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

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 8:50 pm on 5th November 2018.

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Photo of Lord Ashton of Hyde Lord Ashton of Hyde The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport 8:50 pm, 5th November 2018

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 11 November. Anyone who has seen it will know that by taking old World War I films, digitising them and colourising them, an amazing change has been made—it makes it appear as if you were there.

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 11 November 1918 was a monumental moment in the history of the United Kingdom, her Commonwealth and her allies.

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.

Motion agreed.

House adjourned at 8.59 pm.