreams were unfulfilled, and their loved ones left behind were worrying and thinking about what could have been.

There was an outpouring of remembrance after the Armistice. Throughout the nation, memorials such as the one in Sacriston were built, as well as clocks, parks and memorial halls. I live across the road from the Pelton Fell Memorial Park, which was dedicated to those who lost their lives in the first world war, with the money raised by local miners and the mine company.

Those are physical memorials, but I would like to join the Secretary of State in congratulating the Heritage Lottery Fund. Over the last four years, it has allowed local communities to bring to life the stories behind some of the casualties and tell the wider story of the effects of the first world war. I had the privilege last week of going to the exhibition it has funded, where I met two young ladies from North Durham, Jade Hay and Caitlin Dobby. They had worked on a project that told the story of what happened to children who lost their fathers during the first world war, and, in some cases, their mothers to Spanish flu after the war. They were horrendous stories of children committed to industrial schools or transported to Australia and Canada—stories never told before. Their only crime was that they were poor, but society just left them. It is thanks to the HLF funding for the project that a spotlight has been shone on that human face, not on the battlefield, but on the home front.

Mr Simpson and I have had the privilege of being Commonwealth War Graves Commissioners. I have been a commissioner for the last eight years; unfortunately, all good things come to an end, and that will end in December this year. He explained how the commission came into being. Like many great things in this country, it came into being by accident. Today the commission is held in high esteem, but it was not just after the first world war. At the time, some argued that we should repatriate the dead and that people should be able to put up their own memorials and crosses. It was a hugely controversial event but, thankfully, the commission saw through and became the great organisation it is today.

The commission commemorates the dead of the first and second world wars in 23,000 locations in more than 150 countries. I want to thank the staff of the commission and the partner nations that have contributed—Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and India—and make it all possible. It has been a great privilege working with them.

May I say to right hon. and hon. Members that, while they should remember the great iconic sites in France, they should also visit their local cemeteries? We have over 300,000 casualties in cemeteries in this country, and if they can visit them, they should do so. We have an ongoing project to put up signs to commemorate them. They should give recognition to the sites that we in the Commonwealth War Graves Commission look after in their local communities.

In finishing, let me say that remembrance is important not just in remembering the sacrifice that individuals made, but, as was eloquently put forward by both the Secretary of State and the shadow Secretary of State, in learning some of the lessons for the future.