Centenary of the Armistice

Part of Assessment and Treatment Units: Vulnerable People – in the House of Commons at 5:52 pm on 6th November 2018.

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Photo of Ruth Smeeth Ruth Smeeth Labour, Stoke-on-Trent North 5:52 pm, 6th November 2018

It is a huge responsibility to follow the last two extraordinary speeches from my friend Bob Stewart and my right hon. Friend Hilary Benn. I think that everyone in the Chamber was touched by both.

We use the phrase very easily, but it is a genuine privilege to take part in this debate and to pay tribute to all those who serve and have served and especially to the memory of all those who fought in the great war of 1914-18 and their families. For the first time in history, an entire generation was touched by the horrors of war. One hundred years on, there are still no words to articulate the sacrifice they made or the debt we owe. There can be no tributes to meet the measure of the price paid, lives lost or impact on our society.

In the spirit of honour and remembrance, however, we try as best we can. As we approach the centenary of the armistice, it has been awe-inspiring to see the outpouring of support and commemoration across the country, especially in my own constituency. I recently had the great pleasure of visiting the Weeping Window installation at Middleport pottery, installed in the heart of my constituency. As well as being a powerful and beautiful commemoration of our fallen heroes, the ceramic poppies that cascaded from our bottle kiln served as a beautiful tribute to our own city’s heritage and craftsmanship.

These commemorations convey so clearly and so movingly the Potteries’ wartime history and the people of our community who lived in the shadow of war. North Staffordshire has a proud military tradition, past and present, and my constituency is home to many service families, for whom this season of remembrance holds a deep importance. I am sure I speak for everyone in this place when I say to them: thank you. Thank you for what you have done for our country and for the sacrifices you have made in our defence.

In each of the six towns of Stoke-on-Trent and the villages and communities in between, our permanent memorials have been joined by other tributes as our community comes together to pay our respects. One example is the brilliant There But Not There project, which was honoured in the recent Budget. It is an art installation whose aim is to put figures representing every name on local war memorials in the places around the country where their absence was felt, whether in schools, workplaces or places of worship. From St John’s Church in Burslem and its beautiful poppy display to Milton parish church, where parishioners have knitted more than 3,000 poppies to adorn their building, local people are doing their part to mark this historic occasion.

As part of the Stoke-on-Trent Remembers campaign, a series of silhouettes—made and designed locally by Andy Edwards and PM Training—has been installed in each of the six towns. The 8-foot-high steel figures depict a real account of a local person’s experiences of war. There are stories such as that of Corporal A. P. Oakes, of Scotia Road, Burslem and the 1st Battalion, North Staffordshire Regiment, who was present for the Christmas Day truce at Flanders in 1914. In his diaries, Corporal Oakes described his experience of that all too brief moment of humanity between the trenches:

“Our chaps started to shout across good humouredly, and the Germans replied in the same spirit. Then both sides got on top of their respective trenches, and one man from both sides met half way. Then peace on earth, good will to all men! was the order of the day, or rather the night... They all seemed anxious for a speedy termination of the war and one fellow made us all laugh by saying that both sides should stand back-to-back and advance.”

Across our community, there have been so many wonderful stories of commemoration. I was particularly struck this week by news that a quilt embroidered by 60 soldiers who had been recovering at the Stoke War Hospital had been rediscovered more than 100 years after it had been stitched. The quilt had previously been unveiled at Newcastle-under-Lyme’s municipal hall in 1917, and raffled to raise funds for the hospital. It is a beautiful and touching reminder of the hardships that so many faced in those years. I hope that that beautiful quilt will end up alongside the recently found “Bayeux tapestry” of world war one, painted in 1923 by members of the 5th Battalion, North Staffordshire Regiment to remember 960 of their fallen comrades. It is now on display at the Potteries Museum in the constituency of my hon. Friend and neighbour Gareth Snell.

It would take far more time than I have today to offer a full account of North Staffordshire’s contributions to the war effort. Undoubtedly, such a history would include the likes of Corporal Albert Ernest Egerton, a Potteries soldier with the Sherwood Foresters, who earned the Victoria Cross during the Battle of the Menin Road Ridge on 20 September 1917. Corporal Egerton single-handedly charged a machine gun nest, shooting three German gunners, and forced the surrender of 29 enemy soldiers. His comrades in that assault included another Stoke-on-Trent soldier, Sergeant Major E. Kelly, who led a charge in which four machine guns were taken out of action and 30 enemy troops captured. He received the Distinguished Conduct Medal for his actions.

These were incredible acts of heroism, but such acts were repeated a thousandfold by so many men, from the Potteries and beyond, who risked, and so often lost, their lives in the defence of their country and of the men serving beside them. These were the extraordinary deeds of ordinary people.