Commonwealth War Graves Commission — Question for Short Debate

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 7:54 pm on 22 June 2015.

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Photo of Lord Stirrup Lord Stirrup Crossbench 7:54, 22 June 2015

My Lords, I, too, have an interest as a member of the Government’s First World War centenary advisory committee. I join, too, in congratulating the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth of Drumlean, on securing this short but important debate. It is important because there are very powerful reasons for recognising and supporting the outstanding work of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission.

Those reasons were most powerfully brought home to me 11 years ago this month. I was in Normandy for the 60th anniversary of D-day. We were waiting in the Commonwealth Cemetery at Bayeux for the Queen and President Chirac to arrive for the start of the ceremony and I was talking to a group of cadets from the Air Training Corps. They were bright, enthusiastic young people, mostly around 17 years of age, who were helping with the administrative arrangements and looking after the veterans.

We were standing by a row of headstones and I asked the cadets whether they had really looked at the inscriptions. They had not, but they then started to read them in detail. They found words such as “Private Joe Smith, Died 9 June 1944, Aged 18 years”, “Private Arthur Brown, Died 10 June 1944, Aged 18 years”, “Aged 18 years”, “Aged 19 years” and so on. I could see from their eyes that for the first time they really understood: these were not just names from history. These were young people, much of an age with the cadets themselves, who had met their deaths in those days of June 1944. For the first time, the cadets truly understood this and thus made a personal connection with the past.

The same, of course, is true of the First World War. The three-quarters of a million who died were not just names on a wall or on a gravestone; they were not just appalling statistics. Each was an individual, and a lot of those individuals were not much older than those whose names we read in Normandy. Some would perhaps have gone on to be statesmen or diplomats, some to be businessmen, doctors or lawyers, artisans or farmers, factory workers or labourers. But it did not matter: the gravestones made no distinction of rank or status, and rightly so. For in that awful democracy of death, who dares say that any one potential life lost was worth more than another? They all loved and were loved. They all had hopes, aspirations, frustrations and disappointments. They all had value, and the full value of their lives was unrealised.

Herein lies one of the greatest achievements of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. The graves that it maintains and the headstones above those graves allow us to connect not just with the conflicts of the past, but with the people caught up in those conflicts, with the costs of those conflicts and with the individuals who paid the price. In the study of history, war can too often be represented mainly by the sweep of great events, but even in this technological age war is a very human business and the cost, even when the carnage is greatest, is measured in individual lives. The Commonwealth War Graves Commission helps us to realise and appreciate that basic truth. It enables us, young and old, to make the human connection. Its work enables us to say not just “We will remember them” but “We will remember them as the individuals they were”. Those who paid the ultimate price in the service of this nation deserve no less.