Speech to the Heritage Lottery Fund's First World War parliamentary reception

On Wednesday 22nd October I spoke to a parliamentary reception, hosted by the Heritage Lottery Foundation, on commemorating the First World War. I was joined by historian Dan Snow and Andrew Murrison MP, the Prime Minister's special representative for the centenary commemorations.

You can read a copy of my speech below.

Thank you, it’s a great pleasure to be here.

And it’s a great pleasure to follow Andrew Murrison.

I don’t start every speech in this place by saying that I agreed with every word the Government minister just said…!

But I’m very happy to do so on this occasion.

And that is the spirit in which these centenary commemorations have been carried out.

Because commemorating the First World War rises far above party politics.

The First World War was a very traumatic chapter in our national story.

A time of transformative change.

So this anniversary is a precious opportunity for us to remember those who fell, but also to reflect on that and think how it shapes the lives we lead today.

With that in mind, there are three quick points that I would like to make this morning.

First, let me pay tribute to Carole and your team at the Heritage Lottery Fund for the work you are doing - but also thank everyone here this morning.

I’ve been involved in these commemorations long enough to know they are very much a team effort.

And as I look around the room today, I see so many people who have been integral to connecting people with the First World War across the country – from the Imperial War Museum, the BBC, 1418 NOW, members of the First World War Centenary Partnership, MPs and peers championing projects in their own communities, and many many others.

All of you are helping to satisfy something I’ve felt in so many conversations I’ve had with people over the last year – which is a real thirst and interest to learn about our past, and in a way that is relevant to each of us and the places where we live.

There were 16,000 towns and villages across the country in 1914, but only around 40 would reach 1918 without losing something in the conflict.

So every community has its own story to tell.

And I’m reminded of that 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 – 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 to retrace their footsteps.

I walked the ground over which the Pals had fought the Battle of the Somme.

And I stood in the trench from where The Devonshire Regiment began their attack – and where many of them are now buried.

It was an incredibly sobering experience.

But what was incredibly heartening, is how when I returned to Barnsley I was able to share that experience with people at our local museum and local community groups, –
who are helping connect people with our shared history.

So thank you Carole and the Heritage Lottery Fund for the key role you are playing in funding these local projects and helping to make this happen.

Because if you look at the diversity of the different projects represented here today, it’s a reminder to all of us that the story of the First World War reaches far beyond the poppy fields of Flanders.

And this is my second point.

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

I’ve travelled around the country during the past year – and I’ve heard some wonderful stories.

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 who saw how the First World War changed our way of life.

Let me share one such 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 her experience during the First World War led to her becoming Glasgow’s first female councillor.

Here’s my third and final point.

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

Now I’ll defer to Dan Snow when it comes to history lessons! But I always think that the true test when looking at our history is how it makes us think about the lives we live today.

And there is so much of that in our commemorations of the First World War.

In how we remember those who fell 100 years ago – but also remember the brave men and women who serve us around the world today.

In thinking about the conflict they are currently engaged in over Iraq – and reflecting on how that links to the First World War, when the map of the Middle East was re-drawn.

In thinking about next week, when we mark 100 years since the first recorded case of shell-shock - and reflecting how mental health today is not just an issue for our veterans but something we need to prioritise for everyone.

In remembering the May 22nd 1914, when suffragettes were being arrested at the gates of Buckingham Palace, petitioning for the right to vote.

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

Those are just some of the themes that I think are being brought out by this centenary.

So I’d like to end by thanking all of you again, for the role you are playing in these commemorations.

To pay a special thank you to the Heritage Lottery Fund, for bringing us together today.

And reflect that if the historians of the future decide to log in to HistoryPin in a hundred years’ time, and see how our country marked the centenary of the First World War, I’m convinced that the work of everyone in this room will undoubtedly stand the test of time.

Thank you very much.

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