Commonwealth War Graves Commission — Question for Short Debate

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 8:23 pm on 22 June 2015.

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Photo of Earl Howe Earl Howe The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence, Deputy Leader of the House of Lords 8:23, 22 June 2015

My Lords, I warmly thank my noble friend Lord Forsyth for tabling this Question for Short Debate and for giving the House the opportunity to give due recognition to the work of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. Last year we paid national tribute to those who fell in their millions in World War I, at the centenary of the start of what was justifiably known as the Great War. It is now 70 years on from VE and VJ Day, and we are remembering those who fell fighting for the Commonwealth in the Second World War, liberating Europe and the Far East from tyranny. Recently this year we also paid tribute to the thousands who perished in the seas and on the rocky hillsides of Gallipoli. All this shows the importance that we all place on the act of remembrance, so it could not be a more apposite time to have this debate and to recognise the excellent work done by the commission, especially with its own centenary coming up.

It is worth reminding ourselves of the value and significance of what the commission does. The Commonwealth War Graves Commission ensures that 1.7 million people who died in the two world wars will never be forgotten. Its cemeteries and memorials are designed to be a lasting tribute to the war dead, and places where visitors can come to remember their sacrifice. The commission cares for cemeteries and memorials at 23,000 locations in 154 countries. Its principles, laid out in 1917, that no distinction should be made on account of military or civil rank, race or creed, are as relevant today as they were almost 100 years ago.

At the same time, we also have a responsibility to maintain what the commission’s founder Sir Fabian Ware described as that “immortal heritage”. With regard to the fallen:

“Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn”,

yet their gravestones of the fallen are prone to the vagaries of climate, pollution and even vandalism, so conservation and maintenance is an ongoing task. Each year around 20,000 headstones are either replaced or repaired. As well as existing graves, sometimes new stones and even new graves are required to inter the remains of those brave souls only recently discovered, as has been mentioned in this debate. In 2010, for example, 250 Australian and British casualties from the Battle of Fromelles required the construction of an entirely new cemetery, Fromelles (Pheasant Wood) Military Cemetery in northern France.

The CWGC is at the heart of World War I centenary commemorations and, working with the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, will support the UK Government in their delivery of a series of high-profile state-level events, the majority of which will take place at commission locations, to mark key World War I anniversaries. The focus for commemoration of the Battle of Jutland will be Lyness in the Orkneys, and

Thiepval will host the event for the Battle of the Somme. The CWGC aims to mark these centenaries appropriately while engaging new generations in the importance of ongoing remembrance of the war dead and of visiting their sites.

Although when you think of a Commonwealth war grave cemetery you almost automatically think of those in Flanders and France, there are, as my noble friend Lord Forsyth mentioned, more than 300,000 Commonwealth service men and women who died in the two world wars who are commemorated in the United Kingdom. Their graves, numbering some 170,000, are to be found at over 13,000 locations. In addition, some 130,000 missing Royal Navy, Royal Air Force and Merchant Navy casualties are commemorated on the great memorials at Chatham, Plymouth, Portsmouth, Tower Hill and Runnymede. This is the highest total of world war commemorations in any country other than France, yet most people are completely unaware of this commemorative legacy on their doorstep. These widely dispersed and varied war graves are maintained directly by the commission’s staff or through more than 4,500 maintenance contracts and arrangements with individuals, contractors and burial and church authorities.

The CWGC has been working with the All-Party Parliamentary War Heritage Group, the education community and local communities to raise awareness of this nationally important commemorative heritage and to encourage communities to use these places as part of their efforts to remember those who died. New signage to help people identify sites containing war graves is being erected at more than 3,000 locations. Education and outreach initiatives are also under way. In the UK, the CWGC is aiming to raise awareness, appreciation and use of the war graves and memorials that exist here. It also seeks to raise understanding and acceptance of the fact that war graves in municipal cemeteries or churchyards cannot be maintained in the same way as those in dedicated war cemeteries—a point raised by the noble Lord, Lord Rosser. The unique approach to war graves in the UK—with the vast majority of graves scattered in burial grounds not owned or controlled by the CWGC rather than in military cemeteries or plots—means that they must inevitably be dealt with differently from the war cemeteries directly owned and managed by the CWGC overseas.

The noble Viscount, Lord Slim, highlighted the power and importance of visits. With so many locations, it is only natural that some are more visited than others. As a result of the public engagement in the World War I and World War II anniversaries, visitor numbers to the major cemeteries and memorials on the former Western Front are at an all-time high, yet many cemeteries get few or no visitors at all. Some places, such as Palestine, Salonika, east Africa and northern Italy, despite being significant visitor destinations, get few or no pilgrims to the war graves there. We would like to encourage visitors to take some time out when abroad, see if there is a British cemetery nearby and, if so, visit it. The level of sacrifice in both world wars is such that there are a very large number of such locations.

As the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Stirrup, rightly said, we should not forget that behind every single headstone and name on a memorial is a person, with a family, friends and a story to tell. The two world wars were global conflicts, and the contribution of the entire Commonwealth was vital to allied success. However, the sacrifice of men and women from undivided India, the West Indies and Africa is known but not extensively written about or recognised. Many of them are interred in the commission’s cemeteries. The CWGC has produced a series of award-winning education resources that attempt to address this overlooked aspect of our shared history, thereby ensuring an inclusive commemoration of the war dead.

The Government will never forget their responsibility towards the commission, and I reassure noble Lords that we remain committed to maintaining current levels of support in line with the official inflation rate. Apart from the UK, five other Commonwealth countries —Australia, Canada, South Africa, New Zealand and India—contribute to the cost in proportion to the number of graves that they have. The noble Lord, Lord Rosser, asked about unilateral funding reductions, and I am pleased to clarify that each of the CWCG member Governments has an equal say in the running of the CWCG. The UK contribution amounts to almost 80% of the total annual funding, which in 2015 was in excess of £47 million. In addition, the MoD provides £1.3 million to the CWGC for the cost of maintaining 20,000 Boer War graves in South Africa and a further 21,000 non-world war graves around the world.

As well as its numerous ongoing tasks, I know that the CWGC will be particularly busy this year. Arrangements are in place for the CWGC to continue the maintenance of post-war graves in cemeteries at Rheindahlen and Hanover as British forces withdraw from Germany. Discussions are also taking place on the maintenance of graves in the Falkland Islands. The commission continues to transform its business, delivering efficiency and financial stability, and making sure that the money it receives can go further.

The commission should be in no doubt of the value of its work to the Armed Forces, to the nation and to future generations. For almost a century it has played a critical part in the vital work of remembrance. It has made sure that those who fought for our freedom are given the honour and dignity they deserve in death. I know that all noble Lords will want to join me in giving the commission our thanks for everything that it does.

Sitting suspended.