Armistice Day: Centenary - Motion to Take Note (Continued)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 7:30 pm on 5th November 2018.

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Photo of Lord Birt Lord Birt Crossbench 7:30 pm, 5th November 2018

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.