First World War Centenary

Hugh Robertson responds to a debate led by fellow-Kent MP, Damian Collins on commemorating the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War.

| Parliament TV

The Minister of State, Department for Culture, Media and Sport (Hugh Robertson): I welcome you the Chair, Mr Owen. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Damian Collins) on securing the debate. He is not quite my constituency neighbour, but he is pretty close to it, and of course he is a fellow Kent MP. As he spoke, I was reflecting that many of us are familiar with Folkestone. I suspect that the hon. Member for Barnsley Central (Dan Jarvis), who speaks for the Opposition, may have done some training at Shorncliffe camp, as I have. Many of us did our Northern Ireland training there. I did not know about the link with the Canadians, but it is good to hear that that is still celebrated in the way my hon. Friend outlined. I apologise for not being the Under-Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, my hon. Friend the Member for Wantage (Mr Vaizey), who would normally respond to such a debate. He is away at the moment, but I hope that, with my Kent and military connections, my responding to the debate will not be too much of a hurdle. I would like to associate myself with the remarks that my hon. Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe made, most appropriately, about Peter Wood.

Rather than running through a prepared speech, I will pick up some of my hon. Friend’s comments and detail how the Government might support the efforts he is making. Part of the Government’s approach is to set out a general strategy around remembrance, youth and education, and then, in a sense, to encourage a thousand flowers to bloom. The schemes that have been mentioned in Edinburgh and Folkestone are perfect examples of what we hope will happen.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on his chairmanship of the Step Short campaign, which sounds like a fantastic example of what I am talking about. Those of us who have worn Army boots—especially those with studs on the bottom, which soldiers would have worn in those days—will know just how difficult it would have been to march down a hill, especially with a heavy pack and particularly if it was raining, as it often does in Kent at certain times of year. It is fantastic to see that that is being commemorated. I had not really considered that Folkestone was the major port of embarkation, but that was very much the case. I encourage my hon. Friend to keep the Department for Culture, Media and Sport closely informed about the project and to see what we can do to help him and the town as it undertakes those commemorations.

I was struck by my hon. Friend’s remarks about school visits. I think that for many of us who have visited the first world war battlefields, however much we might know about the military, or conflict, their sheer size and scale is what is striking. That strikes me every time I go there. In my regiment three squadrons were wiped out within half an hour, at a place called Zandvoorde ridge. Many regiments will have had similar experiences, and the striking scale of what happened makes it important that later generations should be reminded. My hon. Friend referred to the £5.3 million scheme that will enable a teacher and two pupils from every secondary school to visit a first world war battlefield.

The story of the air raid in Folkestone is a quite well known Kent story, and, as my hon. Friend said, a shocking one. I guess that it may have been the first large-scale air raid of any sort in this country.

Damian Collins: It is believed to be the first major civilian air raid, but I should point out that today is the anniversary of a Zeppelin raid in Hartlepool in 1918, which killed eight people.

Hugh Robertson: I stand corrected.

We touched on Shorncliffe camp. I did not know that Walter Tull was born in Folkestone. I think we all know his extraordinary story. Rather encouragingly, when we were in opposition, I visited a community scheme at Tottenham Hotspur as part of black history month—he played initially at Spurs. The area is clearly quite a testing one educationally, and all the children were working on a project about that extraordinary man who, as my hon. Friend said, was born in Folkestone and, having played professional football for Spurs and other clubs, became the first black officer on the western front. I think that he was put up for a military cross towards the end of the war. He is an extraordinary figure, and not the only sporting figure from my hon. Friend’s part of the world. Colin Blythe, the cricketer, who is commemorated at the county ground, was another.

Ian Murray: As the Minister has mentioned sporting icons, I wonder whether he has read the wonderful book about McCrae’s battalion. It was born from the Heart of Midlothian football club team, which signed up en masse in 1914, leading tens of thousands of supporters to sign up. Because of that the team lost the championship by a point.

Hugh Robertson: The lovely thing about these debates is the fact that we always learn something new, and that is a wonderful piece of sporting trivia. The hon. Gentleman has reminded me of something important, which I thought might be what he was going to say in his intervention: next year provides us with a unique opportunity north of the border, because of the Commonwealth games. The Department is considering how to make use of the presence of many Commonwealth leaders and athletes in this country to mark the Commonwealth contribution. My hon. Friend has mentioned that, and I freely admit to having been a little slow in picking it up early on when it was being discussed in the Department. We should not be for a moment too parochial about the anniversary. This country must recognise the enormous Commonwealth contribution. I was struck, when I went to Australia just before the Olympics to launch the GREAT campaign—for a weekend, actually; oh joy—by what a seminal moment Gallipoli is for Australians. It was the first time that they came together as a nation to fight for Australia, and Gallipoli is extraordinarily important to them, as places such as Palestine are for other countries.

We have talked a little about the Government’s approach. It is concentrated around remembrance, youth and education. There is £53 million of funding available, including £5.3 million for schools. The Heritage Lottery Fund has open grants of £10 million. The centrepiece of what is happening is of course work being done by the Imperial War museum, and I encourage all hon. Members to become acquainted with that. As I have said, the idea is to set up an umbrella under which other projects can bloom.

Ian Murray: Has the Minister had representations from the Scottish Government about their plans? I understand that many hon. Members have made representations to them, as have many of my constituents, about holding commemorative events, but they seem reluctant to do so. The Commonwealth games would seem to be an opportunity, and, if the Minister has not received any representations, will he contact his counterparts in the Scottish Government to encourage them to do what is right for 2014?

Hugh Robertson: Personally, I have not had that conversation, but that is perhaps not surprising, as I am not in day-to-day charge of those matters. However, I have, if not quite daily, then weekly, contact with the Scottish Government, about the Commonwealth games. The matter is a devolved one, so it is down to them, but I think that I would say, on the basis of my decade of military service—and I am sure that the hon. Member for Barnsley Central would agree—that Scotland is the home of some of the proudest and finest regiments in the British Army. They have made an enormous contribution in every conflict that this country has undertaken, in pretty much every combat zone where it has ever fought. I think for most who have memories of the British Army, the earliest ones are of being shouted at by someone with a Scottish voice. I would expect the Scottish Government to treat the occasion in the fashion that it warrants. I will be talking to them about the Commonwealth games, and the hon. Gentleman will have our full support in encouraging them to take the anniversary seriously.

Damian Collins: There is a great deal of good work being done by the regimental museums, as part of the centenary commemoration. My right hon. Friend and I have both mentioned the Imperial War museum, which is a central heritage museum, but I also want to mention the regimental museums and the National Army museum. I am particularly grateful that they have decided to bring some of their first world war collections to Folkestone for an exhibition in summer 2014.

Hugh Robertson: Unsurprisingly, I agree with my hon. Friend. He is right to mention the National Army museum. Of course other single service museums and the National Maritime museum have plans, including the use of a boat. I should also be amazed if the Buffs, as they were at the time, did not have a particular Kent-based exhibition, and I would encourage such plans.

Paul Flynn: One of the documents produced by the Government in anticipation of the commemoration quotes a poem by a young man who rejoices at being alive at such an important historical moment. The poet died within a fortnight of writing it. Can we have an assurance that the commemoration will be marked less with Rupert Brooke and more with Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen?

Hugh Robertson: I take the hon. Gentleman’s point to an extent. The right balance is necessary, and everyone will understand that. I am not in a position now to decide what script, and which poet’s words, will be used, and I would not want to presume to do so. Those are properly decisions for the Imperial War museum, and others, who will make judgments, and whom I trust to get the balance right.

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe, and the other hon. Members who have contributed to the debate, and commend him on the work that is being done in Folkestone. I assure him that the Department and I—on a county basis as a near constituency neighbour—will do all we can to support that work. He has made a strong case for Folkestone to have a unique part in the commemoration, as a major port of embarkation, and I wish him the best of luck with his plans.

| Hansard

| Parliament TV