Commonwealth War Graves Commission — Question for Short Debate

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 8:00 pm on 22 June 2015.

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Photo of Lord Tugendhat Lord Tugendhat Chair, EU External Affairs Sub-Committee, Chair, EU External Affairs Sub-Committee 8:00, 22 June 2015

My Lords, last week my wife and I were at Waterloo for the commemorations of the 200th anniversary of that battle, and we saw the unveiling of the magnificent new monument to the British Army at the Hougoumont Farm.

When I looked at the memorials, plaques and the other commemorations of those who fell, I was very struck to note that all of them were of officers—not just of officers but of officers from the smarter regiments such as the Guards and the cavalry, not from the Royal Waggon Train. There were no memorials for the non-commissioned officers or the other ranks; they were just the generic memorials. As others have said, it is impossible to overstate the importance of what was the Imperial War Graves Commission and is now the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, in making clear that equality of sacrifice requires equality of commemoration. I think of my maternal grandfather who was a major in the Royal Artillery buried at Cabaret-Rouge—a rather odd name for a cemetery—in northern France. He lies there with the men from his battery who fell in the same engagement and at the same time. This change that the War Graves Commission introduced reflects but also promotes an important change in our society. It embodies the principle that all are equal regardless of race, religion or social standing.

When I lived in Brussels as a Commissioner for many years, my wife and I found ourselves frequently taking visitors from home to the battlefields and cemeteries. They were always moving. They never palled. The shock and horror conveyed by the rows and rows of headstones made an impact whenever one saw them. Those headstones bring home the huge price paid by men and women—the fallen and their families—from all over Britain and the Commonwealth in the fight to resist tyranny and domination on the continent.

We are no longer a very religious country, but just as the great medieval cathedrals stand witness to the piety of an earlier age, and to the enduring values of the Christian religion, so must the graves and memorials of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission be eternally maintained in order to do exactly what the noble Viscount just said. It is very important that they should be maintained just as the cathedrals have been maintained. In this, happily, more peaceful age, we owe it to those who gave their lives to bring that situation about to ensure that this country always plays a constructive role on the continent in which so many of those graves are situated.