Parliamentary debate about commemorations for the 100th year anniversary of WWI

On Thursday 7th November 2013 I led the debate for the Opposition about the commemorations for the 100th anniversary of World War One. Below is the transcript of the transcript of my contribution, which can also be read here.

Dan Jarvis (Barnsley Central, Labour)
It is a pleasure to follow the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, Dr Murrison, and of course I join him in paying tribute to Warrant Officer Ian Fisher from 3rd Battalion the Mercian Regiment, who tragically lost his life in Afghanistan. It is the responsibility of all of us to ensure that his sacrifice is never forgotten.

It is an honour to open this debate on behalf of the Opposition, and it is heartening to know that there is such widespread interest across the House in the 100th anniversary commemoration of world war one. I look forward to what I know will be a good debate and to the eloquent and no doubt poignant contributions from Members of all parties. It is fitting that we will hear from Members representing every corner of the United Kingdom, expressing their interest in plans for the centenary commemorations and illustrating the huge impact that world war one had on the whole of Britain. Our commemorations here will also be part of what will be a truly global event, which will include contributions from our friends in the Commonwealth and events that are taking place around the world.

Let me take the opportunity at the outset to pay tribute to the Minister for the calm, measured and dedicated way in which he has prepared for the centenary commemorations. We look forward to continuing to work closely with him, with the Government and with all in this House to ensure that world war one is commemorated in a fitting manner.

The Minister has outlined some of the Government’s plans to commemorate the centenary anniversary next year. Aside from the multitude of events that will take place up and down the country, the Government have pledged over £50 million, which will be put towards the centenary anniversary commemorations. The plans include a refurbishment of the world war one galleries at the Imperial War Museum; a nationwide scheme that will allow school students from across the country to visit world war one battlefields; community projects funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund and designed to educate young people to conserve, explore and share local heritage of world war one; and a grant from the national heritage memorial fund to support HMS Caroline in Belfast—the last surviving warship from the world war one fleet. We support those plans and will work with the Government to ensure their smooth delivery.

Additionally, a huge number of other organisations are planning their contributions to the commemoration. There are too many to mention by name, but I would like briefly to mention, of course, the First World War Centenary Partnership, led by the Imperial War museum, which will present a programme of cultural events and activities to commemorate the centenary. Also as part of the commemorations, the BBC has commissioned over 1,000 programmes across various platforms, helping to inform and educate the public about the events and the impact of world war one. The Woodland Trust will launch a project in May 2014 to commemorate British and Commonwealth great war heroes through the simple, yet poignant act of planting a tree. I look forward to hearing from Members about how the commemoration will be marked in their constituencies.

As we commemorate the centenary of world war one, there will be those who say we should seek to understand the fundamental question of why Britain went to war in the first instance. A recent poll for British Future asked how much people knew about the war. Its polling showed that 66% of people knew that world war one began in 1914, that 47% knew that the war was in part sparked by the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and that 9% knew that Herbert Asquith was the British Prime Minister at the start of the war.

What polling will not capture, however, is the extent to which the public understand the original motivations for the war. A student of history might conclude that, aside from the strategic rationale, Britain’s motives for entering world war one demonstrated a conscientious effort to uphold international law and a desire to defend smaller, more vulnerable nations. There will be those who will seek to have this informed debate, but there should be no doubt about the profound impact of this war.

Many people may know that between 1914 and 1918, 1.2 million volunteers came from around the globe to serve alongside the allies, answering the call of “Your Empire Needs You”. Many people appreciate the scale of the loss of life that was to follow, and many people know something of the 750,000 British soldiers who died or the 1.5 million soldiers who returned home injured. They may have heard something of the 20,000 British soldiers who were killed on the first day of the Somme or they may recall Wilfred Owen’s imagery of choking soldiers drowning in a sea of chlorine gas. They will also understand that sacrifice on this scale must always be remembered—it must always be commemorated.

It is important to remember world war one for more than just the industrialisation of death that it brought with it. The war paved the way for numerous world events, including, of course, the outbreak of the second world war—events that have ultimately shaped the world we live in today. The war had a profound impact on Britain too, and many countries in the Commonwealth sought independence after it ended. Britain lost its place as the world’s largest investor, and the role of
women changed for ever. By 1931, 50% of women remained single, and 35% never married while of childbearing age.

The other great social change that came from world war one involved voting. Before the war, neither working men nor women had votes. The sacrifice of men from all classes, combined with the fact that women were taking on jobs that had previously been seen as a male preserve and with the campaigning of the suffragists and suffragettes, compelled politicians to change the position.

In the light of that, Labour Members consider it essential for us to ensure that the right tone is struck when we are remembering world war one. I believe that we are all clear about the fact that this is not a celebration, but a commemoration. War should never be celebrated; instead, it should be remembered, and we should learn from it. Getting the tone right is therefore imperative. We agree with the Government that there should be no flag-waving, that there should be an absolute right to remember those whose opinions differed, and that there should be no rigid Government narrative. It is right for us to give people the facts, and then to let them conduct their own analyses and form their own judgments.

However, it is important that, as a country, we do not shy away from addressing some of the war’s complications. There is a strong public perception of what it was like, formed partly by war poets and reinforced by the 1960s production of “Oh! What a Lovely War” and television programmes such as “Blackadder Goes Forth”. Those cultural representations stand as powerful and eloquent testimonies to the savagery of world war one, but if they are all that we know of the war, they are poor history.

Those who have been schooled in stories of the “lost generation” may be surprised to learn that the fatality rate in the British forces overall was 12%. That is a terrible figure—and some communities were affected much worse than others—but the figure is not as high as people tend to imagine. Nor are public impressions of daily life during the war always accurate. Blackadder lived for years in a dugout, but in reality infantry battalions spent an average of about one week of every month in the trenches. There were notable exceptions, but they do not disprove the generality of soldiers’ experiences.

Kevan Jones (North Durham, Labour)
I am glad that my hon. Friend has mentioned “Blackadder”, which, although obviously very amusing, constitutes something of a misrepresentation of events during world war one. One example is the idea that senior officers were not part of the action. In fact, nearly 70 generals and major-generals died in action on the western front and in other conflicts.

Dan Jarvis (Barnsley Central, Labour)
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that important intervention. Let me be clear: I think that “Blackadder” is an excellent programme. It is very funny, and Members in all parts of the House will remember the very moving scene at the end of the series in which Blackadder and others advance into no man’s land. That certainly serves as a powerful testimony to the savagery of world war one. However, my hon. Friend is right to point out that it is not a strictly historical account. I think that the commemorations which will begin next year will give us an opportunity to revisit some of the history, to look carefully at the detail, and, perhaps, to promote a better factual understanding of it.

We believe that, in order to ensure that world war one is remembered and commemorated appropriately and its complications are addressed, those involved in the centenary events should be mindful that—as the Minister rightly pointed out—there will be debates about the history. Some will say that we should go further than the western front. Some of the bloodiest battles may have been fought in western Europe, but battles fought in other parts of the world are also important in the overall context of the war, and it is therefore right for us to recognise the huge contribution of British Empire forces from around the globe.

Some will say that we should address the gap between the “pointless futility” narrative and what soldiers actually believed that they were fighting for, both during and after the war. Today our forces in Afghanistan rightly take pride in the job that they do and the bonds of service that they form, and the same applied to those who fought in world war one. During those years, soldiers fought for much. They fought because of a belief that their country was threatened, but ultimately, when it came down to it, they fought for their regiments, and for the man standing next to them in the trench. If we want to pay proper tribute to the war dead—as I know that we do—and also to those who came through the war, we should seek to remember that.

Some will say—and, as the Minister said, there are clearly sensitivities in this respect—that we should recognise that the British military, along with their allies, defeated Germany militarily in the war, with the final period marking one of the most effective in the history of the British Army. For many decades, historians have pointed to military tactics developing and improving between 1914 and 1918, which eventually enabled the allies to break out from the stalemate of the trenches. Although that is little consolation to those who lost ancestors in the war’s early years, it does explain why there was so much public grief at Haig’s funeral in 1928 from the veterans who had served under his command, surprising though that is to us now. It is important that we get this right and we will work with the Government to ensure that we do so.

Around the country, I have been privileged to meet scores of people and I have seen at first hand the coming together of people and communities. I have seen the passion and the interest that the commemoration has already invoked. In my constituency of Barnsley Central I have been struck by the amount of enthusiasm for the commemorations, led by individuals such as Aubrey Martin-Wells and Goff Griffiths from the central branch of the Royal British Legion. I am sure other Members will echo similar sentiments from their constituencies. I urge Members from across the House and from around the country to continue to encourage and spark debate in their own constituencies, to ensure that their communities come together to commemorate the war.

In my constituency, it is the bravery of the Barnsley Pals who formed the 13th and 14th Battalions of the York and Lancaster Regiment that will be remembered. Both Barnsley Pals battalions were part of the attack on Serre on the first day of the Somme campaign. On that one day, 1 July 1916, the 1st Barnsley Pals lost
275 men, while the 2nd lost 270. It is in such events that the true impact of world war one can be understood—when we think of the countless husbands, fathers, brothers and sons who never came home, and the unassuageable loss suffered by those families and their communities.

Madeleine Moon (Bridgend, Labour)
My hon. Friend rightly comments on the fathers, husbands, brothers and sons who did not come home, but there were also women who did not come home—women who worked in dressing stations in hospitals that were shelled and women who worked in armaments factories in the UK. We must recognise that a lot of women also lost their lives fighting to ensure victory in the war.

Dan Jarvis (Barnsley Central, Labour)
I am very grateful to my hon. Friend for her intervention, because she is absolutely right to highlight the incredibly important role women played in this conflict. That is precisely why we must work together to seek to get the tone of these commemorations right next year—that we come together as a House to reflect and commemorate the broader social change of which she speaks.

In conclusion, there is no doubt that the importance of world war one cannot be counted in terms just of battlefield casualties or military innovation, as my hon. Friend has very eloquently illustrated. By dint of its influence and its timing, and the wider social change it brought about, it is the single most significant event of the 20th century. As such, it is something we must commemorate, we must learn from and we must educate our children about, but above all we must remember, because it is only through remembering that we will truly understand the impact that world war one has had on British society and, in so doing, understand what it means to be British.

All Members will have heard the phrase, “Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori”, often referred to as “the old lie”. Well, it is not glorious to die for your country, but it is now comforting to know that where once there were landscapes of war, there are now landscapes of peace.

With the passing of Florence Green, from King’s Lynn in Norfolk, who served as a mess steward at RAF bases in Marham and Narborough, and who died in February 2012, and with the passing of the world’s last known combat veteran of world war one, Briton Claude Choules, who died in Australia aged 110 in May 2011, and, of course, with the passing of the final three world war one veterans—Bill Stone, Henry Allingham and Harry Patch—who all died in 2009, world war one is no longer a war of memory: it is now a war of history. It is our solemn responsibility to ensure that we remember and honour those men and women who have laid down their lives for our country, and that is what we will do.

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