Centenary of the Armistice

Part of Assessment and Treatment Units: Vulnerable People – in the House of Commons at 5:25 pm on 6th November 2018.

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Photo of Andrew Murrison Andrew Murrison Chair, Northern Ireland Affairs Committee 5:25 pm, 6th November 2018

Some full tributes have been paid this afternoon, and I add mine to them. In particular, I pay tribute to the civil servants who have worked tirelessly throughout this centenary period, and to colleagues, who have been unstinting in their advice; perhaps I can single out Dan Jarvis for all his wise counsel over the six years that we have been debating these matters.

My fullest tribute is to the public, because they have made this centenary. Their appetite for this was unknown when we started on this journey seven years ago, but it has exceeded all our expectations. The centenary has been a tonic in a rather shouty and cynical age, and the public’s maturity and reflectiveness have shown through. Throughout, there has of course been pride, yes; but jingoism, no. I have been enormously proud of them.

When the President of Germany lays his tribute at the Cenotaph in a few days’ time, it will not be an act of reconciliation. The people of our two countries are well beyond that now. It will be the solace of a friend, and of an equal in all the acts of remembrance that we will carry out on Sunday, when we look to the future while respecting the past.

Two small villages in my constituency, Upton Scudamore and Chicklade, last month unveiled new memorials to villagers—ordinary men who had been forgotten for decades, and are now remembered. When we commemorate events of this sort, we very often remember the great men—generals and politicians—and perhaps less so the ordinary men, but society is the poorer for the loss of them. They are men such as Private Fred Barnes, Bombardier William Beak, Private Job Daniells, Private William Hinton and 19-year-old Serjeant Albert Greenland MM—military medal. Now, after a gap of 100 years, they are memorialised in the village of Upton Scudamore, overlooking Salisbury plain. Stalin is alleged to have said that one death is a tragedy, but 1 million deaths is a statistic. Interestingly, Mother Teresa said more or less the same thing from the opposite end of the moral spectrum. Reflecting on those five ordinary men, we begin to understand what those two individuals were thinking of.

Of all the projects and initiatives throughout the past five years, it is invidious to pick out any, but I will pick out just two. One of the most striking, backed by the Government, was called the Unremembered, about which I wrote to colleagues in the summer. Its poster boy is the remarkable Lieutenant Walter Tull, a footballer and black Army officer. He was a truly inspirational individual whom the centenary has taken from obscurity and given the prominence that he so richly deserves. Projects such as the Unremembered and No Barriers have touched those in society who may have felt, quite wrongly, that they had no equity in this material. It has all been about drawing people together and facilitating, as it were, the big society—not by distorting facts for political ends or photoshopping history, but by shedding light on it.

I will not rather presumptuously try to draw the lessons from the four years of the great war, but I want to make some observations. The first is that once we have committed to a war, it has a momentum and a life of its own; we cannot predict it, and we certainly cannot control it. My second observation is on the need for eternal vigilance. There never was, and probably never will be, a war to end all wars. That is not in our nature. Instead, war just mutates, and we need to be prepared for that. My third observation is that peace is even more difficult than war. What happened in 1945 suggested that we had learned the lessons of 1918, but the events in the Gulf in 2003, in which I was involved in a small way, suggested that those lessons were quickly forgotten.

My fourth observation is that war most definitely has consequences that are difficult to predict. Some of them are good and some of them are very bad. More died from world war one-related Spanish flu than in the trenches, but then we got universal suffrage. Society was never the same again—in the main, very much for the better. My fifth observation is that we should always pursue war criminals. The German people were dealt with very harshly in 1918, but their leaders certainly were not.

My sixth observation is that the loose concert of Europe failed so spectacularly in 1914 that we spent the next 50 years forging institutions that would underpin the international rules-based order. Today, the people of America, the greatest nation on Earth, go to the polls. I very much hope that they reflect on the duty that they owe us all in attempting to underpin that rules-based system.