War Graves Week

– in the House of Commons at 3:34 pm on 14 May 2024.

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Photo of Grant Shapps Grant Shapps The Secretary of State for Defence 3:34, 14 May 2024

I beg to move,

That this House
has considered War Graves Week.

The Commonwealth War Graves Commission does extraordinary work keeping alive the memories of the 1.7 million men and women who gave their life in the service of our country and the Commonwealth in both world wars. It tends to and maintains graves, memorials and sites at 23,000 locations in 153 countries around the world, from single graves to the largest cemetery at Tyne Cot, near Passchendaele, where almost 12,000 of the fallen from the first world war are buried and remembered. Among the 300,000-plus total casualties of Passchendaele was 20-year-old James Leaning, a private with the Hertfordshire Regiment. He was tragically killed on the first day of the battle, and is buried at the Menin Gate memorial in Ypres, which is lovingly maintained by the commission.

Beyond concerning itself with the neat-cut grass, the flower beds, and the mind-blowing numbers—row upon row—of pristine headstones, and of names on memorial walls, the Commonwealth War Grave Commission does even more extraordinary and priceless work to remind every generation about the service and sacrifice of those who died to forge our freedoms, and about the gargantuan human cost of war. We celebrate the commission’s work during Commonwealth War Grave Week, but I know that Members on both sides of the House will join me in expressing our appreciation for what it does to keep the flame of remembrance burning 365 days a year.

Photo of Theresa May Theresa May Conservative, Maidenhead

It is a great honour to have the Commonwealth War Graves Commission headquartered in my constituency. Given what my right hon. Friend has just said, I am sure that he will join me in thanking not only the staff based in Maidenhead, but those around the world who manage and maintain war graves—often in very difficult circumstances, in countries where other conflicts are taking place—so that the families of those who have fallen know that the sacrifice of their loved one is appropriately recognised.

Photo of Grant Shapps Grant Shapps The Secretary of State for Defence

I very warmly welcome my right hon. Friend’s contribution, and I join her in thanking her constituents at head office in Maidenhead for all the work that they do—often, as she rightly says, in incredibly difficult and sometimes conflict-live locations around the world.

I am sure that Members will join me in thanking my right hon. Friend Philip Dunne and Dame Diana Johnson for their work as serving commissioners. I take my role as chair of the commissioners, and the Ministry of Defence’s long running relationship with the commission, extremely seriously. The Government provide nearly 80% of the commission’s budget—around £55 million each year—and the other member Governments of Australia, Canada, India, New Zealand and South Africa together provide the remaining 20%, in direct correlation to the numbers of each nationality commemorated.

An important part of the commission’s work is to continue the search to identify all those who gave their life but have yet to be commemorated, and to tell the stories behind the names carved on headstones and memorials.

Photo of Christine Jardine Christine Jardine Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Scotland), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Women and Equalities), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Cabinet Office)

On the point about updating graves, over the Easter recess, I met people from the Spitfire AA810 project, which aims to improve our understanding of the work undertaken by pilots in the photographic reconnaissance unit. One of the project’s major tasks is learning who was part of the unit, as there is no complete listing of those who served in Royal Air Force photo reconnaissance during world war two. It has identified around 420 British casualties among those who served, as well as pilots from across the Commonwealth. Does the Minister agree that we should ensure that war graves and other memorials—perhaps one to those Spitfire pilots—are updated and expanded as we find out more?

Photo of Grant Shapps Grant Shapps The Secretary of State for Defence

The hon. Lady is absolutely right. A feature of the fog of war, but also of record-keeping at the time and in the many years that have passed since, is that it is sometimes difficult to piece things back together. We in this House all appreciate the efforts of the commission and the importance of ensuring that we recognise every single name whenever new information comes to light.

The commission is playing a central role in the Government’s D-day 80 commemorations, including by bringing the generations together through its Legacy of Liberation torch relay. That torch was passed on by the Prime Minister earlier today at Horse Guards. I was there, and was delighted to host that relay, which will end with young people passing the flame to veterans at the commission’s Bayeux cemetery on D-day.

The commission’s war cemetery sites include one in Gaza, an active war location. This point has been discussed before, and I am pleased to be able to share with the House some news that has emerged, despite the very dire humanitarian situation on the ground. I was recently asked to help with the safe passage of Commonwealth War Graves Commission staff out of Gaza, and I am heartened to confirm that just last week, five of the commission’s six staff who wanted to leave made it safely to Egypt, along with their immediate families, where they will join the commission’s in-country staff until it is safe for them to return.

Like any large organisation in inflationary times, the commission faces and has faced significant budgetary challenges, as well as costs associated with its ageing sites, many of which were not built with any kind of longevity in mind. It has also had to adapt its sites to the impact of changing weather and climates. In recent years, the Ministry of Defence has worked closely with the commission to develop a new strategy to help tackle those challenges sufficiently, which includes working to make sure that the commission remains both relevant and affordable in the years ahead. As a consequence of that work, the commission put forward a bid to its member Governments for a temporary uplift in funding over three years. I am pleased to tell the House that I approved that bid earlier this year, in order to ensure that the commission can overcome the challenges it faces and continue to preserve its sites, which are such a tangible and important touchstone for our nation’s history, and such an important part of the story of our national life. I was pleased to be able to provide an uplift of £2.6 million a year over the next three years, and I am also pleased to report that the sum was matched in the normal proportions by our partner Governments.

Without the extraordinary work of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, memories of all the sacrifices made—all the work, effort, blood and toil, without which the freedoms that we have today would not exist—might start to fade. This morning, I met a 99-year-old gentleman who fought in the second world war. Although he was still quite sharp, his frailty reminded me of how easily those memories could slip from the public’s consciousness. Stories of the service and sacrifice of many from all parts of the United Kingdom and all over the Commonwealth will later simply not be able to be told first hand in the way that he told me this morning about his experience during the war. Vital lessons about the fragility of freedom and democracy and the need to cherish and nurture them, to stand up for them, and for allies to sometimes come together and fight and die for them, might also fade.

History has so much to teach us, but only if we can access it. Stories of service and sacrifice—such as that of 20-year-old James Leaning, the private from my home county of Hertfordshire, whom I described at the beginning of my comments—have so many lessons for future generations, but only if we preserve and cherish them, and pass them on. That is why we must always support the Commonwealth War Graves Commission and the extraordinary work that it does.

Photo of Luke Pollard Luke Pollard Shadow Minister (Defence) 3:43, 14 May 2024

It is a privilege to speak in this debate, particularly as we approach the 80th anniversary of D-day in June and the Commonwealth War Graves Commission’s Legacy of Liberation campaign. I look forward to contributions from Members on all sides of the House in this debate. During War Graves Week, as always, we remember those who made the ultimate sacrifice to protect others and the freedoms that we enjoy today. It is our duty to tell their stories and to honour their service.

I begin by echoing and joining the Defence Secretary in paying tribute to the work of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission and its staff not only in the UK, but around the world. Our war graves and memorials must be properly protected, cared for and respected. For over a century, the commission has done so much at home and abroad to honour the men and women of the UK and the Commonwealth who lost their lives in the two world wars. Thanks to the commission’s work, sites of remembrance for 1.7 million individuals are properly cared for. It is the custodian of our shared global history as well as of our local history.

I would like to pay tribute to Philip Dunne and my right hon. Friend Dame Diana Johnson for their work as commissioners, representing Parliament on the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. I think their work reminds us of the genuine cross-party support that the commission enjoys and will continue to enjoy.

In my home city of Plymouth, our shared history is told by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission at a number of cemeteries, including Weston Mill, Efford, Ford Park and the Plymouth naval memorial on Plymouth Hoe. That naval memorial, where I know a number of Members from both sides have attended services, remembers all those lost at sea. This year, we remember the 70th anniversary of the unveiling by Princess Margaret of the extension for those we lost in world war two. I pay tribute to the staff of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission who keep that memorial, and all memorials at home and abroad, in such a proud and decent condition. Each name on the war memorial was a person with a family, hopes and dreams, who made the ultimate sacrifice for our nation.

One particular cemetery that sticks in my mind is not run by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. It is a war grave in Wantage gardens on North Road West in Plymouth, which has the headstones of child sailors to tell their story. It is called the No Place memorial, and it is a memorial for Plymouth’s fallen heroes. It is a small graveyard, and many of those it remembers were 15, 16 or 17 when they died. One of them, Edward Pike, was just 15 when he died on 16 November 1894 on HMS Lion. Through that memorial, we keep the flame of their memory alive, and what strikes me most about that memorial is their ranks. All the ranks of those who died are on the memorial, and Edward’s rank was “Boy”. Telling his story and telling the story of all the other people alongside him in that cemetery is a way of not only remembering that sacrifice, but keeping that flame alive, as well as the reasons that he and others went to sea.

As someone who represents a naval city, I had the privilege of attending the National Memorial Arboretum in Staffordshire for the unveiling of the submariner memorial in 2022. Almost 6,000 submariners have lost their lives in the 120 years since the submarine service was formed, and as the son of a submariner, this is particularly close to my heart. I thank the staff of the National Memorial Arboretum for all they do. They welcome 300,000 visitors a year to their 400 memorials, including over 20,000 young people. Just as we on both sides encourage Members to join the armed forces parliamentary scheme, may I encourage them to go to the National Memorial Arboretum? It is a profoundly moving place to remember people who have given the ultimate sacrifice.

Photo of James Gray James Gray Chair, Environmental Audit Sub-Committee on Polar Research, Chair, Environmental Audit Sub-Committee on Polar Research

I am glad the hon. Member is so proud of the National Arboretum Memorial at Alrewas. He may not know—the House may not know—that Mr Speaker is currently considering the possibility of having a parliamentary memorial there. I have been on the committee considering it, and we are very nearly at the stage of recommending one particular stone to the Speaker. I hope that Members will very soon be able to go to the National Arboretum Memorial and see a memorial to parliamentarians who gave their lives.

Photo of Luke Pollard Luke Pollard Shadow Minister (Defence)

I thank the hon. Member for that intervention, and I think that telling our story, and telling the story of all those who served and gave their lives for the freedoms we enjoy, is time well spent. For anyone who has not been to the National Memorial Arboretum, it is a visit worth paying to hear the stories and to see the way in which different units from different parts of our armed forces remember those who fell in different ways. It really is a very special place.

It is vital that we support the efforts of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission to reach out to communities, particularly to engage with younger generations to pass on our history as the world wars recede further into the past. We commend the commission for making education and outreach a key priority in its latest—very good—strategy. I am reminded of the fantastic interactive events organised for young people in Plymouth for the 80th anniversary of the Blitz, as well as tours and talks across the country during this War Graves Week. I also encourage Members to share the library of free learning resources on the commission website, including guides on how to research relatives and other Commonwealth casualties. Looking forward to the future, I welcome the commission’s strategy towards 2039, not least for the serious thought that has been given to how to engage young people with new technology in a digital age.

As we mark War Graves Week, we must recognise and honour fully the regiments and the troops drawn from across the Commonwealth, from Africa, Asia and the Caribbean, and remember the great contributions and sacrifice from so many of them that helped forge modern Britain and the freedoms we enjoy today. As the Commonwealth War Graves Commission found in its 2021 report on the historical inequalities in commemoration, an estimated 45,000 to 54,000 casualties, predominantly Indian, east and west African, Egyptian and Somali personnel, are or were commemorated unequally. I want to praise the work of our shadow Foreign Secretary my right hon. Friend Mr Lammy who spoke out about this in his documentary “The Unremembered” in 2019 to make the case that everyone who served in our military, regardless of background and where they came from, should be remembered for the sacrifice they made.

Finally, I make one further point. The Commonwealth War Graves Commission does superb work and remembers people whose graves are on land but its remit does not extend to those who died at sea. As Devonport’s MP and coming from a naval family, I want to place it on record that those who died at sea and have no resting place other than the ocean should also be remembered in War Graves Week.

In 2018 I raised concerns about the second world war wrecks in the east Java sea, in particular HMS Exeter, a Devonport-based world war two heavy cruiser that had been looted and scavenged. As a war grave, HMS Exeter —and indeed HMS Prince of Wales, HMS Electra, HMS Encounter, and Australian and Dutch ships that went down in the battle with the Japanese navy there —should be a final place of rest, but those ships have been scavenged and in the case of HMS Exeter almost completely removed from the seabed.

Photo of James Gray James Gray Chair, Environmental Audit Sub-Committee on Polar Research, Chair, Environmental Audit Sub-Committee on Polar Research

The hon. Gentleman makes an extremely important point about these ships that went down just off Indonesia; some 4,800 people died on board and they are not commemorated at the site of their death at all—they are the only service people who are not. The same incidentally applies to those who died in Dogger Bank, where minerals are now being lifted out, greatly risking interfering with the people who terribly sadly died there. There is an argument for the Commonwealth War Graves Commission to at least consider looking again at war graves at sea.

Photo of Luke Pollard Luke Pollard Shadow Minister (Defence)

I am grateful for that intervention and the way in which the hon. Gentleman remembers those who died in the Dogger Bank.

In 2008 HMS Kent placed a memorial next to where HMS Exeter went down. There are ways of remembering those who died at sea as well as protecting wrecks. We could look at how our allies, the United States of America, Australia and the Netherlands for example, do things slightly differently. But we should be making the case that the stories of all should be told regardless of whether they died on land or at sea and that there is a place for that. We are seeing that in the debates around war graves; it is a really important aspect of this that we remember these people, and the war memorial I spoke about on Plymouth Hoe remembers those who died at sea as well as on land. It is important we remember all of them.

Photo of Matthew Offord Matthew Offord Conservative, Hendon

On that point, the House is aware of my interest in marine archaeology. I have asked Ministers this question repeatedly, and I think they are correct in saying that the Protection of Military Remains Act 1986 and the Protection of Wrecks Act 1973 afford protection to those lost at sea.

Photo of Luke Pollard Luke Pollard Shadow Minister (Defence)

I am grateful for that intervention. I am not certain that this is the precise moment when I should be going into the finer details of wreck protection and the debate around that, but certainly in War Graves Week we need to be telling the stories of all who served and all who died, and that is an important part of what the Commonwealth War Graves Commission and other groups are doing. It is worth placing on record our recognition of that work in this debate.

Today and always we remember those who made the ultimate sacrifice to protect others. Service in our armed forces is the ultimate public service. The Commonwealth War Graves Commission helps strengthen the bond between those who serve and the country they serve to protect. Labour is fully committed to building on this if given the opportunity of being in government later this year.

Photo of Philip Dunne Philip Dunne Chair, Environmental Audit Committee, Chair, Environmental Audit Committee 3:54, 14 May 2024

It is a great honour to take part in this debate. I am pleased to follow Luke Pollard, and I welcome his support for the work of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission and the remarks that he made. I also thank my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State—the chairman of the commission—and congratulate him on wearing the newly designed corporate tie. I particularly thank him, the Leader of the House and the Chief Whip for providing Government time for this debate on such an important topic.

I am also deeply honoured to be one of the two serving parliamentary commissioners of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, and I look forward to the comments from my other commissioner, Dame Diana Johnson, shortly. Having parliamentary representation on the commission marks a tradition going back to the origins of the commission, more than 100 years ago.

Our debate comes in the midst of War Graves Week but is also a timely reflection of the events in June to commemorate the liberation of Europe with the 80th anniversary of the D-day landings. Many of our constituents and many in this House will have had forebears, including parents, who served during world war two. Last autumn, I visited Salerno in Italy, where Commonwealth and American forces landed to form a beachhead on the European mainland in late 1943. More than 1,800 servicemen are commemorated there. It was a particularly poignant trip for me, since my grandfather won his military cross there with the Commandos, and my father-in-law wrote an account of the landing for the liberation of Italy. Reverting to the Normandy landings, my wife’s cousin led the Special Service Brigade, which took the Pegasus Bridge, accompanied by his brigade piper. More locally, one of my predecessors as MP for Ludlow, Lieutenant-Colonel Uvedale Corbett, won the distinguished service order for his actions during the Normandy landings and breakout.

All of us will have connections to those who served during the second world war, so the work of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission should be important to us all. The commission cares for some 23,000 war memorials and cemeteries across 153 countries and territories around the globe, helping us all to honour and commemorate the 1.7 million Commonwealth servicemen and women who lost their life through war. Few experiences are more moving or evocative than visiting any of our battlefield cemeteries and seeing the ranks of the iconic headstones that mark the graves of the fallen, so magnificently maintained by the dedicated commission staff. In reality, the work of the commission spans much more than even that.

Along with the wide range of the commission’s historic preservation of world-class monuments and millions of headstones, it also has world-class expertise in horticulture and the research and record management that goes into sustaining our database of millions of casualties. Another of its most moving and impressive roles is in the continuing recovery, forensic identification and respectful reburial of the remains of the fallen, where possible with military honours. That still goes on, month in, month out. During War Graves Week, we can all take time—I urge colleagues across the House to do so—to visit sites in each of our constituencies.

Photo of Jonathan Edwards Jonathan Edwards Independent, Carmarthen East and Dinefwr

Yesterday I visited Llandingat cemetery at the church in Llandovery, where there are several Commonwealth graves. I worked with Ryan Jones, who is a volunteer with the commission. Will the right hon. Gentleman pay tribute to the volunteers for their work in places such as Carmarthenshire looking after these graves?

Photo of Philip Dunne Philip Dunne Chair, Environmental Audit Committee, Chair, Environmental Audit Committee

I am delighted to, and the hon. Gentleman pre-empts one of the comments I will make. He is absolutely right, and the volunteering element to preserving the quality of the headstones is a relatively recent phenomenon. I am sure we will touch on that in a few moments. There is plenty of scope to add more volunteers. Indeed, many Members might want to consider volunteering to maintain gravestones in their own constituencies.

In south Shropshire, more than 200 casualties from world war one and world war two are buried at 74 locations across the Ludlow constituency, with more than 30 commemorated at Bridgnorth cemetery, the largest site in the constituency. Like the hon. Member, I paid my respects at one of those sites last Saturday, in the deconsecrated churchyard of St Leonards in Ludlow, where volunteers help keep the war graves in as reasonable order as possible in a churchyard that is no longer active. War Graves Week, inaugurated only in 2021, stands as a good opportunity to highlight all the work that the Commonwealth War Graves Commission does around the world, none of which would be possible without both our generous member nation funders and, of course, our amazing staff and volunteers.

With my wider interest in the environment, I would like to touch briefly on the commission’s work from a sustainability and horticultural perspective. There can be few organisations in the world with a responsibility for sustaining the environment with such a diverse global footprint, managing sites in all climates, at various elevations, and with one of the widest ranges of flora and fauna. Horticulturalists working for the commission care for many native plant species in our sites across the world. While that means that the commission is a curator with exceptional knowledge about those plants, we are also very much challenged by global climate change. The commission has committed to achieve net zero by 2050 and is utilising new approaches to horticulture and memorial maintenance to reflect the changing climate while reducing the use of pesticides and herbicides as well as fossil fuels.

I place on record my thanks as a member of the commission’s audit committee to my right hon. Friend the Defence Secretary. As he mentioned in his opening speech, as chairman of the Commission he showed real leadership earlier this year in securing a three-year funding settlement from donor nations, led by the Ministry of Defence. We are extremely grateful to him for that, not least because that provides certainty of funding to continue the commission’s fine work through the inevitable uncertainty of a general election and a potential spending review.

Of course, the Commonwealth War Graves Commission’s work is not immune from the impact of war today. Sadly, many of the places in which the commission looks after war memorials and cemeteries suffer from the instability and repercussions of conflict. Our sites in Gaza have been no exception. I join the Defence Secretary in paying tribute to the work of many people both here in the UK and in our high commissions in the region in helping to ensure the safe evacuation of our staff and their families. Unfortunately, our restoration work on site will have to wait while access remains impossible due to the war.

We face similar challenges in securing safe access to our cemeteries in some other places, currently including Iraq, Iran, Yemen and Sudan, but our commitment to those sites is undiminished. I know that we will return to carry out our important work as soon as conditions allow.

In three weeks, we will be marking the 80th anniversary of the D-day landings. This is an important opportunity to remember the contribution of UK and Commonwealth soldiers in the liberation of Europe from the Nazis and to encourage the next generation to take up responsibility for remembrance. Since this may well be the last significant milestone commemoration of the D-day landings attended by veterans of the campaign, it is a particularly poignant commemoration. It also highlights just how important it is that younger generations take up the mantle of remembrance. The commission has therefore placed a great emphasis on involving schoolchildren in the major programme of events in both the UK and France on 5 and 6 June involving veterans, serving personnel and children. Normandy, where the commission maintains 116 cemeteries and memorials that mark the graves of 25,000 fallen service personnel, will of course be the centre point of the commemorations.

The commission, recognising the need to maintain our relevance to future generations, has spent much of the last year looking further ahead at developing its strategy towards 2039, as both opening speeches referred to. That sets a clear path to the 100th anniversary of world war two, increasing our collaboration with parallel organisations in other countries both to foster reconciliation between former adversaries and to inform younger generations about the human cost of war. That is all the more poignant and relevant given that the first state-on-state war at scale since 1945 is going on in Europe right now.

As we move beyond lifetime memory of the world wars, the environment in which the commission does its work is changing. Younger generations are not as directly or personally connected as older generations to world war one and world war two. Clearly, that represents a challenge, but it is also the true test of our commitment to honour the fallen—one that I hope future generations will meet, just as previous generations have.

I thank all Members here today for their support for War Graves Week and for the important work that the Commonwealth War Graves Commission undertakes around the world. The serried ranks of gravestones, so well maintained by the commission, leave a clear impression on all who see them of the sacrifice of the fallen around the world. They serve as a reminder to us all of the immense human cost of war, and that the legacy of those who gave their lives depends on facing down the resurgent threats to global stability that we face today.

Photo of Allan Dorans Allan Dorans Scottish National Party, Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock 4:05, 14 May 2024

It is always a pleasure to follow Philip Dunne. The Scottish National party proudly supports the valuable work of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission in its efforts to ensure that those who died in service as a result of conflict are commemorated. It is vital that we preserve the memories of the members of our armed services and those of Commonwealth countries who answered the call to serve in numerous conflicts across the globe, and who paid the ultimate sacrifice. Like other Members, I pay tribute to the fantastic work of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, which maintains, manages and preserves war graves in more than 23,000 locations in 150 countries, and more than 1.1 million headstones across the world.

The War Graves Commission offers a wonderfully unique service to enable people to identify family members who have been killed in conflicts, and to locate their last resting place, memorial or headstone. I have benefited from that by being able to identify my great uncle, Corporal William Dorans, who in 1914 was an Army reservist and was called to the colours on the outbreak of war, and served in the 1st Battalion, Royal Scots Fusiliers. It was one of the first British battalions to be deployed in Belgium to stop the German advance into that country. It was immediately posted to the frontline, on the Ypres salient, and took part in the first battle of Ypres against the German army, involving both offensive and defensive actions, including bombardments and brutal hand-to-hand fighting, which resulted in thousands of casualties on both sides.

On 13 November 1914, Corporal Dorans was sadly officially reported missing in action and believed dead. His body was never recovered from the quagmire that was the battlefield. He is commemorated with honour at the Ypres Menin Gate memorial, along with more than 54,580 other servicemen from the United Kingdom and other Commonwealth countries killed in that area who have no known graves. I visited Menin Gate a few years ago to pay my respects to my great uncle and all other members of the armed forces who gave their lives for their country. I was moved by the tribute that takes place under the Menin Gate arches at 8 o’clock every night, by the buglers of the Last Post Association, who sound the “Last Post” as a unique homage to all those who lost their lives. That tradition has taken place continuously since 1928, on more than 33,000 occasions.

I also took the opportunity to visit Tyne Cot cemetery, which has almost 12,000 graves of British and Commonwealth soldiers and a number of smaller grave sites, which are immaculately maintained and presented by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. The enormity of the scale and numbers of those killed can only be appreciated by a visit to these graveyards. It is a very emotional experience.

Closer to home, I commend and bring to the attention of the House the work of the Girvan and District Great War Project. It was established in 2013 by a couple, Lorna and Ritchie Conaghan, both unpaid volunteers, initially to research and identify local men who left the area to go to war and never returned. Through their tremendous efforts researching, identifying and recording at least 450 local men, wherever possible they have produced individual service records for each of the men, which are available to their families as a tribute to their service and sacrifice. They included a number who had not previously been commemorated on local war memorials, including the local men who had lost their lives in the armed forces while serving in the armies of Commonwealth countries, including Australia and Canada. It is absolutely fabulous, and it has also initiated numerous other local projects, including the erection of memorial benches, exhibitions of wartime uniforms and weapons, and a memorial wildflower garden. It involves local children in various projects, including the production of brightly painted poppy stones placed on the graves of those who died in wars to enable easy identification by people walking through the cemetery—what a fabulous idea. In addition, it works to keep alive the memory of non-Commonwealth personnel and those killed during times of war with a connection to Girvan. I will give just one example, although there are several.

On 4 November 1917, a French merchant ship, the SS Longwy, was torpedoed 20 miles off the coast of Girvan, in my constituency, with the loss of 31 lives. Three of the bodies washed up ashore along the coastline near Girvan and were then buried in the town’s Doune cemetery. The other 28 French sailors remain in their underwater tomb without commemoration, other than the three simple crosses marking the graves of the men who were washed ashore. There is, as yet, no memorial to the remainder of the crew, either in France or here in Scotland. I am pleased to say that following significant fundraising activities both in Scotland and in France, £12,000 has been raised to erect a permanent memorial overlooking the sea in memory of all 31 sailors who were killed. Work starts on the creation of a memorial this week, which will be completed by October this year.

One group of people who died during the world wars and are often overlooked are those who served in the merchant navy. In August last year, I was privileged to attend a ceremony in Girvan to unveil a new memorial to commemorate merchant seamen born locally who died at sea while serving their country. New memorials such as this also commemorate all those who died at sea with no known grave and remind us of the vital contribution of the merchant navy in times of conflict.

The best way we can preserve the legacy of war graves, keeping the memorials relevant and meaningful for future generations, and commemorating the sacrifice made by so many, is without doubt through education. Just a month ago, Claire Horton CBE, director general of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, said:

“We are at an undeniable turning point for the legacy of commemoration. This year’s landmark anniversary may be the final major commemoration attended by veterans of D-Day, and as such represents a unique opportunity to pass on the torch of commemoration from the generation who fought in the two World Wars and ensure commemoration of their legacy endures for generations to come. As we look to the future, better education must play a vital role in ensuring that the lessons of the First and Second World War are remembered, and that the importance of commemoration is understood by everyone, whether they have a direct and personal connection to the World Wars or not. Our mission is for the legacy of those who died fighting for our freedoms to inspire a world free from conflict.”

I could not agree more. Education is the key, and the importance of every generation knowing the cost of war in lives lost is central.

Finally, to raise awareness and help with the preservation of memories in out-of-the-way parts of towns and villages, and to put them fully into the public arena where all, especially our children, can see and feel them, we might every year project names on to the walls of public buildings to great effect, as happened on the walls of the Scottish Parliament in May 2020. That could be done relatively easily and replicated across the country, similar to the poppies displayed on the Elizabeth Tower during Remembrance Day last year.

The Commonwealth War Graves Commission is a wonderful organisation fully deserving of continued financial support from the Government and the support of the public through donations to enable it to keep alive the memory of the sacrifice of the millions of men and women who laid down their lives for their country. We must also continue the commemoration of Remembrance Sunday, and wear our poppies with pride in November every year to remember those who have gone before us and did not return home. The best and most effective way of ensuring that these memories are not lost is to educate, which needs to be done in a manner that is accessible and relevant to children so that they can recognise the sacrifice made by so many to enable us to enjoy the precious freedoms that we have today.

Let me end by quoting two lines of a poem with which all Members will be familiar:

“At the going down of the sun and in the morning

We will remember them.”

Photo of Jeremy Quin Jeremy Quin Chair, Defence Committee, Chair, Defence Committee 4:15, 14 May 2024

I am grateful for the opportunity not only to hear the erudite words of my right hon. Friend Philip Dunne, but to thank him and the other members of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission for all their work. I look forward to hearing from Dame Diana Johnson very shortly. It is also a pleasure to follow Allan Dorans, who spoke so movingly about his great-uncle, Corporal Dorans. I am glad that he mentioned the daily commemoration at the Menin Gate. It barely let up until the second world war and resumed as soon as the opportunity was available, and it is wonderful that it continues to this day.

As the hon. Gentleman said—and, indeed, as was said by Luke Pollard—this is an issue on which the whole House will stand united, and it is sobering to think that previous generations stood here united in grief. We are surrounded by the commemorations of Members who fell in the wars, and elsewhere in this place are commemorated the sons and daughters of Members—including the sons of the then Prime Minister, Herbert Asquith, and the then leader of the Labour party, Arthur Henderson, who were killed on the same day in the battle of Loos in 1915.

The scale of the loss in this country and across what was then the empire required a response like no other. It was the hardest of all tasks. How could anyone rise to the challenge of fittingly remembering so many, with different faiths and different traditions, and from so many corners of the earth? The extraordinary legacy of those—including Lutyens, Kenyon, Ware, Baker and Kipling—who applied themselves to that vital work, most of them carrying their own personal grief, lives on. No commemoration could ever be equal to that conflict or those that followed, but it did its best, on behalf of this nation, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, India and the whole Commonwealth, to remember the sacrifice of all and the sacrifice of every individual, embracing the principle of equality of commemoration. It is vital for us to embrace that principle, novel in its day, at every opportunity in remembering everyone who fell in common cause. In doing so, we must recognise as inexcusable—as did the former Defence Secretary, my right hon. Friend Mr Wallace— those occasions when in the past we fell short of that absolute principle.

The engraving that was ultimately not adopted but was initially intended to be inscribed around the Stone of Remembrance was taken from Ecclesiastes:

“Their bodies are buried in peace;
but their name liveth for evermore.”

For the fact that where known graves exist, the bodies of those brave men and women do lie in peace and their names, whether commemorated on a memorial or on a gravestone, will be remembered for evermore, we owe an enormous debt to the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. As was suggested by my right hon. Friend Mrs May, if we in this House could possibly thank every one of its 1,300 employees in each of the 200 languages that they speak between them, we would feel honoured to do so. For the work that they do to fulfil our sacred obligation—not least, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Ludlow mentioned, their work in continuing to uncover remains and bury them with due honour—they have our gratitude and respect.

During my research for this speech, I found it sobering to try to find the number of graves and, of course, to be reminded that that number grows year upon year. Every one of us, I am sure, will have stood before the Comme memorial with its 72,000 names, visited Tyne Cot with its 12,000 graves, and, sometimes even more poignantly, visited the quiet and small cemeteries scattered across Flanders fields. What makes them so poignant is the sheer scale of collective loss, with each individual headstone or name commemorating a person who loved and was loved. They are remembered by their loved ones in the briefest but most profound of epitaphs. How fitting it is that over 100 years since the war to end all wars, schoolchildren from our constituencies make annual pilgrimages to recognise and remember. It is moving indeed to see young people—barely younger than those who fell, and showing the same exuberance and love of life that those who died would once have claimed—falling silent as they recognise the enormity of just one cemetery, which is only one of the 23,000 cemeteries and memorials looked after by the CWGC.

Of course, the commission’s direct duties, or duties working for the MOD, stretch far beyond the western front. I have been immensely moved by the beautifully kept calmness of the cemetery in Singapore, the rising heat of dawn in the commission’s cemetery in New Delhi as we collectively commemorated Anzac Day, and the knowledge that in the blustery South Atlantic, the Falkland Islanders will, with love, protect and commemorate those buried above San Carlos Water, who gave everything for their liberation.

Nor do the responsibilities of the CWGC end with cemeteries. There are many individual graves in British churchyards where the fallen are remembered closer to home. The same is true of the solitary grave of Ronald Maxwell of the Hong Kong Volunteer Defence Corps, who was buried where he fell on 23 December 1941, aged 22, beside St John’s Cathedral in Hong Kong.

I was pleased to hear the words of the Secretary of State about his personal commitment to the three-year uplift in funding. The commission needs that assurance to ensure that remembrance is a living legacy for our nation, and I welcome it.

We are approaching the 80th anniversary of D-day—a date of specific significance for the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, which refers to it as the Legacy of Liberation 80. The commission is right to say that the 80th anniversary commemorations may mark a tipping point between first-hand memory and national memory, and that the role of education will be ever more important in the years to come. I would therefore like my last words in this debate to be not my own, but those of Robert Piper, late of the Royal Sussex Regiment and the Royal Signals. He is a 99-year-old Normandy veteran who joined up at the age of 15, and I am proud to have him as a constituent. He retains an excellent sense of humour. When advised by his doctor that he had bad news and that Robert had cancer, his response was to say, “I went to Normandy. What do you mean, bad news? Every day is a bonus.” Robert once said in our excellent local magazine, All About Horsham:

“I have returned to Europe and stood in the middle of cemeteries filled with hundreds of soldiers, and I ask myself the question—why them, not us?”

That is a question to which these cemeteries should always give rise, because it reminds us of our obligation to remember, to be thankful, and to try to be worthy of the sacrifices made.

Photo of Diana R. Johnson Diana R. Johnson Chair, Home Affairs Committee, Chair, Home Affairs Committee 4:23, 14 May 2024

I pay tribute to the Chair of the Defence Committee, Sir Jeremy Quin, for the speech that he has just made. I agree with every word he said, and I thought he put it incredibly eloquently. I thank the Government for finding time for this debate, and I thank the Defence Secretary, who is obviously a very busy man, for opening the debate this afternoon.

I have the enormous privilege of representing Parliament on the commission, along with Philip Dunne, whom I commend him for his excellent speech. I note that earlier we had in the Chamber one of the previous representatives on the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, my right hon. Friend Mr Jones, although he is not in his place at the moment. I know that he was incredibly well respected and still plays an important role on the Commonwealth War Graves Foundation, which is the charitable arm of the commission.

I am very keen to talk about the outstanding work that the commission does and the dedicated people around the world who work, on our behalf, on commemoration every day. As we know, this debate is all the more timely as we approach the 80th anniversary of the D-day landings, and with the commission’s Legacy of Liberation 80 campaign. We have already heard that the commission was established by royal charter in 1917. It is a global organisation caring for war graves and memorials at 23,000 locations in 153 countries and territories, including some of the most war-torn areas of the world—Gaza at the moment, unfortunately, as well as Libya, Somalia and many other places.

The Defence Secretary is the chair of the commission, and among the other commissioners are the high commissioners from Canada, Australia, India, New Zealand and South Africa. They all help to oversee and, importantly, fund the organisation, and I think everyone is grateful for the funding settlement agreed in recent months by all the member Governments. I would also like to pay tribute to our current vice-chair, Peter Hudson, to the director general, Claire Horton, and to the president of the commission, Her Royal Highness the Princess Royal.

The commission commemorates almost 1.7 million individuals, ensuring that Commonwealth men and women who died during the two world wars are commemorated in a manner befitting all that they gave to secure our freedom and our very survival. Of course, this history is personal to all of us who had family serving in these campaigns. I think back to my dad, Eric Johnson, who served in world war two in the Royal Navy on HMS Begum; my father-in-law, Victor Morton, who served on HMS Ramillies as it shelled enemy positions at 5.30 am on D-day to help make the landings possible; my mother, Ruth Johnson, who worked in a munitions factory in Cheshire; and my mother-in-law, Joyce Morton, who served in the WAAF at Bentley Priory in Stanmore—or, as it was better known at that time, Fighter Command. Thankfully, they all survived the second world war, but so many did not, and that is why it is so important for their families that we commemorate all those who lost their lives.

I represent a Hull constituency in East Yorkshire, an area that historically has made a great contribution to our armed forces, as I am reminded every time I walk along those ranks of Portland stone graves and see so many from the Yorkshire regiments. Of course, Hull’s civilian population was also on the frontline in the total war of world war two. Commemoration is important to me, to my constituents and, of course, to the nation. When I visited the Runnymede Air Forces Memorial, I was really moved to see the name of Hull’s own Amy Johnson. First Officer Amy Johnson was, as we all know, the first woman pilot to fly alone from Britain to Australia. She went missing in 1941 when flying on a mission over the Thames estuary for the Air Transport Auxiliary. Her body was never found, but her name is on that memorial at Runnymede.

I have been to many of the sites around the UK and Europe over the years, but I want to say a few words about a visit that I paid just last week while on a trip to Singapore with the Home Affairs Committee. In the heat of the afternoon, along with other MPs on the delegation I visited the Kranji war cemetery, where the commission’s regional manager, Dennis Shim, and his team do exemplary work. We laid a wreath and remembered the fallen. I want to pay tribute to Dennis and his team because during covid there were very strict regulations about access to the cemetery and it was unfortunately in quite a state when the gardeners were allowed back in to do their work. I have to say that it looked absolutely wonderful last week. It was a real tribute to the hard work of the gardeners and the commission.

We know that 4,461 Commonwealth casualties of the second world war are buried at Kranji, plus some from world war one, and the Singapore memorial at the site bears the names of 24,000 Commonwealth casualties who have no known grave. This of course includes a number of the prisoners of war involved in the construction of the notorious Burma-Thailand railway, known as the death railway. While our attention will be on Normandy this June, those who were involved in the far east campaign should of course be in our thoughts too. Kranji is just one example of the work of the commission, which has a global estate run by a multinational and multilingual workforce of about 1,300, the vast majority of whom are gardeners and stonemasons. They are incredibly skilled men and women. The gardeners I met in Kranji last week came from India and Bangladesh.

Since the commission’s establishment, we have constructed 2,500 war cemeteries and plots, erected headstones over graves and, where the remains are missing, inscribed the names of the dead on permanent memorials. More than 1 million burials are now commemorated at military and civil sites around the world, from Canada, Belgium and France to Ukraine, Georgia and Papua New Guinea. The workforce looks after these sites with dedication, and it is therefore only fitting that we look after the workforce with similar care. I was very relieved to hear of the safe evacuation to Egypt of the team working in Gaza, for which I again thank the Defence Secretary. Of course, many other commission sites face dangers from current conflicts around the world, and we need to have the commission’s staff in our mind and prayers.

The commission’s work has developed in recent years, as we focus on amending records, searching for missing names, building new memorials and addressing historical inequalities and injustices in commemoration. Like my hon. Friend Luke Pollard, I pay tribute to the work of my right hon. Friend Mr Lammy and Professor Michèle Barrett, who brought the commission’s attention to some of the ways in which we have not commemorated as we should have done. A key principle, as the Chair of the Defence Committee said, is that all who fell must be remembered equally.

When we ask the public about the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, they will of course talk about the cemeteries in northern France, Belgium or Italy, but we have an important job to do of commemorating those who fought but have not yet been properly acknowledged. As part of our non-commemorations work, we have, for example, recently begun construction of a memorial in Cape Town to honour some 1,700 black South Africans who fell while serving in Africa in world war one, and who have until now not been commemorated. Other parts of our non-commemorations work focuses on west Africa, Kenya, Egypt and India.

We also have a duty to ensure that our sites remain well visited, so that remembrance of the war dead continues, by creating information centres, volunteering opportunities and education programmes designed to engage and educate generations to come. I saw today that the Prime Minister handed the torch of liberation to veteran Peter Kent. The torch will now travel around the United Kingdom before travelling on to Normandy in time for the D-day events in France.

The commission’s Legacy of Liberation campaign presents a momentous opportunity to commemorate the 80th anniversary of pivotal world war two events, with a special emphasis on D-day and the momentous events that laid the foundations for a free Europe. The commission aims to create a renewed emphasis on the act of commemoration and the important work of bridging the past and present, ensuring that the stories of those who fell are passed on to younger generations. The public can also access interactive tours online of the commission’s key cemeteries, featuring stories from those in the battles, details of commission events and much more.

This debate takes place in War Graves Week, an annual event in May to draw attention to the commission’s work. The commission is organising 277 events and tours in over 160 locations across 15 countries worldwide, and I hope that Members will get involved in those in their constituency. Just like the work of the Royal British Legion and Help for Heroes, the commission’s work continues all year round, every year. That is why I encourage Members across the House, and of course the new Members sitting on these Benches within the next six months, to take an interest in the upkeep and the incredible history of the war graves in their constituency. They will find so many valuable lessons for the future, and much to be proud of.

Photo of Bob Stewart Bob Stewart Conservative, Beckenham 4:34, 14 May 2024

In late June and early July 1943, the allies in north Africa were preparing to invade Sicily, which would be the first piece of territory in Europe to be taken back from Nazi Germany. In 2nd Battalion the Cheshire Regiment, in the 50th Infantry Division, there were two good friends: Lieutenant David Cox, an Oxbridge graduate aged 23; and Peter Martin, then a Captain commanding A Company. One morning, David told Peter that he had a terrible and very vivid dream in which he learned that he was going to die in a place called Catania. He had never heard of it and neither had Peter. Peter reassured David that it was just a dream, and he should think no more about it.

Shortly thereafter, the Cheshires received their orders for Operation Husky, the invasion of Sicily. To his absolute horror, David learned that an objective of the 50th Infantry Division was a place called Catania—the very same name that he had dreamed about. It shocked him to the core, and of course he became seriously worried that he was going to die there.

In early July, the Cheshires landed at Jig Green beach, just south of Syracuse, in Sicily. The landings went well and not too much resistance was encountered. David was, of course, petrified by the premonition, and Peter repeatedly tried to reassure him that it was just a dream. About a week later, the Cheshires took part in taking Catania, and after some hard fighting, in which both officers played considerable part, the town was captured. With the town taken by the allies, Peter said to David that his worries had been unjustified and he should stop fretting. Naturally, David was massively relieved. The next day, 16 August, the battalion was tasked with moving through a minefield. David was the only officer with mine-clearing experience, and he led the effort to make a path through it. Tragically, a mine exploded as he was doing so and he was killed—how flipping awful!

That story came from my mentor, whom I met in 1969, when I, too, joined the Cheshires. By then, Peter was a major general and colonel of the regiment. I held him in huge regard, and he guided me as a very young officer. Peter never forgot David, and visited his grave in Sicily whenever he could. The words of the Reverend Geoffrey Studdert Kennedy, Woodbine Willie, who won the Military Cross in the first world war, hold true:

“There are many kinds of sorrow

In this world of Love and Hate,

But there is no sterner sorrow

Than a soldier’s for his mate.”

I have used those words myself. David’s story inspired me to do the same and visit his grave, and I have been there several times in the last few years. I have a photograph with me, but I am not allowed to show it. [Interruption.] Okay, I will show it, Mr Deputy Speaker—here it is.

David’s grave is in the Catania Commonwealth war cemetery, which contains 2,135 burials from the second world war, 112 of them unidentified. It is in a beautiful location—I will let right hon. and hon. Members glance at the photo—with Mount Etna behind it, steaming away, an active volcano. It is a fabulous location. The cemetery, like most CWGC locations abroad, makes anyone that visits it feel humbled and filled with awe. Nothing can bring back the men buried there, but at least their memory is honoured properly. That might be of some solace to the families and friends of those who rest there.

However, I am slightly concerned about one aspect of the work of the CWGC: what appears to happen sometimes in our country. For instance, in south-east London, Hither Green cemetery contains over 200 war graves. The graves that are located together—more than 10—are looked after, but there are many more individual graves, such as that of Private Terence Adam, who was killed at Ballykelly in Northern Ireland on 6 December 1982. I was the incident commander when 11 soldiers, as well as six civilians, were murdered by the Irish National Liberation Army. Terence’s grave is on its own, but it is looked after by my friend and former Army colleague George Szwejkowski, who also personally cares for over 50 other graves in that cemetery. He is one of many more civilians volunteering to do that, as my right hon. Friend Philip Dunne said. George is accredited to the CWGC and tends those graves for no money, simply because he feels that the poor devils who lie underground there deserve to be hugely respected.

I am afraid that I have seen quite a few individual war graves in the UK that suffer from a lack of care. I know that solving that problem is difficult for the CWGC because its resources are finite. It does its best, and there is no easy solution. It is not the fault of the CWGC, but I wish there were a way for all graves of service personnel, wherever they are, to be kept to the normal excellent standards that the CWGC sets.

In summary, I pay huge tribute to the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. I thank our two colleagues who are commissioners. The CWGC does its best to ensure that those of us who live today are reminded of those normally very young men, and sometimes young women, who lost everything before they had really started their adult life. Those people did a huge service for us; we are here because of them. I thank the Commonwealth War Graves Commission for looking after them.

Photo of Chris Evans Chris Evans Shadow Minister (Tech and Digital Economy) 4:44, 14 May 2024

I begin by thanking Philip Dunne and my right hon. Friend Dame Diana Johnson for their service as commissioners on the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. I also wish to comment on the speeches of the right hon. Members for Beckenham (Bob Stewart) and for Horsham (Sir Jeremy Quin). The words that they have spoken today not only honoured the war dead, but showed a special passion and commitment to those people.

In particular, I pay tribute to the right hon. Member for Beckenham who has seen sights that none of us in this place could possibly imagine. I want to place on record my thanks to him for what he has done for our armed forces, and for the service and commitment that he continues to give to them. I shadowed the right hon. Member for Horsham for three years. I heard many of his speeches, but none was as passionate or as dignified as the one that he has just given to the House, and he can be truly proud of those people that he spoke about today.

In debates such as this, I often feel full of regret. My grandfather has been dead now for 27 years. He served in the second world war for the Scottish Highlanders. I never got to sit down and ask him why a Welshman from the south Wales valleys found himself in the Scottish Highlanders during the second world war. But, like so many other people, he rarely talked about his experiences during the war.

It is interesting that we commemorate War Graves Week this week. I think of Harry Patch, the last fighting Tommy, who died some 15 years ago. If anybody wants to read about the brutality of war, they should read a passage from his book, “The Last Fighting Tommy”. He described finding a young lad from A Company, who had been ripped from his shoulder to his waist. He was beyond human help. His words were: “Shoot me”. But before Patch could get his revolver out to put the lad out of his misery, he died. His last words were simply, “Mother”. You cannot read those words and not realise that each and every one of those graves that the Commonwealth War Graves Commission upholds has a very personal human story. Even though many of them would have been dead now for hundreds of years, the fact is that they were once somebody’s wife, somebody’s husband, somebody’s lover, somebody’s brother, and they all will have personal stories.

People who know me know that I can often bore for Britain about football. My interest has always been in the 1960s and 1970s, but, over the past year, I have been very drawn to the Football Battalion, also known as the 17th Middlesex Regiment and the 23rd Middlesex Regiment, which recruited footballers and supporters to fight in world war one, where they fought in the Somme and Passchendaele. There are stories of people such as Walter Tull, the very first black man ever to command a company in the British Army. He joined the 17th Middlesex Regiment, but was invalided out for what we know today as post-traumatic stress disorder. He went back. He was commissioned as an officer for 23rd Middlesex Regiment. He died at the battle of the Somme on 25 March 1918, at the end of the war. His body was never recovered—even though his fellow goalkeeper from Leicester Fosse, Tom Billingham, tried to save him, he could not find his body. He is believed to be buried in the Somme somewhere. His name is commemorated with the 34,000 others at the memorial in northern France.

I also want to talk about two friends, Richard McFadden and William Jonas. They grew up together in Scotland. They were as close as brothers and were both strikers with Clapton Orient. McFadden ended up a company sergeant. When they were together in a trench under heavy shell fire, Jonas jumped out and said, “Good luck to my love and my wife, Mary Jane”, and handed something to McFadden. When McFadden opened his hand, he found a locket that Jonas wanted him to give to his wife. McFadden then wrote a letter back to Clapton Orient to tell them of their loss. By the time that letter was received, McFadden had joined Jonas. However, McFadden died in a field hospital and has a grave. That is why it is so vital that we uphold these graves. So many people who went to world war one are lying on those battlefields—nameless, no one knowing where they are—but they are commemorated by their families.

We are now reaching the very end of that world war two generation; someone who was 21 in 1945 would now be 98. Those of us who go to the remembrance services watch as they get older, with their walking sticks, their crutches and their wheelchairs, and see their dwindling numbers, but still they come. They come to honour their friends and comrades. Still they walk—but one day they will not be there. I hope that, just as we honoured Harry Patch when he passed away, the last fighting Tommy of this country, with 1,000 people coming to his funeral and the then Duchess of Cornwall attending, we will afford the same honours to whoever that last veteran of world war two is.

As we saw with the passing of the Queen in September 2022, there are very few of that generation left. We owe them a debt of honour, for we would not be standing in this seat of democracy if they had not gone out to fight, though it was not just what they did in world war two but what they did afterwards. Without complaint, they rolled up their sleeves and rebuilt this bomb-damaged country so that future generations could enjoy the freedoms they fought for. That is why it is vital that we have a commitment from the Government that we will remember them properly, and we will mark their passing in a way that is appropriate.

The other thing the Commonwealth War Graves Commission does, its most important work, is to fight against the very real threat of fake news and the challenging of archives and documents. Those who deny things that were supposed to have happened in the past will challenge documents, but when they are faced with memorials, when they have to stand at those graves, they cannot deny that those things happened. They cannot deny world war one, or world war two, or all the other disputes we were involved with. That is why the CWGC is vital.

As other hon. Members have said, our armed forces footprint is declining year by year. Young people do not have any connection any more with the armed forces. For example, as I have said, my grandfather was the last military man to serve in our family, and he would be over 100 now. It is vital that we ensure that schools and community groups are made aware of that sacrifice.

This has been an emotional debate, but also the House at its very best—we often say that, and we often overuse the words “courage” and “heroism” as though they are just words we plucked from the air. But as Harry Kane, the England captain, who does vital work as an ambassador for the Royal British Legion, said when talking about the football battalion, “One day you are just playing football and the next you are risking your life.” That brings home what those people went through.

I want to end with Harry Patch, who I find an inspiration. He said he was guided by the simple words of Moses, “Thou shalt not kill.” When he was faced with a German, he could not bring himself to kill that person, so he shot him in the shoulder. It is vital that we remember the horrors of war, that we pay tribute to those who went and fought for our armed services, and finally that we as a Government do something to honour them, so that we can all join together in an act of remembrance.

Photo of Nigel Evans Nigel Evans Deputy Speaker (Second Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means), Chair, Restoration and Renewal Programme Board Committee, Chair, Restoration and Renewal Programme Board Committee

I have to say, in my 32 years of history in this Parliament, I am hearing some of the finest speeches I have ever heard. Absolutely superb.

Photo of James Gray James Gray Chair, Environmental Audit Sub-Committee on Polar Research, Chair, Environmental Audit Sub-Committee on Polar Research 4:54, 14 May 2024

Until now, Mr Deputy Speaker! However, I wholly agree with you: we have had an afternoon of most magnificent speeches. One of the most notable features of them all is that they have brought to life the whole act of remembrance, not by grand gestures or huge strategic considerations, but by reference to very particular details: family members, local people, constituency events and stories from the days of our great wars. Chris Evans and my right hon. Friend Bob Stewart—who are, symbolically, now sat together—both gave the most magnificent speeches. They were able to do so because they know those facts thanks to the huge work of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission.

Rather than trying to emulate the wonderfully moving speeches that we have heard, I want to contemplate for a moment what we are trying to do in this work, through the Commonwealth War Graves Commission and the Royal British Legion, and in our constituencies on Remembrance Sunday. It is absolutely right and proper that we pay due respect and honour to those who have given their lives for King and country. I attended nearly all of the 347 repatriations through Wootton Bassett. The people of the town stopped on 134 occasions to pay their respects to those dead bodies as they came down the high street, and I am glad that the name of the town was changed to Royal Wootton Bassett as a result. However, the people of the town were not making any kind of political comment in doing so. They were not saying that they supported the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq that we were going through at the time; they were not saying that they believed the Government or the Army were doing a good job. They were paying their respects to individuals who had given their lives under order.

It seems to me, then, that when we look at the wonders of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission cemeteries across France and elsewhere around the world, and indeed here in the UK, it is not about the people who have tragically died, who will not benefit from the magnificence of the cemeteries. There are three reasons the cemeteries are so superb. One is to remind us—we who are left—of the awfulness of war. We need to realise, as we see the tens of thousands of bodies laid out in front of us, that that is the meaning of warfare, and that we must do all we can to stop and avoid it in future. It is a memorial to remind us all that warfare is a terrible thing.

Secondly, it is terribly important that we say to our serving soldiers, sailors and air people that if they pay the ultimate sacrifice and die in service, they will be properly remembered. For those who do what no normal citizen would be asked to do—closing with and seeking to kill the King’s enemy—it is important to know that if the worst happens, they will be properly commemorated and their family and friends will be able to visit their grave and know what they did. That is a second good reason why the CWGC work is so very important.

The third reason, which was mentioned a moment ago, is that families otherwise have nothing to latch on to. I saw many of them in Royal Wootton Basset. The families have nothing left. Very often, as in the first and second world wars, they do not even have a body left. Having a beautiful stone, designed by Lutyens, Baker and others, laid out in a wonderful cemetery, with superb flowers—my right hon. Friend Philip Dunne made a good point about the flowers and plants that the CWGC specialises in—gives the family a focus. So many families in this country spend time going out to where their loved ones fell. It gives them a focus for their grief and to remember their fallen relations and friends. For those three reasons, the cemeteries are very important.

It is not just about the work of the CWGC, as I will touch on briefly. I am very proud of the fact that we have welcomed to the House on a large number of occasions returning brigades from both Iraq and Afghanistan. It is important that we do that and pay tribute to those who give service to our armed services, but also that we remember those who have not come home with them. Some of the most poignant moments in those “welcome home” ceremonies over the years have been when the boys and girls in the parades remember those they have left behind. That is one of the most important things about those occasions. I am very glad that we are establishing a parliamentary remembrance stone at the National Arboretum—not far from your constituency, Mr Deputy Speaker. It is very important that we should do that, and I am glad that Mr Speaker’s initiative is now being taken forward and will shortly become a reality.

My right hon. Friend Sir Jeremy Quin referred to the plaques around the wall in the Chamber. My own predecessor, Captain Cazalet, who was killed in 1942 in the Sikorski crash in Gibraltar, is commemorated above the door behind the Speaker’s Chair. It is terribly important that we have that commemoration, not necessarily for the people who are commemorated, but so those who are left know that the same thing would happen for us if we were in that position. These things are terribly important, and it is right that we commemorate people in that way. If we believe that it is our sacred duty to remember and pay tribute to those who have died, and to think about the sacrifice they made and the awfulness of war, the way we do that is through the wonderful work of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission.

Many of the speakers this afternoon have spoken about the very large numbers of graves and graveyards around the world, including those in the United Kingdom. I will not repeat what those Members have said, but all my life—whether it be in Belgium, in the Falklands, or elsewhere around the world—I have been deeply moved by seeing those graveyards. Every time I go into one, I can hardly contain myself; they are so magnificent. I absolutely adore the Commonwealth War Graves Commission’s cemeteries. It is terribly important that we honour our war dead so well—I fear that other nations do not do so in the same way. I am sometimes particularly disappointed, for example, by the Argentinian graveyards in the Falklands, which could do with some more work. Ours are simply superb. They are just magnificent, and I am therefore very glad to have the opportunity this afternoon to salute the work of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, which does a magnificent job in commemorating our war dead.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham is the chairman of the all-party parliamentary group for battlefields and Commonwealth war graves. He does great work, and I commend him for the battlefield tours that he has led over the years. The most important moment of all those tours is when we visit the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, and I hope my right hon. Friend will carry on that work in future.

Greater love hath no man than this, that he lay down his life for his friends. I therefore salute the work of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, which commemorates that fact.

Photo of Matthew Offord Matthew Offord Conservative, Hendon 5:01, 14 May 2024

As you have said, Mr Deputy Speaker, it is a great honour to speak in this afternoon’s debate, and we are certainly hearing some great contributions from Members. I am very proud to be able to take part in this debate. The work of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission is very important to many people. It may not be an issue that constituents write to us about, but the value of the commission’s work—particularly to the ability of our constituents to visit war graves—is underestimated.

As has been said, the Commonwealth War Graves Commission is a global organisation that takes responsibility for the commemoration of more than 1.7 million casualties in over 23,000 locations in 153 different countries. In 2005, I travelled out of the Libyan desert, northwards along the coast road to Alexandria in Egypt, and myself and the only other Brit in our expedition insisted that we stop at El Alamein to visit the cemetery there. The others in our delegation could not understand why we insisted on doing so, and were amazed at our persistence in demanding that we did. There, 7,240 Commonwealth soldiers are interred at what is an incredible location: row upon row of stones alongside immaculate gardens, and a great credit to the Commonwealth War Graves Commission.

However, there are also Commonwealth War Graves Commission graves in this country. As a regular visitor to churchyards across the UK, it interests me to discover signs at the entrances that state that those churchyards contain grounds of Commonwealth war graves, and I always search out their locations. In the Hendon cemetery and crematorium, there are 69 Commonwealth burials from the first world war and 156 from the second world war. Those whose graves are not marked by headstones are named on two screen wall memorials close to the cross of sacrifice. There are an additional 14 casualties from the second world war named on those screen walls who were cremated in the adjoining crematorium, and there are two non-Commonwealth service burials and one non-world war burial in the care of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission.

A significant reason why I support the Commonwealth War Graves Commission is that it provides a memorial not only to the dead, but for the living. That point was made by my hon. Friend James Gray. Losing any relative is difficult, but to do so in conflict, when it is sudden and usually violent, is particularly hard. My great-uncle was killed in the first world war in action at Upper Oosthoek farm near Ypres on 14 February 1915. His regiment, the 2nd Battalion East Surrey, was passing through the ruins of the farm buildings when heavy rifle and machine gun fire was directed at them and several men were hit.

Having recently returned from service in India, the replacement soldiers were ill equipped for the wind and rain that was falling. To compound their tragedy, the attack was at a significant disadvantage in that my great-uncle and his comrades were ordered to advance without firing, as the trenches on both flanks were held by British troops and, owing to a shortage of ammunition, there was no artillery support. However, the advance continued without hesitation, although several officers and men fell rapidly. The distance from the farm buildings to the objective trenches was about 500 yards. A hedgerow running north and south afforded some cover for the first 200 yards, but the last 300 yards lay over an open turnip field with deep clay soil. While struggling knee-deep in the mud across the field, A company was practically wiped out and C company, my great-uncle’s section, which was following in close support, fared little better. Of the whole attacking party, 35 were killed and 81 wounded, while five officers were killed and six wounded.

It is an honour today to be able to put on record the sacrifice that my great-uncle made because he has no known grave, and his relatives have never had an opportunity to commemorate him. However, he is included on the role of honour at Chertsey war memorial as Offord, JD—Joseph Dick—and on panel 34 at the Menin Gate in Belgium. He was just 23 years of age. I only know this information about my uncle and the attack from the work undertaken by my cousin Mark Offord in researching our shared genealogy, and I raise this as evidence of the importance of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission.

It is most appropriate for the Legacy of Liberation campaign to commemorate the 80th anniversaries of pivotal world war two events, with a special emphasis on D-day. This debate today is particularly poignant, as I watched the lighting of the torch at the Horse Guards Parade with Peter Kent, a veteran of D-day. I am also aware of the “Lighting Their Legacy” event on HMS Belfast earlier today, which was attended by my right hon. Friend Philip Dunne and I presume by Dame Diana Johnson. I conclude by thanking both of them for their work as commissioners of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. This is a role that Members undertake, and when people say that Members of Parliament are only in it for themselves, we should highlight that such work is conducted in a very quiet and dignified fashion, without fuss and fanfare. On behalf of my great-uncle Joseph Dick Offord and everyone who paid the ultimate sacrifice, I say thank you to the commissioners and every single employee and volunteer at the Commonwealth War Graves Commission.

Photo of Will Quince Will Quince Conservative, Colchester 5:08, 14 May 2024

It is an honour to follow my hon. Friend Dr Offord, who made a very powerful speech. There have been so many powerful and emotive speeches, and so many Members have eloquently and articulately set out why the work of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission is so important. As other right hon. and hon. Members have said, it is a great honour to speak in this debate. I refer the House to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests as a reservist.

I am very proud to represent Colchester, which is the home of 16 Air Assault Brigade. It was a long-time garrison town, and now a garrison city. I think the first garrison in Colchester was formed shortly after the Roman invasion in AD 43 and it has been a garrison ever since, but it has been a very important garrison since the Napoleonic wars. As an important garrison town, we have a large military cemetery in Colchester. It contains 114 Commonwealth war graves from the second world war and 266 war graves from the first world war. On Remembrance Sunday, we have a very well attended service at the war memorial, which thousands of Colcestrians attend. In fact, every year the crowd gets larger, but few are aware of the two services held beforehand at both the first world war and second world war memorials in Colchester cemetery, very close to the military cemetery. It is Colchester cemetery that I will speak about this afternoon in this War Graves Week debate.

Those of us on the glide path out of politics tend to look back at our time in this place as a parliamentarian and the changes and the difference we have tried to make. With that in mind I would like to pay tribute to a constituent of mine who I have been honoured to support. On my election to this House in 2015 I was approached by Mike Jackson specifically about Colchester cemetery. Mike and Sue Jackson are two of the most inspirational people I have ever met. They have raised over £275,000 for Help for Heroes in memory of their late son-in-law Kevin, or Kev, Fortuna. They initially set out to raise £10,000 and they just did not stop.

Colour Serjeant Kev Fortuna of A Company, 1st Battalion the Rifles was tragically killed in May 2011 on active duty in Afghanistan. Mike had been raising the issue of war graves with my predecessor, Sir Bob Russell, and on my election Mike asked me to come with him to visit Colchester cemetery and of course I accepted. He showed me the part of the cemetery with the first and second world war graves, which were beautifully maintained by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. He then showed me the war graves of those who had tragically lost their lives after the end of the second world war, which of course included the grave of Colour Serjeant Fortuna. Shamefully, despite the best efforts of several family members who live locally, the war graves were not maintained to anywhere near the standard of those of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission.

After research Mike and I identified this was not a Colchester-unique issue; it was a national issue. Mike and I agreed to work together to address this and campaign for change. I wrote to, and secured a meeting with, Earl Howe of the other place, then a Defence Minister. He explained that the remit of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission was the first and second world war graves and any war grave thereafter was maintained by the Ministry of Defence. He explained that the MOD budget for war grave maintenance was around a third of that of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission and, as sympathetic as he was, he suggested I speak with the Chancellor of the Exchequer.

So we secured a meeting with the Chancellor of the Exchequer, who was George Osborne at the time, and I recall it vividly. Any parliamentary colleague who has ever gone to ask the Chancellor, or any Treasury Minister, for money knows that is no easy task; especially for an MP in their first year, the default response is usually “No”—or at least it starts with “No”.

However, to his great credit, this meeting with George Osborne was very different. We set out the facts, we explained the background, we spoke about Mike Jackson’s campaign and how wrong it was that Kev Fortuna’s family were maintaining his grave, not to mention the graves of those who had fallen without loved ones nearby to tend to their graves. To George Osborne’s credit, he put out his hand to stop me mid-sentence and said. “That isn’t right. Leave it with me, but I assure you I’m going to fix it.” And just a handful of weeks later at the spending review and autumn statement, George Osborne announced the Government would fund the brilliant Commonwealth War Graves Commission so it could tend over 6,000 graves of those who have died fighting for our country since the second world war. That in effect meant £2 million as an initial up-front sum and then funding as a commitment in perpetuity for all war graves to be maintained by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission.

I pay tribute to George Osborne for seeing this injustice and putting it right, and I want to thank and pay tribute to Mike Jackson for his determination to right this injustice. His campaign has benefited not just Colchester but more than 1,200 locations where there are war graves. Finally, but by no means least, I want to pay tribute to the Commonwealth War Graves Commission for the incredible work it does locally, nationally and internationally. Of course I welcome the uplift in funding announced by the Secretary of State. Commemoration matters; recognising sacrifice matters. We must and we will remember them.

Photo of Jonathan Lord Jonathan Lord Conservative, Woking 5:14, 14 May 2024

Mr Deputy Speaker, I completely agree with your words earlier that this has been an astonishingly eloquent debate, not least the speech of my hon. Friend Will Quince, who has just contributed. It is therefore a privilege and an honour to participate in it.

I am very proud to have Brookwood military cemetery in my constituency of Woking. It is owned by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission and it is the largest Commonwealth war cemetery in the United Kingdom, covering approximately 37 acres.

In 1917, an area of land in Brookwood cemetery—or the London Necropolis, as it was known then—was set aside for the burial of men and women of the forces of the Commonwealth and Americans who had died, many from battle wounds, in the London district. This site was further extended to accommodate the Commonwealth casualties of the second world war. There is a large Royal Air Force section in the south-east corner of the cemetery, which also contains the graves of Czechoslovakian and American airmen who served with the Royal Air Force. The Air Force shelter nearby houses the register of those buried in the section. A plot in the west corner of the cemetery contains approximately 2,400 Canadian graves of the second world war, including those of 43 men who died of wounds following the Dieppe raid in August 1942. The Canadian records building, which was a gift of the Canadian Government in 1946, houses a reception room for visitors.

In addition to the Commonwealth plots, the cemetery also contains French, Polish, Czechoslovakian, Belgian and Italian sections, and a number of war graves of other nationalities, all cared for by the commission. The elegant and imposing American military cemetery is the responsibility of the American Battle Monuments Commission. It is maintained every bit as carefully and meticulously as the rest of Brookwood military cemetery.

The cemetery now contains 1,601 Commonwealth burials of the first world war and 3,476 of the second world war. Of the second world war burials, five are unidentified, three being members of the RAF and two being members of the Royal Canadian Air Force. The war graves of other nationalities in the commission’s care number 786, including 28 unidentified French.

As an agency service on behalf of the Royal Hospital Chelsea, the commission also maintains a plot for the graves of the Chelsea pensioners, situated adjacent to the military cemetery. It also maintains a small plot containing the graves of 12 members of the nursing services in the adjoining Brookwood cemetery, which is also in the commission’s care.

The Brookwood 1939 to 1945 memorial stands at the southern end of the Canadian section of the cemetery. It commemorates 3,500 men and women of the land forces of the Commonwealth who died during the second world war and have no known grave, the circumstances of their death being such that they could not appropriately be commemorated in any of the campaign memorials in the various theatres of war. They died in the campaign in Norway in 1940 or in the various raids on enemy occupied territory in Europe, such as Dieppe and Saint-Nazaire. Others were special agents who died as prisoners or while working with allied underground movements. Some died at sea, in hospital ships and troop transports, in waters not associated with the major campaigns. A few were killed in flying accidents or in aerial combat.

Some of the stories about the lives, service and deaths of these men and women, particularly those of the special agents, are truly remarkable, fascinating and incredibly moving. A fine new Brookwood 1914 to 1918 memorial was built during my time as Woking’s MP in 2015. It commemorates casualties who died in the United Kingdom during the first world war, but for whom no graves could be found.

Most of the historical information that I have shared with the House comes directly from the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, which does an amazing job. What that cannot convey is the beauty—the terrible beauty, almost—of Brookwood military cemetery. Whether it is in the snow in wintertime, or rain, or the glorious sunshine that has come out for many of the events that take place during the summer months, it is an incredibly beautiful and moving place. Of all the events, services, commemorations and concerts that I attend, I enjoy most of all the open days where the commission invites the public to come and see the cemetery, the commitment and professionalism of the stone masons and gardeners, and explain the work that it does.

Bob Stewart and others mentioned how the commission helps to track down military graves outside our major cemeteries. If it cannot look after those graves, volunteers come forward. I pay tribute to all 2,000 of those volunteers who help out in the UK maintaining graves and telling the commission when a grave is not being kept properly or the stone has broken.

It is moving for me to have Brookwood military cemetery in my constituency. We can look at those graves, which are mainly of young men and women. I studied the first world war, and for many people in our country, that war—those four years of terrible slaughter—came out of the clear blue sky. For the second world war, the dark clouds were more obvious and lasted longer. Men and women of our country and allied nations around the world came forward in that hour of need, and we have been paying tribute to their ultimate sacrifice.

I have enjoyed attending many of the events of my hon. Friend James Gray, who has chaired the all-party parliamentary group for the armed forces for so many years. It is interesting to hear the stories of our top armed forces generals, admirals, chiefs and so forth from the inside. They are in no doubt that, if the call came, not just our generation—by and large, those of us in the House are too old to serve—but the current generations would step up in that hour of need.

We have dark clouds overhead in the world. The Prime Minister spoke eloquently about that in his major speech the other day. I, together with most colleagues in the House—certainly those on the Government Benches—welcome his commitment to that 2.5% target for our armed forces going forward. I know that we have patriotic parties across the House, but we need to be ready. The old axiom that to preserve the peace, we need to prepare for the eventuality of war is the message that is coming to us from our military cemeteries. I know that this generation would make that sacrifice, but the Government and the House need to be on their mettle to meet the threats of the world today.

Photo of Kevan Jones Kevan Jones Labour, North Durham 5:23, 14 May 2024

I begin by declaring an interest as a former commissioner of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission and a current trustee of the Commonwealth War Graves Foundation. Mr Lord just described what we all see when we visit Commonwealth war grave cemeteries, with the beauty and the neatness of their lines. I always find it moving to read the inscriptions and see the young ages of some of the individuals who took huge responsibilities to protect the freedoms that we take for granted today. It does an extraordinary job of maintaining those graves, not just in this country but around the world. I pay tribute to all the staff, including the current director general Claire Horton.

I also pay tribute to His Royal Highness the Duke of Kent, who has been the president of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission since 1970. When I was a commissioner he took a very active interest. Commissioners today will know his interest, and he still attends ceremonies on behalf of the commission, even at his advanced years. I had the honour in 2010of being appointed by the Queen as one of the two parliamentary commissioners for the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, along with my great friend Keith Simpson, who is no longer in the House. Like the commissioners today, we both took the role very seriously. It was one of the highlights of my parliamentary career, and a privilege to serve in that organisation.

I also had the honour of being a Minister in the Ministry of Defence, responsible for the new war graves cemetery created at Fromelles in 2010. That shows that we are still finding casualties throughout the world, who are still given the respectful burial that each deserves. I pay tribute to the staff who do the research, and for all their care and dedication. Fromelles was on a different scale—more than 400 bodies were uncovered in a piece of detective work by an Australian individual. It was a great honour to attend the interment of the first casualty there, along with my Australian counterpart.

It has been said that we think the Commonwealth War Graves Commission is a great British institution, but like a lot of things in the UK, it came into being by accident. The tenacity of Fabian Ware’s great registration scheme in the first world war led to the formation of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. Was it universally popular at the time? No, it was not. I suggest that anyone with an interest in how it came to be reads the debate of 4 May 1920, when the money was being apportioned to set it up following the great war. Was it a foregone conclusion? No, it was not. People argued against it, such as the Member for Holborn, Sir James Remnant, who argued that the dead were not the property of the state. It was quite a new thing then for the state to take the decision, because in other campaigns, bodies were repatriated if people could afford it. One individual in that debate opposed what he called the nationalisation of death.

The commission was set up uniquely by dedicated individuals. At an Italian war cemetery, the generals’ graves are huge mausoleums, and the privates are stuck behind. The Commonwealth War Graves Commission was clear that in death, everyone is equal. That was an important message and is why the standard commemoration was put in place. No exceptions were made. One of the most poignant things for me is not the graves themselves but the names of individuals—generals can be next to privates. There is no rank in death. An example that sums that up well is down at the Hollybrook memorial in Southampton, which commemorates those lost at sea. There is Lord Kitchener, and then a long list of names of those from the South African labour corps who were lost in an accident off the Isle of Wight. That shows what the commission did and continues to do to ensure that individuals are remembered, regardless of their status.

When I was a commissioner, I had the great honour of visiting the commission’s staff around the world, including, as I think the Secretary of State mentioned, in Gaza. It is not the easiest part of the world, but the dedication of the staff is just the same. I will certainly be thinking of them today, and the job that they do. The cemeteries are beautiful. The most poignant one that I visited is in Papua New Guinea. It is in the middle of a jungle, but is beautifully maintained by the staff. As Philip Dunne said, the staff look after not just the memorials and the gravestones, but the horticulture. I am a bit of an anorak on the subject, but if anyone wants to look at the horticulture of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, its history is absolutely fascinating. The work of Gertrude Jekyll and others set the standards that are maintained today. As the right hon. Gentleman said, with climate change, adaptations need to be made, and the commission is at the forefront of that work.

I have the honour of being a trustee of the Commonwealth War Graves Foundation. The problem with the commission, if there is one, is that its remit is very tightly controlled by its royal charter. When I was on the commission, one of the issues was whether, technically, we were able to do education. It did not fall within the remit, so we came up with the idea of the foundation. I encourage everyone to look at the foundation’s website, and ask those who are not already members of the foundation to join, so as to support its educational work. It is great at taking the work of remembrance, and of the commission, to schools and so on. That work is not just about remembering the commission’s iconic sites in France, but about getting people to recognise what they have on their doorstep. That formed the subject of a project that I worked on when I was a commissioner. There are war graves in our local cemeteries. In my constituency, there are a number of single graves, but also 24 in Stanley cemetery and 12 in Sacriston cemetery. The Commonwealth War Graves Foundation is trying to ensure that people are aware of their local history, because the people in those cemetaries are mainly local people.

When we look into the stories, which some great local groups are doing, we find that the reason why graves are in a particular place can be very interesting. In County Durham, there are the graves of an Australian bomber crew who were killed returning from a training mission. I think someone referred to this site earlier when discussing the commission’s work with its international partners, but in Cannock Chase there are some 400 casualties from Australia and New Zealand, alongside nearly 2,000 German casualties—zeppelin crews and so on—who died mainly during the first world war. That shows that the commission works internationally. Why are there 400 Australian and New Zealand casualties in Cannock Chase, of all places? Well, it is a very sad story. It was a casualty clearing station, and the casualties went there after the first world war, having survived the horrors of the western front, only to die, in most cases, of Spanish flu. Casualties turn up in different places for interesting reasons.

We in the Commonwealth War Graves Foundation are keen to work with local groups. We have volunteers who not only maintain graves but work on history projects. It is important to get schools involved. We also have a lecture programme; people can ask for a lecture from a volunteer, and I am one. I am qualified to give the Commonwealth War Graves Foundation lecture to local groups. I encourage everyone to look at our website and try to get their community involved. They will be amazed to see what is on their doorstep. That is an important way of bringing not just the work of the commission but local history to life.

Photo of Jamie Stone Jamie Stone Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Armed Forces), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Digital, Culture, Media and Sport)

I have sat here quietly so far, and I almost hesitate to intervene because this is a very dignified debate, but the right hon. Member is making an extremely important point. In my home town of Tain, way up in the highlands, we have 30 war graves, and many are the graves of Czech airmen, which reflects exactly the point that the right hon. Member makes. For 35 years, two people, Billy and Mary Grant, have looked after those graves out of the goodness of their hearts. I have mentioned them deliberately; I want them to have their names in Hansard because of all the good that they have done. The right hon. Member’s point is excellently made, and I support it to the hilt.

Photo of Kevan Jones Kevan Jones Labour, North Durham

I thank those volunteers, but the hon. Gentleman has raised another interesting point. These are not just British casualties; throughout the United Kingdom, there are casualties from all nations that contributed to our efforts in both world wars.

As I have said, I am passionate about this subject. I think the two commissioners in the House will confirm that once you have been a commissioner, you have it in your blood. I know I am a pain when I go to a funeral or a wedding, because I always go around the cemetery to see whether there are any Commonwealth War Graves Commission sites. The commission has taken a great step forward in digitising information and giving visibility to the casualties who are buried not in large cemeteries, but on our doorstep.

Let me end by paying tribute not only to the commission’s current staff members, but to those who have gone before. They are loyal, dedicated individuals. Is this about glorifying war? No, it is not; it is about recognising the sacrifice that people made, and let us hope that we can continue to do that. It is poignant, especially given the war that is taking place in Europe, to recognise the sacrifice that was made on our behalf in the past so that we can enjoy our freedoms today.

Photo of Steve McCabe Steve McCabe Shadow Minister (Defence) 5:38, 14 May 2024

This has been an excellent debate. The House is at its best when people come together to share knowledge, and details that shed light on a subject and add to the richness of our understanding, without recourse to the tribalism that occasionally mars our proceedings.

Let me begin by acknowledging the view, expressed by many today, that it is our duty to remember those who have served and the sacrifices that they made. We have an obligation to look after their legacy, which cannot and should not lessen with the passage of time. The contributions to today’s debate have all been thoughtful, informative and moving. I doubt that I can do justice to them all, but I want to acknowledge the intervention by Mrs May, and I thank her for reminding us of the difficult places and situations in which the commission operates. I also thank the Secretary of State for a very thoughtful speech, and for his positive update on the commission’s staff who have been in Gaza, and their families.

Philip Dunne described a family connection with the Salerno invasion, but he also told us about the important role of the commission in horticulture, record keeping, forensic examination and the respectful reinternment of remains. That added to our stock of knowledge. Allan Dorans spoke of a family connection, too. He gave a very good account of the community involvement that can be generated, which can make a real difference. The Chair of the Defence Committee, Sir Jeremy Quin, reminded us of the scale of losses during the first world war, and of the age of so many who died. Often they were not much older than the schoolchildren who visit the sites today.

My right hon. Friend Dame Diana Johnson reminded us of the role of her mother and mother-in-law, and of the role of women in both munitions and the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force. My mother and aunt played similar roles. My right hon. Friend also reminded us of the Kranji war memorial in Singapore, and of the prisoners of war who lost their life during the building of the death railway.

I have great affection for Bob Stewart, and I have heard many of his moving accounts of the horrors of war in this place. Today, he gave a typically thoughtful and moving account of the personal situations in which people sometimes find themselves. My hon. Friend Chris Evans reminded us of the nature of the personal stories behind the names and inscriptions we read. He also pointed out that we owe a special debt of honour to what I might call the world war two generation.

James Gray already does so much in this field, and he reminded us of something that is easy to overlook: the awfulness of war, and the role of memorials in both remembering those lost and offering some comfort and respect to the families who remain behind. Dr Offord gave a family account of the role of his great-uncle, who was clearly engaged in an act of considerable heroism. Will Quince reminded us of his personal achievement—it was no mean feat—in persuading the former Chancellor George Osborne to expand the funding remit of the commission, so that it covered those who had been killed in conflicts after world war two. Mr Lord gave a very evocative account of Brookwood cemetery, and I could visualise the layout as he described it. My right hon. Friend Mr Jones reminded me of just how long he has been in this place, and of just how much he has done. I also acknowledge the stress that he put on the role of education. As well as describing some of the things he did during his time as a commissioner, he also made the good point that there is no rank in death.

I pay tribute to the Commonwealth War Graves Commission for all the work it does to keep alive the memory of the fallen and to provide each new generation with the tools and information they need to understand their history and the sacrifice of so many. That is something that has informed my efforts over 18 years of bringing generations together, especially school pupils and veterans, to understand and celebrate veteran events and Armed Forces Days in my constituency. This is a subject that invites agreement. I acknowledge the dedicated work of all members of the commission. I also acknowledge the sterling work of my right hon. Friend Mr Lammy, which has already been raised today, to ensure that the contributions of thousands of individuals from across Africa, India, the middle east and elsewhere are not overlooked and that their rightful place in history is recognised.

The commission’s work, supported by its wonderful volunteers, helps to maintain about 23,000 memorial sites across the world, to keep records, to create spaces to remember the fallen and to provide a final resting place for those who have died, sometimes many miles from home. I also commend the work of the commission on developing new tools to help the rest of us to make sense of what is happening. Before I came into the Chamber today, I used that wonderful tool that allows us to find out details from our area by punching in a postcode. I discovered that where I live today is very close to the house that was the home of Private Edward Harry Bate Crofts of the Royal Warwickshire Regiment, who died on 17 April 1915 aged 22 and is remembered at the Ploegsteert Memorial in Belgium. He was the only son of Edward and Clara Crofts of 59 Franklin Road, Bournville, Birmingham.

We have learned today that there are things in this House that can bring us all together, that enable us to put aside our differences and help others to understand what sacrifice has meant in the past, and how important it is to the world that we now face in the future. I commend everyone who took part in this debate, and I thank the Commonwealth War Graves Commission for its outstanding work. I hope that we will be here to celebrate its efforts for many years to come.

Photo of Leo Docherty Leo Docherty Minister of State (Ministry of Defence) (Minister for the Armed Forces) 5:49, 14 May 2024

This has been a powerful and measured debate, and I am grateful to the Opposition Front Benchers and all hon. and right hon. and gallant Members for the sincerity and power with which they have expressed themselves this afternoon.

My right hon. Friend Philip Dunne reflected on his important work as a commissioner and the importance of the parliamentary connection with the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. I was very interested to hear him refer to the action at Salerno, in which his grandfather won the Military Cross. He spoke about the global scale of the commission’s challenge in maintaining graves in some of the most difficult circumstances, and in the continued recovery of the fallen, which sets the context nicely for the commemoration that will take place in Normandy for D-day 80. I was glad that he referred to the outreach in schools, which will be an important component of that hugely important commemorative event.

Allan Dorans recalled the service of his family members and the important steps taken by the local community in creating initiatives for remembrance. He also spoke about the important role played by merchant seamen, who are sometimes overlooked, and the commemoration thereof.

My right hon. Friend Sir Jeremy Quin, the Chair of the Defence Committee, made a very moving speech about the scale of the impact, reflected by the fact that both the Prime Minister and the leader of the Labour party lost sons at Loos in 1915. He also spoke about the scale of sacrifice by the Commonwealth contingent and the scale of effort in commemorating 1.7 million fallen across 23,000 locations in 153 countries.

My right hon. Friend also spoke movingly about a 99-year-old Normandy veteran in his constituency who asked, “Why them and not us?” That perennial question, which haunts all those involved in any form of operational soldiering, is at the heart of remembrance and everything we do therein. It is at the heart of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission’s work.

Dame Diana Johnson is also a commissioner whose work we hugely appreciate. She spoke appropriately about the very important role of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission’s staff and leadership. We are grateful to her for putting that on the record, and I second her sentiment in appreciating the tremendous role they play.

The right hon. Lady spoke very interestingly about her father’s role in the senior service and her mother’s role in a munitions factory, which will reflect the family experience of many right hon. and hon. Members and many constituents. She also mentioned the huge scale of service from the Yorkshire regiments and the Singapore memorials at Kranji. I am grateful that she concluded by saying that the “Torch of Liberation” was passed this morning—my right hon. Friend the Defence Secretary was there—and that it will now make its way to Normandy next month. That will be an important and very moving act of remembrance.

Photo of Bill Cash Bill Cash Chair, European Scrutiny Committee, Chair, European Scrutiny Committee

I note the welcome presence of the Secretary of State at such a debate.

As the only MP whose father was killed in the war, I owe great thanks to the Commonwealth War Graves Commission and its volunteers for all the work they do in looking after my father’s grave at St Manvieu in Normandy, where he was killed in action against a Panzer division on 13 July 1944 and won the Military Cross.

I thank my hon. Friend the Minister for all the work he is doing in this respect.

Photo of Leo Docherty Leo Docherty Minister of State (Ministry of Defence) (Minister for the Armed Forces)

It is my great honour to acknowledge my hon. Friend’s intervention and to put on record our gratitude for his father’s heroism in action, for which he was posthumously awarded the Military Cross. The Secretary of State informs me that arrangements have been made so that my hon. Friend will be able to attend the commemoration event in Normandy next month, which will be a very fitting tribute to the memory of his late, gallant father.

My right hon. and gallant Friend Bob Stewart told a very moving story of sacrifice involving the 2nd Cheshire Regiment’s role in the invasion of Sicily, involving young officers Cox and Martin. He referred very poetically to “many kinds of sorrow” but, of course, none is so keen as a soldier’s for his mate. The House receives his remarks in the context of his own distinguished and gallant record. We are proud to have heard his reflections today. He spoke about the 2,135 Commonwealth war graves in the Catania cemetery, which indicates the sheer scale of loss and sacrifice.

That sentiment was reflected in the welcome remarks from Chris Evans, who spoke movingly about his grandfather’s service in, somewhat unexpectedly, but no less honourably, the Highlanders. The hon. Gentleman also spoke movingly about the reflections of Harry Patch, the last fighting Tommy, in explaining the human toll and the remarkable human stories behind all the statistics therein. He spoke movingly about the experiences of the football regiment and the story of McFadden and Jonas. He also talked about how we have a dwindling number of world war two veterans and of the world war two generation, and so the challenge remains for us to make commemoration relevant and urgent. Clearly, the outcome of the work of the CWGC does exactly that. The commemorations next month at Normandy will be a welcome focus, and I was grateful for his remarks.

Characteristically, my hon. Friend James Gray made some cogent remarks. We pay tribute to his continued work to support veterans and the act of remembrance. He spoke about the important role of Royal Wootton Bassett, what a physical commemoration means to families of the fallen and the sheer moving experience of visiting CWGC cemeteries.

My hon. Friend Dr Offord spoke interestingly and movingly about a visit he made in 2005 to the El Alamein cemetery. I join him in that sentiment, as I have been there; the 7,240 graves are a remarkable sight against the backdrop of the north African desert. He made the good point that these places are important for not just the dead, but the living; the families and the survivors need the physical aspect of commemoration to help them deal with the grief. He gave us a moving story about what happened in the first world war to his great-uncle. He was commemorated on the Menin Gate and that was most welcome. I join my hon. Friend in sincerely thanking the commissioners and the staff of the CWGC for their work.

My hon. Friend Will Quince gave an interesting insight into the effective campaign of General Jackson and others to ensure that the 6,000 graves of those fallen after 1945 are appropriately supported and maintained. My hon. Friend made a reference to the fact that he is on his way out of politics, which might give him an opportunity to expand and deepen his fledgling military career. His remarks today were very cogent and we are grateful for them, because Colchester has a very important place in our national defence.

My hon. Friend Mr Lord described the amazing scale of Brookwood, a place I know well because it is near my constituency, and the sum of the 5,627 graves there. I am grateful to him for highlighting the importance of that historic location. Mr Jones referred to his time as a commissioner, for which we are most grateful. I was very pleased that he put on record the gratitude of this House for the amazing work over many, many years of His Royal Highness the Duke of Kent. The right hon. Gentleman made the good point that casualties are still being recovered to this day and that that presents a considerable challenge. He also made the moving point that the principle of equality in death is very important to the commission—it is one we all support. Whether or not he has a wedding to attend near Aldershot, he is very welcome to come to explore the nearly 1,000 war graves we have in Aldershot one weekend. They are maintained to a very high standard.

We have indeed seen the House at its best today, united, respectful and sincerely grateful to the CWGC and to the millions of our forebears who served and sacrificed in the 20th century so that we could be free in the 21st. The sheer scale of the commission’s undertaking to maintain and restore monuments and memories is immense, and its impact on every generation, including future generations to come, is of course priceless. It provides an appreciation of our history; a deep appreciation of our freedom and our democracy; and an appreciation of service and of all those who gave their lives, and all those who were prepared to do that, so that we, in this Chamber, could be free today. On behalf of the whole House, I am very grateful. We say thank you to all those involved for the work of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission and thank you to all those whom they help us to commemorate.

Photo of Eleanor Laing Eleanor Laing Deputy Speaker and Chairman of Ways and Means, Chair, Standing Orders Committee (Commons), Chair, Standing Orders Committee (Commons), Chair, Parliamentary Works Estimates Commission, Chair, Parliamentary Works Estimates Commission

This has been an excellent debate. It is sad and unfortunate that those who comment upon what goes on in this Chamber and the work that Members of Parliament do are, quite frankly, too lazy to report a debate like this, when the House is working together, across parties, in a very good cause. I suppose I am laying down a challenge to those who report the proceedings of this Chamber, to report this debate and give it the attention that it deserves, particularly in comparison to other times when the House is fuller but far less productive.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House
has considered War Graves Week.