Commonwealth War Graves Commission — Question for Short Debate

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 7:50 pm on 22 June 2015.

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Photo of Lord Shipley Lord Shipley Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Communities, Decentralisation and the Northern Powerhouse) 7:50, 22 June 2015

My Lords, I am very grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth of Drumlean, for initiating the debate. I put my name down to speak because I want to pay tribute to the outstanding quality of the commission’s work. The noble Lord spoke about the distinction and scale of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission; I concur absolutely with that. I pay tribute, too, to the quality of its website. For those of us researching local history for our areas it is extremely user-friendly. I thank it for that.

However, it is the very high standard of maintenance in its cemeteries that I particularly want to commend—indeed in this country, where there are graveyards and churches with Commonwealth War Graves Commission graves and headstones. I notice that the attention to detail and to quality maintains headstones very well. At the slightest sign of damage or wear the headstones can be replaced. The mowing around the Commonwealth War Graves Commission headstones is also to a very high standard—usually much better than may be possible for churches to undertake. The point is this: wherever we are in the world, the standards are always the same and always very high. I congratulate the commission on that.

All this is partly to do with the quality of the staff it employs, who clearly take pride in their work. They have great knowledge of what happened in their areas and can explain to those who visit all that they know of the battles that took place, of the nature of those who fought in the area and of those who lost their lives. For that, the staff should be thanked and congratulated.

I want to say, too, that I find the Commonwealth War Graves Commission’s sensitivity in planning issues to be particularly impressive. A couple of years ago I visited the most northerly Italian World War II cemetery in Udine. I could not find it. I was surprised to find it next to a petrol station in the car park of a hypermarket—I spotted it in a copse of trees. When I went in I assumed I would be subject to the noise of car engines, of people and chatter and so on. Actually, it was a haven of peace and calm. From the inside, it was like any other cemetery that I have visited.

This weekend I shall be on the Somme with a group from Newcastle and the north-east to erect a memorial to the 16th Battalion the Northumberland Fusiliers, the Newcastle Commercials, on the church at a little village called Authuille in the centre of the Somme battlefield, where the losses of the 16th Battalion were particularly severe on 1 July. The Commonwealth War Graves Commission provides enormous leadership for those who seek to enhance the memory of what happened. I commend the commission for achieving that.