Centenary of the Armistice

Part of Assessment and Treatment Units: Vulnerable People – in the House of Commons at 5:59 pm on 6th November 2018.

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Photo of John Howell John Howell Conservative, Henley 5:59 pm, 6th November 2018

It is a great privilege to speak in this debate and a great pleasure to follow Ruth Smeeth and all who have spoken.

I want to concentrate on a theme that was brought up by I cannot remember which Front Bencher: how we will remember them. I want to give three examples from my own past of how I have participated in these acts of remembrance.

Ten years ago, before I came into this House, I used to conduct a choir, and I decided on one occasion that it would be a great thing to take that choir to Ypres. The choir consisted both of young children and a 90-year-old lady—who could still sing, I should say—whose brother had fallen in the trenches at the battle of Ypres. It was a wonder to see her wandering around the trenches. We sang choral evensong in the Anglican chapel at Ypres, which was a wonderful experience. Then we went to sing under the Menin Gate. I had been asked to do something different—they were used to the usual Anglican repertoire—so I decided to do an arrangement of the negro spiritual “Steal Away”. As we were finishing that, we got quieter and quieter as the verses went on, and at the end of that rendition the only thing that could be heard under the Menin Gate was the sobbing of those who had been listening and remembering. To this very day, people who went on that trip cannot recall it without tears coming to their eyes as they remember the experience they had.

My second experience is with the town of Thame, which started a project a couple of years ago to lay a Thame cross—it is like the cross of Lorraine—on the grave of every soldier killed in acts of conflict since the first world war. The people of Thame have done this, and that has included marine graves, where they have sent divers down to place the cross on the grave. So far over 300 people have travelled 150,000 miles to lay a cross on the graves of 212 people who lost their lives.

I was very privileged to be able to do this for Second Lieutenant Richard Hewer, who had fought in the battle of Jaffa and was observing for the infantry at the attack on Jerusalem when he was killed. His body lies in the cemetery in Jerusalem, and I went to it and laid the cross on his grave. And I pay tribute to those who look after our cemeteries; the cemetery is absolutely immaculate, and that made the experience of going there to lay this cross all the more telling and emotional.

The third experience involves a gentleman from my constituency called Mike Willoughby, who has over many years undertaken a project called “Bringing them Home” in which he has set out the lives of 298 soldiers who were killed or who died between 1914 and 1921. That has resulted in a number of memorials, and I was privileged to go to the Townlands Memorial Hospital, named after the first world war, only recently and see a memorial unveiled by the lord lieutenant for Oxfordshire. That, too, was a very moving experience, as we read the names on the brass plaque that had been produced there.

Earlier in this debate, many institutions were mentioned as playing a part in keeping the peace in Europe since the end of the second world war, and I would like to mention one that was not mentioned, because I think it has played a phenomenal part in that process: the Council of Europe. The Council of Europe is not part of the EU; in terms of its membership it is almost twice the size of the EU, and although it was set up with a human rights focus in its initial creation and it looks after the European Court of Human Rights—the only court in Europe to which we elect the judges ourselves—it goes far beyond that.

If anyone is looking for an organisation that, alongside NATO, has helped to keep the peace in Europe over this time, they need look no further than the Council of Europe. I sincerely hope that it will rise to the challenge again in the future. It is unusual in having both the Israelis and the Palestinians on it, but it has not yet made a great effort to try to get them to engage in peacemaking rather than simply standing up and posing their usual views when they speak.

In giving the House those three examples, and setting out the importance of the Council of Europe, I hope I have demonstrated that I attach a great deal of importance to remembrance.