First World War Centenary Commemorations

Hugh responds to a back bench MP’s debate on Heritage Lottery Fund funding for a project to sow millions of poppy seeds around the country to commemorate the outbreak of the First World War.

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The Minister of State, Department for Culture, Media and Sport (Hugh Robertson): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Dartford (Gareth Johnson) on securing the debate, and the other Members on their interventions. Through him, I also extend my congratulations to the Royal British Legion in Greenhithe, which is clearly a fertile source of very good ideas—over a pint of good Kentish ale. Perhaps on my behalf he would thank the Royal British Legion for its contribution. Given that the idea has come from the Royal British Legion, I ought to declare that I am a member of it and, for the avoidance of any doubt, I also serve on the regimental council of my regiment and still sit on the Regular Army Reserve.

One point that has come through in this debate, as it does every time we discuss the first world war, is the very welcome engagement of members of the public—the ex-service community in particular, but also more broadly—and the interest in the anniversary. The first world war is absolutely integral to our history and, as a Government, we are 100% committed to commemorating its centenary appropriately.

It is worth reflecting on the scale involved—more than 16.5 million deaths, military and civilian, including more than 1.25 million from the then British empire, colonies and dominions alone. That often gets me thinking about my own time in the Army, so much of which was curiously shaped by the events of the first world war. For example, all the training companies in my college, Sandhurst, were named after its prominent battles.

Like others, I was therefore absolutely delighted when the Prime Minister announced the £53 million programme of funded activities, which includes £5 million for school visits, at least £6 million from the Heritage Lottery Fund, and national events to commemorate six key moments—the first day of the war; the battle of the Somme; Armistice day, which will be commemorated in 2018; the battles of Jutland and Passchendaele; and, of course, the Gallipoli landings. At the centre of the programme lies the £35 million project to refurbish the Imperial War museum’s first world war galleries, which will provide the hugely visible centrepiece.

Another stream of work is to encourage public engagement, such as the Victoria Cross winners commemoration scheme that was announced at the beginning of August, and the website—something I was very keen on—to signpost people towards sources of help for war memorials. In the county that we know so well, several war memorials were put next to roads that were not that well used in Kent at the time, but have since become busy throughways, and those war memorials have suffered as a result. Such things are important.

I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend that if one thing is synonymous with memories of the first world war it is the Flanders poppy, which is one reason why I think that the idea is so clever. I therefore fully understand his disappointment and that of the Royal British Legion branch, but there are two important factors that I hope will give him some comfort.

The first factor is that, as my hon. Friend will know, Ministers are not allowed to direct lottery distributors on how to spend the money, and it would be wrong if we were allowed to. We can set the strategic direction of the lottery distributing bodies, as the Prime Minister has done in this instance, but we cannot direct how they spend their money. The Heritage Lottery Fund has offered to meet the project applicant, and I encourage my hon. Friend to get involved in that meeting and to get the Heritage Lottery Fund to explain precisely why it took its decision. In that meeting, he can examine whether there is any scope to reshape the application or to bring it back in some other form.

The second factor is that many of us think that the idea is extremely good, as I have already said several times, and I pay tribute again to those who thought of it. It is precisely the sort of innovative idea that we want to encourage as part of the celebrations. All I can tell my hon. Friend is that officials in various parts of Whitehall are looking at how to take on the idea and see what can be done to bring it to fruition. I hope that we will have an answer for him soon.

I have other information about the first world war anniversaries, but I am aware that Members and I have discussed them in previous Westminster Hall debates. If anybody wants to raise anything with me at this point, I am happy to let them intervene.

Jim Shannon: I thank the Minister for his very positive response. Things have changed in Northern Ireland. The Minister will be aware of that and of how things are progressing. The Irish Division and the Ulster Division fought together at the battle of the Somme. For many years after the war, it was a case of never the twain shall meet, but the Royal British Legion—it operates along with other bodies in the Republic of Ireland—will hold commemoration events in the Republic of Ireland in conjunction and partnership with bodies in Northern Ireland. Great steps of advancement have taken place, and I know that the Minister will be aware of some of them. I was there about a month ago with some of the people concerned, and we heard about the ministerial involvement of the Republic of Ireland Government. If we can do that in Northern Ireland, we can do it in relation to the Somme seeds idea put forward by the hon. Member for Dartford (Gareth Johnson) for the mainland of the United Kingdom.

Hugh Robertson: I can only say that I absolutely agree. I suspect that this time would in any event have huge resonance in Northern Ireland, because of the sheer numbers of people involved. Clearly, given the peace agreement and what has happened since the mid-1990s, the anniversary provides a unique opportunity that was not previously there. No part of the United Kingdom was left untouched by the first world war, but the effect on Northern Ireland was considerable.

I do not know whether I had the chance to tell the hon. Gentleman this the last time we had such a debate, but as we have a few moments to spare I can say that I have discovered—perhaps he knows this—that the first Member of Parliament to die in the first world war was an Ulsterman. He was the MP for one of the Downs, I think, and his grandson went on to be the Prime Minister of Northern Ireland in the 1960s. He had done military service in the 1880s and fought through the South African campaign, but he left and stood for Parliament in 1910. He volunteered to join up again in 1914, and was mown down within a matter of minutes. He was from an Ulster family. I came across that from the periphery, because a relative of mine serving in the Irish Fusiliers actually got through the whole lot. He was one of the very lucky few who managed to do so.

Damian Collins: Several excellent initiatives have been outlined in the debate, including the encouragement of students to visit the battlefields on tours, as many of us already have done. Does the Minister agree that many heritage sites in the United Kingdom deserve to be highlighted and visited? I have obviously mentioned my project in Folkestone—10 million men passed through the town, and people can walk the routes—but many other sites linked with early air raids, training facilities and military facilities still exist. Many of them have been forgotten, and the centenary period will be a great time to revisit them.

Hugh Robertson: Absolutely. I teased my hon. Friend beforehand by saying that if I heard the words “Step Short”, I would laugh; he nearly said them, and I nearly laughed. He is absolutely right. The excellent initiative that he has driven in Folkestone will be a fantastic contribution to the very first day, I hope, of the world war one celebrations.

A whole range of facilities exist, including not just war sites but regimental museums—think of all those in Northern Ireland. I suspect that they will profile the achievements of regiments and local people throughout the war, the activities that will be undertaken by Royal British Legion branches up and down the country and all sorts of sites of historic significance. The anniversary will be a great moment for people to look back into their family history and find out what their family’s involvement was with this extraordinary and all-encompassing conflict. That, in turn, will lead to a much better understanding of what happened and why, and what the consequences of it all were.

As no other Members are seeking to ask me questions, I will finish where I started by again congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Dartford on obtaining the debate. I ask him to please pass on my personal thanks to the Royal British Legion branch in Greenhithe and to those who thought up the plan. I encourage him to take up the Heritage Lottery Fund’s offer of a meeting, and I reassure him that even if, for whatever reason, the Heritage Lottery Fund cannot take it forward, the idea is not in any way dead.

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