Centenary of the Armistice debate

6th November 2018

Keith Simpson speaks in the House of Commons in the debate on the Centenary of the Armistice.

I begin by offering my warmest congratulations to the Secretary of State and the shadow Secretary of State on two very thoughtful and moving speeches in this important debate. I also welcome the new Minister, who will be winding up. I am sure that she will understand if I say that it is with sorrow that I recognise that her predecessor had to resign.

Like a number of colleagues, I am haunted by the first world war. I am of an age to not have had to fight a war—I was too young for national service during the cold war—but my father and uncles served in the second world war, as did those of many hon. Members, and both my grandfathers served in the first world war.

I am by training a military historian. I have written books on the British Army in the first world war, and I interviewed dozens of survivors in the 1970s, but the question in my mind is that which my son, aged 27, put to me. He is interested in history, but he said, “Why do we continue to put so much emphasis and effort into commemorating the first world war and the Armistice, which are as far away from my generation as the battle of Waterloo and the Peninsular war were from that generation?” That is a crucial question. As the Secretary of State said, through the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, a lot of effort has been put into involving young people—much younger than my son—in understanding what the first world war was about.

I have been privileged to serve on two organisations as a parliamentary representative: the Prime Minister’s advisory committee on commemorating the first world war and, along with the right hon. Member for North Durham (Mr Jones), the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. Both of us finish in December. I will have done 10 years. The commission is an amazing organisation, as the shadow Secretary of State said. Formed in 1917 as the Imperial War Graves Commission, it owed its organisation and purpose for the next 20 years to a remarkable man, Fabian Ware. He was not a soldier—he was too old in 1914—but he organised a Red Cross unit that went out to France. In 1915, he was conscious of the question of what would happen to the thousands of men who were killed. In previous battles, that had been limited. Often the private soldiers had merely been dumped in a great pit and, if they were lucky, a single cross had been put over it.

Many wealthier parents, usually of officers, brought their sons home, and, indeed, a number of families tried to do so in 1914, but it was going to be on such a scale that Ware persuaded GHQ in France that another organisation had to be set up. The first was the Graves Registration Commission, which attempted to find out the names and the units of the men who had been killed; and, of course, in thousands of cases, it knew not where their bodies were. As a result of Ware’s determination, the Imperial War Graves Commission obtained its royal charter in 1917, although not without a great deal of opposition on the part of many people who, understandably, wanted to bring their husbands, fathers and sons home. Ware was also determined that there should be absolute equality in terms of the sites in which men were buried: that the aristocrat would lie next to the pauper, and the officer next to the lance corporal.

What we all see today in the gardens of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission—which also look after the men who died in the second world war—is worldwide. The biggest number who are commemorated are not in Belgium and France, but here in the United Kingdom. Those who visit to the south coast, by the old hospitals, will see many War Graves Commission cemeteries where lie the men who were brought back wounded from Belgium and France in two world wars, but who then died.

This is a Commonwealth War Graves Commission, and, as other Members have rightly pointed out, we need to continue to emphasise the role of what we then called the British empire. We did not fight the war on our own. We suffered horrendous casualties, but without the active participation of Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, the colonies in west Africa and, above all, the Indian empire, we would not have been able to fight the first world war. We went through the motions of recognising how important they had been, but I think that it is only in the past 20 years that we have given them the full recognition that they deserve.

The Australians and New Zealanders have, of course, concentrated on their role at Gallipoli, rather brushing aside the fact that they lost more men in Belgium and France. The Canadians are the unsung heroes of the two world wars. Canada put in so many troops: in the second world war, about a third of the Royal Canadian Navy was fighting the battle of the Atlantic. We could not have fought with our infantry battalions in Normandy and Germany in 1944-45 without what were called “Canloan officers” and non-commissioned officers. So in considering the Armistice, we should bear in mind the role of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission.

My right hon. Friend is making an excellent speech, and drawing attention to incredibly important matters. May I take the opportunity to say how grateful I am personally for the fact that my own father, who was killed in Normandy in 1944, is buried in one of those cemeteries? May I also take the opportunity to commemorate all those people from my constituency and from the whole of Staffordshire? I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford (Jeremy Lefroy) concurs with me in that. I want to commemorate, as we will on Remembrance Day next weekend, the bravery of the people to whom my right hon. Friend has already referred, and I should be most grateful if he would be good enough to accept that as my congratulations to him on a very fine speech.

I thank my hon. Friend. He and I have spoken before about the tragic death of his father and about what that meant to him. I am always conscious, as I know we all are, of the impact that losses had in war, on families but on friends as well. One of the memories in the Commonwealth War Graves Commission archives, which are now being put on its website, is contained in the letters—the desperate letters—that the commission received from relatives trying to find their husbands, sons and brothers who had been killed.

I do not have to remind this House that some of the biggest memorials for which the Commonwealth War Graves Commission is responsible are to those who have no grave: the Menin Gate, Tyne Cot at Passchendaele, Thiepval and quite rightly—I know the Secretary of State mentioned this—the memorials at Portsmouth, Plymouth and London to members of the Royal Navy and the merchant navy who were lost at sea, and which at the time must have been totally and utterly devastating.

The Armistice did not end the first world war; the first world war was concluded at the peace conference in 1919, but, as other Members have mentioned, the conflict continued. The British Army was demobilised, but it was maintaining peace and order, as it saw it, in Egypt and Palestine and through the First British Army of the Rhine, and I would argue that the first world war did not really end until 1922 and the Chanak incident when we backed down over Turkey: Lloyd George had backed the Greeks; the coalition Government fell; and the rest is history.

I would like to leave the House with just one quote, if Members will allow an old military historian. I am holding the diary of Brigadier General Jack, which was edited by John Terraine in the early 1960s. Jack was born in 1880 and died in 1962. He was a conservative Scottish officer—a rather shy man. He was 33 in 1914, a platoon commander in the 1st Cameronians, the Scottish Rifles. He survived all that. He became a company commander and then became the commanding officer of the 2nd Battalion, the West Yorkshire Regiment. He was wounded in late 1917 and had nearly four months out of the line. He became a staff officer and was then put back into the line in 1918 to become the commanding officer of the 1st Cameronians, and in September 1918, he was made a brigade commander, commanding about 1,300 men. And off and on, he kept a meticulous diary.

The short quote I want to read out is from 11 November 1918, and it is his final reflections:

“At last I lie down tired and very happy, but sleep is elusive. How far away is that 22nd August 1914, when I heard with a shudder, as a platoon commander at Valenciennes, that real live German troops, armed to the teeth, were close at hand—one has been hardened since then. Incidents flash through the memory: the battles of the first four months; the awful winters in waterlogged trenches, cold and miserable; the terrible trench-war assaults and shell fire of the next three years; loss of friends, exhaustion and wounds; the stupendous victories of the last few months; our enemies all beaten to their knees.

Thank God! The end of a frightful four years, thirty-four months of them at the front with the infantry, whose company officers, rank and file, together with other front-line units, have suffered bravely, patiently and unselfishly, hardships and perils beyond even the imagination of those, including soldiers, who have not shared them.”

And most of us did not share it either.



Keith Simpson MP speaks in the House of Commons on the Centenary of the Armistice

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