Commonwealth War Graves Commission — Question for Short Debate

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 8:11 pm on 22 June 2015.

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Photo of Lord Ramsbotham Lord Ramsbotham Crossbench 8:11, 22 June 2015

My Lords, as a former ex officio commissioner of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, I am very grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth, for obtaining this debate and enabling me and many other noble Lords to pay tribute to a jewel in the nation’s crown.

The tireless work of the commission’s gardeners in cemeteries all over the world is rightly admired by all who see it, and greatly appreciated by the relatives of those whose graves and memorials they maintain so devotedly. Although all different, every commission cemetery I have seen has the same air of dignified simplicity, honouring its motto: “I will make you a name”. Every nation has its own way of burying its war dead but for me the Imperial, now the Commonwealth, War Graves Commission way is supreme: everyone, whatever their rank or service, has the same headstone to which relatives are able to add some words of their own.

My assessment of the work of the commission can be summed up in two words, captured in two anecdotes. As a commissioner, I was invited to a showing of the film the commission made about its work following World War II, appropriately called “I Will Make You a Name”. When it ended, there was total silence, broken by the chairman, who asked if anyone wanted to say anything. Sue Ryder, another invitee, said, “Gosh”, immediately followed by her husband, Leonard Cheshire, who said, “No, more than that: gosh, gosh”.

My personal “gosh, gosh” commission grave is not in a cemetery but in its garden just north of Anzac Cove at Gallipoli. When our troops were withdrawn in January 1916, they were told to kill all the animals they could not evacuate. Some could not bring themselves to do that and turned their charges loose on a peninsula that remained unattended until 1919, when the Imperial War Graves Commission and its French and German opposite numbers returned to bury their respective dead. Amazingly, some of the animals survived and were taken back into service by the commission. One pony, called Billy, eventually retired and when he died was buried in a marked grave where he once grazed.

I hope the Minister will agree that whatever the pressures on the Government, in the spirit of “gosh, gosh”, they will do nothing to diminish the ability of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission to honour and care for those who gave their all on behalf of our great country.