Centenary of the Armistice

Part of Assessment and Treatment Units: Vulnerable People – in the House of Commons at 7:19 pm on 6th November 2018.

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Photo of Stephen Kerr Stephen Kerr Conservative, Stirling 7:19 pm, 6th November 2018

It is a great privilege to follow my friend Jim Shannon and a great honour to participate in this debate and to give thanks for the service and sacrifice of the generation of the great war. I have been thinking a lot in these hours about my grandmother’s brother, Harry Blakemore, who as a boy signed up in August 1916 to the Shropshire Yeomanry—he was from Small Heath in Birmingham—ended up in the Cheshire Regiment and was killed in action on the western front on 28 February 1918.

Like many others in this House, I have the good fortune to be old enough to have actually known men who served on the western front. These old men of my boyhood had already outlived their Biblical apportionment of three score years and 10, and when they said anything about the war it was only to speak of their pals and the horror of it all, with no detail.

As has already been said by an Opposition Member, my constituency of Stirling has a long association with the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, a regiment that gave extraordinary service to this country. Stirling is a remarkable place for another reason: 43 Squadron of the Royal Flying Corps was founded, established and headquartered in Stirling. In fact the Scottish headquarters of the Royal Flying Corps was at the Station Hotel in Stirling. To this day Stirling retains its proud links to the Royal Air Force and honours the successors of those original men in their flying machines.

Of interest in Stirling over the past few years has been the way in which the Stirling Observer has reported the 100th anniversary of the war. Each week it has reproduced reports from the time, bringing to life the way Stirling was during the great war. It has been sobering. The Stirling Observer reports that tourists travelled from all over Scotland to see the new flying machines of the Royal Flying Corps based in Stirling, but it also printed week after week lists of casualties, with pictures of young men in uniform. The newspaper talked about shortages and inconveniences at home, too. This has been a remarkable act of remembrance by the Stirling Observer, and I would like to put on record my thanks to John Rowbotham, its editor, and his team, because they have provided for Stirling a remarkable and telling memorial.

Stirling’s contribution to the war effort was not insubstantial and the number of people listed on each of the war memorials in all the villages of Stirlingshire give some sense of the sacrifice made by families, but there are two individuals I would like to mention today. The first is Lieutenant James Huffam. I recently had the honour of attending a ceremony in Dunblane to honour the 100th anniversary of the actions that led to him receiving the Victoria Cross for bravery. He rushed an enemy machine gun in France, crippling its attack, and under heavy fire he withdrew carrying a wounded comrade. Later on the same day, he led another attack, capturing eight prisoners and allowing the British advance.

I would also like to talk about 772 Private William Ebenezer Monteith, whose daughter, Margaret Davidson, I had the privilege of accompanying to the service of commemoration that we held earlier today in St Margaret’s church. Private Monteith joined the Seaforth Highlanders in 1910 and was a member of the British Expeditionary Force, so he was among the first to be deployed in 1914. They were called a “contemptible little army” by the Kaiser and so proudly called themselves the “old contemptibles.”

Private Monteith was soon captured at the retreat from Mons on 26 August 1914. He spent the rest of the war as a prisoner of war. It was his duty to try to escape, and he escaped from at least two prisoner of war camps, at Westerholt and subsequently at Friedrichsfeld. He was recaptured each time. During his separation from his family, they received a letter, which is reported in the Stirling Observer. He said in the letter that the “food is inadequate” and he concluded it with his favourite battle-cry: “Roll on, Bonnie Scotland”—a battle-cry we can echo to this day.

That story and the many others of this generation tell of service—they put themselves last, putting service to their family, their community and their country first. Those who answered the call and those who were separated from their loved ones all served equally and we will remember them.

Lieutenant Huffam and Private Monteith both came back from the war and went on to live their lives—to marry, to have families of their own and to have careers. They gave us the country that we have today, and in honouring the sacrifice of those with whom they served who did not return, we also honour them. It is our duty and our privilege to honour their memories by seeking to prevent such sacrifices from being necessary at any time in the future, and also to build a country and a world of which they could feel proud. Every day in this place we are reminded of the great titans of Parliament whose statues are all around the building, and I am grateful that on Sunday we will all stand before memorials etched with the names of those who have given us the country that we have today. Such is our heritage, and such is the price of our liberty.