Commonwealth War Graves Commission — Question for Short Debate

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 7:40 pm on 22 June 2015.

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Photo of Lord Forsyth of Drumlean Lord Forsyth of Drumlean Conservative 7:40, 22 June 2015

My Lords, it is a very great pleasure to be able to ask the Government what assessment they have made of the work of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. I think that I am right in saying that today is the anniversary of news having reached London of the success of the Duke of Wellington at Waterloo. Of course, there are no graves or memorials to the many soldiers who lost their lives at Waterloo. Indeed, the First World War was the first occasion when individual graves were achieved for individual soldiers. That was thanks to the efforts of Sir Fabian Ware and the establishment of the Imperial War Graves Commission, as it was in 1917, under royal charter, which said that it should maintain “fit provision” for war dead in perpetuity.

The commission has done that with very great distinction. The scale of the operations is truly immense: graves and memorials for 1.7 million victims of World

War I and World War II in 23,000 different locations in 153 countries. The Commonwealth War Graves Commission is responsible for maintaining, to a quality which I am sure many noble Lords will have seen for themselves, the equivalent of 994 football pitches in every corner of the globe. To do that it has some 1,300 staff, 1,080 of whom are gardeners, stonemasons and blacksmiths, with great expertise in horticulture, engraving and ironmongery. Indeed, in France, which I had the privilege of visiting privately earlier this year, there are even third-generation gardeners who come all the way from the First World War. In France the position now is peaceful but the commission also operates in some very dangerous locations, such as Gaza and the Sudan. I spoke to the director-general when I said that I was going to try to get this debate. I asked her, “What is your biggest problem today?”. She said, “My biggest problem today is that our gardeners’ hut in the Sudan is occupied by insurgents”.

The Commonwealth War Graves Commission has done a magnificent job in encouraging schools and visitors—1.6 million people every year visit the graves and memorials. Many of them are children. This organisation is not looking backwards; it is looking forwards with the use of new technology and apps to educate children and make sure that the next generation is involved in remembrance. It is a big challenge for it around the globe, but there is a particular challenge in the United Kingdom, of which I must say I was completely unaware, in that there are some 308,000 service men and women who are commemorated in the UK at 13,000 different locations with 170,000 graves. Of course, there are the great memorials at Chatham, Plymouth, Portsmouth, Tower Hill and Runnymede. That is the largest number in any country outside France.

I visited the battlefields of the Somme with my then-to-be son-in-law—now my son-in-law—earlier in the spring, just to make sure that he was okay and that we got on all right. I have to report that he is extremely okay and very interested in military history. We were able to look at the work that has been done on the battlefields of the Somme and for the Canadians at Vimy Ridge. It is magnificent. Even now, when bodies of soldiers are occasionally found, there is care and effort made through DNA to trace the families, to remove the names from those who are listed on memorials as unknown and put in place a grave and marker for those individuals. Each memorial has documents enabling relatives to find easily the place for their former loved ones.

Less well known are the operations in Palestine, Salonika, East Africa and north Italy—the forgotten corners of some foreign fields. There is the security challenge that the Commonwealth War Graves Commission has to meet in Libya, Syria, Gaza, Yemen, and in Iraq, where there are 54,000 Commonwealth war dead at 13 sites. Getting into Mosul today is pretty well impossible. In Baghdad North Gate the commission has been responsible for 511 new headstones, and in Basra 40,000 graves are in need of urgent attention. Nothing seems to faze this organisation and nothing seems to make it cut corners or reduce the very high standards that it sets.

I am conscious of the fact that many people wishing to speak in the debate have more knowledge and background than me. My purpose was simply, as an astonished bystander, to pay tribute to the work that the commission does. Many of our institutions are under attack in our country and many are subject to criticism. However, it is hard to do anything other than praise this organisation for a job well done—an organisation that does not seek publicity or to promote itself, but can take real pride. I ask my noble friend the Minister to acknowledge the work that it does, and to assure the House that there is no question but that it will continue to obtain the necessary government support and resources to continue that work and to meet its obligations under the charter to ensure that this continues in perpetuity.