My Lords, it is a privilege to open this debate, as it has been a privilege to be the Minister responsible for the First World War commemorations. The last four years of First World War centenary commemorations have both reflected and galvanised the nation’s desire to honour those who sacrificed so much for our freedom, while also helping people to understand and connect with the experiences of our forebears.
In six days’ time, on the centenary of the Armistice, the Government will conclude these important commemorations, while inspiring, we hope, individuals and communities to continue to learn about the impact and legacy of the war. On Sunday, the nation will, as usual, pause to remember all those who died during the First World War and in every conflict since. But we will also give thanks for the end of that war, and to all those who returned to their families. We will reflect on the price which was paid and continued to be paid generations after the first shots were fired in 1914—shots which were followed by a war so bloody, and on such an unprecedented, industrial scale, that even today it is difficult to comprehend.
There can be no doubt that the First World War is inescapably linked in the nation’s collective mind to death and suffering. Over the centenary, we have reflected on the sacrifice, bloodshed and horror of war. But it is also right that on this historic date we recognise the importance of a hard-won victory. That victory was due in no small part to the significant contribution of our allies from the Commonwealth and beyond. We have worked with them throughout the centenary period to mark some of the key battles and campaigns. On
In August of this year, I attended a service in Amiens Cathedral to commemorate the Battle of Amiens. This battle was one of the turning points of the war, and heralded the start of the Hundred Days Offensive which lasted from Amiens to the Armistice. Our international partners, the Governments of France, Canada, Australia and—for the first time—the United States, helped us to deliver this event. In an echo of the successful coalition of 100 years earlier, it was a moving and memorable experience. We were pleased to welcome His Excellency Joachim Gauck, former President of the Federal Republic of Germany. The German Government have been hugely supportive of our commemorations, and I am delighted that the current German President, His Excellency Frank-Walter Steinmeier, has accepted Her Majesty’s Government’s invitation in this special year to lay a wreath at the Cenotaph next Sunday and to attend the event at Westminster Abbey that evening. That spirit of friendship and reconciliation was also reflected in our commemorations of the Gallipoli campaign, where we welcomed the participation of the Turkish Government and armed forces.
These high-profile ceremonial events have, importantly, been complemented by an extensive programme of cultural and educational activities. Our stated themes, as set out by the then Prime Minister David Cameron in 2012, were remembrance, youth and education. Indeed, youth has been a key theme of the centenary programme since it was announced in 2012. All the Government’s First World War programmes have been designed to engage children and young people, including, for example, school battlefield tours, the Great War school debate series, and the 14-18 NOW cultural programme. Schools and organisations working with young people can also join the Imperial War Museum’s centenary partnership and get involved in events taking place near them. Young people from the National Citizen Service, the National Youth Choir of Scotland and the National Youth Choir of Great Britain had prominent roles in our commemorative events in 2017 and 2018.
The Government established the 14-18 NOW cultural programme in 2012 to work with artists in order to tell new stories through the mediums of culture and art. We have since seen the emergence of a new model for learning about heritage and the complexities of conflict through the arts with, we hope, an important legacy, especially in connecting young people with the centenary. 14-18 NOW has engaged more than 35 million people in the centenary, including 7.5 million young people under the age of 25. In doing so, it created new memories and helped explain the nature and impact of the war to people from all walks of life and of all ages. Works by an extraordinarily diverse range of artists from the UK and abroad have helped to highlight the contributions to the First World War of people from many different countries and backgrounds. Poets from the Caribbean and the Caribbean diaspora, visual artists from India and Bangladesh, performers from South Africa and musicians from Syria, among others, have all highlighted in their different ways the global reach and impact of war.
In addition to large-scale national events, we have sought to highlight the enormous contribution made by those Commonwealth nations who came to Britain’s aid. Some 2.5 million men and women from the Commonwealth and Empire answered the call to fight, with 200,000 laying down their lives. They left their homes in the Indian subcontinent, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Newfoundland, Africa and the Caribbean to serve the Allied cause. Commonwealth nations will rightly be represented at the Cenotaph and in Westminster Abbey on Sunday. I said “men and women”, and we do not forget the role of women in the First World War. All government commemorative events have recognised the role that women played in the war effort, be it as factory workers, nurses on the Western Front and at home, or as loved ones sending letters to the battlefield. Of course, last year marked the historic landmark of the first women getting the vote in this country.
Nor have we forgotten the role of Ireland. When the then Prime Minister and the then Taoiseach met in 2016, they reaffirmed that the UK and Irish Governments would continue to mark key First World War events in a spirit of mutual respect, inclusiveness and friendship. This was demonstrated in the shared approach to the Battle of Messines Ridge, commemorated on
The 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month of 1918 was an iconic moment in our history. In writings and recordings, soldiers often struggled to articulate how they felt at the moment the guns stopped firing. They reported a mixture of joy, relief, grief and often a sort of exhausted numbness—but there was also, for many, a sense of achievement and justice at what they understandably regarded as a significant and, despite everything, popular victory. Accordingly, after the service of remembrance we will move toward a spirit of thanksgiving for victory and toward the care and celebration of, and concern for, those who returned. And let us not forget the perhaps underreported fact that 88% of those who fought for the Allied cause returned home alive, if not always whole in body or mind.
So this year, the traditional Royal British Legion parade of veterans will be followed by an additional procession of 10,000 members of the public who wish to pay personal tribute and give thanks to the generation who served. The procession will be complemented by the nationwide ringing of bells from 12.30 pm, and at various times throughout the rest of the world—often the very same bells which rang out after four years of silence 100 years ago. In the evening, there will be a national service of thanksgiving in Westminster Abbey. Her Majesty the Queen and the President of Germany will be joined by guests who have contributed so much to commemorative projects of all types in communities across the country since 2014. Similar services will take place in Llandaff Cathedral, Cardiff, Glasgow Cathedral and St Anne’s Cathedral, Belfast.
I will take this opportunity to pay tribute to the work of the devolved Administrations to ensure that the particular contributions of Scottish, Welsh and Irish soldiers have been properly recognised. They have worked closely with us throughout the centenary period to complement our national commemorations and ensure that every part of the United Kingdom has had opportunities to engage with the stories and experiences of the war. In recent months, there has been an unprecedented amount of locally organised commemorative activity up and down the country, as the nations come together as never before to remember the events of a century ago.
The Government have been expertly supported throughout the centenary programme by its advisory group, consisting of highly regarded historians, former senior members of the Armed Forces, parliamentarians, writers, academics, journalists and others, some of whom are participating in today’s debate. I thank them all for devoting their time to advise us. I also extend my thanks to the Prime Minister’s special representative for First World War commemorations, Dr Andrew Murrison MP, whose work since 2013 in guiding these commemorations has been exceptional. Finally, the commemoration team at DCMS has organised events both here and abroad, and showed diplomacy, energy, sensitivity and enthusiasm that were a credit to this country. I thank them all.
I hope that it is not disrespectful to say that, although there have been moments of worry and emotion, I have enjoyed taking part in the last half of the four-year commemoration. In that vein, I greatly look forward to listening to your Lordships’ speeches today. I beg to move.
My Lords, it is a great privilege to follow the Minister and to have the opportunity to thank him and his department for their extraordinary leadership over the past four extraordinary years. Imagination and inclusion seem to have been exactly the characteristics needed, and were indeed what his department provided.
We have had four extraordinary years, and it is now time to reflect on the Armistice. We have to admit that it was an armistice that ended one war but opened the path to another. Commemorating it requires us to look beyond the Armistice to the world we inherited, and what we have done with it. Commemorating a war which was, in so many ways, unbelievably cruel and futile, but which we remember and honour for the courage, sacrifice and dignity shown, has been a conflicting experience. The Great War lives in our memories and imaginations like nothing else. However, of necessity, most of the personal memories are long buried.
The past four years have enabled people across the community to reach into the past and their own histories, bringing to life the countless names, diaries, poems, photographs, letters, songs and stories in a way that simply could not have been imagined. It has revived old griefs but it has also, as the Minister said, provoked magnificent new art, new understanding and new heritage. It has enabled us to look beyond the statistics and into the eyes of those who were there.
In his book on the Armistice, Joseph Persico wrote that if all the men who had died in the war were to march four abreast, the column would stretch 386 miles from Paris, half way through Switzerland, and it would have taken from 9 am on Monday to 4 pm on Saturday to pass. There would have been scientists marching past in that ghostly column; men such as Henry Moseley, who reinvented the periodic table, and who was probably the most brilliant scientist of his generation. This was indeed a scientists’ war. There were poets of every nation: Alfred Lichtenstein, the German poet; Hedd Wyn, the Welsh poet; Apollinaire, the French poet; Edward Thomas and Wilfred Owen, our own poets, who we grew up with. There were composers such as George Butterworth. We can only imagine the sort of world that they would have created if they had lived.
The far greater number were those who, in Kipling’s words, were known only to God. Among them were the 360 ordinary men from Lewes in Sussex—foundry workers, farm labourers, clerks and teachers—who also died and who stand for the ordinary. Whereas we know the legacy of the writers, artists, philosophers and scientists, because we live with that every day, we have not known much about those men and what they might have done—until now. The 360 men of Lewes were brought back to life in a truly remarkable event last Armistice Day by Lewes Remembers, a small group of local people, including our historic bonfire societies, who meticulously researched each of the men and their families. They knew where they lived and what they did; in some cases, they knew what they were like. On the evening of Armistice Day last year 360 men, matched in age with those who had died and leaving wherever possible from the homes that they had left, marched silently with blazing torches through the streets to converge on our war memorial. As each name was read out, one man stepped forward and extinguished his torch. It was done with immense dignity and it was unforgettable.
All over the country during the past four years, over 2,000 such projects have been funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund—I declare an interest as deputy secretary of its board—with £97 million contributed by lottery players who made this national conversation possible. We know now for the first time about the sports clubs, the church groups and scout groups that lost their young men; about the men who were simply fading names on a war memorial; about the lives of children in care, the contributions of women and the role of ethnic and faith communities, such as the Sikhs. We know that history has been expressed in every form of art and music, in brilliant new work commissioned as 14-18 NOW projects, as the Minister said, and in the way that old and new have joined hands across history to rediscover what they have in common.
The past four years have made possible no less than a new way of doing history: a way of uncovering the human spirit and the personal truths about that awful war and its aftermath that would have lain buried for ever. That is one form of legacy for which we are richer in every way but I am hopeful, as I think the Minister is, that this will not be the end. The Armistice commemorations this week give us the chance to take the next step: to build on what we know we can find out to understand and uncover more of what was involved after the war in the making and keeping—and the losing—of peace, and apply those lessons.
The aspirations for a peace which, as the Treaty of Versailles put it, would be “firm, just and durable” were not realised. In its first article it created a League of Nations built on international co-operation, peace and security but it failed to outlaw war. It took another war before it could be rebuilt on firmer foundations.
Wales has a particular story to tell. I hope that your Lordships will indulge me because it is not well known. In many ways, it is the story of one man: Lord Davies of Llandinam, soldier, philanthropist and politician, whose experience in the trenches made him determined to pursue in all the ways he could the idea of a stable international order and, in particular, a League of Nations. He founded the Temple of Peace in Cardiff to house the welsh council of the League of Nations. He founded the first ever department of international politics, in Aberystwyth in 1919,
“for the study of those related problems of law and politics, of ethics and economics, which are raised by the prospect of a League of Nations and for the truer understanding of civilisation other than our own”.
I declare another interest as a graduate of that department, which has been at the cutting edge of thought leadership over a century and continues, in its centenary year, to ask the difficult questions.
One of our HLF flagship projects in Wales has been about peace. Wales for Peace is uncovering the stories of how, in 100 years, people from Wales have contributed themselves to the search for peace—not just by digitising the names in memory of all those who died but by looking for the peacebuilders and writing about them as well. They are great stories, not least of the teachers of Wales who invented the first peace and global education curriculum, the principles of which were integrated into the founding of UNESCO. These stories need to be better known, because they have in their own legacy the instinctive desire that young people have to grow up in a just and peaceful world. Understanding what prevents and makes an end to conflict should be a far more explicit part of our national curriculum. That indeed could be a great legacy.
In that context, I am bound to say that it is hardly credible that we in the UK now stand on the brink of detaching ourselves from the one European institution formed deliberately to maintain peace, based on shared laws and values. In the current state of our post-truth, post-law, post-rational world, we must listen to what the past tells us. We are knee-deep in explanations for what caused the Great War among which, as Margaret MacMillan has said, is the lack of conviction that there were better alternatives. To that I would add rampant nationalism.
It is almost commonplace to say that in 1914 the nations did indeed sleepwalk into that living nightmare, and that perhaps is the greatest lesson we can learn. Thanks to President Macron there will be a new opportunity this week to restate our faith and invest in international law and institutions, through his concept of the Paris Peace Forum, which will offer the opportunity to reflect on world governance while we commemorate the end of World War I and recognise our collective responsibility:
“Let us never be sleepwalkers in our world”.
Can the Minister give me an assurance today that our Government will be a full and enthusiastic participant in this initiative, as part of the legacy of the Armistice itself?
At the same time, a few hundred miles away in Bradford, William Thomas Riley had been demobbed after being injured in the trenches. What I knew about this great-grandfather I learned from my father because, unlike John Jones, William Riley lived to a ripe old age—long enough to send a card noting and congratulating the birth of his first great-grandchild Rosalind, which I still have. I knew only that he had gone to war, came back and then never spoke of what had happened to him. I also knew that, for the rest of his life, his behaviour could be erratic. My father said, in characteristic understated Yorkshire style, “He was a rum lad, my grandad”.
I found out many years after my father’s death that Private William Thomas Riley was a labourer. He was five feet five, had hazel eyes and brown hair, and weighed 130 pounds, so small and probably under- nourished, like so many working-class men of that generation. He enlisted on
I learned that on
I wanted to use today’s debate to celebrate and honour brave men such as John Jones and William Thomas Riley, but also to recognise and celebrate the individuals and organisations, many of them voluntary, which since then have painstakingly preserved, interpreted and made accessible so much of the public record. They have enabled many thousands of people like me to learn more than they could ever have believed possible about their ancestors. Their contribution is immense because in the facts they reveal and the stories they tell they make sure that collective and individual histories are preserved and remain to be celebrated and learned from by generations to come.
From Commonwealth War Graves Commission records I learned the names of John Jones’s parents, taking my research back a generation. I learned that his name, along with the 21 other crew members who lost their lives that day, is inscribed on the Tower Hill Memorial, which commemorates more than 50,000 merchant seamen who died in two world wars.
Much of the Navy and Army history upon which I drew came from the National Archives, for which I am a non-executive board member. Its professionalism and skill in keeping a public record of more than 1,000 years safe and accessible is world-leading. Nowadays, access to records is no longer limited to those who can get to Kew. It is open to all online through a system called Discovery, on which 32 million records—9 million of them downloadable—are available. Many millions more are available through the National Archives partnership with commercial organisations such as Ancestry and Find My Past. To commemorate this anniversary, the National Archives will be displaying the treaty of Versailles and the Armistice agreement in the Keeper’s Gallery.
The UK National Maritime Museum, the British Newspaper Archive and the Imperial War Museum all provide wonderfully rich seams of information, as do the archives of companies such as Tate & Lyle and charities such as Barnardo’s. Local authority archives are a wonderful source of information which should be treasured. I am very nervous that the poor state of local authority finances will endanger their integrity and the access that local public record offices offer. Those of us with roots in west Yorkshire are fortunate that the archive service there is excellent and was at the forefront of digitisation. This must be preserved.
There are many small voluntary groups which work in highly specialist areas, such as the Welsh Mariners Index and the Maritime Archaeology Trust, both of which helped my research. There are also many local organisations, researchers and writers who celebrate the rich history of their neighbourhoods. We heard that so powerfully from the noble Baroness, Lady Andrews, when she described what happened in Lewes. David Raw’s immaculately researched book Bradford Pals is such a powerful evocation of my great-grandfather’s experience. David Raw reminds us that of the first 100 pals to enlist, 39 were killed and 19, like my great-grandfather, were sufficiently seriously wounded to be permanently discharged. There is also the work of local war memorial trusts, which care for the monuments themselves but also transcribe them and research the people on them.
This is a powerful coming together of government, private sector and civil society activity which is transforming the discipline of local and family history. They have all contributed so much to this four-year celebration. They have helped us to understand and know these brave forebears of ours, these ordinary people who did extraordinary things, and in knowing them better, we can honour them more.
My Lords, I declare an interest as a member of the Government’s First World War centenary advisory committee. Let me start by recording that, as a member of that committee, I have been privileged to see at first hand the outstanding work that has been done by so many people and organisations over the past few years to ensure that this nation has commemorated appropriately the enormous sacrifices that were made on such a horrific scale between 1914 and 1918.
If the British military of today were to endure casualties equivalent to the same percentage of the UK population that was lost in the First World War, the dead would number more than 1 million. That, of course, is more than five times the present total size of our Armed Forces. These are numbers which are very difficult for people to comprehend now.
The various centenary commemorations, however, have been very successful in bringing home to those growing up in the 21st century the nature of the conflict and the impact that it had on a whole generation in this country. That was of course one of the main aims of the commemorative process and in this, in my view, it has succeeded admirably. The major battles have been acknowledged and analysed, the impact on the country and its population have been examined closely and the effects of the war on local communities and organisations have been highlighted in all sorts of revealing ways. This is very much to be welcomed, and I congratulate all those in schools, museums and veterans’ organisations who have worked so hard to bring these things out of the shadows of history and into the light of contemporary thinking.
However, I have a reservation. Some six years ago, during our first discussions about the centenary, I made the point that while we had to mark the key milestones of the war, and while of course we had to remember and reflect on the sacrifices made by so many, there was a larger and, in some ways, even more important perspective. If the centenary was to be more than a passing acknowledgment of a dreadful period in our history, if it was to be of lasting benefit to coming generations, then it would be crucial to focus not just on the courses of the war but on its causes and its consequences.
Happily, in the months leading up to August 2014, there was a great deal of debate in the written and broadcast media and within our schools over the events, misadventures and miscalculations that plunged the world into such a catastrophe. We have now, though, been through over four years of commemorative events. They have been superbly arranged and movingly executed, and even in the most difficult of circumstances they have struck the appropriate tone. But four years is a long time, and there is a sense that the centenary of the Armistice is a good point at which to bring the process to a close. That would be a serious mistake.
After a great many missteps, years of stalemate on a number of fronts and bloodletting on an unimaginable scale, in November 1918 the allies finally achieved a decisive operational victory. Over the following few years, however, their diplomatic and political failures turned this into a strategic defeat of the first order, a defeat that would set us on the path to the Second World War and to even greater carnage. The hubris of victory, the increasing alienation of Germany, the creation of the “stab in the back” myth, the failure of the United States to engage properly in the global commons, the San Remo agreements on the division of the remnants of the Ottoman Empire, which we see unravelling before our eyes today—all these things, and others, led us eventually to a much darker abyss than the one from which we emerged in November 1918.
There is, of course, disagreement about the relative importance of these factors: about whether Germany was really left in such a parlous position, about the extent to which irresponsible governance of the international financial scene played a part, and about the debilitating political impact of the war on western democracies. Good. These are just the sort of debates and discussions that we should be having, because it is an inescapable fact that little more than 20 years after the “war to end all wars” we endured an unprecedented global cataclysm. We should be taking this opportunity to ask why. We should be discussing as a society the rise of selfish nationalism, the failure of international mechanisms and the unwillingness to confront challenges to international law and order. Most importantly, we should be asking our schools to explore these issues with their students and to set them in the context of our world today.
This week, as part of the Armistice centenary events, torches have been lit at the Tower of London. These torches represent the rekindling of hope following the devastation of the war, but after 1918 the flames of hope flickered only fitfully before finally guttering to extinction in the 1930s. They failed in their promise because people forgot that peace is a fragile thing and that it can be sustained only through constant effort. This lesson was learned in 1945, when the victorious allies put in place, and committed to, institutions and processes to nurture the global commons. When the peace of Europe was again threatened, by the division that split former comrades in arms between East and West, the response was one of unified and determined purpose exemplified by NATO, not one of fragmentation and rancour.
Today the institutions that have served us so well for more than 70 years are under threat. They are, of course, imperfect and in some cases, no doubt, they are in need of renewal, but they should not therefore be cast aside as so much obsolete bureaucracy. If the years immediately following the Armistice teach us anything, it is that the rejection of collective security in the pursuit of an illusory idea of self-interest puts us all at risk, and that a failure to unite, with all the messy compromises that this entails, leaves us exposed and vulnerable to the dangers of an uncertain world.
The world of 2018 is not the same as the one of 1918. We cannot draw direct parallels between the two eras. However, as Mark Twain reminded us, while history never repeats itself, it does sometimes rhyme. I have an uncomfortable sense that we are hearing such a rhyme now. Those who sacrificed so much in the First World War were let down by those who sought to make the peace. If we can use their example to help us to do better, then that sacrifice will not have been wholly in vain. That is why the centenary of the Armistice should not be an end, but a new beginning of reflection, debate, and learning.
My Lords, it is hard to imagine the mood of the country 100 years ago, when the hellish cacophony of gunfire gradually ceased on the 11th hour on the 11th day of the 11th month, to be replaced by an almost equally deafening silence—not a peaceful silence, but the suffocating, overwhelming sense of emptiness that comes with grief. Over 6 million men in Britain served during the war and around 725,000 never returned. Over the course of the conflict, 1.75 million men suffered an injury of some kind; half this number would be left permanently disabled, and all would be psychologically scarred for life. Men of all ages had signed up believing that it was their duty and that there was a job to be done. They trusted that they would have a job to come home to. When this did not happen, the most vulnerable just slipped into poverty and destitution. The rank and file who had fought with their backs to the wall believing in the justice of their cause had, in many cases, lost everything including their dignity and self-respect. The Government of the day were totally unprepared for the situation, resulting in delays of pension payments to widows and the disabled. Compared with other countries, including Germany, we were behind the curve, and there were lessons to be learned in treating visible and invisible wounds.
My grandfather, Douglas Haig, felt an enormous burden of responsibility towards the men who had served under him as Commander-in-Chief. Accordingly, he addressed the needs of the veterans and their families with the same dogged determination he had demonstrated in helping defeat the enemy. He recognised that men needed employment more than charity and, though naturally modest and reserved, he became very vocal on their behalf, using his influence, where he could, to advance their welfare and interests. The British Legion, of which he became the first president, came into being in 1921 because of his insistence on having a single organisation uniting the four national organisations of ex-servicemen that had established themselves immediately after the end of the war.
My grandmother set up the Lady Haig Poppy Factory in Edinburgh in 1926, along similar lines to the Poppy Factory in Richmond, which had been established four years before. She started it with just three helpers, red paper and scissors. Within 10 years, the factory was employing nearly 100 severely disabled people. At the same time, she was behind a housing project in Richmond which by 1930 had provided 330 veterans with homes. She regularly accompanied widows and orphans on battlefield visits.
The red poppy, which had carpeted Picardy in the summer months of 1919, carried such significance for the families of those whose blood had been spilled on those foreign fields that a facsimile of it soon became a uniting emblem of remembrance and hope in the midst of the encircling, autumnal gloom. The idea of a Poppy Appeal, which raised over £100,000 in its first year, 1921, was formulated around the dining room table at my grandmother’s family home in Cornwall, following an approach to her by Madame Guérin, who had introduced a commemorative flower in the United States and Canada.
There is no doubt that the First World War was a catalyst for enormous change—social, political and moral, and in the areas of science and medicine, warfare and technology. One could even say that the 20th century truly began in 1914. With the birth of total war came the realisation that conflicts could be global and devastating in scope. For this reason, many believed, somewhat optimistically, that the Great War was the “war to end all wars”. But humankind has an extraordinary capacity to undermine such hopes. The fissures and tensions created by the hostilities—political, military and cultural—were to cast a long shadow and blight following generations.
A memorable day for me in this Armistice centenary year was when I had the honour of meeting Colonel Eric Bécourt-Foch, great-grandson of Marshal Foch, at the laying of wreaths to commemorate the Marshal’s appointment as Supreme Allied Commander in March 1918. I congratulate the Minister’s department on the efficient way that it organised this historic event. It was hugely appreciated by the French present for the ceremony. In a private conversation after the service, a senior representative of the French armed forces stressed to me the importance of continued co-operation in the military field between our two countries, and, in fact, throughout Europe. I agreed with him 100%: we are leaving the EU, not Europe, irrespective of Brexit.
Let us not forget how fragile the situation was in 1945, when a shattered Europe once again faced an uncertain future, this time with a very threatening neighbour on its doorstep. Seventy years’ worth of careful rebuilding of alliances and trust should not be dismissed lightly. In the spring of 1918, in the wake of Operation Michael, when our depleted and exhausted Army faced the fiercest onslaught by fresh German troops, the outcome of the war was balanced on a knife edge. It was the co-operation between the British Commander-in-Chief and the Supreme Allied Commander that reversed our fortunes. Their unity of purpose, founded on mutual respect and underpinned by strong leadership, resulted in a highly successful campaign, involving Britain and its dominions, other European countries and America, which delivered victory in 1918.
When we stand to observe the two-minute silence on Sunday, we will remember the families of the men and women who never came back, whose sacrifice in the Great War secured peace and justice, freedom and democracy, as well as those who finally laid down their arms, after four years of relentless struggle.
My Lords, 100 years after the Armistice was signed, it is an interesting commentary on the diversity of this Chamber as well as on the unanimity in what I am sure we will say in the coming few hours that I, the grandson of a south Wales miner, should be following the grandson of Lord Haig.
I want to reflect on the impact of the sacrifice in the First World War on the eastern valley of Gwent, which used to be Monmouthshire. It is a valley that includes Cwmbran, Pontypool and Blaenavon and which was, 100 years ago, made up almost wholly of men who worked in the collieries and in the steelworks. Over the last four years, a very good friend of mine who had been a local councillor—Stuart Cameron—has been compiling month by month a register of those who perished in the war. That has come an end, and we now know that, over those four years of the war, in a valley whose population was much less than it is now, 1,300 men perished. A whole generation of young men in that valley was decimated. It is ironic that 1918 was the highest year for casualties: some 317 men died in that last year of the war.
Almost every single family was affected by that war, more than by any other conflict before that. That was, of course, because of conscription. Many men had to go to war because of national service, and others went because they volunteered. From those 1,300 men to whom I referred, 37 families lost two sons and five families lost three sons. The family of Henry and Elizabeth Williams of Pontnewydd had seven sons who fought in that war and three were killed. Of those seven sons, one was a steelworker and six worked underground.
Most of them joined up with the 2nd Battalion The Monmouthshire Regiment and the South Wales Borderers, but many others as well. Some 65 of those who died were in the Royal Navy, despite the fact that the south Wales valleys were not naval areas. That included a relative of mine who was killed in the Battle of Jutland. Six served in the very young Royal Air Force. This coming week, the Royal Welsh Regimental Association of Torfaen, of which I am president, will play a significant role locally and beyond that. The Cwmbran and District Ex-Servicemen’s Association has been chosen to represent south Wales, among others, at Ypres, in the coming celebration and commemoration there.
Four women from my valley died in the First World War. One was in the RAF and the other three were nurses. The Minister touched on what happened afterwards: the life of women changed dramatically. In 1918, they received the vote, although my grandmother—because of her class—had to wait another 10 years before she was able to vote. It has often struck me that I actually knew my grandmother; she did not really have the opportunity to cast that vote until she was in her 50s. More than 100 senior and significant medals were won by the men of Torfaen and I pay tribute to them.
It is quite interesting that the war began with enormous enthusiasm and euphoria. The Revered Williams was the rector of the parish of Panteg in the eastern valley. Through his sermons and his speeches, he encouraged the men of the valley to sign up. It is said that by 1918, he was a broken man because of the shock of the fates of so many young people whom he had urged to sign up to fight in that war.
The men of the eastern valley were commemorated 100 years ago this weekend. The church bells rang in our valley churches, as they will in this great city, but the hooters of the factories and the steelworks, and the whistles of the locomotive collieries, also celebrated the end of that war. It is significant that during this debate we will hear many stories of ordinary men, and sometimes women, who lost their lives in the conflict.
The services held 100 years ago this week, and those to be held this week, are not just for those who died but for those who came back as well: those who were injured, psychologically and physically, and indeed for all the men, women and children who remained at home. Tragically, of course, two decades later it all happened again. The significance of this week should be that when we look back at history, as we must, we learn those lessons. We did not learn them in 1938-39 in quite the same way as perhaps we can today, but we can still remember those men, and sometimes women, whose courage inspires us and whose sacrifice is still undoubted.
My Lords, this debate is quite rightly focused on the
My father was a wartime soldier in the Royal Artillery in the First World War, first in France and Belgium, until he was wounded at Passchendaele, and after a hospital in France and convalescence in England he was sent to join the so-called Egyptian Expeditionary Force in Palestine under General Allenby. He therefore served on both the Western and Turkish fronts.
In 1914, we British had underestimated the Turkish forces, but we had learned our lesson the hard way. Our naval attempt to force the Dardanelles was thwarted, with great loss. The increasingly desperate attempt over months to advance at Gallipoli was defeated, also with terrible loss of life. The first advance in Mesopotamia led to a humiliating surrender at Kut. Later we recovered the ground, but we did not get all that much further in Mesopotamia.
In trying to advance up the coast of Palestine from Egypt we lost the first two battles of Gaza, right at the start. By then, 1917, we certainly did not underestimate the quality or fighting spirit of the Turkish army, nor the skill and leadership of its commanders, including Mustafa Kemal, later known as Atatürk—the founder of secular Turkey—and German generals such as von Sanders.
General Allenby’s army was skilfully led and, in a war of manoeuvre and surprise, it won the Third Battle of Gaza, and then went on to capture Jerusalem in December 1917. Once his army had been reinforced with Indian and Empire troops to replace those withdrawn for the Western Front, he pressed on again and won the Battle of Megiddo in the following year.
The Plain of Jezreel had seen two great battles before in history. In 609 BC, the Bible tells us that the Egyptians won a major battle at Megiddo in their war with the Babylonians. Almost a millennium before that, the hieroglyphs at Luxor tell us that in the first Battle of Megiddo, in around 1457 BC, the Egyptians crushed the Canaanite forces on much the same ground in an epic battle. It is through these great ancient battles that Har Megiddo is known to us as Armageddon. In 1918, Allenby’s crushing victory at Megiddo enabled him to capture Damascus, then Beirut and Aleppo; so, with our armies on the edge of Turkey itself, it led to the Armistice of
The slaughter on the Turkish front was not perhaps on the same industrial scale as that on the Western Front, but it was huge. Many of the troops involved came from Britain’s loyal Empire, in particular from the wider India—as it was then defined—and from Australia and New Zealand. We should not forget this theatre of the Great War. It led to the long-predicted end of the Ottoman Empire. My father’s letters home at the time reflect his relief at having survived the war—and of course I share that sentiment.
The armistices, including that on the Western Front, were phrased as temporary truces, which fortunately were extended. The final tragedy of the Great War was the peace conference; the powerful speech just now of the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Stirrup, explains why. The emotions and political pressures involved were inevitably huge. Wavell, then an officer on Allenby’s staff but later field marshal, commented at the time:
“After the war to end all wars they seem to have”,
“‘Peace to end Peace’”.
That is how things turned out, both in Europe and in the Middle East. It is a message to us, as the noble and gallant Lord said, that we must not forget.
My Lords, I would like to focus my remarks today on the crucial contribution made by over 3 million Commonwealth soldiers during World War I, almost half of whom came from undivided India, encompassing present-day Pakistan and Bangladesh. My noble friend Lord Lexden led an excellent debate on this topic on
“had they stayed at home ... the history of the world would have taken a different course”.
The swift arrival of Indian troops on the Western Front in September 1914 was absolutely critical to preventing a German breakthrough. A sepoy named Khudadad Khan was awarded the first of 11 Indian Victoria Crosses after valiantly staying at his machine gun when all his colleagues were killed around him. Without men like him, the war might quickly have been lost. In all, 74,000 Indians serving in multiple continents, from the Somme to the Sahara, never returned home.
Given this remarkable courage and sacrifice, it has been a personal privilege for me to collaborate with the Royal British Legion and with my honourable friend Tom Tugendhat—who I am pleased to see has joined us at the Bar—on a series of activities to highlight this often-forgotten history. As parliamentarians, strongly committed to making “Global Britain” a reality and not just a slogan, our challenge is harnessing this shared history and making it relevant for future generations in both countries.
In doing so, we have sought to build on the pioneering work of other Members of your Lordships’ House, notably the noble Baroness, Lady Flather, who led the commissioning of the Memorial Gates on Constitution Hill and my noble friend Lord Bilimoria, who has consistently championed this cause, given his family’s own distinguished background in the Armed Forces. I would also like to acknowledge my noble friend Lord Sheikh, who led another excellent debate in this Chamber as far back as December 2013, and my noble friend Lord Rana, whose native state of Punjab provided so many heroic Sikh soldiers.
One of the initiatives which I refer to is the specially commissioned poppy made out of khadi, the homespun cotton made famous by Mahatma Gandhi. I am delighted to see so many Members of your Lordships’ House wearing this poppy, and I would like to explain its background and poignant symbolism. During India’s freedom struggle, Gandhi promoted the use of a spinning wheel to make India more self-sufficient and to support rural employment. The resulting hand-woven fabric, or khadi, became synonymous with India’s independence movement.
Although many associate Gandhi with non-violence and vigorously opposing the British Raj, his behaviour during World War I was highly revealing. At the outbreak of war, Gandhi was on a ship from South Africa homeward bound to India, with a scheduled stop in England. On
“it was our duty to win their help by standing by them in their hour of need”.
What was meant to be a brief sojourn in London turned into a four-month stop-over, during which Gandhi personally chaired a committee recruiting members for the Indian field ambulance corps and even took nursing classes himself. When Gandhi eventually returned to India, he was active in enlisting volunteers to the Indian army, including from difficult-to-reach areas, such as his home state of Gujarat. Openly proclaiming himself as the “recruiting agent-in-chief’, he defied criticism from his own friends and colleagues. Although he was always careful to make clear that:
“I personally will not kill or injure anybody, friend or foe”,
Gandhi’s principled and loyal support was crucial at a difficult time in India’s relationship with Britain.
That is the profound significance of the khadi poppy. It is a highly appropriate gesture, not just to recognise the outsized contribution of Indian soldiers, but it also invokes the courageous solidarity of Mahatma Gandhi. In keeping with that spirit, the design is identical in almost every respect, including its colour, to the traditional poppy, apart from the hugely symbolic twist of using khadi. It does not seek to single out just one group but remembers everyone: it is a unifying symbol for us all.
I hope that it also sends a powerful signal to Asians growing up in Britain and inspires the next generation to understand their own identity. They should know that their parents and grandparents did not just come here as immigrants. Our ancestors fought for this country and for freedom and democracy, even though they lived in a colony at the time. We therefore have as great a stake here as anyone else. Indeed, everyone from the Commonwealth should be proud of the role which their forebears played in shaping the destiny of the world a century ago.
The scandalous treatment of the Windrush generation shows what can happen when history is forgotten. It demonstrates the value of having an honest conversation about Britain’s colonial legacy and how this can be a cathartic process. This is particularly important given that our country is now home to an estimated 6 million people from Commonwealth countries—around one in 10 of our population. The centenary of the war has provided a welcome opportunity for having this conversation. Next year’s centenary of the Jallianwala Bagh massacre, on
Just as the poppy symbolises remembrance in Britain, in India it is the marigold, which is worn on Armed Force Flag Day, held on
This reminder of the values which bind Britain and India together is timely, since it comes at a moment when threats to freedom and the world order confront both countries. So, on Remembrance Sunday, when the Member for Tonbridge and Malling lays a wreath in Delhi and a British Indian Peer pays his respects in Westminster Abbey, the wheel of history will have come full circle. On Saturday, at the Royal Albert Hall, Her Majesty the Queen will hear a reading of the famous poem “The Gift of India” written by Sarojini Naidu, Mahatma Gandhi’s friend, in which she demanded that we:
“Remember the blood of my martyred sons”.
On this important anniversary, we will. But we will go a step further, by committing to build a better world for the next generation.
My Lords, Armistice Day and Remembrance Sunday are about remembering all those—both men and women—who fought and died during the wars. It is often a very private remembrance for us to remember those in our own families who fought in the wars, some of whom died. The noble Baroness, Lady Scott of Needham Market, talked about research into our family histories. I have recently completed our family tree and I got the Cathcarts back, father and son, to the Normans. The first few were knights before they were created Barons in about 1400. In 1513, all the Cathcart brothers were annihilated—killed at the Battle of Flodden, along with their King, James IV of Scotland. Luckily, the eldest brother already had a baby son, otherwise I would not be standing here today. Thank goodness they had no family planning in those days.
My father was the seventh general in the direct line of Cathcarts, with three other generals in branches of the tree, making a total of 10 generals in all. There were also four ambassadors in the direct line, and one or two governors-general. After I completed the family tree, I thought to myself: “Beat that if you can”. Buoyed up by my success in completing that family tree, I am now in the process of doing my mother’s. It is a work in progress, but I have so far identified 11 generals, one ambassador and two admirals, one of whom was awarded the VC. So, in my mind, her family definitely did beat that. I was in the Army for a few years, but I never reached their dizzy heights. With hindsight, I must have been a bitter disappointment to both families; I broke the mould.
Seven of my grandparents’ generation fought in the First World War; three of my great-uncles were killed. This is not a dissimilar experience from that of millions of other families. During the Second World War, my father and uncle both joined up and happily survived. Strangely, I never heard either of them talk about their experiences during the war; I learned more about their war after they died. One can understand why many of that generation wanted to draw a line under their painful experiences and just move on.
That is not quite true. My father mentioned just two incidents. The first was when we were talking about a friend of mine. My father said:
“Of course, he was my godson. It was such a pity that his father, Nigel, never knew that he had a son”.
When I pressed him to explain, he said that his tank battalion was advancing on the enemy in Normandy and when he looked to his right, he saw Nigel’s tank being blown up and on fire. He then saw Nigel, his great friend, escaping through the turret with his clothes on fire. He died before he hit the ground. Millions of servicemen must have had similar experiences.
The second occasion was when I was a young officer. My father insisted on taking me to Belsen concentration camp. While there, he said that he and other officers and men were made to visit the camp the day after it was liberated, in order to witness first-hand the horrendous things that had taken place there. He said that the horrors of what they saw that day stuck with him as if it were yesterday.
War is a horrific business, and all of us living today have much for which to thank those who fought and died, men and women, so that we can live with the freedoms, peace and democracy that we so cherish—and perhaps, to some extent, take for granted. Long may we remember them.
My Lords, my noble friend Lady Andrews has said that the poets got it right, and didn’t they just:
“In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row
That mark our place”.
Later in John McCrae’s poem he writes:
“If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields”.
I hope that we have not broken faith as we acknowledge the centenary of the Armistice in 1918. We have a particular responsibility, because the century passes on our watch and we need to tell the story forward, louder than ever, to keep faith with those who gave their lives 100 years ago.
Nine young men went from Balscote, my village in Oxfordshire: John L Compton, Sydney Cox, Henry Coles, Thomas Cook, Arthur WM Gardner, Eric Hitchcox, Herbert Hitchcox, Cyril Kempson and Christopher Skuse. So many young men, from cities, towns and villages all over this country, volunteered, were later conscripted, and were often devoured by the war. As Wilfred Owen said:
“What candles may be held to speed them all?”
My own great-uncles from the west of Ireland were just some of the 200,000 Irish who fought alongside allied forces—it was indeed a long way to Tipperary. As the noble Lord, Lord Gadhia, said, young men in their millions came from the Empire, including Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs from pre-partition India who fought at Neuve Chapelle, breaking through the German defence for the first time, and at Ypres, Givenchy, Loos, Festubert, and of course the Somme.
They came from Africa—95,000 of the East African Carrier Corps gave their lives—South Africa, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Newfoundland and the Caribbean. The Jewish Zion Mule Corps and the Chinese Labour Corps, which numbered 100,000, served alongside the British Expeditionary Force. With none of them do we break faith.
Nearer to home, they came from across Europe —a Europe that we are moving away from, I fear. In a recent visit to Plymouth, the city in which I grew up, I realised on rereading the names of the fallen on the magnificent naval war memorial there that on one of our ships, the entire ship’s band, all 26 of them, had Italian names—names such as Baldacchino, Carmando, Cavallazzi and Consiglio. Two had the same name, Portoghese. Perhaps they were brothers or cousins or even father and son. Everyone who served and died in this war has a right to be remembered and their story told.
But the story, as many noble Lords have said, is incomplete if we do not honour the part played by women; the redoubtable women who against all odds gave service at the front in the field hospitals and who joined the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps as mechanics, cooks, drivers and clerks. In total, more than 100,000 women joined Britain’s Armed Forces during the war, and Louise Jordan’s current one-woman show, “No Petticoats Here”, which is amazing, tells us about these unsung heroines.
While women had worked outside the home before 1914, they now really took up the heavy lifting in what had been men-only work in the ammunition factories where conditions were often harsh, such as the Birmingham Small Arms Company factory in my former European Parliament constituency. They worked in transport and in the police. In 1916, Evelyn Miles became the first woman to join the police in Birmingham. As Evelyn Underhill wrote in her poem “Non-combatants”:
“Never of us be said,
We had no war to wage”.
The Government’s programme of centenary commemorations has been fitting, creative and respectful in its offer and its delivery and especially in its work directly with young people, and I heartily congratulate the Government. The London-based youth orchestra, Musiko Musika, of which I am proud to be a patron, has benefited from the Government’s guidance in its work with young people from Chile. Why Chile? The British and Chilean youngsters are remembering the 1914 naval battle of Coronel off that coast.
The Commonwealth War Graves Commission continues its outstanding work in keeping faith with those who died and in constantly reworking and reimagining the story for future generations. Let us determine that, 100 years from now, our grandchildren’s grandchildren will still keep faith with those who sleep in Flanders fields.
My Lords, I remember discussing Brexit at Harvard Business School with one of the great professors there, an authority on negotiation in the world today. He said that he had been reading a book about the build-up to the First World War, and that it was like watching a train crash in slow motion.
The poppy that we wear is a bond between the living and the dead. As the noble Lord, Lord Gadhia, said in his excellent speech, he worked with the Royal British Legion to specially commission the khadi poppy that I am wearing with pride. It is made of handwoven cotton made famous by Mahatma Gandhi. The poppy emphasises our gratitude for the 1.5 million volunteers—the British legion says that it is to say thank you to them—who served from every corner of the then undivided India; they were not conscripts. It was the largest British Empire armed force besides the British Army itself. There were 13,000 medals for gallantry, including 11 awards of the Victoria Cross. The British legion says that together we can ensure that:
“Remembrance is understood and available to all, and handed to the next generation”.
Yet although the noble Lord said that a poem is going to be read out on
Today the British Asians make up the largest ethnic-minority community in the UK. This is an opportunity for the whole nation to recognise, appreciate and thank these individuals. That would strengthen the wonderful multicultural, pluralist, tolerant nation which Britain has become—a Britain that celebrates its diversity. This ethnic-minority contribution is the greatest strength of this tiny country, no longer with the empire it had during the First World War but still the fifth-largest economy in the world.
One of my earliest childhood memories was walking into our Zoroastrian Parsi fire temple in Hyderabad and seeing a portrait of an army officer. I have since realised that officer was Captain Firoz Bapuji Chinoy, who served in the British Army Medical Corps during World War I and died in Iran in 1918. I was sent the details of another Parsi medical officer, Captain Hiraji Cursetji, who was awarded the Distinguished Service Order for his bravery during the final stages of the campaign in Mesopotamia, now Iraq. This was a theatre of war in which the Indian Army played a vital role. His citation states:
“For conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty at Mushaq, 26th-27th October and at Sharquat, 29th October. Throughout the operations he displayed the greatest zeal and disregard for danger while tending the wounded under heavy fire, working unceasingly for forty-eight hours. He has previously rendered excellent service, and once was severely wounded”.
This captain retired as Major-General Sir Hiraji Cursetji of the Indian Medical Service. Yet do we realise that, except for the medical officers, the 1.5 million Indians who served in the First World War were not allowed to become officers; and that it was only after the First World War that the British allowed, from 1922 to 1932, eight Indians per course at Sandhurst to become officers? They were called King’s commissioned officers and my grandfather, Brigadier Noshire Bilimoria, was one of them. My father, the late Lieutenant-General Bilimoria, was commissioned into the Indian Military Academy and into the 2/5 Gorkha Rifles (Frontier Force). He ended up becoming colonel of his regiment, president of the Gorkha Brigade and commander-in-chief of the central army in India.
The regiments of the Gurkhas in India today have six battalions each, yet sadly we have only 3,000 Gurkhas today. Today, the British Army cannot even fill Wembley Stadium. The Indian Army numbers 1.2 million people and another 1 million reserves. Today it was announced that we need to recruit, from the Commonwealth, citizens who have not even lived in the UK because of a shortage of 3,000 per year into the British Army. Look at just one battalion, the 1/5 Royal Gorkha Rifles, which served in the Suez Canal zone at Gallipoli. In that campaign, of 410,000 British Empire troops, 213,980 were casualties. That was the scale of this war. The 1/5 also fought in Mesopotamia, where my father’s battalion, the 2/5, also fought. The casualties from this one battalion, the 1/5, in the First World War numbered: killed or died of wounds, 221; wounded, 748; missing, four; died of disease, 40. More Indians fought for the British between 1914 and 1918 than the combined total for Australia, New Zealand, Canada and South Africa. Some 74,000 Indian soldiers were killed on the battlefields of Europe, Africa and the Middle East, but the part they played in the war has largely been whitewashed from history. On top of this, there were 16,000 West Indians and 18,000 troops from Africa.
The noble Lord, Lord Gadhia, mentioned the Memorial Gates, which Her Majesty the Queen officially inaugurated on
They also celebrate:
“The contribution that these men and women and their descendants, members of the Commonwealth family, continue to make to the rich diversity of British society”.
That message needs to go out. This is the opportunity. As the noble Lord, Lord Gadhia, said, even Mahatma Gandhi, who was totally for non-violence, took part in the First World War by founding an ambulance unit, the Indian Ambulance Corps.
We are celebrating the centenary of the RAF: it started during the First World War.
We must not forget that we now have the Armed Forces covenant, introduced in 2011. A moral obligation exists between the nation, the Government and the Armed Forces in return for the sacrifices they make. This is now enshrined in law. In particular, our veterans should suffer no disadvantage and should be given special consideration. For six years I was proud to be a commissioner of the Chelsea Pensioners at the Royal Hospital Chelsea. Two decades after World War I we had World War II—two decades later we had nuclear war. Peace in Europe has existed thanks to the European Union, not just NATO. It has existed because we are still a strong defence power, not just a soft power. It has existed because of NATO and because we need to maintain the strength of our defence—not spending just 2% of GDP but 3%, I believe. Our youth needs to learn about the 1.5 million troops from India, and to remember.
“Thus at 11 o’clock this morning came to the end the cruellest and most terrible war that has ever scourged mankind. I hope we may say that thus, this fateful morning, came to an end all wars”.—[Official Report, Commons, 11/11/1918; col. 2463.]
Sadly not, but as Ben Okri, the Booker prize-winning author says on the Memorial Gates:
“Our future is greater than our past”.
My Lords, at this time of year my mind begins to focus on the fast-approaching commemoration of the Armistice at the end of the First World War, a war which, as we have heard several times this afternoon, was supposed to end all wars. Sadly, that was never going to happen.
There is so much that could be said on this subject, but today I want to address the treatment of mental health issues. On
My own father went to war with the Somerset Light Infantry as a strong, robust young man, but after three bouts of rheumatic fever he was sent to a different regiment when he was considered well enough to return to the front line. Five years later, he left with a heart condition, from which he died when I was 10 years old.
The contribution from the Empire was both extraordinary and humbling, and we should never forget that their catastrophic loss of men must have been as shattering to them as it was to us. What all these brave men witnessed must have been so agonising, it is no wonder that few could bear to speak of it.
Over the last two or three weeks, I have watched some of the Invictus Games, led so brilliantly by His Royal Highness Prince Harry. It was impossible not to be moved by the effect the games had on the participants and their families and, of course, on the millions who watched as I did. I cast my mind back to the dark days of 1918 when mental health issues were not even recognised, never mind treated. These problems were something to be ashamed of, and so were hidden from the outside world.
These were issues that affected the whole family. It was tragic that no help was on hand to support men who had been through so much. If violence became too much for the family to bear, medical help was sought, and I am sure that after many consultations, sectioning could be ordered. This was the ultimate sanction, with the patient being not only deprived of his liberty but taken away from his family.
In 1918, life was harsh. It was easier for society to accept physical problems, as they could be seen and understood, but many men led appallingly painful lives from the hidden injuries they received. Antibiotics were not available at that time to treat the ghastly wounds many men bore, often resulting in sepsis and countless horrors.
In 2018, I was spellbound by the stories of the competitors in the Invictus Games and the transformation of their lives. Today, we marvel at the skill of the doctors, surgeons and nurses, and are grateful for the brilliant and generous contribution made by all the voluntary bodies dedicated to restoring shattered military men and women.
I salute all those who, over the generations, have fought to defend our liberty and democracy. Indeed, we must never forget their sacrifice. But I thank God I am alive today, and not 100 years ago.
I will also single out and pay particular tribute to Dr Andrew Murrison MP, the Prime Minister’s special representative on the centenary of World War I. He has worked amazingly hard. He has been inclusive, brought people in and achieved a consensus. We all owe him a great deal for his efforts. He is in the House today and I thank him for all the work he has done.
Over the past few years, I have certainly learned a great deal about World War I. I thought I knew a bit —but, clearly, I missed many of the critical things. I am very proud to wear the khadi poppy today, because I had not fully appreciated that lesson in 2013. I appreciate it now and we owe a deep debt of gratitude to those brave souls from India who came in those days and fought.
One thing I have learned is that is quite amazing when we look at history—even crudely and not in a sophisticated way. We see the recruits and volunteers from Australia, New Zealand and Canada who flocked to come and fight for the old country—the mother country. Then you stop and think: most of these people—these Australians, New Zealanders and Canadians—had not been born in Australia, New Zealand or Canada. They had been born in Britain and left this country because they were fed up with the social class system, which they felt held them back. In 1914, the federal Government and every single state government in Australia was run by the Labour Party. I make that not as a party point but to substantiate my point that these were the rebels. But when the call came to fight for the mother country, they flocked to come—and if it had not been mishandled by the federal Labour Government, they might even have got conscription through. But they were not able to do so. I thought it was a very significant point: why the heck should they come back and fight for us when they felt as they did? But they did.
We can see the success of the past four years and all the work by the various bodies that have assisted the Government. We think of the Heritage Lottery Fund, which invested almost £100 million in over 2,000 initiatives, most of them at local level, to ensure that we discovered more history—more facts about how World War I affected people at local level. We look at the British Legion and the wonderful work it has done over the century since it was formed, and especially over the past four years. I look at how supportive the National Archives at Kew have been; I also look at local archives, which are under great financial pressure, as was alluded to from the Liberal Benches earlier today. It has been a great strain on those archivists to try to satisfy the demands of people trying to find out about what happened to their ancestors in World War I. I pay tribute to the teachers who have done so much work, not only in taking pupils across to see the battlefields under the Government’s adventurous scheme, which I fully support. They have done a wonderful job, but it has taken a lot of time, as it has with local archives.
There are historical lessons that perhaps we ought to think about. A number of people, including the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Stirrup, have quite rightly made the point that in a sense this is unfinished business. Looking at the global picture, that is absolutely right—but we could act now on more immediate issues, which would perhaps help us in learning about the past and preparing for the future. We are beginning to appreciate how important freedom of information is; it is an intrinsic part of our democracy. I fully understand that you cannot be completely open when you are waging war, but I wonder whether the obsessive secrecy that still pervades a lot of activity in World War I, and even more so in World War II, stops us from learning what went on.
I mentioned schoolchildren, and much of the disappointment of schoolchildren has come when they have tried to look back at the records of their ancestors. Bearing in mind that the overwhelming majority of their ancestors were ordinary squaddies, ordinary fighting non-commissioned men, almost all the records affecting those individuals were destroyed during World War II. They were bombed because they had not been put in a safe place. The records of all the officers are safe, but not of the ordinary squaddies. So there are a lot of questions we have to look at, which makes things very difficult.
I am not a pacifist, but I have done a lot of work with people who were conscientious objectors. I have seen a plus and a minus in that. I have to give credit to the establishment in Britain, especially the parliamentary establishment, which recognised that there were good conscientious reasons why certain people were not prepared to fight. We made arrangements so those people could be excused—whereas in many other countries there was no such finesse. If they disagreed, they were sent to the front and shot. We were much more civilised—but only barely, because anybody who was judged to be objecting but not conscientiously suffered greatly.
I interviewed people like Willie Brooke, in the Huddersfield area at the time. He was a conscientious objector. He was an active member of the Independent Labour Party and a practising and active member of the Baptist Church—and he was not prepared to fight. He went all the way. Eventually he was sentenced to two years’ hard labour, much of it in solitary confinement, in Wormwood Scrubs. It was better than being shot—but, at times, I bet he had his doubts.
We must give credit where credit is due. As Dr Murrison said the other day, we are the envy of many other countries. But it is not only that people are full of envy for us: as I said to him, they are full of admiration for us. But we must not forget the lessons and must try to move forward with much more openness and information available.
My Lords, I start by echoing what has been said in praise of the Government’s efforts to bring the Armistice and Great War to the notice of the nation. Commemoration has changed very much. In 1938, I was being driven by my father in his car down Broad Street in Oxford. When we got to the join between Trinity College and Balliol, going towards the station, there was the most enormous bang that surprised me greatly. What surprised me more was that, at that moment, all the traffic stopped, all the engines were turned off, all the pedestrians stopped walking and all the men took off their hats and bowed their head. It remained like that, a tableau suspended in time, for two minutes until life resumed.
What happens now is entirely different, but in a way it penetrates more deeply into the consciousness of society—of the people who make up this country and its character and are responsible for its future. One purpose of commemoration, as the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Stirrup, put it in an admirable speech, is to learn. The question is: have we learned? We will come to that later.
I want to follow the footsteps of my father a little further. He volunteered in 1914, abandoning his degree course in classics. He had got a first in mods. He went into a territorial regiment from Hampshire and was shipped out with it to India. He trained at Quetta and was put with his unit into four ships which were part of a large convoy heading to the Western Front. The troops were principally Indians, so I entirely agree with the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Bilimoria, on their importance, because throughout the campaign my father was among a principally Indian force fielded by the Indian Government. The delays at the beginning were due to a disagreement between Delhi and Westminster about what the objective was. It finished up being Baghdad.
This is a good time to look at the Turkish campaign, not only because, as my noble friend Lord Cope said, it is somewhat overlooked, but because today is the 104th anniversary of the declaration of war on the Turks by the British—so this is very apposite moment at which to look back at that extraordinary campaign. It started at Basra, which we got to know again during the unfortunate Iraqi escapade. The British force fought its way for getting on for 100 miles to Ctesiphon, where the advance party, which was the major part of the force, such was the generalship of the day, met a Turkish force. The advance party had met only outposts before as they fought their way on foot. The Turkish force defending Ctesiphon was almost exactly twice the size of the British force and was fresh out of Baghdad. The British force lost two-thirds of its men and then had to make a fighting retreat to a fortified bend in the River Tigris, which it defended against the Turks.
The conditions were appalling. The well-known Arab phrase about the Mesopotamian valley is that when Allah made hell, it was not bad enough, so he invented Mesopotamia and then added the flies. The flies were monstrous in their number. You could not see your horse’s head for flies in bad weather. The ground was alternately baked solid, so you could hardly get a trenching tool into it, or powdery dust which turned to a sort of sloppy treacle when it rained and through which you had to advance.
In Kut al-Amara, where they were besieged for five months, the British force dug three lines of trenches across the two bends in the river that made the loop so they were fortified in the loop. There was a small town there. They had more supplies than they might have expected because the town was an advanced supply dump for the expected advance on Baghdad. By the end of the siege, the troops had undergone various horrors. Apart from constant bombardment, the Tigris flooded the trenches on both sides. They had to retreat to the third lines, and they were waist-deep in water. In the winter months it got so cold that the blankets which were all the troops had to put over their heads against the rain froze to the parapet. In his book, Colonel Spackman records that those who came out from France said that until they had seen Mesopotamia they had no idea what real suffering was. I have seen photographs of the troops at the end of the siege and they exactly resemble the photographs of prisoners in Belsen, to which a noble Lord referred—toast-racks.
Then the horror began. They had surrendered and the officers were separated from the men. I am somewhat confused in my delivery because only this morning I found a long document that my father wrote to his father from the prison camp that he eventually finished up in. I shall give noble Lords an idea of what it was like immediately after the surrender—after they had said goodbye to their scarecrow troops:
“But officers coming later over the same roads north of Baghdad have brought uglier tales than these: of British soldiers found dying naked & alone on dungheaps on the fringe of some Arab town; or straggling from the march & not seen again; of men whose faces were livid dust-masks unrecognisable to close friends; men knocked on the head or buried scarcely dead; a poor death for an Englishman indeed … By October reports said that not more than six hundred of the two thousand three hundred British were alive & they were dying still, incapable of the work given them, diseased & without doctors, unburied often, sometimes buried scarcely dead. Such were facts you may one day know at home as well as we; but the horror of these men’s deaths you will never quite imagine, forgotten, they must have thought themselves, by God & men. I have seen the country, great, lonely, inscrutable; I knew the men & I have a fair imagination for horrors, but I can imagine nothing more horrible than this. Did any soldiers who fell in these wars suffer more or longer for their country, or with less earthly reward?”
That is focused on the British contingent. The same horrors or worse were being undergone by the Indians.
The point I will make very briefly is this: what did it do to my father? He went through part of that horrible march himself and got into officers’ confinement, which was better than the men’s. When he came back to England, he was convinced of something that he later wrote in a book: “I have only two prejudices: one is for democracy and the other is that I am a Christian”. His reaction, noble Lords opposite will be pleased to hear, was to stand as a Labour candidate for a Bristol constituency. He became a right-hand man to Ramsay MacDonald and, after losing one election and very nearly winning the second, was put into your Lordships’ House.
Fast forward to, I suppose, 1947. He took me for a walk in the fields, obviously with some intention. He said, “I know you’ll be interested in what I’ve been doing in Westminster. I thought you’d like to know that now the National Health Act is on the statute book, every objective for which I joined the Labour Party has been achieved. I see no purpose in belonging to any political party and I am going to sit on the Cross Benches”, which he did thereafter. He played a notable part in the interwar years. On the eve of the war, he was foremost among those who said we simply had to stand up to Nazism. All that suffering did not deter him from the necessity of standing up to what he saw as sheer evil.
He went on to say in his book—I will finish in a minute—that we stood at the beginning of another era, and that the decision had to be whether that era would be formed by Hitler and those who thought like him or by us and the Americans and those who thought like us. The question is—and again I go back to the speech by the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Stirrup—whether or not we stand on the lip of another era. I very much think that we do. We need to look at what is needed to survive, in terms of courage, honesty and self-sacrifice, for any country to succeed. Society must be just, and your Lordships will recognise that there are open questions about how we settle our society so it is at peace with itself and regards itself as being just.
I have gone on for too long, but I was very excited by the document that I found and I feel passionately that we are on the edge of great events that we have to forestall.