Summing up the Commons' Armistice Centenary debate for the Labour frontbench

November 07, 2018 , , ,

It was a great honour to sum up the House of Commons' Armistice Centenary debate for the Labour frontbench. This is a short clip from the end of my speech, the full speech is below. We will remember them.

Kevin Brennan Shadow Minister (Digital, Culture, Media and Sport) (Arts and Heritage):
As many have said, it is a privilege to speak in this debate. I feel completely unworthy to speak, in a sense, following the many extraordinary speeches that we have heard this afternoon and this evening from right hon. and hon. Members. By my count, we have had 26 speeches from Back Benchers, and two excellent speeches from the Front-Bench spokesmen. The debate was opened by the Secretary of State for the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, who was extremely ably answered by my hon. Friend Tom Watson, the shadow Secretary of State, who spoke brilliantly.

There have been so many brilliant speeches that it would be invidious to single one out. What struck me, however, is that we have heard speeches from all four nations of the United Kingdom, and on a variety of aspects of the Armistice and the great war, ranging from the role of women and Ireland—being of Irish heritage, I found that deeply interesting and significant—to the role of the Quakers; I was glad to hear Vicky Ford mention them at the end. It has been an extraordinary, illuminating and, at times, emotional debate. Hon. Members did well to hold it together at times, because there has certainly been a catch in the throat and a tear in the eye across the House from time to time.

We are grateful for the opportunity to commemorate the Armistice that marked the end of the great war, and for the chance to speak of our armed forces communities, and the sacrifices that were made and continue to be made for our safety. As we have heard, the Armistice put an end to over four years of tragic conflict between Germany and the allied forces, and mechanised killing on land, at sea and in the air. It was signed at 5 am on 11 November 1918 in a French railway carriage in Compiègne, and the guns stopped firing six hours later. As we heard earlier today in the service in St Margaret’s, the Prime Minister of the day, the Welshman David Lloyd George, when announcing the terms of the Armistice, expressed relief at the ending of what he called

“the cruellest and most terrible war that has ever scourged mankind.”

It is interesting to note how different people approach history, because I visited that railway carriage in Compiègne many years ago, and of course the same carriage was used by Hitler in 1940 to force the French into signing the surrender that resulted in Vichy France and Germany occupying most of France. However, when I visited it 25 years ago, there was no mention of that anywhere in the entire French presentation—there was reference only to the 1918 signing of the Armistice. We should acknowledge all aspects of history. This afternoon and evening, hon. Members have given an honest appraisal of the great war, the Armistice, its significance and all aspects of it, good and bad.

Bob Stewart (Conservative, Beckenham):
We have not talked about the French much today, but the French suffered incredible casualties. My wife’s family lost 17 members at Verdun. We have a biscuit tin full of Croix de Guerre, Légions d’Honneur and Médailles Militaire, but we do not even know to whom they were given. The French really suffered, as did the Germans.

Kevin Brennan Shadow Minister (Digital, Culture, Media and Sport) (Arts and Heritage):
I am glad that the hon. and gallant Gentleman has had the opportunity to put that on the record.

It is difficult to envisage the scale of the scourge that Lloyd George talked about. Four million men served in the British Army, alongside 3 million soldiers and labourers from what was then the British empire and Commonwealth. Some 1.27 million served from India alone, as well as over 10,000 from Jamaica. There were over 10 million military and 7 million civilian fatalities worldwide. Around 1 million British military personnel were killed, and the fighting stretched from Flanders to Gallipoli, from Pilckem Ridge to Palestine.

On this centenary of Armistice Day, we ponder three central thoughts. First, we honour the memories of those who fought and died. Secondly, we are solemnly grateful that the terrible tragedy came to an end. Thirdly, we are committed to preventing such devastation from happening again. I have been present in this Chamber when the House has been in a different mood—when the drums of war have been sounding. We should remember this moment when, inevitably, such events present themselves to us again. We should remember this kind of debate, as well as the mood the House sometimes gets into when we hear the sound of the drums of war.

These moments of commemoration are important, and I thank all those involved: the Imperial War Museum, the BBC, the Royal British Legion, the Commonwealth War Graves Commission—we have heard so much about the commission this afternoon—and the Heritage Lottery Fund. The fund held an important reception last week, and Dr Murrison, the Prime Minister’s envoy, was present. It really was a testament to the hard work done by him and by my hon. Friend Dan Jarvis on the commemorations.

Kevan Jones (Labour, North Durham):
I think my hon. Friend has missed them by mistake, but he also needs to thank the parliamentary authorities, which have done an excellent job. The Library and the archivists have shown the history not only of Members of both Houses who fought and died in the war, but of the Clerks and other staff who served.

Kevin Brennan Shadow Minister (Digital, Culture, Media and Sport) (Arts and Heritage):
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right, and I acknowledge the work he has done with the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, including with me in Wales; we did some work a few years ago on restoring some of the graves in my Cardiff West constituency.

Members will know that the legacy of the first world war resonates in all our communities. Most cities, towns and villages in the UK have a war memorial, and we will all be visiting those war memorials this weekend to lay wreathes and pay tribute to those who left our communities more than 100 years ago and did not return. I will attend the Welsh national wreath-laying ceremony in Cardiff, and a special service of commemoration at Llandaff cathedral in my constituency. Baroness Finlay of Llandaff and I will both lay wreathes at the war memorial in Llandaff city on Friday.

Every community has its own first world war story, and as many others have done, I will briefly pay tribute to those from my Cardiff West constituency whose courage has become part of our collective memory. On 7 July 1916, the 16th Battalion of the Welsh Regiment, known as the Cardiff City Battalion, fought at Mametz wood alongside other Welsh units as part of the 38th Division, which was devised by Prime Minister David Lloyd George and included the Welsh Regiment, the South Wales Borderers and the Royal Welch Fusiliers.

The Cardiff City Battalion was exposed to heavy machine-gun fire, and more than 150 men died, with many more injured. Welsh rugby internationals Dick Thomas and John Williams were among the dead. A survivor, William Joshua, recalled:

“On the Somme, the Cardiff City Battalion died.”

It might be of interest to you, Mr Speaker, that Fred Keenor, who subsequently captained Cardiff City football club when they defeated Arsenal in the 1927 FA cup final, was injured at the battle of the Somme, and it very nearly ended his football career.

Anna Soubry (Conservative, Broxtowe):
We have the games of remembrance in Nottingham on Thursday. The German and British women’s army teams will play at lunch time at Notts County, and in the evening the British and German men’s army teams will play at Nottingham Forest. Although I am sure that the hon. Gentleman would love to attend, he probably will not be able to, but is it not a great event?

Kevin Brennan Shadow Minister (Digital, Culture, Media and Sport) (Arts and Heritage):
It is a great event. I will not be able to attend, but I can do even better than attend: my hon. Friend Nia Griffith, the shadow Secretary of State for Defence, will be there on behalf of the Labour party.

Vernon Coaker (Labour, Gedling):
And me.

Kevin Brennan Shadow Minister (Digital, Culture, Media and Sport) (Arts and Heritage):
My hon. Friend will also be there, so I can supply Anna Soubry with some first-rate people in support.

I had better press on, Mr Speaker, before you call us all back to order. The following year saw the battle of Passchendaele, which carries particular weight in Welsh cultural memory, as my hon. Friends the Members for Llanelli and for Ynys Môn (Albert Owen), who is sitting at the back, will know. We commemorated the battle’s centenary last year with a debate in this Chamber. Every village in Wales was affected by the battle, and 20,000 first language Welsh-speaking soldiers alone were killed at Passchendaele.

1917 was the year of Eisteddfod y Gadair Ddu, the Eisteddfod of the black chair. Some hon. Members will know that the Eisteddfod is the annual Welsh-language cultural festival, with poetry, dancing and singing. That year, Ellis Humphrey Evans, under the now-famous pseudonym, Hedd Wyn, was judged as the winner of the chair at the Eisteddfod, the highest honour available in Welsh culture, which is awarded to the best poet writing in traditional strict meter. However, when the winner’s pseudonym was called in the traditional ceremony at the Eisteddfod, no one stood up in the audience to reveal themselves as the triumphant poet. It was then announced that the winning bard had been killed in battle six weeks prior. Hedd Wyn had been one of 4,000 men killed on a single morning when the Royal Welch Fusiliers went over the top in the battle of Pilckem Ridge. The poet from Trawsfynydd has become the subject of poems and history lessons in classrooms across Wales, and even of an Oscar-nominated feature film.

That poignant story of Hedd Wyn captured the mourning of a nation. Stories such as these help us to remember the humanity of each individual who lost their life, and we have heard many such stories this evening. Each one was a son, a daughter, a loved one who was missed by someone at home. As we have seen today, they are still missed by their descendants in this House and across the country.

In my constituency, in 1917, the Women’s Land Army was formed; 20,000 women across the UK enlisted to work in places such as Green Farm in the Ely area of my constituency, which is now a council housing estate. As a farm, it was run predominantly by female farmhands during the war. One of the workers, Agnes Greatorex, left domestic service to work on the farm. She said:

“Every morning, we would get up at five o’clock and milk a hundred cows. We would then take the milk to Glan Ely Hospital.”

That is where the soldiers were kept. I am proud, as I am sure we all are, of the efforts of Agnes and so many women across the country; we have heard about those in today’s debate. In rightly commemorating the enfranchisement of some women in 1918, let us not forget that working-class women such as Agnes, or my grandmother, Gwenllian Evans, did not get the vote until nearly a decade later.

Albert Owen (Labour, Ynys Môn):
My hon. Friend is talking about the effort of women during the great war. It is worth recognising that the Women’s Institute was founded during this period; as the Speaker knows, we held the centenary event in my constituency. These women were the stars of the home front as well, and they are worth mentioning.

Kevin Brennan Shadow Minister (Digital, Culture, Media and Sport) (Arts and Heritage):
My hon. Friend is absolutely right to refer to the founding of the Women’s Institute. May I also pay tribute to him for rightly drawing attention, as a former merchant seaman, to the sacrifice of the merchant navy? It is of course because of these sacrifices that the centenary of Armistice Day, and Remembrance Sunday each year, are an essential part of our cultural life. We must remember those who fought to keep us safe. We must recommit to ensuring that we never allow such division and devastation to happen again.

With your indulgence, Mr Speaker, I will close, as others have done, with poetry. I turn to the words of Hedd Wyn’s poem “Rhyfel”, which means war in Welsh. I will read part of it in Welsh first and then give the English translation. It reads:

“Mae’r hen delynau genid gynt,
Yng nghrog ar gangau'r helyg draw,
A gwaedd y bechgyn lond y gwynt,
A’u gwaed yn gymysg efo’r glaw.

It translates as follows:

“The harps to which we sang, are hung
On willow boughs, and their refrain
Drowned by the anguish of the young
Whose blood is mingled with the rain.”

Mr Speaker, we will remember them.