First World War Commemoration [11 Jun 2013]
Mr Keith Simpson (Broadland) (Con):I should like to end with a stanza—a short poem—written by somebody who saw the worst and the best of the first world war. We always assume that Rudyard Kipling was the poet of empire. He was an incredibly popular poet at the time and still is today. We think of him glorifying the old British empire and the Raj, but we have to remember, of course, that his only son was killed in 1915 and he was overwhelmed by guilt.
Kipling encouraged his son to join up. When the boy failed because he had bad eyesight, Kipling had a quiet word to make certain that he was commissioned. He never got over that. Kipling played an important role in the remembrance of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, but he wrote a bitter stanza that has a particular resonance for all of us as politicians. Some hon. Members will know it. “A Dead Statesman”:
“I could not dig; I dared not rob:
Therefore I lied to please the mob.
Now all my lies are proved untrue
And I must face the men I slew.
What tale shall serve me here among
Mine angry and defrauded young?”
Paul Flynn (Newport West) (Lab):
It is a delight to be here and to hear the authoritative words of the hon. Member for Broadland (Mr Simpson), who secured this debate. I am slightly alarmed that he has shaved off his moustache. The feminisation of politics has given us many great benefits, but Mrs Thatcher never appointed anyone with facial hair. There is great danger if we start to shave off our facial hair: what male appendages might be under threat next?
The first world war is not an occasion to celebrate. I pay tribute to the hon. Gentleman for soothing out some of the jingoistic overtones in the original speech that suggested that we might celebrate the end of that war. I have a different tale to tell, but it is relevant and true, about a young man who volunteered at the age of 15. He was full of optimism and a great patriot, and went to war believing that it was going to lead to dignity, glory and honour. It did not; it led to disease, degradation, bitterness and early death at the age of 43.
That young man was a machine gunner. The belief on both sides was that machine gunners were never taken prisoner, because they were responsible for killing hundreds and possibly thousands of people. He found himself in a machine gun nest—a foxhole—gravely injured, and the others were dead. That was in April 1918, when the Germans broke through on the Messines ridge. His life was saved. He heard a German patrol coming to him and took out his rosary beads to pray, waiting for the bullet to blow out his brains. He could not get out of the hole, where he was identified as a machine gunner because the machine gun was lying across his body. However, he was not shot. The German officer, and two others, carried him across no man’s land and his life was saved. He was ever grateful to the Germans for the rest of his life.
He went there to serve the cause of his country that he loved and to kill the Hun, who were slaughtering Belgian babies. Other small nations had a different army experience at the time. He returned to civilian life and found that he was on a pension. He could not do what he called a man’s job ever again. In the mid-1930s, his pitiful pension was reduced by an ungrateful Government, who changed the reason for his pension from saying that his ill health was attributed to his war wound to saying that it was aggravated by it, although he went in as a perfectly fit 15-year-old.
The man was my father. Bitterness against war is justified in many of his generation. He was not killed by his wounds, but by his war experience. Two of the stories that he and his brothers told me about the war were that they did not have strawberry jam, but they had alcohol and cigarettes in abundance. He died of lung cancer at 43, because he was hopelessly addicted to tobacco. Others were addicted to alcohol, because of the way that alcohol was cynically used, an element that the hon. Member for Broadland did not recall.
We have to look at that war, which resulted in 16 million dead, with 900,000 British dead. Anyone who believes that is a matter for celebration is deeply wrong. The hon. Gentleman quoted Kipling, a great advocate for glory:
“I lied to please the mob.”
Others lied to please the mob. The lesson that we should take from the first world war, which led to the second world war, inevitably, because of what happened at Versailles, is, how do we understand war in our own age, these days?
There is a debate on Thursday on the Iraq war. It will be fascinating to recall the decisions made in this place in 2003, when because of the wishes of one man, we did not pull out of that war, as the Prime Minister was invited to, but went ahead on the basis of a misunderstanding, or possibly a lie. The consequence for this country was 179 dead. That is a hell of a price to pay for one man’s vanity. If we wish to commemorate the true lessons of that war, I suggest we do something that is now forbidden in this House and read out the names of the current war dead from Iraq and Afghanistan. I have done it twice and it is now forbidden. We are not allowed—it is out of order—to read the names of the war dead. We could not possibly do it for those who died in the first world war, who died in their hundreds of thousands, like cattle, but we can at least honour those who have recently died because of our decisions, taken in this House, on Iraq and Helmand, which have resulted in many other deaths.
The great lesson of the first world war was its abject futility and the way it led to unnecessary suffering and death, without solving any of the problems that existed at the time. I am grateful that there has been a change in the Government’s attitude and that they are talking about commemorating the war’s full horrors. That must be our emphasis and our message to young people. We could go back not only to Kipling, but to the other poets who said that we must not repeat
“The old Lie; Dulce et Decorum est
Pro patria mori.”
Paul Maynard (Blackpool North and Cleveleys) (Con):
My observation draws partly on what the hon. Member for Newport West (Paul Flynn) said about the legacy of world war one. It is all too easy to think that the legacy issue ended in 1939, but I argue that every time we stand up and discuss Syria in the House we are doing so as a consequence of the 1916 Sykes-Picot agreement, which demarcated the middle east and created an explosive cocktail that rumbles on to this day. I believe that the legacy is in the here and now, and I suspect that it has affected many of the great decisions that have been made in this Parliament down the years, including on pioneering social legislation, and the attitudes towards appeasement and what occurred in the lead-up to world war two.
Possibly the most important thing we can do in Parliament to commemorate world war one is not just to base the contributions we stand up to make in the Chamber on the here and now, on what we have read in today’s or yesterday’s newspapers—the fish and chip wrappers of tomorrow; we should also be open to the long perspectives, and at each moment of our lives be open to thinking about what brought us here and the wider issues we are debating. If we do that, our contributions might be more meaningful than they all too often are and my attention might not stray to the many crests that surround the Chamber and could instead be focused more intently on what other Members are saying.
Mr James Gray (North Wiltshire) (Con): This has been an absolutely fascinating debate. I have been prompted to take part in it because I have distinguished two themes that I think will be reflected in discussions of the first world war across the nation.
The first was ably outlined by the hon. Member for Newport West (Paul Flynn), to whom I pay tribute. He has made clear his opposition to war and his hatred of it on so many occasions over many years in this place, and he has done so extremely convincingly and with great passion. I might surprise him by saying that I agree with him absolutely. All war is hell. There is no question about it. All war is a disgrace, and it should not occur. How human beings ever thought it up in the first place is hard to imagine. Whether we are talking about people killed in warfare, those who are injured or maimed or those with mental illness as a result, it is an absolute blot on humanity that such things occur. I entirely endorse his hatred of it.
Equally, I agree with the hon. Member for Newport West that most wars occur for all the wrong reasons. We in this place and our ancestors for over 1,000 years have got all wars wrong. Even recent wars, without entering into recent politics, have occurred for all the wrong reasons. They have been ill thought through. As was said about the first world war, lions have been led by donkeys.
Although we should not renege on or stray from that clear theme, it is entirely separate from the one that we have been discussing here, which is how we commemorate those who gave their lives and so much else for their nation. The motto of my own regiment, the Honourable Artillery Company, is “Arma pacis fulcra”, or “Arms are the balance of peace”. Tho
First, again, I agree strongly with the hon. Member for Newport West that all wars are bad. Of course there are lessons to be learned; we are considering whether to sell arms to Syria. We should remember that all wars are bad. Secondly, we should also remember that all wars are badly thought out; that applies today as before. Thirdly, the purpose of today’s debate, leaving aside all the politics and history, is that it is right that we in this place should say to the people to whom we give instructions, “You are doing the right thing. We respect and honour what you do, and we honour the fact that you have given your lives, livelihoods and very often your health or your mental welfare under order from us. It is right that we should pay you respect for doing so.”
The Minister of State, Department for Culture, Media and Sport (Hugh Robertson): 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.