Parliament and the Commemoration of the First World War

Speaking in the House of Commons

Hugh Robertson responds to a back bench MP’s debate on the role of Parliament in the commemoration of the centenary of the first world war.

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The Minister of State, Department for Culture, Media and Sport (Hugh Robertson): Thank you for chairing the debate, Mrs Riordan. In responding, rather than reading through my prepared speech, I will try to pick up on the various contributions made by hon. Members, commenting on them as appropriate.

The best place to start is by thanking my hon. Friend the Member for Broadland (Mr Simpson), not only for his typically erudite and thoughtful contribution this morning, but for all the work he has already done in and around the commemoration as a member of the advisory group and as a commissioner of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission.

I also give my hon. Friend a probably long-overdue thank you for all the hours of his life he spent trying to educate me when I was in my 20s; he was kind to say it was 20 years ago, but in all honesty I fear it was 20 years plus VAT. As I have got older, I have begun to feel increasingly that if there were a period in my life that I could revisit, it would be then, because understanding the lessons of history allows us to make much better judgments about the present. I wish that I had sat in my hon. Friend’s lectures less exhausted by the various other activities that marked the day at Sandhurst, and better able to listen to the many words of wisdom that he offered then, as he has this morning.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to talk about the role of the National Archives. The process of discovery that can be facilitated by it for individuals, families and communities will be a key part of the period of remembrance. He could not be more right about the role of our allies in other Commonwealth countries. To be honest, that had not really dawned on me until a visit to Australia, when I was looking at tourism and sporting links post-2012. I took some time out to go around the national war memorial in Canberra, which I was shown by Dr Brendan Nelson. It is engaged in completely revitalising and renewing its galleries, as we are in this country.

I had not realised the extent to which the first world war marked the moment when Australia came together as a nation for the first time. For Australians, the centenary of the war—Gallipoli, in particular—is an extraordinarily important national moment of remembrance and of nationhood. If that is true for Australia, it is true for many other places around the world.

Ensuring that such work is properly co-ordinated and dealt with appropriately is key to the success of commemoration. The body that my hon. Friend is associated with, the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, is central to delivery. My hon. Friend is also right to talk about the effect on the House. The idea of some form of book is excellent, and I hope that he will pursue it with Mr Speaker.

I think back to my hon. Friend’s excellent history of General Percival and the fall of Singapore. It brilliantly brought out the human element of that entire tragedy; something like that, which draws together the experiences of parliamentarians and Members of the House and which we could all read and learn from, would be a fantastic contribution. He is absolutely right to encourage parliamentarians to become involved and to lead this event. I could not agree more with everything he said and I thank him for his contribution.

The hon. Member for Newport West (Paul Flynn) told the powerful story of his father and his post-war fate. The story is tragic and there is no other answer. I assure the hon. Gentleman that the Government’s approach is not to celebrate the war, but to enable a great act of remembrance. No Government of any colour in this country hand down an authorised version of history. We should put the facts before people to educate them and then allow them to remember the event in a way that is fit for them. The hon. Gentleman will have a contribution to make to that like everyone else.

My hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Sir Tony Baldry) spoke about war memorials and his work as the Second Church Estates Commissioner. The issue of war memorials has worried me for many years. In my county, they were put up next to what were then quite small roads, but have now turned into major A roads. Memorials have suffered natural degradation from heavy lorries passing them on the way to Folkestone and other ports of embarkation, and in some places people may want to move them to a place that is more appropriate for acts of remembrance. I think that will be a key part of the commemorations.

I very much enjoyed my hon. Friend’s story about the Sussex Yeomanry. Perhaps I may tell him gently, having joined the armed forces 10 years after him, that one of the great events of the year was always the second world war reunion at Combermere barracks. A young officer could sit at the feet of people who had taken bridges during the second world war by stripping doors off houses and laying them across the fabric of the bridges to get armoured cars across them to secure the other side. Understanding such stories is key.

The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) is always modest about the fact that he served in the Ulster Defence Regiment; I did not realise that until I looked him up in connection with a piece of legislation with which we were both involved. I pay tribute to him as a former soldier—particularly that form of service. Any of us who served in Northern Ireland know that soldiering in one’s own community and going back to one’s own home at night still under threat was a very different experience from that of those of us who came to the Province and at least went back to a secure force base afterwards.

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will play an ongoing role in remembering the UDR’s considerable contribution during the troubles. As much as or perhaps even more than other places in the country, Northern Ireland is synonymous with the public service inherent in service in the armed forces. The war was a key period in Northern Ireland’s history and I am delighted that the hon. Gentleman, with his background, will be on hand to lead and help with the period of remembrance.

My hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys (Paul Maynard) talked about the role played by MPs. Some years ago, I tried to buy a sword that came up for auction at Bonhams. It was supposed to have been the property of the first Member of Parliament to have died in the first world war. I may be on dangerous ground and I will check this story, but I think his name was Edward Boyd. One of his descendants—I think it was his grandson—played a considerable role in Northern Irish politics thereafter. Edward Boyd had been in the armed services in the 1880s and served in the South African campaign. He left the armed services and was elected to Parliament in 1910. He rejoined at the start of the first world war but was wiped out in a matter of minutes. He survived for only five or 10 minutes in the first campaign in which he took part. I will ensure that I research his story more closely.

My hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood (Eric Ollerenshaw), another historian who gave us the benefit of that dimension, spoke absolutely correctly about the link between international communities—the Commonwealth, which played such an important part—and existing local communities in this country. He is absolutely right that it will be a powerful moment throughout communities in this country when people link with their forebears and engage in an act of remembrance.

My hon. Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Damian Collins) referred to the Step Short project, and we have been here before. I cannot move in Kent without talking about it, and I notice that it has started to appear on national briefing sheets, so he has done a splendid job in bringing it to everyone’s attention. It is a remarkable that 10 million soldiers embarked for the front through Folkestone.

I was amused by my hon. Friend’s remark about Philip Sassoon, one of his predecessors, and his comment that the battle of Waterloo was like many battles of ancient Greece. When I had returned from the first Gulf war, someone deconstructed the tank tactics there and they were remarkably similar to those employed by Hannibal with elephants at the battle of Cannae thousands of years before. There is an indication that in military affairs everything changes and nothing changes much.

My hon. Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe made a powerful point about the role of museums and particularly the National Army museum. I have always thought that we underestimate the role of local museums, and my hon. Friend the Member for Broadland touched on the importance of local communities’ remembrance. Local museums throughout the country will put on first world war-centric exhibitions that will allow people to discover what their communities were like at the outbreak of war. They will play an important role in that.

My hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire (Mr Gray), who is also a former soldier, talked about the importance of respect and of honouring those who served in the armed forces as a result of decisions made here. That is a key part of the educational role.

I thank the hon. Member for Barnsley Central (Dan Jarvis), who speaks for the Opposition and is also a former soldier, for his confirmation of the Opposition’s support and his commitment to ensure that the remembrance takes place in the right way. He talked about the importance of that. Since becoming involved, I have become aware from some people I have spoken to of a slight concern that there is no central theme. If there is one, it is not celebration—I hope that that puts the hon. Gentleman’s mind at rest—but remembrance. That is exactly what this is about, and historically it is what Remembrance Sunday has been about. “Remembrance” is the word that sums it up.

The Government have laid out three themes for the commemoration: remembrance, youth and education. Two strands that have come through clearly this morning are remembrance and the important concept of service. The Government’s role is to identify and lead the key national acts of remembrance, but after that to provide a framework so that local communities—I put Parliament in that bracket—can find ways of remembering the anniversary in a way that is appropriate for them.

I am sure that the phrase “to allow a thousand flowers to bloom underneath it” is correct. Some excellent suggestions have been made today and I hope that for all of us it will be the start of a period of exploration and discovery that leads to an appropriate act of remembrance of this great national event.

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