First World War centenary speech: 'Stories from Conflict' event

On Saturday 1st November I was delighted to speak at a special 'Stories from Conflict' event in Oldham, reflecting on the First World War as part of of the local council's 'Oldham Remembers' programme.

Here is my speech in full.

Good afternoon, it’s a great pleasure to be here.

Let me begin by thanking Jim McMahon and Cath Ball for inviting me to be part of what has been a fantastic event.

I'm also honoured that we're joined today by Captain Cleverely, and it's really humbling to hear of your experiences on D-Day.

I’ve been working with the government on the First World War centenary for several years now - this is an issue that transcends party politics - and it has been a real privilege to lead the commemorations on behalf of the Labour Party, not least because it’s allowed me to take part in many events like this one.

And that really explains why I’m here.

Because I was speaking at an event a little bit like this one in Parliament back in June.

It was a few days before the 100th anniversary of the shooting of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the moment when the assassination of one man, a member of the Austro-Hungarian royal family, would plunge a continent into conflict.

I talked about how that moment would change our country, about how the First World War was a deeply traumatic chapter in our national story.

And I suggested that even though we all lead really busy and at times frenetic lives, we should all make time to reflect on that.

I said we should talk about it in our meetings, support our local museums, and explore the local histories of our own communities.

And I said we should take this debate to every part of our country.

And sure enough, the next day, quick as a flash, I received an email from Jim and his team saying ‘Yes, that’s exactly what we’re doing in Oldham, let’s have that debate in Oldham, please come to Oldham…’

Standing here today – in Oldham, I can see exactly what he meant and I’m very pleased to be here.

Because the excellent presentations we’ve heard today - and the fact you’ve all given up your Saturday afternoon to be here – reflects something I’ve felt in the many conversations I’ve had travelling across the country this past year,

which is a real thirst – a deep and genuine interest – to learn about our past and think about how it relates to the lives we lead today.

And it’s a very appropriate time for us to have this discussion.

In the past few days we’ve seen one very significant conflict for our country draw to end,

And next weekend our country will be coming together to remember all those who have served and sacrificed for us, not only in that conflict, but in all conflicts over the past 100 years.

So today, I want to offer you a few thoughts about the First World War, about what I think it means for our present and how it should inform the way we think about the future.

When the First World War broke out a century ago in 1914, Winston Churchill – a Member of Parliament for Oldham in the years leading up to the war - described it as ‘the world crisis.’

Rather better remembered today is the way hat his colleague David Lloyd George described it – ‘The war to end all wars.’

Sadly we now know that was not to be the case, and that’s been underlined by the stories from subsequent conflicts we’ve already heard about.

But the First World War was the war that changed Britain forever.

In many ways it marked the true beginning of the 20th century, setting events in motion that would shape people’s lives for generations to come.

It was a conflict that touched every family, affected every community and fundamentally altered our country’s place in the world.

It took the lives of 16 million soldiers and civilians across the globe, including 900,000 servicemen from Britain and the Commonwealth.

And it was the first truly total war – changing lives here at home as well as on the frontline.

So the centenary anniversaries this year and over the next four years provide us with an important moment to pay tribute to that service and sacrifice.

But it also provides us with an opportunity to begin to look at the legacy of the First World War in a different way.

Let me explain why.

And this links to the excellent discussion we had about D-Day earlier.

I thought the 70th anniversary of D-Day in June showed us how millions of people – people of all ages – want to take part in this important year of remembrance.

We saw it again when we marked the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War on the 4th August.

But the D-Day anniversaries reminded us how privileged we are that so many veterans who fought for our freedom in 1944 are still with us today.

For them, the Second World War is still very much a war of memory.

That can no longer be said for the First World War.

The sad death of the last Tommie – Harry Patch – in 2009 – at the age of 111 – marked the transition of the First World War from a war of memory to a war of history.

And that does change the nature of the commemorations.

It creates a distance, a space, for us to look at the conflict in a different way.

It’s also given us all a spur to look at how the war reshaped the places where we live.

There were 16,000 towns and villages across Britain in 1914, but only 40 of them – 40 ‘thankful parishes’ - would reach 1918 without having lost someone in the conflict.

So every community has its own story to tell.

Let me offer you one from my part of the world.

It’s a story I’m reminded of every week when I walk into my constituency office, through a square dedicated to the Barnsley Pals.

These were the men who responded to Lord Kitchener’s famous recruitment poster in 1914, and formed the 13thand 14th Battalions of the York and Lancaster Regiment.

They included miners, glassworkers, stonemasons and clerics – many of them friends and neighbours.

They joined up together, trained together, went to war together, and ultimately many of them died together.

Earlier this year I travelled to Serre in northern France, where the Barnsley Pals fought at the Battle of the Somme.

I walked the ground over which the Pals had fought – open rolling fields that have changed little this past century.

I stood in front of their graves, tried to imagine what it must have been like, what must have been going through their minds.

Later we visited the Memorial of the Missing at Thiepval.

And it was there, as I read the names inscribed on the memorial, that I saw my own name staring back at me – D. Jarvis.

It was an incredibly sobering moment.

It was a moment that really underlined the profound scale of the sacrifice.

This week we saw the last British combat troops return from Afghanistan – a conflict that lasted longer than both World Wars combined.

453 servicemen and women have died there, and we’ve felt the pain of each one of them.

So it’s hard to imagine now what it must have been like to live through a conflict where around seven times that many soldiers would lose their lives each week,

Or to appreciate how much of a scar was left on the country by the first day of the Battle of the Somme – a beautiful summer’s day on the 1st July 1916 – when 20,000 men were cut down in a single day.

And it is very important that we remember how this included soldiers of all colours and from all creeds and cultures.

Around 3 million people from across the Commonwealth served in the British war effort.

They included men from many different countries, including Australia, the West Indies and parts of Africa.

More than one million Hindu, Muslim and Sikh soldiers came from the Indian subcontinent alone.

These we men who weren’t born in Britain, but who came to fight for Britain in our nation’s hour of need.

Men like Sepoy Khudadad Khan.

He was machine gunner fighting alongside the British Expeditionary Force, defending vital ports in France and Belgium in the early months of the war.

One hundred years ago yesterday, on 31 October 1914, he became the first Indian soldier to receive the Victoria Cross.

Despite being badly wounded and massively outnumbered, he singlehandedly held off the German forces long enough for reinforcements to arrive and stop them advancing.

He was the only member of his team to survive.

Sepoy Khudadad Khan was just the first of 175 servicemen from overseas who would be awarded our country’s highest honour for courage and gallantry during the First World War.

And we must never forget them.

And there are no shortage of tales of heroism on the frontline from soldiers who hailed from this community.

Oldham’s soldiers were a regiment with their own distinct identity.

Most locally formed regiments were known as ‘Pals’ regiments.

But 100 years ago, those soldiers from the 24th Battalion of the Manchester Regiment renamed themselves as the ‘Oldham Comrades.’

They served as far afield as Italy, Egypt and the Middle East.

We’ve already heard how Oldham was home to not one, but a number of soldiers who were awarded the Victoria Cross. They include:

John Hogan, who led a group of ten who crawled over No Man’s Land under heavy fire to re-take a trench from the Germans.

Thomas Steele, who earned his VC fighting in what is now modern-day Iraq.

And Walter Mills, who died during a gas attack on the Western Front in 1917, having stayed alone at his post to throw bombs at the enemy until they retreated.

But let me turn away from the trenches now.

Because the story of the First World War reaches far beyond the poppy fields of Flanders.

And it’s incredibly important that we remember the heroes from the home front as well as the frontline.

I’ve heard some wonderful stories from across Britain this year.

Stories of miners, factory and railway workers who kept our country going,

Stories of those who worked the land, who cared for the wounded, and of people who saw how the First World War changed our way of life.

One of the most enjoyable things about preparing for today was learning about some of the stories that Oldham has to tell.

Like how many Belgians sought refuge in Oldham, after fleeing from the chaos and carnage of the German advance,

and the people of Oldham welcomed them with open arms.

The Oldham Orchestral Society even held concerts in 1914 to raise money for them and all Belgian refugees who rebuilt their lives in Greater Manchester.

Let me share another story with you.

It’s the story of a woman called Mary Barbour.

Some of you may know it.

A hundred years ago, she lived in Glasgow.

When Mary’s husband David left for the frontline in 1914, she was left to look after their two young sons.

And with so many men away, the city’s private landlords sensed an opportunity.

They cynically began hiking the rents of Mary and her neighbours.

But in Mary Barbour’s case, they messed with the wrong woman.

Working with her friends, Mary organised a rent strike and led tenants in a protest that grew into 20,000 people.

They became known as "Mrs Barbour’s Army."

Together, they forced the government to rush through immediate reforms to protect people from unfair rent increases – the first ever rent protection legislation.

And the reason I share that story is because I think it encapsulates so much of how the First World War changed Britain forever.

The new pressures on society.

Shifts in family life.

Different challenges for government.

Fresh approaches in Whitehall.

A louder voice for women.

And changes in our democracy.

Mrs Barbour didn’t even have a vote when the war broke out.

But it was during the war that she and many millions of other women took on jobs that had previously been seen as the preserve of men.

A million were employed by the Ministry of Munitions alone.

More than 250,000 joined the women’s Land Army and helped Britain fight off the peril of starvation caused by German U-boats.

The Oldham Women’s Suffrage Society stopped their demonstrations and focused on supporting families struggling in the local community.

And in 1918, they, Mary Barbour and 8.4 million other women finally won the vote when Parliament passed the Representation of Peoples Act.

Mary Barbour went on to become one of Glasgow’s first female councillors by the way.

So the First World War left millions of cracks in what had previously been a pretty immaculate glass ceiling.

And it links to the theme that I want to end on.

Anniversaries like this are essentially the closest thing our society ever has to a national history lesson.

And I always think that the true test when looking at our history is how it makes us think about the lives we live today.

So these commemorations shouldn’t just be about re-examining our past,

It should inform the debate about the type of country we want to be in the future.

Because 100 years ago, on May 22nd 1914, suffragettes were being arrested at the gates of Buckingham Palace, petitioning for the right to vote.

But on May 22nd 2014, nearly two thirds of a country with universal suffrage decided they were better off staying at home on Election Day.

100 years ago, the debate was about whether women should be allowed in the Polling Booth, and whether they could do jobs that only men had done before.

Today, the debate needs to be about getting more women onto ballot papers and into boardrooms at the top of our workforce.

Yesterday we marked 100 years since the first documented case of shell shock. It reminds us how a century ago, no-one had ever heard of post-traumatic stress disorder.

Today, the issue is not just what more we can do for our veterans returning from action, but how we prioritise the mental health of everyone.

100 years ago, people from all over the world fought and died to protect this country.

Today, we need to remember that debt we owe to people who weren’t born here, but who helped make this country what it is.

And 100 years ago, the First World War changed the role of the state.

Government took action on food, rents and wages.

And that links to one of the central arguments in our public life today – about how Government should make life better for people in the 21st century.

So……. there is plenty for us to think about!

But know for everyone, and particularly in the fortnight ahead, our thoughts about the First World War, and all conflicts since, will begin and end with remembrance.

Remembrance for young men like Sergeant John Hogan, the first soldier from Oldham to win the Victoria Cross.

Many years later, John Hogan said:

"I've done nothing to deserve the Victoria Cross.

“Perhaps I am favoured in that the acts have been recognised.”

We all know that it is our duty to ensure that all those who served for us are recognised and remembered.

But we must also remember the Britain that they left behind –

the one they fought to protect – and how it became the country we live in today.

That would be the best tribute we could possibly pay

Thank you very much.

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