Centenary of the Armistice

Part of Assessment and Treatment Units: Vulnerable People – in the House of Commons at 7:04 pm on 6th November 2018.

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Photo of Kevin Foster Kevin Foster Conservative, Torbay 7:04 pm, 6th November 2018

It is a pleasure to speak in this debate. At the outset, I want to observe how well the debate was started by my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport and, in particular, the shadow Secretary of State, Tom Watson. The tone they set was dignified, moving and absolutely appropriate for this occasion.

On Sunday, we will mark the Armistice and 100 years since the guns fell silent, although it is worth noting, as has been said, that the war did not formally end until the signing of the treaty of Versailles, so we still have all the stories of attacks being launched right up to the final moment that the guns stopped. Generals feared that the war could restart if a treaty could not be negotiated, so they wanted to have the best position possible. That is why we have the tragedies of people being killed a couple of minutes beforehand. When I was out in Belgium earlier this year on Great Pilgrimage 90, I saw that one of the casualties was at 10.58 that morning.

What really brought home to me the enormity of the sacrifice was attending, at the start of the centenary commemorations, one of the “Lights Out” events, held at the local St Marychurch war memorial in Torquay. At the time of the war, St Marychurch was a small, still relatively rural community on the edge of the town. Ninety-four names are on the war memorial. I was 35 then, which made me older than absolutely everyone on it, which I found particularly poignant. These men had been in the queue at the recruiting office, smiling. There are probably still some photos of them leaving some of the local stations, having signed up expecting the war to be over by Christmas, before finding themselves, two years later, on the Somme.

This is about remembering that it was a war on an industrial scale for the first time in human history, with gas, planes, tanks, trench warfare and mass artillery barrages, and lines that stayed still for years. These were all things that had never been seen before. It was also a crossover between two generations of warfare. New technology was coming in, but it was still the age of the horse. In the first part of 1914, the British cavalry was still advancing across France and attack cavalry charges were still being mounted. On Saturday I was in Cockington, where there is a plaque as part of the purple poppy campaign, which reminds us of many of the animals that went away to war with their owners. It was a unique partnership, as they faced the horrors of the battlefield together.

I mentioned that I went out as part of Great Pilgrimage 90 to revisit many of the sites from 90 years before. Old comrades and families went to see where their loved ones were killed. The battlefield from the battle of Loos was particularly remarkable. It was totally flat, easy to look across, and overlooked by a couple of slag heaps that provided superb observation points—the army could be seen forming from miles away. That is where, in about a five-mile stretch, about 20,000 of our soldiers were killed. It was particularly moving when we asked about the attack—it was in September 1915, and it failed. When did the line finally move? In about August or September 1918. For three years, the bodies lay in the field. In a distance not that different from the length of this Chamber, for three years British and German forces looked at each over this field, where so many of their comrades had fallen. This meant that, unsurprisingly, by the time that most of the bodies were recovered, they could no longer be identified.

It is moving to see where the first and last shots were fired and to note how close they are, and then to visit the cemetery where, as has been mentioned, the first and last casualties are buried. Interestingly, the cemetery was first constructed by the Germans in the war, and our troops were treated there in a respectful way. One mistake was made. They called a regiment “royal” when it was not royal. They assumed it was a royal regiment because it was from Middlesex. The plaque is still there. It is a sign that in the middle of that horror respect was still being paid.

Thankfully, Europe today is very different from the Europe of despots and dictators who just over a century ago drove us to war, and today some of our former foes are now friends. It is absolutely right that the German President has been invited to the Cenotaph on Sunday. My grandfather was badly injured in world war two. His mother got the thing that was second only to the telegram saying your loved one had been killed: a rail warrant to go to meet him coming off a hospital ship. He was always very clear that he fought the Germans to get rid of the Nazis. His fight was not with the ordinary German, but with the leadership of Germany, and the only way of removing them was to go to war and remove the evil of national socialism from Europe.

It is right that on Sunday we remember the sacrifice of a century ago and that we never forget, because the first step towards it happening again is forgetting the lessons of how it happened in the first place.