Centenary of the Armistice

Part of Assessment and Treatment Units: Vulnerable People – in the House of Commons at 6:50 pm on 6th November 2018.

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Photo of Brendan O'Hara Brendan O'Hara Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Inclusive Society) 6:50 pm, 6th November 2018

It is an honour to speak in this important debate. I pay tribute to all those speakers who have made such moving contributions today.

Let me start by making a special mention of the contribution made by the officers and men of the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders. The regiment raised a total of 16 battalions and was awarded 68 battle honours in the first world war, including six Victoria Crosses. They came at a terrible price, though, with almost 7,000 Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders losing their lives between 1914 and 1918. Although the regiment recruited throughout west-central Scotland, I wish to single out the 8th Battalion, the Argyllshire, which was stationed in Dunoon and raised no fewer than eight companies from the towns and villages throughout Argyll. Of course, many others from Argyll and Bute joined other regiments or, indeed, other branches of the service. Their contributions are equally valued. As the Member who represents the submarine base at Faslane, I am pleased that the sacrifice made by those in the submarine service has already recognised in the debate.

I have no doubt whatsoever that come Sunday at 11 o’clock, there will not be a town or village in Argyll and Bute that will not stop and remember all those we have lost. As we have heard, every family has their own story to tell, and I wish to share with the House that of my grandfather, John O’Hara, who as a 17-year-old from the Calton district of Glasgow joined the Royal Army Service Corps in the autumn of 1916 and was sent to London to be trained as a transport driver. Having completed his basic training, however, he was spotted, singled out and seconded to the Machine Gun Corps, and then sent to Clipstone camp, near Mansfield, for basic training as a machine gunner.

In the summer of 1917, John O’Hara was sent to France, where he joined No. 13 Machine Gun Company, which was preparing for what would be known as the second battle of Passchendaele, in which he was injured when a bullet entered his shoulder and went through his hand. He was admitted to the military hospital in Flanders before being repatriated back to the UK. Every soldier who was sent back injured was accompanied by what was known as a soldier’s character reference. The report on machine gunner Private John O’Hara described him as being “sober, reliable and intelligent”. I like to think that that was the start of a long family tradition. Back in the UK, he was treated for his injuries at Old Park military hospital before being sent back to France in early 1918 to join the Machine Gun Corps of the 52nd Lowland Division.

For reasons which I have never managed to fathom, when he was back in France, John O’Hara was stationed at the town of Armentières and was part of a group tasked with salvaging sacred relics from the bomb-damaged church of St Vaast in the town. While they were working there, the celebrated Daily Mirror photographer turned official war photographer David McLellan happened by with his camera and took a series of photographs of my grandfather and his comrades at work both inside and outside the church.

The photograph of those otherwise anonymous Tommies, one of them my grandfather, standing to attention on the steps of the church, carrying the rescued wooden statues, has become very well known and, I think, rather poignant. It is one of the great images of the final days of the great war. I refer Members who have not seen the photograph or who do not know the story to the excellent article by Tom Parry in the Daily Mirror just last month, for which he recreated the photograph, with the villagers of Armentières on the steps of the church of St Vaast—on the exact spot—carrying the original statues rescued by my grandfather and his comrades exactly 100 years ago.

Thankfully, and rather obviously, my grandfather survived the last terrible months of the war, but I have always wondered what happened to his four comrades. What fate befell them in those last awful months?

My grandfather was discharged in October 1919, and in the years immediately following, he enrolled at Glasgow University, where he gained a medical degree. He worked as a general practitioner in the east end of Glasgow for many years and was for a while the official doctor to Celtic football club, which brings great pride to the family.

Ours is just one of the millions of stories that families across the UK have. We are in the fortunate position that ours also comes with a remarkable photographic record. So when I lay a wreath at the war memorial in Helensburgh on Sunday to remember all those who gave their lives, I will say thanks for my grandfather’s safe return, but I will spare a thought for his four comrades and hope that they, too, made it back home safely to their loved ones.