Jeremy Wright – 2018 Speech on the Centenary of the Armistice

Below is the text of the speech made by Jeremy Wright, the Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, in the House of Commons on 6 November 2018.

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the centenary of the Armistice.

In May 1915, my grandfather arrived in France to fight for his country. Three years later, he came back. Millions of others did not or, if they did, came back terribly damaged, visibly or invisibly. They went to fight in what they knew as the great war: four years of blood, mud and misery in which humanity found new ways to kill and injure on a previously unimagined scale. When the cost and enormity of it could be better grasped, they came to call it, in shock, horror and, sadly, unrealistic optimism, the war to end all wars.

On Sunday, the nation will come together as one to pause and remember all those who died during this conflict and all those that have happened since. This year’s act of remembrance will be particularly special and poignant, however, as we mark the centenary of the end of the first world war. We have sought to commemorate the war in many ways over the past four years. For everyone, different events will stand out, but I will always remember the commemoration of the battle of Amiens at Amiens cathedral, which I was fortunate enough to attend. I sat in that magnificent cathedral with representatives of many countries that fought on both sides of the battles that marked the beginning of the end of the war, and I listened to the words of those who experienced them. Their emotions were deeply felt by those in the cathedral and, I am sure, by the millions watching on television and online.

Sir Edward Leigh (Gainsborough) (Con)

I remember that I prepared a scrapbook of cuttings at the 50th anniversary for my grandfather who had fought in the first world war, but I was rather embarrassed in front of him because the coverage in the 1960s was relentlessly negative. Will my right hon. and learned Friend confirm that historiography has now changed? Most people realise that it was a sacrifice worth making, that the alternative would have been militarism and that the soldiers were actually well led in 1918.

Jeremy Wright

It is undoubtedly right that the vast majority of people in this country will come together on Sunday, as they have come together on many occasions over the past four years, to remember the sacrifice of those who gave their lives and who did so without a thought to their own interests and in the service of their nation.

Mr Jim Cunningham (Coventry South) (Lab)

Many Members will have had a family member who was involved in the first world war in one way or another, and some of us will have family memories of different battles. Like the Secretary of State’s grandfather, my grandfather took part in the battle of Loos, which is not ​as well remembered as other battles. Does the Secretary of State agree that we should not forget such battles and the people who fought in them?

Jeremy Wright

I agree with the hon. Gentleman. We have not remembered every single battle over the past four years, but we have tried to remember a number of them. However, our collective effort to commemorate what happened is designed to encompass all battles and all those who fought in them.

Paula Sherriff (Dewsbury) (Lab)

I thank the Secretary of State for his generosity in giving way. In common with many other Members, I will be joining remembrance events in my constituency on Sunday. I understand that the event held at Mirfield is the biggest and most well attended outside of London, so will he join me in welcoming the people in Mirfield who attend that event?

Jeremy Wright

I join the hon. Lady in welcoming that occasion. I am sure that it will be a particularly special year for her and for all those who attend.

The high-profile ceremonial events that I mentioned have been complemented by an extensive and engaging programme of cultural and educational activities. In 2012, the Government established the 14-18 NOW cultural programme to work with artists to tell these important stories through the mediums of culture and art. There has been a particular focus on engaging children and young people, with events including the great war school debate series and school battlefield tours, in which nearly 6,000 students and teachers visited the battlefields of northern France.

The groundbreaking 14-18 NOW programme has used its remit to enthral people from all walks of live. More than 35 million people have engaged with the centenary, including 7.5 million young people under the age of 25. It has clearly demonstrated that contemporary artworks in public places can attract large, diverse audiences. Whether it was turning the country dark as part of the “lights out” programme or the ghost soldiers that appeared across the country to mark the centenary of the battle of the Somme, these events have all captured the public’s imagination and have given remembrance prominence in our daily lives.

The ceramic poppies at the Tower of London were another moving tribute, bringing the programme to one of our most popular and cherished attractions. The poppies have since travelled to 19 locations, from Belfast to Southend and from Orkney to Plymouth, and have been visited by more than 4 million people. From next year, they will be part of the collection of the Imperial War Museum, where they can be viewed for many years to come.

As part of our programme, we have sought to highlight the enormous contribution made by those who came to our nation’s aid from across the world. Some 2.5 million men and women from the Commonwealth answered the call to fight, with 200,000 laying down their lives. They left their homes thousands of miles away to serve the allied cause with unstinting bravery, often in unimaginable conditions, and they must not be forgotten or overlooked.

Works by an extraordinarily diverse range of artists from the UK and abroad have helped us to highlight those contributions. Poets from the Caribbean diaspora, visual artists from India and Bangladesh, performers ​from South Africa, musicians from Syria and many more have all highlighted the global reach and impact of the war. That was shown vividly in March 2015, when an event commemorating the second battle of Neuve Chapelle took place at the Imperial War Museum North. The event was co-ordinated by British Muslim, Hindu and Sikh organisations, supported by the Government. It compellingly showed the partnerships and friendships that we hold so dear and that were so instrumental during the war.

We have seen all too well how history can divide, but one clear and ambitious goal throughout this centenary period has been to seek to use history to bring us together. The Government have worked closely with the Irish Government, for example, over the past four years to mark these events. That was most clearly demonstrated in the shared approach to the battle of Messines Ridge commemoration in June 2017, which was attended by both His Royal Highness the Duke of Cambridge and the then Taoiseach, Enda Kenny. The battle has considerable historic and symbolic significance for the UK and Ireland, as it was the first time that the 36th (Ulster) and 16th (Irish) Divisions fought alongside each other during the great war. The event provided a valuable opportunity to remember the service and sacrifice of those who fought, as well as to explore our shared history and support efforts to build a peaceful future.

Mr Gregory Campbell (East Londonderry) (DUP)

Will the Minister join me in welcoming the changing attitude, particularly in the Irish Republic, where for many decades there was little or no appreciation of that contribution? Does he agree that that should continue and, in fact, increase over the coming years?

Jeremy Wright

I agree with the hon. Gentleman. The co-operation and full support we have received from the Irish Government has been most welcome, and I hope it will set a new tone for future commemorations. It is deeply appreciated by those on both sides of the border who have been involved in these commemorations.

Albert Owen (Ynys Môn) (Lab)

Another way to commemorate the shared interest between Ireland and the UK is through the merchant navy. Many vessels sailed constantly through the great war between Ireland and Welsh ports, and there were many casualties. We have had commemorations of that this year, so will the Secretary of State put on record his thanks to the merchant seafarers of Ireland and Wales and the rest of the United Kingdom?

Jeremy Wright

I will certainly do that. I am sure the commemorations that will take place in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency will make particular reference to those people, and that is entirely as it should be. It is also important to say that the German Government have been hugely supportive of our commemorations. Germany has been represented at very senior levels at all our events, and German military representatives have participated extensively.

One hundred years ago, the news of the Armistice was celebrated on these shores. On Remembrance Sunday this year, out of respect for living veterans, and the service’s wider purpose in remembering the fallen of all conflicts, we will share our usual sombre moment of ​remembrance, with the customary two minutes’ silence. Wreaths will be laid at the Cenotaph, including, uniquely, one by the President of Germany. In recent months, there has been an unprecedented amount of commemorative activity up and down the country, leading up to that day. The nation is truly coming together, because 11 November 1918 is a significant day in our history. In dispatches from the frontline, soldiers often struggled to articulate how they felt when the guns stopped firing. They reported a mixture of joy, relief, numb disbelief and grief. For many, there was also a sense of achievement and justice.

Bob Stewart (Beckenham) (Con)

Let me remind my right hon. and learned Friend of the words of Geoffrey Studdert Kennedy—“Woodbine Willie”:

“There are many kinds of sorrow in this world of love and hate but there is no keener sorrow than a soldier’s for his mate”.

Jeremy Wright

Those words put it well. It is evident in all the commemorations we have witnessed how much of what was done and sacrificed by those who fought was done in fellowship for those they went to fight with. I agree with my hon. Friend.

After the service of remembrance this year, we will give our thanks for the end of the war and show our support for those who returned. The traditional Royal British Legion parade of veterans will this year be followed by an additional procession of 10,000 members of the public paying personal tribute and giving thanks to the generation who served then. The procession will be complemented in the afternoon by the nationwide ringing of bells, across the UK, and throughout the rest of the world, echoing the bells that rang out after many years of silence 100 years ago. In the evening there will be a national service of reflection and thanksgiving in Westminster abbey, with similar services taking place across the UK. This will be a moving and inspiring day that will unite us all.

I am sure we will hear plenty more reflections on these events during this debate. Many people have been involved in making these commemorations a success: charities, including, of course, the Royal British Legion; civil society groups; officials from across the Government, including, in particular, those from my Department; and the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. They all deserve our thanks and congratulations. I would also like to thank the first world war advisory group for its guidance throughout this process. I want to make special mention of my hon. Friend the Member for South West Wiltshire (Dr Murrison), who has acted throughout this period as the Prime Minister’s special representative for the first world war. I hope the House will hear from him this afternoon, and I think it true to say these commemorations would not have had the same shape and resonance as they have had without his considerable efforts. I would also like to pay tribute to the work of the hon. Member for Barnsley Central (Dan Jarvis), whom I am also delighted to see in his place this afternoon. I know he has also been passionate in wanting these commemorations to have the widest possible reach.

The first world war started more than a century ago, yet these commemorations have brought that war to life in ways that feel tangible and within our grasp. It is so ​important that future generations have the opportunity to hear these stories. This was a war not about monarchs or generals, but about people like us. In fact, 264 Members of this House served in that war, 22 of whom were killed. We remember the remarkable challenges faced by all those who fought, but we also remember that they came from our cities, towns and villages. They were people like us, and that should give us hope, as well as pride and sadness, because in those whom we remember, we see the huge capacity for service, for sacrifice, in people just like us, just when history needed it. They went off to war with friends and neighbours and workmates, or contributed in other ways, not because they thought they were special, but because they thought they were ordinary. They did what they thought everyone did for their country in its hour of need, but we remember them, and honour them, 100 years later, not because we know they were ordinary but because we know they were special.

Over the past four years, we have done our best to remember them all. I believe that we have done it well and that we can be proud not just of the people whom we have remembered, but of the way in which we have remembered them, and this House, and this nation, will always remember them.