Centenary of the Armistice

Part of Assessment and Treatment Units: Vulnerable People – in the House of Commons at 6:28 pm on 6th November 2018.

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Photo of Jamie Stone Jamie Stone Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Armed Forces) 6:28 pm, 6th November 2018

It is a great honour to represent my party in this debate. I simply thank all the speakers across the House who have made some truly magnificent speeches.

Mr Speaker, may I take you north to the Cromarty Firth, beneath the waters of which lies the wreck of HMS Natal, a heavy cruiser and the pride of the Royal Navy during the first world war? On 30 December 1915, the captain decided that there would be a film show on board, to which were invited mothers and children from the shore. At 25 minutes past 3 o’clock, on that same day, there was a massive explosion that ripped through the cruiser, which sank very, very rapidly. We do not know whether it was a German torpedo. It is probably unlikely. It is more likely that it was what sealed the fate of the HMS Queen Mary, which has already been mentioned in this debate—an explosion of the magazines because the cordite was notoriously unstable. A few months later, the Admiralty published a list of 390 casualties, but no mention was made of the mothers and children who died on HMS Natal. Today, the estimate is between 390 and 421. This incident in my constituency, not far from my home town, underlines to me the absolute horror of the first world war. As time goes on, I hope that we may be able to establish some kind of memorial to the mums and children who died so cruelly and suddenly.

My grandfather’s elder brother, Arthur Stone, joined up in 1914. By 1917, he was oddly enough in a Pals battalion as a major and was awarded the Distinguished Service Order for gallantry. It was a matter of great family pride when he went to collect it from Buckingham Palace with his parents. But I now turn to my grandfather’s youngest brother, Walter Stone, also known as Wally, who was a bit of a tearaway. Before the war, he had fathered a child out of wedlock in Canada—something that did not become evident until quite recently, although my father had long suspected that there had been something like that lurking in the background.

Wally also joined up in 1914, going into the Royal Fusiliers. By 1917, he was a captain. On 30 November 1917 at Bourlon Wood near Cambrai, there was a massive German attack and my great uncle was at the front. As the attack seemed to centre on his position, many soldiers were ordered to retreat, but he opted to stay at the front. He died, it is said, fighting to the last, along with the soldiers who stayed with him. It is a point of family pride that some time afterwards it was announced that he had been awarded a posthumous Victoria Cross. Now, that is family pride and I boast not of it, but I do wonder about the soldiers who stayed with him. Those soldiers did not desert him. They all lost their lives; none of them survived. None of their bodies was ever found, although it is hoped that the Germans buried them. The award that my great uncle received is about all those who stayed at the front. In a way, I think that all honours and medals awarded apply to a much broader spectrum than just to the people who won them.

To return to the present in the short time available, on Sunday I shall lay a wreath in my home town of Tain in the northern highlands. There will be a parade from the Church of Scotland parish church to St Duthus church, where the war memorial is located. I dare say that it will probably be a cold day. For all I know, the wind could be in the north, coming straight from the Arctic, and may be seasoned with a dash of sleet. That is all part of the job of laying a wreath in the highlands. I have done this for many years, and each time I go into the church where the memorial is and read the names on the plaque, it is the nature of the highlands that I recognise so many of the families, who are still living in the area. And that is what I shall think about.

I think about the past, what my great uncles did and what my father told me. He was a man who always wore a poppy. He told me that, when he came down from the highlands to work in London in the 1930s, the whole city would fall silent at the stroke of 11 o’clock—that people would stop in the street for the two minutes’ silence. He told me how extraordinarily moving it was, and that memory stayed with him. I did not know my great uncles, but I knew and loved my father, who fought in the second world war in the 14th Army, and on Sunday I shall think of him. Let me just put it this way: he wore a poppy and so do I, with some pride.