My Lords, the return to the main debate, after just over an hour, is rather a challenge.
I remember something said to me by one of my old schoolteachers, who many years ago was apparently set the task of setting questions about World War 1 for a public examination. The process was going fairly well until he decided that he would be clever and ask what did not change after World War 1. He came up with the answer that there was nothing that did not change. So trying to understand how important the war was is one of the most important things we can do to understand our own past.
It was the first total war, the first time as a modern state we had anything like universal conscription, and the first time that the full weight of an empire was thrown into a war. We have heard many contributions, particularly about the Indian army, but armies from across the Empire came to aid us—in France, the Middle East and Africa. The entire state convulsed into doing something. Those four-and-a-half years probably changed the course of our history and our structure. That alone would be worth remembering, even without the hideous loss of young men’s lives. An egality of suffering was established in a way it had never been before. The sons of the aristocracy led the charges over the top and were mown down a split second before the people behind them. The nature of what we went through united the nation in a way that virtually nothing has done before or since. I hope that after four years of very good memorial services we will take a series of lessons with us and build on them.
The first lesson is probably that it was not just Tommy Atkins who fought. I remember that about four years ago I had an exchange with the noble Lord, Lord Lexden—who is speaking after me—and I pointed out just how dated “Oh! What a Lovely War” was when I tried to show it to my daughter. We now have a better idea of how the whole nation came together, and the concepts of what went on have changed over time and should be constantly examined. The role of women in society was undoubtedly changed by the contribution that they made to all aspects of World War 1. We must look at it as a whole, and the great success of this remembrance is that we have drawn people’s attention to the war. The big public displays—the Tower of London, the public opening and closing ceremonies, and many others—have been a great success. Those of us who are interested have listened and learned.
However, if we get over-congratulatory with ourselves we will miss a major opportunity. Over the weekend a little survey I did about whether one or two things had penetrated showed that, alarmingly, not everybody has picked up on this stuff. One of the most constant themes your Lordships will have picked up is the contribution of the Indian army. However, an alarmingly high number of people did not realise what that contribution was. Those of us who are here may think that is almost impossible—but it has happened. We have also vaguely known about the contribution of Australia and New Zealand. Somebody said to me, “But weren’t they only at Gallipoli?” We must try to get beyond the public perception that this is just happening to us.
Although my noble friend’s very moving description of her own family reached down there, the fact is that other people on those ships on which her ancestor died would have come from other nations and would have been supporting us. Often they were nations tied to us by empire. A bond created by conquest is a very odd thing when you think about it for a second. How do we build on this? That is what I hope we will take away. We cannot continually be in a state of celebration of the past or one particular bit of the past.
The noble and gallant Lord, Lord Stirrup, pointed out that we changed the map of Europe only to change it again shortly afterwards after an even worse conflagration. This time it was not just the young men who died—everybody was affected. In half-dealing with nationalism or concepts of empire and self, we released forces that nobody could have foreseen at the time. Eternal lessons must be reinforced and built on. If we do not do that, we will have lost this opportunity and the work that has been done. Every time we invest time, money and effort into reminding ourselves of what happened, we must use it as a building block for tomorrow.
In a few years’ time, those of us who are still in this House or in its successor body, whatever happens, will have to think about commemorating World War II. That will be an even bigger and more complex challenge, and I hope that at the end of this period we will reflect and prepare for something that will challenge us and, more importantly, our children even more than this has done.
My Lords, I will reflect a little on some of the events of Armistice Day itself, a century ago, and I begin, as is right and proper, with the monarch. Throughout his reign, King George V dutifully wrote up his diary at the end of each day. He expressed himself in terse, straightforward language, which reflected his character. Late in the evening of
“Today has indeed been a wonderful day, the greatest in the history of the Country”.
He had witnessed remarkable public rejoicing. Time and again, he and Queen Mary had been brought out on the balcony of Buckingham Palace at the insistence of immense crowds that stretched as far as the eye could see. It seems that the King contributed more to the events of that wonderful day than has been generally recognised.
The British representative at the Armistice negotiations in Compiègne, Admiral Sir Rosslyn Wemyss, the supreme allied naval commander, entrusted to his family an account of what had passed during the discussions that led up to the signing of the Armistice at 5 am, and its implementation at 11 am. According to Wemyss, the Prime Minister, David Lloyd George, who had contributed so much to victory, instructed him to arrange for the Armistice to come into force at 2.30 pm when the House of Commons was due to meet so that he could reveal it to striking effect. Wemyss telephoned the King, suggesting that the 11th hour would be a far better time. George V agreed and the plan was changed, much to Lloyd George’s displeasure.
Lloyd George deserved, and received, great prominence on that wonderful day. In the two years since he had become Prime Minister, the political conduct of the war had been infused with a dynamism unknown under his predecessor, Herbert Asquith, great man though he was in his way.
The wonderful day was naturally tinged with deep sorrow. Long queues formed outside cathedrals and churches, for people felt a pressing need to reflect on the enormous sacrifices that had been made over four long years, as well as to give thanks for victory. Late in the evening, Field Marshal Sir Henry Wilson, Chief of the Imperial General Staff, walked home from Downing Street. In his diary, he recorded encountering an elderly woman, dressed in deep mourning, sobbing her heart out. He said to her, “You are in trouble—is there anything that I can do for you?”. She replied, “Thank you, but no. I am crying, but I am happy, for now I know that all my three sons who have been killed in the war have not died in vain”. Sorrow and joy stood side by side.
The wonderful day was wonderfully free of speeches. After reading the terms of the Armistice to a packed House of Commons, Lloyd George said:
“This is no time for words. Our hearts are too full of a gratitude to which no tongue can give adequate expression”.
He moved the immediate Adjournment of the House, suggesting that,
“we proceed, as a House of Commons, to St. Margaret’s, to give humble and reverent thanks for the deliverance of the world from its great peril”.—[
Lord Curzon moved a similar Motion in this House, of which he was the Leader.
Thereafter politics resumed. The War Cabinet met at No. 10 to discuss the general election campaign, which was to begin the following day. Should a vengeful note be struck? Churchill argued that leniency should be shown to the Kaiser. Sir Henry Wilson agreed, noting in his diary:
“My opinion is that there should be a public exposé of all his works and actions and then leave him to posterity”.
During the election campaign, the political leaders concentrated on setting out their plans for post-war reconstruction and social reform to build a better world for those who had suffered so much. The subsequent, incomplete implementation of these plans does not, in my view, detract from the sincerity with which Lloyd George and his colleagues proposed them, gaining a massive majority on
Towards the end of his six volumes of war memoirs, published in 1936, Lloyd George placed a particularly fine chapter entitled, An Imperial War. In it, this remarkable Welsh radical praised the indispensable contributions made by those who came to our aid from all parts of the British Empire and Commonwealth. He noted how the arrival of Indian troops had averted disaster on the Western Front in 1914-15.
“Had they stayed at home”, he wrote,
“the issue of the War would have been different, and the history of the world would have taken a different course”.
Nothing has been more important during these four years of commemoration than to secure a fuller recognition of the indispensable service rendered by men and women from Asian, African and American countries. I was glad to be able to introduce a debate on that hugely important aspect of the war a few months ago. I am glad that it has loomed large in today’s debate.
Will those who come after us remember for ever the terrible war which we have commemorated so thoughtfully and respectfully over the last four years? The greatest Englishman of the last century had no doubts. There were such powerful visible reminders, thanks to the wonderful work of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. Speaking in 1920, two years after the Armistice, Churchill said,
“there is no reason at all why, in periods as remote from our own as we ourselves are from the Tudors, the graveyards in France of this Great War shall not remain an abiding and supreme memorial”, and,
“will still preserve the memory of a common purpose pursued by a great nation”.—[
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Ashton, for his inspiring speech opening this debate and his detailed description of the memorialising that we are doing: the remembrances and the big service at the weekend, and all the minute but important details of this national act of remembrance, which is so important psychologically, spiritually and in practical ways as well. We thank him for the details that he has given and look forward to hearing more in due course when that is relevant and applicable.
I also feel a sense of gratitude that the intervention of the Indian soldiers has been mentioned quite a few times in this debate. It has been too often forgotten, but it made an enormous difference in that, the first of the European civil wars. The First World War was the beginning of the European civil war, with, 22 years later, the second version—the two tragedies linked by just two decades—continuing the mistakes that had been made the first time. We were lucky to emerge victorious from the First World War. We are grateful to almighty God for that, and grateful for all the efforts made by many people. Most of the speeches today have been detailed descriptions of the tragedy of the First World War and the terrible losses of military life—in that war more than civilian life. All those incredibly meticulous details are important because they are part of the psychological act of remembrance that we all need so that we do not forget these things.
I declare a geographical and personal interest because, since 2001, I have lived in the Picardy/Normandy area of France, where so much of the First World War was fought. It is a searing subject for the French in that whole area, right up to Calais. Simon Heffer, in a recent article for The New European, quite rightly said that our losses were terrible, but that the French losses were even more so, and that needs to be remembered as well. It is no wonder that in 1940, at the beginning of the Second World War, Pétain was moving for an armistice, which was incredibly popular because everybody in France remembered the bloodletting and the huge loss of young male lives in that terrible episode.
I go back to the mistakes made afterwards, referred to by my noble and gallant friend Lord Stirrup, the noble Lord, Lord Addington, and others. I thank them for drawing the lessons of the past into the future; their speeches were notable for that. Going through the details and remembering them is vital, but drawing conclusions for the modern lessons we should learn are even more important for the whole of Europe. Living in that area, I now see a new era where the latest town-twinnings are usually with German rather than English towns. The English ones came first, and now it is the German ones.
The Second World War was even more awful, because of the deaths of so many civilians, the history of National Socialism and the terrible incidents. The war in Russia, which is often forgotten, was much more savage and brutal than the war on the Western Front—fortunately for us. These lessons need to be drawn and yet after the First World War, as my noble and gallant friend Lord Stirrup said, one crucial mistake was that Germany was excluded from the peace conference at Versailles, being not even a participant in the efforts to have peace. How could you do that to a country? It of course resented what happened and then came the Second World War.
If it is seen as the European civil war, we can draw the appropriate lessons about the future for this country as well. I am still feeling very sad indeed, and as I repeat on many occasions, that this country has lost its way. The appalling, tragic idea of leaving the European Union is such a mistake for this great country. The other EU member states feel that very deeply, and would be delighted and thrilled if this country had the courage to look again and change its mind. There is a huge change in public opinion as recent polls have shown. Younger participants in elections and vote-receiving activities of one kind or another are now much more minded to vote for continuing our membership of the European Union.
I know this is difficult for some Tory colleagues to accept, and I understand the awkward position they are in—they wish to support their own party and Government—but this is the reality now. If we can seize those lessons properly, and draw the appropriate conclusions, we can save this country from perdition.
My Lords, I add my thanks to my noble friend Lord Ashton for his introduction to this most important debate. I declare an interest as someone who has lectured in European history—and by that I mean the history of Europe, not the history of Britain as part of it. Many of us in this House are of an age where what happened in the First World War is much closer to our family history than it is for our children. My family was half from Britain and half from Ireland; they had very different experiences of the First World War. My father, who was living in Dublin at the time, has memories of the first military stirrings against the British. None of our Irish family volunteered to fight in the First World War. They stayed in Ireland, and I do not think the Irish people who went to war in 1914, when they were quite popular, were quite as popular when it got to 1918. As a youngish boy, my father remembers stones being thrown at British soldiers returning from the First World War.
My English family had a very different experience. My grandmother, who lived in Lincoln, was engaged to a young second lieutenant who was killed, and—as often happened in those days—she went on to marry his younger brother. He suffered from having been gassed, and from post-traumatic stress disorder. He never recovered from the First World War, and died in his 50s. The difference in those experiences did impinge on the whole family, because the contribution of the Irish to the First World War has also largely been forgotten. But there was a considerable contribution—from the south, from the Catholic areas—and it needs to be remembered because the First World War was a war we helped to win. Britain did not win the First World War. We have heard about the soldiers from the Commonwealth; the Americans of course joined in; and there was a lot of assistance from outside. We often forget that two Allied soldiers died for every German who died. The Germans had a pretty efficient fighting machine during the First World War—as indeed they did in the second.
I see the Armistice not as ending the First World War but as calling a ceasefire in what was effectively a 30-year war. In the second war, none of our family died—though one or two were injured. What caused it? It was caused by hatreds. Read the recent biography of Charles de Gaulle. Around 1908, during his stay in Germany, he wrote home to his parents, his mother in particular, saying how he hated the Germans, even though he was there learning the language. The build-up to the First World War was almost inevitable, and this is what worries me today.
I take the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Dykes, that if you keep on emphasising differences between people, you stir up trouble and hatreds. We have to work together—we are a small continent—and whereas de Gaulle grew up wishing to avenge 1870, and with a generation intent on avenging 1870, right through to 1914, we are not going to progress as a peaceful continent if we keep on emphasising our differences. If you look at the other side of the Rhine, you see that the young Adenauer felt very much the same. Adenauer and de Galle came out of the First World War ready to formulate the peace of the 1950s. It is a great shame that our leaders at that time did not join in—and I have to say that Clement Attlee was as bad as Winston Churchill in terms of actually wanting to get involved in Europe.
Another point worth remembering is that Armistice Day is not remembered in the same way all over Europe. In fact,
The conclusion I draw from all this is that we need a certain amount of humility and we need to learn how to build a lasting peace. We need to work out how we in Europe are going to live together. We have to start, somehow or other, talking to the Russians. It is no good the Daily Mail et cetera banging on about how horrible they are: yes, they are horrible, but we will not get anywhere unless we talk to them, and unless we sit them down and get some sense out of them.
The second thing we have to realise is that war is changing. You could not possibly have a repeat of the First World War today, with its slaughter: it would not be acceptable. I put it to noble Lords that you could not have a repeat of the Second World War, either. We are now in an age when war is conducted by drones, launched from my noble friend Lord Cormack’s home county of Lincolnshire and dropping bombs in Iraq. We have a system where, frankly, a cyberwar would probably be much more effective in ending a country’s independence than a military war.
So we have to look to the future, and I say in closing that the future must be based on international co-operation. We have to work together. I share the views of the noble Lord, Lord Dykes, and many others, on the to my mind disastrous decision to leave the European Union. The only way we can go forward is by sitting down and talking to each other, and making sure that at the top of our minds is our recent history and the fact that we must never let it be repeated—and the way to achieve that relies on a lot of understanding, talk and work between us. Yes, it is frustrating. I spent 39 years in Brussels and I am a past master at knowing how frustrating these talks can be, but in the end it is the only way forward.
My Lords, amen to that. I want to say at the outset of my remarks how grateful I was, how encouraged and impressed, by the speech of the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Stirrup. He brought challenge and vision and reminded us that our real tribute to the fallen will be what we make of the future. Our determination must be to move forward positively and practically in building an international community.
I also thank the noble Lord, Lord Bilimoria, who very strongly reminded us of the contribution in the First World War of the Indians. It is a shameful story: we expected them to come here and then they were treated, to be honest, as fourth-rate participants. There is a tremendous wrong to be put right still, and if we fail to do it in this celebration of ours, it will be very amiss. It was not just the Indians—people from Africa and from the Commonwealth came and made a huge contribution. I also think we ought to remember the young people and their families of the United States, who played such a vital part in the last part of the war.
My noble friend Lord Clark is also someone to whom I am grateful. If I were to look for some way in which we have progressed in our understanding and our civilised behaviour as a nation, it is in the recognition of conscientious objection. The way conscientious objectors were treated in the First World War is a terrible story.
In my study at home, I keep on the wall a citation to my maternal uncle John, a captain in the Scottish Rifles who was badly wounded and awarded a Military Cross for his part in that episode. He had to be invalided back to the UK, where he was patched up, after a sort—most people said he was not fully patched up—and sent back to the front, where he was killed on the third day of the German spring offensive in 1918. I should just mention that his younger brother was killed on the North-West Frontier in the early 1930s, and he too was a captain, but a captain in the Indian Army. Why do I keep that citation on my wall? Because it is a constant reminder to me, as I go about my own activities, that my uncle was killed at 22. I think again and again about what a young man with the character and pluck that he obviously had might have made of his life. I ask myself: have I begun to equal what he might have contributed?
The point is that it was not just him, or indeed his younger brother later; hundreds of thousands of people went through this kind of experience. When we think of the slaughter, in appalling circumstances sometimes—people suffocating in mud—what are we doing to build a better future? The noble and gallant Lord, Lord Stirrup, was absolutely right: the question we should have in our minds all the time is how we prevent this happening again. My father served on the north-west front in Italy, together with the Italians, in the First World War. He was so affected by what he saw that he dedicated his life—and I really mean that word—to working for peace and international under- standing. He was convinced that internationalism was essential to the future of civilisation. I am sure he would be cheering every word that the noble Lord, Lord Balfe, uttered. He also believed, of course, that the European Union was indispensable, because it was people coming together with practical arrangements to build a community in which war would become impossible. The words I heard again and again in my upbringing were “collective security”.
If I have anxiety at the moment, it is that we are losing that searing experience that our fathers brought back from the First World War, and indeed that our more close relatives brought back from the Second World War, of what war really means, of what it involves in suffering for civilians. We perhaps have not talked enough about civilians in this debate. It now sometimes seems that war is about civilians, and we find convenient language for dealing with an emotionally distressing situation: we talk about collateral damage. But think what that means to the families and the people who are that collateral damage. We move into a phase where war is done by remote control; pushing buttons, sending highly targeted drones, and the rest. Are we slithering towards a situation in which war is just another management option in our handling of international relations? That would be a disaster, and would certainly be the ultimate betrayal of those who fell in the First World War.
I would like to end with a quotation, because it has a profound effect on me. I love the hymns of Fred Kaan, a United Reformed Church minister of Dutch origin, who suffered under German occupation. I will quote one of his verses:
“God! As with silent hearts we bring to mind how hate and war diminish humankind, we pause, and seek in worship to increase our knowledge of the things that make for peace.
Hallow our will as humbly we recall the lives of those who gave and give their all”.
My Lords, as always, it is a very great privilege to speak in your Lordships’ House, but it is especially so on this occasion when we commemorate the 100th anniversary of the end of the Great War and pay our tributes to those from all across the world, and from all sides, who fought in that horrendous conflict and who gave their lives in the cause of freedom. It is even more important to me to be able to speak in this Chamber today, because my grandfather is named in the Royal Gallery war memorial.
I am a Staffordshire man, and I am very proud to have been born and bred in that county, as countless of my forebears have been. When I put my name down to speak in this debate, I read a note from the Royal British Legion which suggested that it would be appropriate if speakers could perhaps recall the parts played by their county in the Great War. I immediately thought that to be an excellent idea. So much has been said, and needed to be said, over the past four years of remembrances, that perhaps this might be a slightly different but exceptionally important angle to embark on. Therefore, in this speech—which, you will be delighted to hear, is very short—I would like to recall my county’s role.
Next Sunday, I shall have the immeasurable honour of representing the Lord Lieutenant, and therefore Her Majesty, at the service of remembrance at Lichfield Cathedral. Services will be held throughout our county, from the Moorlands and Leek in the north, to Stoke-on-Trent, to Burton-on-Trent in the east, our county town of Stafford and Enville in the south.
Staffordshire is the home of the National Memorial Arboretum at Alrewas, near Lichfield, which commemorates not only those who have fallen in so many military conflicts but those who sacrificed their lives in other tragic circumstances. The arboretum also serves as a memorial to the animals which suffered and gave their lives while supporting the military in conflict. I believe that in the course of the First World War over 1 million horses were killed.
In the county of Stafford, we remember the Prince of Wales’s regiment, the North Staffordshire Regiment, known to us as the Black Knots. Raised in 1758 as the 64th Regiment of Foot, and disbanded in 1959, when they amalgamated with the South Staffordshire regiment, they formed the Staffordshire Regiment. Known as the Staffords in those days, today they form part of the Mercian Regiment, who have had a distinguished fighting career.
Many of those who volunteered from my family’s former estates at Alton Towers and Ingestre, joined the North Staffords. Some of their names—far too many of them—are on the war memorials in Alton and the surrounding villages near where I live. I remember with particular fondness George Greatholder, my father’s head forester, who fought in the Battle of the Somme at age 16, and at Ypres—he called it “Wipers”—and won a military medal and bar. George was wounded, returned to the Front and eventually came home to Staffordshire. It was his task to look after me during the school holidays when I was a teenager, and I adored him and his wealth of stories. His stories were mainly about the countryside and wildlife, and I was enthralled by them. But there were never stories about his wartime experiences: those were far too horrible for him to recount.
The North Staffords saw action on the Western Front at Gallipoli, in the Middle East and in India. The South Staffords fought at Mons, Ypres, Loos, Delville Wood, Arras, Passchendaele—the list goes on and on. The sons and daughters of Staffordshire gave their all, and achieved the highest battle honours. They came from communities throughout the county: from the rural areas and agriculture; from the Moorlands; from the Potteries; from the breweries at Burton-on-Trent; from the Black Country and its industrial heartlands; and from the Staffordshire mining communities of Hednesford, Cannock and Rugeley, to name but a few. The miners were especially significant, because they were the sappers who dug the trenches and mined under the lines, very often working in appalling conditions.
When I was a teenager, my father took me to the military cemeteries in France on a regular basis. I continued that tradition with my children, and my friends and I still do it to this day. Last time, it was Ypres and the Menin Gate. We had tears running down our faces at the Menin Gate, at 8 pm on a Sunday. My father taught me to honour and respect the memories of the fallen, especially those from Staffordshire, and to remember that today we enjoy the freedoms and privileges which men and women—including those from Staffordshire, many of whom were connected to my family—gave their lives for. This is why we should hold all of them in the highest honour and esteem, and never allow their sacrifices to be forgotten.
My Lords, there was an interesting piece in the newspapers recently about the first bullet that was fired. The first bullet is supposed to have been fired at a German, by an African from Côte d’Ivoire. How did they find that out? This is what I want to know. How do they know it was the first bullet? If it was in Africa, and was fired by some poor man from Côte d’Ivoire, I do not even know whether he managed to kill the German. Anyway, it is amazing how they find these stories. I will not be talking about that, of course, but I thought it might amuse your Lordships.
I will start with the first group of Indians who came in the ships. As noble Lords will know, the BEF failed in Belgium and Britain did not seem to have a proper standing army, so the Indians started to arrive in ships. Some 150,000 of them came at that stage. It is sad that they did not have proper clothing. We were going into winter—we were not in winter yet, we were in autumn, but we were going into winter—and they did not have appropriate clothing. This seems to me to be a bad oversight, because these people had come from villages in India and were used to heat—not just warmth but heat. That was the first group of Indians who came.
Your Lordships probably also know that there were 9,000 combatants and 6,000 non-combatants. It is very interesting that not much has been written about the non-combatants, who were also in Europe in all the theatres of war, because they were needed in those places. Nothing has really been written about their work during the war. Non-combatants are important as well, as we know, and the Indians were in practically every theatre of the First World War.
I have just found out that the Indians who were at Gallipoli were not properly mentioned until the eve of the centenary. Everybody knew they were there but they were not mentioned in the records and the things that were written about Gallipoli. The story that I am trying to put before your Lordships is that Indians were there, but not in everybody’s thinking. Some of the later records did not focus properly on the Indians, because the people creating the records had the feeling that somehow they were inferior to the white British Army. Obviously this went on because it was a big part of the British Empire not to treat people from across it as equals—but when they were prepared to give up their lives they deserve to be treated as equals.
A noble Lord asked, “Why did they want to join up?”. They did so because they were encouraged by the Indian leadership. The noble Lord, Lord Gadhia, said that Gandhiji said they should join the Army and so on, and they did. But why did Gandhi and the Indian leadership say, “Join the Army”? The idea was that if India helped Britain win the war, it might get dominion status, which was the Indians’ biggest wish—or if not that, perhaps some more privileges to run India as they wanted to. As your Lordships know, that never came about, but the Indians were the biggest volunteer army at that time.
We have had a lot of commemorative World War I events during this time. We have said and done things and had those events and so on, but how are we actually to inform the young? If you stop people on the street now and ask them, “Do you know who was involved in World War I, apart from us?”, they might mention the Dominions, because they were kith and kin, but they never mention Indians. I do not think many people know that the Indians were there during World War I. To me, that is crucial. It is the one thing we have to put right, because it is important not only for the young of this country to know that but for the Indians who have come to live here. Young Indians should have something to be proud of, but they do not know about this. How do we inform the young on a large scale? We put it in the context of history. If we are teaching anything about World War I, it should mention the people who are not mentioned elsewhere. That is the most important lesson for this period. We should make sure that the young have a chance to find out about that, especially the young Indians—I mean those from a united India. Although it is four countries now, that is all right too: all those people should be able to know what their fathers and grandfathers did, and how they came to make up the largest volunteer army.
I have been involved in the Memorial Gates, which a couple of your Lordships have talked about. They are a memorial on Constitution Hill to Indians, Africans and West Indians. It took me about seven or eight years to get them up and I had a lot of problems. Sadly, I had no support at all from the Labour Government of the time. The support I got was a great help, but it would have been even better if the Government had wanted to see the memorial in place. The support came from the Royal Family: Prince Charles became our patron and the Queen came twice. I am very grateful because, without that, we would not have been able to raise the money. If you do not have somebody such as Prince Charles as patron, nobody gives you money—so it was difficult. Field Marshal Lord Inge raised a lot of money—I do not know whether your Lordships remember him—as did I. Between us we managed to raise enough to get the memorial up.
I will save the last few minutes for my father, who decided to join the Army and volunteered in the First World War. I am so old that I am probably the only one from a minority community who can say, “My father served in the First World War”. No one else will be old enough. My mother used to say that he decided to run away to war because he failed his exams and did not want his grandfather, who was quite a paterfamilias, to know. I do not think that many people run away to war; they run away from it, if possible. He served mostly in Mesopotamia. Gandhiji had said that the Indian students should help the war effort but that they should not kill, so my father was a stretcher bearer in an ambulance corps. Fortunately he came back, because otherwise I would not be here—but he would not talk about it.
Many noble Lords have said that their father or grandfather would not tell them anything about the war. I think that my father had a terrible time. He was spoilt and brought up in a comfortable family, and he really did not like being where he was. The only thing he told us was that he lived on tins of bully beef. As a Hindu, he would not eat beef—he never did afterwards—but he lived on bully beef during the war. Mesopotamia was a horrible place and it was a horrible time, but he survived. I am very proud of the fact that I can join noble Lords whose father or grandfather was in the first war—because I too had a father who volunteered for that war.
My Lords, it has been a rare privilege during the last four years to take part in so many important debates in this House as we have commemorated the heroism and sacrifice of those who fell in the Great War. In particular, it was a privilege to lead one on the centenary of the Battle of Passchendaele and another commemorating the role of musicians, artists and poets who fell in the fighting—those special lives whose loss, in the words of Sir Hubert Parry, could never be made good.
It has also been my good fortune during these years to have been associated with the exemplary work of the Imperial War Museums, whose foundation I sit on and I declare an interest accordingly. In 2014, IWM London transformed its iconic atrium as part of a new, permanent First World War gallery, making use for the first time of the power of digital technology to engage new generations. This gallery is the richest and most comprehensive in the world, containing more than 1,300 objects, and in the first six months of opening it attracted an exceptional 1 million visitors—a figure which underlines the power of commemoration. Many millions more have visited since and taken part in some of the key events organised by the IWM, importantly including one on the vital role of women during the war. Its unique digital platform, “Lives of the First World War”, has engaged the public in a remarkable way by allowing them to contribute stories, building a digital memorial to the Great War. I hope that it helps those whom the noble Lord, Lord Clark of Windermere, talked about earlier as seeking a permanent memorial to their ancestors.
Throughout the centenary the IWM has also supported the work of 14-18 NOW, which has played its own energetic role in marking major national moments through the arts—not least through the memorable poppies tour, seen by over 4.3 million people. I pay a heartfelt tribute to both organisations and to the DCMS, which has so immaculately choreographed these last four years.
Today, as the commemorative events in this House draw to a close, I want to highlight a role played by a group which is so often overlooked but was absolutely vital to the waging of the conflict and to our ultimate victory. That is the animals who fought, were injured and died in the war, as my noble friend Lord Shrewsbury mentioned. Animals have been involved in warfare as long as men could ride a horse into battle or train a dog to attack, and they have served other purposes as well—as mascots to raise morale, and to provide companionship and comfort to those fighting. But the First World War presented the greatest challenge ever to face animals in the history of warfare, before or since, and that is why I want to remember them today.
The animals most profoundly affected were the horses that powered our cavalry. Remember that when the First World War broke out the entire British Army had just 80 motor vehicles. All other transportation of men, guns, ammunition, equipment, medicine, supplies and fuel relied on horse power and, with the mobilisation and expansion of the army, horses were required in unprecedented numbers. The British Expeditionary Force proceeded to France with 40,000 horses and mules, each one of which had to be hoisted aboard and into the holds of ships. Despite heroic efforts by the Army Veterinary Corps, for many the trauma of the journey was too much and many died during the crossing, in often terrible conditions.
Horses were then in action right from the opening shots of the war when, at Néry in France on
“On campaign, riding and reading the horse for months on end, sleeping in the open only a few yards behind the picket lines at night, and suffering the same privations, the soldier came to regard his horse as almost an extension of his entire being”.
During the war, more than a quarter of a million horses were lost on the Western Front alone. Only 58,000 were killed by enemy fire; the rest succumbed to exposure, disease and poison gas, despite the heroic efforts of the men in 1915 who, when that hideous gas first appeared, improvised gas masks for their beloved animals.
Both the Blue Cross and the RSPCA worked incredibly hard for animal welfare in every theatre of war, raising money at home to care for them and then tending to them at the front. These charities, which really came to public attention for the first time during the conflict, provided 180 horse ambulances, tented field hospitals, a convalescent depot and 13 hospitals in France to care for them. Some 2.6 million horses and mules were admitted to their care in France alone, an astonishing achievement. Then, as now, a great debt is owed to the charities that care so much for our animals.
Tragically, the Armistice did not always bring salvation for the horses that had served so valiantly. In many cases, they were destroyed rather than brought home. Perhaps worst of all was the fate that befell 20,000 war horses in Palestine. It was considered too expensive to bring them back here, and they were sold to Egypt where they were cruelly worked to death in quarries.
Of course, it was not just horses involved but other animals as well. In the desert campaign across the sands of the Middle East made famous by Lawrence of Arabia, camels were vital. During the heavy fighting on the advance to Jerusalem in the winter of 1917 alone, the British lost over 3,000 camels.
Important too was the role of dogs in the war. They performed an extraordinary number of military roles. As ambulance dogs, they sniffed out casualties on the battlefield when they were buried by debris. From 1916 they were increasingly used as messenger dogs and a special school to train them was formed at Shoeburyness in Essex. Some were sentry dogs, keeping guard duty on the horror of the Western Front. Others laid telephone wires and many served as mascots. Many of them, such as Pelorus Jack of the Royal Navy ship HMS “New Zealand”, also made good subjects for patriotic postcards, while others raised thousands of pounds for war charities. Bob at Liverpool, Prince at Crewe, and Cymro at Rhyl became well-known names.
Dogs were in high demand. Initially they came from homes in Battersea and elsewhere, but in time the War Office asked the public to send their dogs as gifts. In his excellent book on the subject, the historian Neil Storey records how one woman wrote a moving letter to accompany her dog when she sent it to war:
“I have given my husband and my sons, and now he too is required, I give you my dog”.
Our feathered friends, too, were brought into service. Canaries were used to detect poison gas but, most importantly, carrier pigeons were vital during the conflict in an age before any form of significant communication. The Emergency Pigeon Service was established to ensure a supply of pigeons to minesweepers, which were then able to send news about newly laid minefields to patrol boats. The same was true on the Western Front. During the Battle of Arras, two tanks with pigeons on board saw large bodies of Germans massing behind the hills. Within the hour, our artillery had received word of this via the pigeons and foiled the German counterattack.
Noble Lords would expect me to say a word or two about our feline friends, of course. Cats also played their part, not least in the rat-infested dugouts of the Western Front, where they did a great deal to keep down the rodent population. Often cats simply provided some companionship for our soldiers. Amid the death and despair of the front line, kittens and puppies helped to pierce the muddy gloom and were a welcome reminder of home. Cats, too, were popular mascots for ships in the Royal Navy. Many perished with their crew when ships went down, including Lyddite, the mascot on HMS “Shark” sunk in Jutland, and Togo, who went down with HMS “Irresistible” at the Dardanelles. Indeed, all animal life played its part in this terrible war.
Many of you will know or have visited the Animals in War Memorial in Park Lane, which was opened in 2004. It records the sacrifice of the hundreds of thousands of animals of all kinds who fell alongside our troops. At the conclusion of the inscription, we read movingly these words, “They had no choice”.
As we commemorate the heroism and bravery of the gallant who fought and died so that we might be free, please let us remember those who stood by them, who worked with them, who comforted them, but who had no voice or name, then or now. Let us give them that voice today, as we remember them too at the Armistice.
My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Lord, who introduced an interesting and thoughtful element to this debate that has not been covered before. In a briefing from the Royal British Legion, we are encouraged to give our own special thanks to the First World War generation, whether through family memories or through tributes to the heroism of people from our own part of the country. I would like to do both in my contribution. In honouring the dead, I would also like to honour those who survived but who, despite having served their country, had often to confront difficult circumstances—difficult economic circumstances, as well as, in many cases, the emotional, psychological and physical effects of that war.
My own family memory arises directly from my father, who was a veteran of the trenches near Ypres—“Wipers”, as he and his fellow soldiers called it. Like so many, he spoke little of his experiences there. As a child, I do not remember him ever talking about the First World War, although I do remember that he never ate baked beans, having had a surfeit of them in the trenches. He was awarded the Military Cross for bravery under fire but, as someone who did not like fuss or ceremony, he preferred to receive his medal through the post rather than attending a ceremony in Buckingham Palace. Until my sister and I offered the medal for the exhibition of memorabilia in your Lordships’ House, it had not been seen in public and had not been worn, as the ribbon had not been attached.
My father won a scholarship to Cambridge in 1913, which was something the family was very proud of, but his academic career was brought to an end when he enlisted and joined the Cambridgeshire Regiment. There is an excellent book about the regiment written by Brigadier-General Riddell, who commanded it. He writes movingly about the heroism and camaraderie he encountered; I know now that comradeship was something that my father treasured. In the book, the author talks somewhat scathingly about some of the stupider decisions that were taken, which needlessly forfeited gains that had been made or which jeopardised men’s lives. He writes of one of the bravest men he ever knew, a lance-corporal by the name of Nightingale. I have not been able to find out whether Nightingale survived or whether he has descendants, but I know from the book that he helped to save my father’s life. It states that when my father and General Riddell had to run across a field of death, Nightingale turned himself into a veritable chimney by lighting cigarettes and so forth to distract the Germans and give cover to the two men as they ran. Reading about Nightingale, I was also struck by the class gulf between Tommies and officers. I was interested to hear what the noble Lord, Lord Bilimoria, said about members of the Indian Army not being able to get commissions. The gulf between the commissioned and the non-commissioned at home was also wide. Nightingale wanted a commission but never got one, yet if anyone deserved promotion to a senior level it was him.
As a result of the centenary of the war, many people have looked into their family history. History has come alive to them as a result, and many fascinating stories have been revealed. It has also made us remember contributions of individual men and women across the UK in our nations and regions. In this year when we are celebrating the 100th anniversary of some women getting the vote, I pay tribute to some of the amazing war heroines from my part of the world, the north-east, whose memory deserves to be highlighted. Their work should not be forgotten.
Kate Maxey was one of most highly decorated nurses. She was from Spennymoor in County Durham, and was sister in charge of a casualty clearing station in France. Even when injured in a bombing raid, she directed nurses, orderlies and stretcher bearers, thinking of herself last. At a time when there were only 600 registered women doctors in the UK, Dr Ruth Nicholson wanted to help in France but was turned down. Undeterred, she got involved with the Scottish Women’s Hospitals for Foreign Services and, with support from our Belgian and French allies, was able to establish the hospital in Royaumont in northern France. She saved many lives as a result. Sybil Grey, the great-granddaughter of Earl Grey of the Great Reform Act, trained as a nurse, ran services in her family’s home and then established and ran an Anglo-Russian hospital in Petrograd and later a field hospital near the Russian front. She treated many people in challenging circumstances, partly because of the high number of Russian casualties and partly because of the growing unrest that lead to the Russian revolution.
In this year when we are also remembering the work of suffragettes and suffragists, I shall mention other women from the north-east. Charlotte—Charlie—Marsh, a former hunger striker, was during the war the motor mechanic and chauffeuse to Prime Minister Lloyd George. This was ironic because she had been punished for throwing tiles at the Prime Minister’s car before the war as a suffragette, yet she worked in this important capacity during the war. Ruth Dodds from Gateshead worked as a munitionette. Her vivid diaries from this period are now used by schools in the north-east and elsewhere to learn about the dangerous but essential work that women did. These women and others were brave and heroic and deserve to be remembered.
In conclusion, I agree with my noble friend Lord Griffiths of Burry Port, who today in the Huffington Post urged us to ensure that our acts of remembrance also make us think about the challenges of today. A number of noble Lords have mentioned this. He is right to remind us that the price of freedom is eternal vigilance. We must remember that as well as continuing to honour the heroes and heroines of yesterday.
My Lords, we have heard many fine speeches today, and I know there are many more to come. I regret that the noble Lord, Lord Ashdown, is not here and that we will miss his unique perspective. I wish him all the best in his battle. If anyone can prevail, he can.
This exceptional centenary year is an opportunity for us to express our gratitude to the entire World War I generation. They gave their lives to defend this country and to ensure that no hostile power could obtain control of the opposite coast of the English Channel and use it as a launch pad for an invasion of the British Isles.
My country of birth was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. My ancestors served it. I spent my formative years in Sarajevo, the city where the first bullet of the First World War was fired when Archduke Ferdinand and his wife were assassinated. As a child, I used to visit the Gavrilo Princip bridge and walk in the footsteps of the assassin, blissfully unaware of the calamity that his actions unleashed upon our continent.
Whichever side our great-grandfathers and grandfathers were on, we were united at the Paris peace conference by the reality of what the Great War left behind. The four great empires that exercised power and authority prior to 1914—Habsburg Austro-Hungary, Romanov Russia, Ottoman Turkey and Hohenzollern Germany—had disappeared or simply expired. The total direct cost of the war was estimated at $180 billion. Most devastating of all was the human cost of the war. Ten million lives were lost, and 20 million people sustained war-related injuries. By weakening so many human frames, the war opened the door to the Spanish flu epidemic, which killed a further 20 million people across the continent, reminding us that the harms of war last for decades. Tragically, all the sacrifice and suffering was not enough. The war to end all wars did not deliver. The carnage was repeated in just over 30 years, this time on an industrial scale, underpinned by the ideologies of red and black totalitarian societies, the abhorrent concept of a racial state and mass extermination camps stretching from Poland to Siberia.
As we pay tribute to those in whose blood that history was written, and as memories of both world wars fade with time, I am deeply worried that we have become forgetful of our history and reckless with our democracy. I fear that we now at times take for granted the unbroken peace that most European countries have enjoyed for more than 70 years, that we have allowed our moral radar to weaken, and that our ability to recognise what is acceptable or not has diminished. I have been shocked, as I am sure many of your Lordships have been, by some of the tone of the public debate in the handling our relationship with our European neighbours. Whatever our views, it is our duty to behave in a way that corresponds to the sacrifices made in the two world wars. This is not some romantic idea of everyone having to get along, but a matter of basic civility between nations and a reflection of the critical importance of a stable, democratic and peaceful continent, the very reason so many men and women fought and died in the two world wars.
As someone recently remarked, xenophobia has become almost acceptable, respectable and even admirable. While some may feel better throwing around disparaging comments and rude remarks, let us not forget that each time they do, and each time we pretend not to hear, rhetoric is a step closer to actions—unacceptable aggressive actions. Democracies are not immune to violence just because they are democracies. They have to be protected and nurtured. Sometimes they have to be fought for. However much we pride ourselves on our values, our history and the strength of our institutions, there is a short step between rhetoric and violent loss of life. Let us remember today the Member of Parliament the late Jo Cox, who was killed for standing up for the voiceless, and the 11 Jewish worshippers so recently killed in cold blood in America only for being Jews. We must always be vigilant and protect what has been built in blood and on lives sacrificed. I feel this keenly as I reflect that I, a great-granddaughter of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and you, the descendants of those who died to defend Great Britain, can today sit in the same Chamber.
Britain is an extraordinary and exceptional country. It stood on the right side of history in World War I, World War II and the Cold War. It is the country whose moral core was never corroded by Nazism or fascism. It is the country that has stood by those who needed protection. It is therefore worrying when the rhetoric of populism, which has never suited British core values, starts rearing its head. It is then that we must remember those who died for higher ideals. I therefore hope that as we mark the centenary of World War I we not only remember the generations who died but think of future generations and reflect on what we ourselves are going to leave behind, as there is no greater gift than security, no greater insurance policy than stability and no greater legacy than peace.
My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow such a compellingly argued and inspiring speech from the noble Baroness.
I have more family stories for your Lordships. I am here, I exist, only because both my grandfathers survived the First World War. My paternal grandfather, William, born into a Liverpool Catholic family, was an athlete: he played football as a schoolboy for the north of England, and as a boxer he sparred with Bombardier Billy Wells. William served at the front in the Royal Horse Artillery, losing a toe during the years of conflict.
My maternal grandfather, Joe, was born in Belfast to fierce loyalist stock. Aged 18, he joined Carson’s UVF and trained with guns smuggled in from Germany. At the onset of war my grandad joined the 15th Battalion of the Royal Irish Rifles, a Protestant force that marched with marigolds in their caps to the tunes of King Billy. Joe fought on the front line and in the trenches, miraculously surviving for the span of the war. He was in the Battle of the Somme where, as we know, 50,000 were killed or wounded on the first day. At Thiepval, the 36th (Ulster) Division lost 5,500 men in two days. Whole areas of Ulster were plunged into grief. Joe went on to fight on the Messines Ridge, at Cambrai and at St Quentin, where he was captured, and saw out the war as a German prisoner.
I can never be sure what price my two grandfathers paid for their exposure to four years of the utmost horror. My paternal grandfather, William, was bright but quick to pick a fight; he rose in the war to sergeant, but was discharged as a private. He would become an alcoholic, a mainly unemployed Bootle docker. The NSPCC would be called in to consider the welfare of my father and his siblings.
My maternal grandfather, Joe, could be cruel to his daughters too, but he was mostly quiet and introspective, though he took me, his first grandchild, under his wing and talked to me endlessly and chillingly about his war and his grim experiences, taking solace only in his racing pigeons and his pride in once having sold a Jack Russell terrier to Gracie Fields. There was one benevolent consequence of Joe’s war. By 1917, so many soldiers from the Ulster Division had been killed that Catholics were finally drafted in to make up the numbers. Unexpectedly, the camaraderie of battle softened attitudes, and a year later St Patrick’s Day was celebrated in the trenches and shamrocks widely distributed. When my Protestant mother declared that she was to marry my Catholic father, my mum was ostracised by her fierce loyalist mother but Joe, the one-time member of the UVF, had lost his sectarian impulse on the fields of Flanders, and peace was soon restored to the family.
I have visited the battlegrounds on which my grandfathers fought. I have stood in empty, flat green fields with the birds singing, not a soul to be seen, the ground around still bearing the scars of trenches, and I have listened to friends reading out loud some of the eloquent and poetic first-person accounts of battles long fought, involving massive loss of life, in precisely the place where we were standing. How could humankind have possibly managed to create and continue such fruitless slaughter? John Keegan, at the end of his masterpiece history of the First World War, describes it as a mystery:
“Why did a prosperous continent, at the height of its success as a source and agent of global wealth and power and at one of the peaks of its intellectual and cultural achievement, choose to risk all it had won for itself and all it offered to the world in the lottery of a vicious and local internecine conflict?”.
Some 1 million British, 1.7 million French, 2 million Germans and many others lost their lives in the Great War, yet the First World War was unfinished business. Only two decades later it seeded the Second World War, with even greater horror—a fivefold increase in loss of life. No one has expressed that better today than the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Stirrup.
So far, the post-war embryonic alliances that eventually grew into the European Union have succeeded in locking most of the countries of mainland Europe into a secure, harmonious and prosperous peace. The single most poignant post-war image for me is President Mitterrand and Chancellor Kohl standing together at Verdun in 1984, side by side and hand-in-hand. Even without us, may those European bonds remain forever strong and may catastrophic war never again blight our continent.
My Lords, I also convey my thanks to the noble Lord, Lord Ashton, for today’s debate.
Visiting our ancestral village in early childhood, I came to know that nearly every house had one or two male members in the army. Sadly, some of them never returned. It is a hilly area of Punjab with very small land holdings, and the only occupation was joining the army. They were professional soldiers and took pride in their profession. Many were recognised for their outstanding service and bravery.
When the Empire went to war with Germany in August 1914, its only fully trained and battle-worthy reserves immediately available to deploy in support of the British Expeditionary Force were the regular soldiers of the Indian Army. In addition to them, the military authorities were also able to withdraw almost all the regular British battalions from India for service in Europe. Only nine regular British battalions were retained in the country to keep a watch on the perennially problematic North-West Frontier and Afghanistan, whose intentions could be altered by a change in ruler—as was to happen, but not until 1919.
The British Expeditionary Force that crossed over to France in August 1914 was initially fewer than 90,000, which, with their French allies, faced the German spear-head of 320,000 strong. In all, Germany had an attacking force of about 1.5 million. All sides suffered severely in the bitter fighting that followed. By the end of the battle of Ypres in November, the effect of the fighting may be judged by the fact that the 7th Division, which had entered Belgium on
The Indian Army had some 14,000 infantry and 1,700 cavalry. The Germans had launched 12 and a half divisions into what was to become the First Battle of Ypres. Its purpose was to capture the channel ports that were basic to the British war effort and the very security of the British mainland. It was a battle like no other. By the end, the BEF had virtually ceased to exist, losing some 50,000 men. The troops of the Indian Corps replaced 32,000 men of the BEF’s II Corps. The fighting that followed was marked by acts of individual bravery of the highest honour.
In the course of the war, 11 Victoria Crosses were awarded to Indian and Nepalese soldiers, as well as countless other bravery awards. One example from 1914 is Darwan Singh Negi, a non-commissioned officer of the 1st Battalion, 39th Garhwal Rifles, who was awarded the Victoria Cross. The desperate nature of the fighting may be judged by the fact that in the same action the battalion earned 16 other medals. By the battle’s end, the corps had lost some 2,000 men, who were killed and missing, and 4,000 were wounded. At enormous sacrifice, the hard-pressed forces of the Indian Army and their comrades of the BEF had thwarted what the German high command had hoped would be a decisive victory. Without the sacrifice of the Indian soldiers, the outcome of these battles in 1914 could have been different. Neither formation would ever fully recover from the ordeal.
In the course of 1915, the British Army, which by July had grown into 21 divisions, was engaged in a series of bitter but inconclusive battles. By October l915, the corps’ casualty list of killed, missing, and wounded amounted to over 21,000. Of the 47th Sikhs, only 28 men and no officers remained. Indian soldiers fought on various fronts: Mesopotamia, Gallipoli and Haifa.
In 1916, the Middle East had become the Indian Army’s principal theatre of operations. Given the scale of their losses at the Somme in 1916, Passchendaele in 1917, and in the great German offensive of spring 1918, the British had little enough to spare for the war in the Middle East. The campaign that took Baghdad on
By the war’s end, some 1.5 million had volunteered for the Indian Army; over 74,000 of them were not to return from service. We have not even touched on the material side of India’s contribution to the Empire’s war efforts. That contribution was truly remarkable. As the noble Lord, Lord Gadhia, already mentioned, Mahatma Gandhi, the great leader of India’s freedom struggle, who was in London in August 1914, set about organising an Indian ambulance corps. The rulers of princely states were generous in their support. Ganga Singh, Maharaja of Bikaner, and Bhupinder Singh, Maharaja of Patiala, both sailed for Europe. The latter raised 17,000 men from his state, visited a number of fighting fronts and, by the war’s end, was an honorary major-general.
Now that we are commemorating the centenary of the Armistice, we should also remember the unsurpassed sacrifice to the war effort from the Indian sub-continent, in both the First World War and the Second World War. The monthly salary of an Indian soldier was just 15 rupees—about one guinea. They left their homes and travelled to all parts of Europe, the Middle East and Africa to fight for the Empire for very little. The total number of military and civilian casualties in World War I and World War II is estimated to be 100 million. Think seriously: it is a horrendous number of people, affecting many more families.
What have we learned from this most deadly chapter in human history? Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela and other preachers of peace have come and gone. We are still living in a very dangerous world where there are too many trigger-happy Governments and individuals, ready to fight rather than sit down together to talk and listen. Commemorating Armistice Day and remembering the millions who died in these wars, we should work together to build a peaceful world.
My Lords, we are now almost at the end of this commemorative journey. I start by saying how proud I have been to serve on the Government’s World War I advisory board, along with other speakers in this debate. At meeting after meeting, I have been impressed by the diversity and dignity of the events that have been organised in all parts of the United Kingdom, in Ireland, and in France and Belgium. Others have spoken of the brilliance of the DCMS team, and I pay particular tribute to David Thompson and Jennifer Shaw for keeping the show on the road so brilliantly.
In preparing for today, I looked back at what was said in your Lordships’ House in June 2014, on the eve of the centenary of the start of the conflict. I commented in that debate that a great deal of preparation had been put in place and hoped that it would capture the imagination of as many people as possible. I also, perhaps slightly prematurely, paid tribute to the work of Dr Andrew Murrison MP, the Prime Minister’s special representative for the centenary commemoration, and I am delighted to be able to do so again, four years on, as have other speakers in this debate. Since the summer of 2011, there have been no fewer than seven Secretaries of State at the head of DCMS but, fortunately, there has been only one Dr Murrison. It is greatly to his credit that the tone and content of the commemoration programme has been correctly nuanced. It would have been so easy to get this wrong, but that has not happened. The theme of commemoration not celebration is right, as is the determination to combine the traditional act of remembrance with new initiatives to engage as much of the population as possible, especially young people. In such a fractured and divided world, it is great that the commemoration programme has succeeded in bringing us together—members of all races and ethnic groups, young and old particularly.
My involvement in the commemoration came about almost by accident. Towards the end of 2001, when I was still a relatively new Member here, I received a letter from a Belgian senator who warned me that the Flanders Government planned to extend the A19 motorway across Pilckem Ridge, the scene of some of the fiercest fighting in the Ypres Salient—a road which would have cut the battlefield in two. I was sufficiently intrigued by this to pay a visit to Pilckem Ridge during that Christmas Recess. I found that it remained largely untouched by development.
Pre-1915 photographs show the same farm buildings and the same field layout. The landscape has acquired more than a dozen Commonwealth War Graves Commission cemeteries, places of peace and tranquillity, visited by more than 150,000 people from the United Kingdom every year. It was where John McCrae, sitting in the back of a field ambulance close to what became the Essex Farm Cemetery, wrote “In Flanders Fields”, quoted by my noble friend Lady Crawley so movingly earlier. Below the fields of Pilckem Ridge, outside the cemetery, lie the remains of countless soldiers—perhaps as many as 200,000. The undeveloped farming area provides a peaceful last resting place for them, although fresh remains are found every time the fields are ploughed.
When I returned to the UK, I tabled an Oral Question in this House which led to many Members saying that they wanted to support the campaign to stop the motorway and preserve the Pilckem Ridge battlefield. As a result, we established the All-Party Parliamentary War Heritage Group, which continues to this day, with the remit of promoting and supporting the protection, conservation and interpretation of war graves, war memorials and battlefield sites. Two distinguished academics—Peter Barton and Professor Peter Doyle—volunteered to become involved having heard about my visit to Ypres, and Professor Doyle is still the group’s secretary. I continue to serve as co-chair, alongside Sir Jeffrey Donaldson MP, a fellow member of the Government’s World War I advisory board.
As a group, we engaged with the Flanders Government and, to their great credit, they abandoned the plans for the motorway extension. Now, each year, they organise impressive commemoration events around
So much has been going on in the past four years that it is impossible in a single speech to cover more than a few examples. I hope, therefore, that the House will allow me to concentrate on just two areas where I have some personal involvement.
The first is the Worcestershire World War 100 programme. This is a partnership led by the Worcestershire Archive and Archaeology Service under the inspired leadership of Dr Adrian Gregson, deputy leader of Worcester City Council, and directed from The Hive, Europe’s first joint university and public library. The 2011 to 2019 programme includes council and independent museums, archives, the university, the cathedral, regimental associations, Army museums, trusts, local libraries, charities, the Western Front Association, the Royal British Legion and armed services’ benevolent funds. The project cost was £674,000, which attracted a Heritage Lottery Fund grant of £353,000.
Examples of what has been done include a people’s collection—material loaned or deposited and collected by local people in towns all over the county. The World War I bell tent has had 40 outings at shows, weekend events, schools, libraries and community groups—including in urban and rural schools in more deprived areas and with local ethnic communities—with re-enactors and other activities including poetry and poppy making. There have been displays marking specific centenary events involving Worcestershire regiments—such as the battles of Gheluvelt, Gallipoli, Qatia, Passchendaele and the spring offensive—plus longer-term exhibitions on the theme of “Back in Blighty” and the paintings of Benjamin Williams Leader.
The programme has organised heritage trails and exhibitions on the lives of Worcestershire’s very own Vesta Tilley and Studdert Kennedy—Woodbine Willie—as well as a war memorials bike ride. The “Fields of Battle: Lands of Peace” outdoor photographic exhibition by Mike Shiel, which many of your Lordships may have seen elsewhere, has been seen by 400,000 people. The South Eastern and Chatham Railway carriage which brought back the bodies of Edith Cavell and the unknown warrior came to the Severn Valley Railway on loan this summer. I should declare an interest as president of the Heritage Railway Association. Worcester will play its part in the Victoria Cross paving stone programme and is organising a military parade of the Mercian Regiment in honour of Fred Dancox VC.
The story is the same the length and breadth of the country. There has scarcely been a town or village which has not held its own commemoration. In my last few seconds, I pay a special tribute to the International Guild of Battlefield Guides; I have the honour to be its patron. It advises me that 1,800 schools have taken part in the battlefield tours programme and 6,500 teachers and students have been on a battlefield tour, many guided by guild members. They bring the former battlefields to life for the teachers and students. Guild guides have also played a key role in special school tours which commemorated a range of battles, including Loos, the Somme, Arras, Vimy Ridge, third Ypres and the spring offensive. The international programme was part of the Amiens 100 commemorations.
The evidence across the battlefield guiding industry is that bookings for 2019 are higher this year than was evident 12 months ago. That is interesting, and flies in the face of the accepted wisdom that the end of the centenary would mean a huge fall in battlefield tourism, and perhaps in remembrance. That is not so, and numbers are higher due to a wider percentage of the UK population being aware of the Western Front battlefields as a result of the centenary and the successful way in which it is being commemorated. That is a really positive legacy.
My Lords, we all know that this year marks the centenary of the First World War Armistice. The centenary reminds us of the pivotal role that our Armed Forces have played in shaping our country’s history. This was a conflict that resulted in suffering on an unprecedented scale.
I pay tribute to the contribution of Muslims during the First World War. The significant part played in the First World War by Muslims is not widely acknowledged and has been historically undervalued. Efforts must be made to redress that. I hope that today’s debate will inform others and help to address this imbalance.
At least 2.5 million Muslim soldiers and labourers from all over the world fought with the allied forces with dignity and honour. They came from many different countries, including Algeria, Canada, China, Egypt, France, India, Morocco, Russia, Senegal, Somalia, South Africa, Tunisia and the United States. A million soldiers and labourers came from Egypt, 80,000 soldiers came from Tunisia, 63,000 soldiers came from Morocco, 173,000 soldiers came from Algeria and 5,000 soldiers came from the United States. In fact, 10% of the Russian army’s total strength was Muslim, about 1.5 million soldiers.
Muslims were recognised with decorations for their bravery and valour in combat during the First World War. The Légion d’honneur was awarded to the Moroccan Division. During the Battle of the Marne, these brave soldiers were successful in halting the German troops’ advance on Paris. This incredible feat was called the miracle on the Marne. However, only 800 of the 4,000 Moroccan soldiers survived the battle. Furthermore, in British West Africa, 30% of African Distinguished Conduct Medals awarded to those who served were given to Nigerian Muslims who fought in Cameroon.
Muslim contributions were not only confined to military activities. Muslims also served in army nursing units, and in fact the Hui—the Chinese Muslims— were a substantial part of the Chinese labour force in Europe, on the eastern front, in Africa and in Mesopotamia.
Muslim soldiers shared their food with locals who were suffering from the famine in Europe. Prophet Muhammad—peace be upon him—and Caliph Abu Bakr laid down clear rules of engagement in warfare. One of the tenets in Islam is that Muslims should treat enemy soldiers with respect and look after them. In view of this belief, Muslim soldiers asked their officers to ensure that captured prisoners of war be taken to a place that had been prepared for them, and that they be properly fed and not harmed or tortured. Muslim soldiers felt that prisoners of war should be treated with mercy and kindness. Furthermore, Muslims shared their native traditional medical knowledge with nurses and doctors who had run out of medical supplies at the battlefront.
I turn now to Muslims from India. Although I was born in east Africa, I have Indian heritage. My grandfather joined the British Indian Army and fought in Palestine. This subject, therefore, is of personal interest to me. India raised the world’s largest volunteer army, with a total of 1.5 million soldiers during the First World War. This was greater than the combined total of all volunteers from Scotland, Wales and Ireland. There were 400,000 Muslims from India who were part of the British Volunteer Army. They fought out of love and loyalty to the King-Emperor and the Empire. They felt honour in fighting for their King, and it was this sense of loyalty and dedication that endeared them to many of their British comrades.
The First World War marked the first time that Muslim soldiers ever fought on European ground. They were originally called upon for help when British forces were suffering heavy casualties. This demonstrates just how historically important their role was. There were seven Indian Expeditionary Forces that included Muslims and they provided crucial support, fighting directly alongside British forces in Europe. In fact, at the Battle of Neuve-Chapelle, they provided half the attacking force. A British general described them as a magnificent body that performed the most useful and valuable service.
The Indian forces also saw action in east Africa, Mesopotamia, Egypt, Gallipoli and Palestine. More than 74,000 Indian troops, including Muslims, were killed or declared missing in action during the First World War, a number that is testament to the level of sacrifice and loyalty shown by the Indians in supporting the allied forces. Indian troops were awarded 13,000 medals for gallantry, including 11 Victoria Crosses. Sepoy Khudadad Khan was the first non-white person to be awarded the Victoria Cross for his gallantry in the face of overwhelming numbers. He was a Muslim who came from a place called Chakwal in present-day Pakistan. He served in the 129th Duke of Connaught’s Own Baluchis regiment. He fought in Belgium in 1914 and single-handedly kept German forces at bay in the Battle of Ypres after all his comrades had been killed, right up to the point where his position was overrun. It is thought that his actions helped to ensure that two vital ports used to supply British troops remained in allied hands. Two other Muslims were awarded the Victoria Cross: Mir Dast and Shahamad Khan. Such stories are significant as they personalise the efforts of Muslims in the armed forces, allowing us to see beyond statistics and into the hearts of these brave soldiers.
A number of Muslims who died as a result of injuries sustained in action in the First World War were buried on Horsell Common in Woking. The Muslim soldiers were able to prove that it was possible to be loyal both to their faith and to a country simultaneously. For many Muslims, religious observances were crucial for coping with the hardships and challenges on the battlefront.
I also pay tribute to other Indian soldiers in the British Army who were Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, Christian and from other religions. As mentioned earlier, there were 1.5 million soldiers from undivided India. We should never forget their contribution. The union jack meant a lot to them and a number of them paid the ultimate price. Will the Minister comment on the contribution of Muslims during the First World War? Last week I arranged a meeting in the House of Lords to discuss that contribution, which was attended by several parliamentarians, including my noble friend Lord Lexden. The event created a great deal of interest and was very much oversubscribed.
My Lords, perhaps one good way to mark the centenary of the end of the First World War is to identify the main lessons from that appalling catastrophe that still have relevance and resonance today, and to commit ourselves to a renewed effort to apply those lessons which, I fear—as my remarks will show, I hope—we are not doing all that successfully. So here is a short list, although by no means an exhaustive one.
It certainly was not the war to end all wars. We surely do now need to put more resources and more political backing into conflict prevention, principally though not exclusively through the United Nations. We should encourage the UN Secretary-General to make more use of Article 99 of the charter, which enables him, on his own initiative, to bring threats to peace and security before the Security Council. We should bolster his conflict-prevention capacity. We should also be more active ourselves in both conflict prevention and in trying to bring conflicts to an end—and there I would mention the case of Yemen, which is very much a case in point.
Secondly, 1918 saw a great surge in demand to hang the Kaiser—probably not the best way to proceed if, like me, you are opposed to capital punishment. It reminds us, however, of the need to have a genuinely effective means of bringing to account those who initiate wars of aggression and those who commit war crimes. That means standing up firmly against the quite disgraceful speech recently made by the US National Security Advisor, John Bolton, attacking the International Criminal Court. We need to do everything we can to make that court effective.
The third lesson is the responsibility of uncontrolled arms races in creating the conditions for war. Obviously, in the case of the First World War the clearest example was the naval arms race between Britain and Germany. That was of course an age before nuclear weapons and the intercontinental ballistic missiles to deliver them. But we need to recognise that we live today in an age when arms races do still pose a risk. Just look at the naval arms race that is going on in the Far East at the moment. This is a moment, too, when even the rather inadequate international agreements on arms control are beginning to atrophy; the most recent example, of course, being the US decision to announce its intention to withdraw from the INF. We surely need to try to reverse that trend.
Fourthly, it may be that in 1918 it was recognised that some categories of weapon were just too horrendous to tolerate. That led to the worldwide ban on the use of poison gas in 1925. But we have to realise now—and we do realise—that the provisions of the Chemical Weapons Convention, which was the implementation of that commitment in 1925, are being flouted in Syria and, of course, closer to home, in Salisbury.
Fifthly, perhaps the most important lesson to draw from 1918 was that the world could not afford to rely on informal co-operation between the great powers of the day, whoever they might be—the so-called Concert of Europe—to prevent conflicts breaking out. That realisation led to the foundation of the League of Nations, which of course proved unable to fulfil its purpose; and then, after the Second World War, it led to the foundation of the United Nations. Today we have a President of the United States, in contrast to Woodrow Wilson and Franklin Roosevelt, who can see no use for the UN and little benefit from the collective security it and NATO are set up to provide. That is a pretty sobering prospect, and so surely, as a nation which supports a rules-based international order, we need to get together with other like-minded countries to resist that trend. Of course, it is difficult to describe leaving the European Union, which has done so much to heal the wounds from 1918 and 1945, as a step in the right direction.
Finally, and sixthly, there was one lesson which perhaps we have done a bit more to learn. One hundred years ago marked the apogee of a world influenza pandemic, wrongly known as Spanish influenza, which killed more people worldwide than the war itself, many of them weakened by the privations of war. Since then we have got a little better at dealing with that sort of global pandemic—just a bit better, but remember that we did not do terribly well with Ebola the first time it broke out, and are we absolutely sure that we would do better if we were assailed by another pandemic?
So there are six either unlearned or at least imperfectly learned lessons, all of them originating from 1918—quite a challenge if the world is not to fall into some of the same horrors it fell into then.
My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Hannay, who indeed points out some extremely important lessons.
Along with my noble and indefatigable friend the Minister, and the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Stirrup, I have heard every single speech of this remarkable debate. I will begin by adding my tribute to another tireless person, who does not even have a seat, and say how much we all appreciate what Dr Murrison has done over the last four years.
Forty-eight hours ago I was sitting in Lincoln Cathedral. It was probably the largest choir ever assembled there, with choral societies from all over Lincolnshire, together with the cathedral’s own choir: over 400 singers and two orchestras had come to take part in Britten’s “War Requiem”. It was an intensely moving evening. They very cleverly projected on to one of those soaring Purbeck marble columns at the end of our glorious nave the names of Lincolnshire men who had died in the First World War. It was moving, too, when at the end—as happens, and as will doubtless happen at the Albert Hall on Saturday night—poppies came drifting down. As I sat there, various thoughts came to mind. I thought of my mother, who had no brothers but had six male cousins, five of whom perished in the First World War. My noble friend Lord Shrewsbury referred in his speech to Staffordshire, which was my adopted county for over 40 years. I had the honour to represent a Staffordshire constituency in the other place, and I was churchwarden in Enville, the little village in the south to which he referred. I had to take part in the service, either there or in the neighbouring village of Kinver, every Remembrance Sunday, where the list was read out: something like 45 or 50 names from Enville and Kinver, these two small Staffordshire villages. It was an extraordinary cataclysm. It has not been mentioned today but it brought crashing down four empires: the empire of the Kaiser, the empire of the Tsar, the Ottoman Empire and the Austro-Hungarian Empire, to which the noble Baroness, Lady Helic, referred in a particularly moving and apposite speech.
It is crucial that we remember sacrifice, but remembrance is hollow unless it is accompanied by a determination that this should not happen again. The noble and gallant Lord, Lord Stirrup, made an important speech at the beginning of this debate when he said, in effect, that 21 years later we were at it again—in 1939, the year of my birth. I was born just a few months before the outbreak of that war in which my father served throughout. The continent that was torn apart between 1618 and 1648 in the ghastly Thirty Years War, and torn apart and dismembered from 1914 to 1918, was again torn apart in the Second World War. It must not happen again.
We did better after the Second World War, with the founding of NATO and—I make no apology for saying it—the founding of the European Union. Full of imperfections as any human institution is, it did so much, first through the Coal and Steel Community, to bring together those who had in some cases been enemies for centuries. We were late in on the act, but we are a European power. We prevented the hegemony of France in the early 18th century with the treaty of Utrecht. We prevented it again just 100 years later; we can go into the Royal Gallery and see that wonderful picture of Wellington on the field of Waterloo. We prevented it again—with wonderful allies to whom there has been much and proper reference during the course of this debate—in 1918; and again in 1945, when some of the most stirring rhetoric of the war came from the Dispatch Box in this Chamber, because the Commons met in here for most of the war. It was from that Dispatch Box that Churchill delivered most of his great wartime speeches.
When we came together to join the European Union, we were already a founding and leading member of NATO. We have done much to play a leading part, looked up to by the Baltic states, Finland and some of the smaller countries as a leader. They are distraught that we are leaving, but we are. The moral of this is not to refight the referendum; I do not want a second referendum. The moral is to say that it is incumbent upon us to forge the strongest possible links with our friends, allies and neighbours in Europe in the years to come. We also have to remember that there are threats as yet unspoken of in this debate, or potential threats.
I agree entirely with my noble friend Lord Balfe when he talks about Russia. He is right. It may not be the most attractive regime, but let us think back to the days of what Reagan called the “evil empire”. Let us remember also that in Muslim extremism and terrorism we have a common foe, which is not to gainsay any of the positive remarks made about Muslims a few minutes ago. We have got to be together.
We have also got to remember one other thing that has not been mentioned at all in this debate: the Second World War, which we shall be commemorating on Sunday too, was also fought in the Far East.
“For their tomorrow, we gave our today”.
Those words will be read out. I want us to have the most positive commercial and other friendships that we can with China. But let us not forget, that is a dominant power. It will be the most powerful nation in the world by the middle of this century. It has already created for itself the semblance of an empire in Africa. We have got to be prepared and be aware that our defence policy is crucial, our defence expenditure is vital and our vigilance is utterly necessary—because if we are not aware of that, we shall be letting down the people we were thinking of in Lincoln Cathedral 48 hours ago, during that Great War requiem.
My Lords, I am most grateful to your Lordships for permitting me to speak in the gap. The Minister made a most impressive introductory speech to this debate. He referred to the participation of the two Irish divisions at the battle of Messines in 1917. I can add another significant fact: alongside those two Irish divisions were an Australian division and a New Zealand one. The noble Lord, Lord Birt, referred to the famous 36th (Ulster) Division, but the 16th Division, from the south of Ireland, was staffed entirely from the south into the five regiments from southern Ireland, which were disbanded in 1922.
I was interested to hear about the experience of the noble Lord, Lord Balfe, with his Irish forebears; but returning Irish servicemen from the British Army had to be totally concealed within their family. They were treated like black sheep and could never be referred to. There is distressing evidence that has come to light that there were several murders of men who had been identified as having served in the British Army. That lasted right through the Second World War, but then came the remarkable transformation of the British-Irish relationship. There were the significant contributions by the two presidents to the peace process; then the Belfast agreement; the visit of Her Majesty the Queen to Dublin; and the visit by President Higgins to London, where he found time to inspect the laid-up colours of the five regiments in St George’s Chapel.
I am a member of the British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly. Four years ago, it was the UK’s turn to host the meeting. We met in Ashford in Kent and took coaches through to the Ypres battlefields. There are a remarkable number of Irish memorials, even in that smaller bit of the Western Front, in addition of course to the cemeteries. Our Irish colleagues were really impressed by all these, because the graves had not been visited for a century in the vast majority of cases, either by their compatriots or, indeed, by their families. In the Tyne Cot Cemetery, which I think is the largest cemetery of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission—that remarkable organisation—I came across the grave of an Irish soldier of the Great War, known only to God. One can speculate that it might well have been a crucifix which was the only identifying object—but that may be. My Irish friend was in tears. That is the legacy which we now enjoy within British-Irish relations, and we can pay proper tribute to 30,000 deaths, more or less distributed between those two Irish divisions, and acknowledge the contribution that Ireland made to the Great War.
My Lords, with your Lordships’ permission, I will speak for a few seconds only. My father was born in 1894, so he was just old enough to serve in the First World War, which he did—first in the Devonshire Yeomanry, then in the South Wales Borderers, and finally in the Royal Flying Corps. All I need to say is that he was there.
My Lords, 1 was the youngest child of a late family. My father reached 18 in 1917 and went out in a reinforcement draft to the Highland Division in March 1918, just as the last great German attack was launched. When at last, in his mid-80s, he began to talk about his experiences, he told me that at one point he was second in command of the remnants of his battalion as a sergeant, with only one officer left.
I want to focus on how well we have commemorated the centenary of the first global war, and what lessons we should take from this for the approach to future commemorations, including those for the centenary of the Second World War in 20 years’ time. Like the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Stirrup and the noble Lord, Lord Faulkner, I have been on the Government’s advisory group for the commemoration of World War One. I saw the early exchanges in Whitehall about the approach to take and I was the first British Minister to talk to the German Foreign Office about how we might work with it to remember together.
As we all know, history is a constant battle over preferred narratives. As a nation, we British are deeply divided and confused about which historical narratives we prefer. I recall seeing an early memorandum to the then Prime Minister in 2012 which stated that, in our approach to the commemoration of World War I, we should ensure that we did not give support to the myth that European integration was the outcome of the two world wars. The Government’s stated purposes in their approach to the commemoration of the centenary were youth and education. We achieved that aim in engaging our younger generations to discover the histories of their local communities in war and the impact of the loss of life on families throughout Britain. We have done very well in symbolising reconciliation with Germany, from the shared events in St Symphorien cemetery, the shared concert with the Bundestag choir and the participation of President Steinmeier in the ceremonies of next weekend.
However, we have failed in educating our younger generation about the wider context of the war and the extent to which British forces depended on the contribution of allies and imperial troops. We have not embarked on the exercise which the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Stirrup, so eloquently called for. I recall entering a book shop in the Yorkshire Dales two or three years ago—as well stocked with volumes on the two world wars as on steam trains and Yorkshire traditions—to find the owner arguing with a visitor about Brexit. He was saying: “After all, we beat the Germans in two world wars and now they are telling us what to do”. That echoes one of the widely held myths of British history, propounded by Margaret Thatcher among others, that Britain stood alone in two world wars to defend freedom against tyranny when others had given up the fight. I tentatively suggested that we had had a lot of help from others in both wars, most of all from the Americans. I was told that, so far as he knew, the Americans had not taken part in World War 1.
It is not that surprising that few Britons appreciate the importance of the American contribution. In spite of proposals that we should make a major event of the US entry into the war, the only significant commemorative event took place on the Scottish island of Islay earlier this year, beyond the reach of major news programmes. It marked the wreck of two US transports as they approached the Clyde: important, but not helping our younger generation to understand just how vital the USA was to the achievement of victory after four exhausting years of a war of attrition.
In contrast to the welcome gestures of reconciliation to our former German enemies, we have neglected the contributions of our allies and imperial forces. We held a small ceremony by the statue of Marshal Foch in London last April, to mark the point at which British forces came under his overall command, with a Guards band and the participation of two French soldiers from Foch’s former regiment. We have not recalled that elements of the Belgian army held part of the Ypres salient throughout the First World War, using England as their support and supply base. As several other noble Lords have said, we have done far too little to inform most of our younger generation of the importance of the Indian army. Less has been said of the West Indies Regiment in the Palestine campaign. I recall the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Scotland, remarking that her grandfather was a sergeant in one of its battalions. We have missed a great opportunity to contribute to national integration and to encourage more from our Asian and other ethnic minorities to enlist in our forces today. We have failed to explain how closely our history is linked to our continental neighbours.
The French commemoration has been much more generous to its partners and allies, as well as to its former enemies. An open-air exhibition along the Champs Elysées, in 2014 to 2015, carried pictures of allied troops in all their diversity: Scots, English, Indian, Moroccan and Algerian as well as French. British troops have marched in their
The remembrance ceremony at the Cenotaph is, in effect, the annual symbolic representation of British history and identity. In 1919, the first parade past the Cenotaph included troops from 12 empire and allied forces—the French, Americans and others—as well as from Britain. Since then, however, it has shrunk to an entirely British ceremony, unchanged for over half a century and almost entirely white, with only the Commonwealth high commissioners from outside the UK. I welcome the participation of the German president in this year’s event as a welcome sign of openness to change.
Should we not in future years follow the French example in their
Britain did not stand alone, in either world war. The myth that we did—that we not only invented freedom but saved it from continental tyranny—is embedded in our most widespread national narrative, and in the way we have approached commemoration of the sacrifices in the two wars. As we reflect on the efforts we have made to educate our younger generations on the national experience of World War I, I hope that we will learn lessons for a more inclusive approach in the future: a recognition that Britain’s security has been maintained with the support of others, and will be maintained in the future only if we continue to co-operate with others within an institutionalised European and international order.
My Lords, it is a great privilege to play a part in a debate of this kind and I am very grateful for the opportunity.
As it happens, the first speech, by the Minister, and the last, by the noble Lord, Lord Wallace, have both referenced the participation by the German President in our commemorative events this weekend. That emboldens me to begin by quoting from a German philosopher, Leibniz, who once said that the present is suffused with the past and charged with the future. There is, then, no time like the present, this centenary moment, to take stock of what has gone before while positioning ourselves for what is to come.
This debate has been a perfect vehicle for exploring this dynamic, and we can only thank all who have contributed for their evocative, personal and challenging remarks. From this vantage point, we in this Parliament, and the nation at large, must bring the past alive again, not for its own sake but in order to recommit ourselves to the future—a note that has been struck again and again during this debate.
A kaleidoscopic array of experiences has flooded my mind, as it has the minds of us all, and shown us just how connected we all are to the events of 1914-18. Let me run down a short list of such memories that spring from my own mind, not in the hope of being exhaustive but in an attempt to illustrate the wide spectrum of our national and international life that was drawn into this conflict 100 years ago.
The Sunday school room in Burry Port where I used to play and learn as a boy was a simple, lean-to, wooden affair—not Lincoln Cathedral. A certificate on the wall carried the name of Bert Owen. Many years later, I discovered that he had survived the horrendous battle for Mametz Wood in 1915 but died two years later at the battle of Messines. A photograph on our kitchen wall at home shows Private Robert Edward Rhodes with his simple medals, from Staffordshire. He would have been my wife’s great-uncle. He died aged 21 in Flanders fields. These were two lads from small towns, just like millions of others, and many references have been made to just such people. “Short days” they,
“lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved”.
My student holiday job was as a male nurse in St David’s mental hospital in Carmarthen. I shaved and bathed a poor man who had been gassed and shell-shocked 40 years previously before being committed to that institution where, as far as I know, he spent the remainder of his days. I remember the geriatric ward of a local hospital at the very beginning of my life as a Methodist minister. The mere sight of a young man wearing a clerical collar was enough to set off a barrage of abuse aimed directly at me—there was no place for God in the minds of so many of those who endured the trenches. Those were two hospitals where veterans were victims, just like millions of others, who had heard,
“The shrill demented choirs of wailing shells”, but were now left to deal with their ghosts and their unresolved anger, or else just kept out of sight because their cases were too hard for us to contemplate.
Another of my holiday jobs was to help demolish what had been a national explosives factory in Pembrey. Millions of shells and tons of explosives were manufactured there. The factory poured its toxic chemicals into the sea where I and my pals used to swim and cavort. Its workforce during the Great War was largely made up of women—their yellowing skin and hair making it only too obvious where they worked.
Margaret Broadley was deputy matron of the London Hospital. She lived out her life as a spinster, sublimating the deep energies of the love she once had for her sweetheart through her chosen vocation of nursing. She never forgot, as she told me often enough, his kisses and caresses. Those were women, like millions of others, working tirelessly behind the scenes, so many of them widowed before they were wed.
I am wearing a khadi poppy, of which much mention has been made. Let it stand this evening, with permission, for Indians, Africans and Caribbean soldiers, Sikhs, Hindus, Muslims, Jews, Christians and Zoroastrians.
Let us remember that not only soldiers served from our imperial regions. I can picture the endless supply lines that supported the military effort. Recently, I visited Kenya and met a number of people from a sprawling township on the edge of Nairobi known to this day as Kariokor—the Carrier Corps. The place name survives in its strange and mutilated form.
“Gathered like pearls in their alien graves”, lay what the poet Sarojini Naidu called the “Gift of India”, and she would surely have added those of so many other places from around the Empire too. The reading of that poem was one of the highlights of our Parliament Choir’s commemorative performance of Mozart’s Mass in C minor just last week.
I might also mention a cantata, a composition of Brian Hughes performed in Cardiff by the National Youth Choir of Wales, accompanied by the National Youth Orchestra of Wales, called “Sorrows of the Somme”. Indeed, as has been mentioned often, the wide cultural response to the safeguarding of the memories of that awful time have been very striking.
I come towards the end of my list of memories. I remember the memorial I dedicated in the National Memorial Arboretum in my capacity as president of the Boys Brigade. We remembered 11 members of our movement who had been awarded the Victoria Cross for their courage and leadership during the Great War. I remember that the names of hundreds of young soldiers are written in magnificent copper-plate on a vast, framed roll of honour in the parish of Saint John, in Croydon, where I now live—or chiselled on large marble slabs on the chapel wall at Trinity College, Cambridge. They remind us of all those who paid the supreme price on the battle-fields, and they remind us of the classlessness of those from across the social spectrum who gave what was their today so that we might enjoy what would become our tomorrow.
“At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them”— the words of Lawrence Binyon, will ring out across the land over the next few days. I feel a need to hold these words up for greater scrutiny, especially the word “remember”, and I hope noble Lords will forgive me for this. The verb “to remember” is one of the English language’s precious jewels. It has a distinctive meaning which is often lost in the way we employ it. I suspect we would do well to pronounce it differently: to “re-member”, with a hyphen in it, rather than simply “remember”. We “re-member” that which has been “dis-membered”. Memory serves a greater purpose than merely recapturing something that is in danger of passing out of our minds. “Re-membering” is about rebuilding a fragmented world, putting flesh on the ideals we have for our world. How better to honour the memory of those who paid such a price for our freedom?
What followed the First World War, far from “re-membering” a dismembered social order, too often simply added to its fragmentation. It concerned itself with punishment and revenge rather than reconstruction. The Second World War became an inevitable consequence of the failure to win the peace.
As the noble Lord, Lord Wallace, has said, it was in the years following the disintegration caused by the Second World War that the world seemed at last to have come to its senses. The founding of the United Nations and its various agencies, the Bretton Woods agreement, the Marshall Plan, the European Union and NATO were all aimed at “re-membering” a dismembered world. We set our target—let us not forget this—on: saving succeeding generations from the scourge of war; reaffirming faith in fundamental human rights; establishing and maintaining the rule of law; promoting social progress. The object of our emphatic intention to honour the memory of those who served their King and country in that godforsaken war surely has to be to build a world worthy of their sacrifice.
“The world … can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated … to the great task remaining before us … that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion … that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain … that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom … and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth”.
Gosh, those words ring true now. Lincoln! Thou shouldst be living at this hour: the world hath need of thee.
I am grateful for the privilege of adding my voice to those who have contributed to this debate, and of giving thanks for the Armistice which brought the First World War to its end. The challenge it leaves us with is clear enough. We must work hard for the “re-membering” of our dismembered world. We will truly honour the memory of those who have gone before when we put our best efforts into building a world fit for those who have yet to be born. Remembering is a forward-looking activity.
My Lords, we have had a most moving, measured and dignified debate and I am most grateful to all noble Lords across the House for their contributions, which appropriately reflected the gravity of the subject under discussion. I thank noble Lords for their kind words about the efforts of DCMS. The credit absolutely belongs to the officials in the department, whose energy has been remarkable, even to the extent of being hospitalised on one occasion. This was not due to some ghastly accident, but was actually due to bedbugs: there was an infestation in one of the hotels they were staying in. Such is life in the Department of Digital, Culture, Media and Sport.
I think the speeches this afternoon and this evening stood on their own merits and need no summary from me, even if I were capable of giving one, so I hope that noble Lords will forgive me if I do not pick out and comment on all individual speeches. To me, a number of themes came through. The first, mentioned by many noble Lords, is that of India and the contribution made by soldiers from the Indian subcontinent, of many religions, who came to our aid. I said in my opening remarks that we have taken care to recognise the participation of all our Commonwealth allies. I hope that I can provide reassurance to the noble Baroness, Lady Flather, and my noble friend Lord Sheikh about some of the things that have taken place which have recognised that. Much of the Government’s wider programme reflected that contribution, as I said.
There were examples such as “The Unremembered”, delivered by the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government, which told some of the lesser-known stories of those who volunteered, such as the Indian Labour Corps. In 2016, 14-18 NOW produced the “Doctor Blighty” exhibition in Brighton, a spectacular light projection showing the experience of Indian troops recuperating at the Royal Pavilion Military Hospital that I was very pleased to see. I also managed to attend the “Stories of Sacrifice” exhibition in Manchester, specifically marking the contribution of Muslim soldiers in the First World War and delivered by the British Muslim Heritage Centre. We tried to include representatives, both culturally through 14-18 NOW, as I said before, and through specific events, not only nationally but in many local events around the country.
Another theme that registered with me and was repeated in many speeches was learning the lessons of the war and the incompleteness of the peace. I think we all agree with that, even if we may not all agree on the lessons. The noble Lord, Lord Hannay, has given us an excellent starter for 10. What this leads to is the question of legacy and what will be left behind after this 1914 period. We decided early on that we were going to stick with the two key dates, 1914 and 1918, but we hope that there will be a legacy. I hope that it may reassure noble Lords that, according to the Government’s recent Taking Part survey, over 70% of people asked said that the centenary events had helped them to understand what was experienced by people who lived at the time of the war. We are trying to build on this success. There are a number of projects, brought about as part of the centenary commemorations, which will continue to provide educational and cultural benefits beyond the centenary period.
For example, the Heritage Lottery Fund has awarded more than £96 million to more than 2,200 First World War projects, many at a local level. The Heritage Lottery Fund will continue to support projects that help communities engage with and learn more about their First World War heritage. These include such things as the First World War Memorials Programme, a Historic England project that has added 2,500 war memorials to the National Heritage list for England and repaired more than 400 war memorials in the UK. My noble friend Lord Black and I have already mentioned the Imperial War Museums. Their Lives of the First World War project is an online resource which records the stories of individuals from across Britain and the Commonwealth who served in uniform or worked on the home front.
Through this project, and the refurbishment of its First World War galleries, which he mentioned, Imperial War Museums—which was of course founded in the middle of the First World War—has been a key partner to the Government over the centenary period. It was also intimately involved in the 14-18 NOW project with Peter Jackson in digitising and colouring World War I films. I recommend the programme “They Shall Not Grow Old”, which is on BBC2 at 9.30 on
The Government have supported a number of other projects. This includes £40 million for the First World War Centenary Cathedral Repairs Fund and the £5.3 million battlefield tours project, which allowed nearly 6,000 students and teachers to visit the battlefields. Over 1,700 schools have taken part and I am delighted that the Chancellor found another £1 million to secure the continuation of this legacy project.
However, I take on board that we are not talking about just education or raising awareness, and that we ought to consider that we may be on the edge of another, potentially very dangerous, shift in the global order. I will make some exceptions here and mention the speeches of the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Stirrup, and the noble Lord, Lord Hannay, as well as those of my noble friends Lady Helic and Lord Balfe. As politicians, we must think about the lessons of the past in relation to our current position in the world, and the future policy that that entails, all within a moral dimension. I will certainly reread those speeches, along with many others.
On a different topic, no debate on this subject would be complete without mentioning the work of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. Many thousands of casualties from the British Empire are buried in some 23,000 CWGC sites in more than 150 countries around the world. These moving and sensitively maintained sites are a permanent reminder of enormous sacrifices. In 2017, the commission launched the centenary internship, which was supported and funded by a Libor grant from the Government.
It is striking that the First World War still has the power to engage us, young and old alike. It lives with us daily in so many ways: in memorials, in our culture, in our family lore and in our national psyche. We now know—this has been mentioned by many noble Lords—that the Armistice was not the end of the conflict. The challenges of the peace negotiations, the birth of new nations and the all too brief hiatus between the wars were all still to come. Despite that, it is right that we recognise that
Surprisingly, in uncertain times, the First World War can still unite us. It brings us together in awe and horror, respect and gratitude. This is a war which started over a century ago yet it seems almost tangible and within our grasp. There is no way we can make amends. We have no recourse to change history to prevent the bloodshed, nor can we ignore the scars. The facts will never change: millions of lives were ended, millions of families were torn apart, and the world was never the same again.
However, I firmly believe that we can tell ourselves, and future generations, that over the last four years we have saluted those who served, and we have done justice to their bravery. Bearing in mind the words of the noble Lord, Lord Griffiths, I am certain that, for years to come, we will remember them.
House adjourned at 8.59 pm.