Centenary of the Armistice

Part of Assessment and Treatment Units: Vulnerable People – in the House of Commons at 5:31 pm on 6th November 2018.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Bill Esterson Bill Esterson Shadow Minister (Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy), Shadow Minister (International Trade) 5:31 pm, 6th November 2018

It is an enormous privilege to serve in this Chamber, and especially to take part in this debate. I wish to pick up on one comment by Dr Murrison: he talked about how the public have engaged with the commemoration of the first world war, and I completely agree with him on that. I disagree with whoever said earlier that young people have not shown quite the same engagement. In my constituency, young people have absolutely engaged. The schools have been engaged and have taken part thoroughly, encouraged and educated by the Sefton libraries and many volunteers throughout the constituency. They are taking forward that knowledge and understanding of history for future generations.

On Sunday morning, I shall be at the Alexandra park memorial in Crosby to remember the 4,000 people from Sefton who were killed during world war one. We will then go to the Royal Naval Association comrades club—another fine institution to go with the Royal British Legion, which my hon. Friend Tom Watson mentioned in his fine opening speech for the Opposition.

Today is the launch of the Sefton libraries project Beyond the War Memorials, supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund. The journalist Peter Harvey has explained the project on Twitter. It includes the sending of letters to the last known addresses of some of those named on the memorials. It also includes a short film in which the current occupant of one property in Crosby, 70-year-old Terri Whitaker, reads her letter to the three Grossart brothers who were killed in the war, aged 19, 20 and 21. They had lived in her house before they went off to war. It is a fitting tribute from her to those from Sefton who were killed.

On Sunday, on the beach at Formby, the National Trust will hold its Pages of the Sea commemoration to recognise the many people who left for war by sea. The event will centre around the drawing of large-scale portraits of casualties, which will be washed away by the sea, representing and reminding us of the millions of lives lost or changed forever by the war.

That brings me to my main point. The hospital at Moss Side, Maghull, in my constituency is now part of the Ashworth high-security psychiatric hospital, but in world war one, Moss Side hospital pioneered the treatment of shellshock. The work there paved the way for much of our understanding of post-traumatic stress disorder, and for modern mental health practice and medicine. At the time, the British Medical Journal described the treatment at Moss Side, which is recognisable today, as

“suggestion, persuasion, therapeutic conversations, re-education. The physician masters the patients, gains his confidence and analyses his troubles and morbid ideas and sets his mind at rest”.

This was the forerunner of both cognitive behavioural therapy and EMDR, which, for those of us who had not come across it before, is eye movement desensitisation and reprocessing. We can trace their origins straight back to the work done 100 or so years ago at Moss Side.

At the same time that treatment was starting at Maghull, soldiers who were ill were being executed. Arbitrary decisions were taken about whether a man was suffering from shellshock and should be sent for treatment, or should be deemed a coward, convicted and sentenced to death. There is no adequate explanation for the gross injustice suffered by those labelled cowards and shot at dawn in world war one.

Take the case of Private Jimmy Smith of the Liverpool Pals. Jimmy survived Gallipoli. He was decorated at the Somme, where he was seriously injured, but he was forced to return to duty on the frontline, despite clearly suffering from shellshock. He was found guilty at court martial after going absent without leave, and sentenced to death by firing squad. The officer in charge ordered Jimmy’s friend to fire the fatal shot after Jimmy was only wounded by the firing squad, most of whom deliberately missed because they did not agree with the sentence. They knew Jimmy was not a man lacking in moral fibre.

As my hon. Friend the Member for West Bromwich East mentioned, 306 men were shot for cowardice, and he spoke of his role in achieving the pardon of those 306. I am very pleased that he did so, and that the Labour Government gave that recognition to those men. The military cemetery at Kemmel Chateau, where Jimmy is buried, has the inscription, “Gone but not forgotten”. How appropriate for him and for all the 306.

Today, veterans are still suffering. In my constituency we have a fantastic support group, Veterans in Sefton, who counsel other veterans. The stigma, and the lack of parity of resource and esteem with physical health, in the military and beyond, are the reality today. It would be a fitting mark of respect to those who came home bearing the psychological scars of world war one; it would be right, too, for those who were shot at dawn; and it would be a tribute to those pioneers at Maghull for their groundbreaking work if we were to make good today on the shortfall in mental health support for veterans, and for everyone else.