Centenary of the Armistice

Part of Assessment and Treatment Units: Vulnerable People – in the House of Commons at 5:37 pm on 6th November 2018.

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Photo of Mark Francois Mark Francois Conservative, Rayleigh and Wickford 5:37 pm, 6th November 2018

Mr Speaker, thank you very much for allowing me to participate in this important debate, in which we have heard excellent Back-Bench and Front-Bench contributions in commemoration of all those who gave their life in that epic conflict which became the first world war. Although I do not come from a military family per se, my father Reginald Francois fought in the second war, on a minesweeper at D-day, and my grandfather Matthew John Francois served in the first war in the Rifle Brigade, joining up in his 30s. He lost his leg as a casualty.

The first world war massively influenced the development of this country in social, economic, military and political terms, but I would like to focus on another area in which it greatly influenced this country: our cultural history. The first world war has been depicted in many art forms, not least in film. Famous movies such as “Oh! What a Lovely War”, “All Quiet on the Western Front”, “Gallipoli” and, more recently, “War Horse” have given us vivid depictions, both satirical and brutally realistic, of life in the trenches. There have also been books and plays of many kinds; “Birdsong” and “Journey’s End” are two that spring readily to mind.

However, some of the most evocative memories from the first world war are brought to us by the soldiers who became known as the war poets. These were young men, mainly—although not exclusively—from English public schools, who served as junior officers or in other ranks, predominantly on the western front. One of the earlier, arguably more optimistic, war poets, Rupert Brooke, was born on 3 August 1887, the son of a housemaster at Rugby School. Educated at Rugby and then King’s College, Cambridge, he was commissioned into the Royal Naval Division in 1914, before being redeployed to Gallipoli in March 1915, where he became fatally ill and died of blood poisoning that April. However, while on leave in December 1914, Brooke wrote his five war sonnets, of which the most famous is undoubtedly “The Soldier”.

“If I should die think only this of me:

That there’s some corner of a foreign field

That is forever England. There shall be

In that rich earth a richer dust concealed;

A dust whom England bore, shaped, made aware,

Gave, once, her flowers to love, her ways to roam;

A body of England’s, breathing English air,

Washed by the rivers, blest by suns of home.

And think, this heart, all evil shed away,

A pulse in the eternal mind, no less

Gives somewhere back the thoughts by England given;

Her sights and sounds;
dreams happy as her day;

And laughter, learnt of friends;
and gentleness,

In hearts at peace, under an English heaven.”

As the war progressed, the mood of the war poets changed. In Siegfried Sassoon’s “The General”, he expresses great scorn for those who gave the orders that led men to die. In the latter stages of the war came Wilfrid Owen, who was born on 18 March 1893, the son of a former mayor who had fallen on hard times. He never attended university, but in 1916 he was commissioned into the Manchester Regiment. In 1917, Owen wrote arguably the most famous of all the war poems, “Dulce et Decorum Est”. The final verse refers to a casualty:

“If in some smothering dreams, you too could pace

Behind the wagon that we flung him in,

And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,

His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;

If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood

Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,

Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud

Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,—

My friend, you would not tell with such high zest

To children ardent for some desperate glory,

The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est

Pro patria mori.”

Contrary to the “Blackadder” theory of world war one—of senseless slaughter in the trenches, with no gains by either side—in the summer and autumn of 1918 the British Army did get it right. It breached the impenetrable Hindenburg line and broke the back of the German army. Using new tactics of combined arms, short and sudden artillery bombardments and the mass use of tanks, the British Army comprehensively defeated the Germans in the field and brought about the armistice. By a great irony, Wilfred Owen was awarded the Military Cross in October 1918, and on 4 November, just one week before the Armistice, he was killed leading his platoon in an assault on the Sambre-Oise canal.

The great writings of these men live on today to remind us of the horror of war, and of trench warfare in particular. We must never forget the sacrifices that were made so that we can continue to live in a free country. Lest we forget.