All 1 Debates between Baroness Flather and Lord Ashton of Hyde

First World War: Empire and Commonwealth Troops

Debate between Baroness Flather and Lord Ashton of Hyde
Monday 4th June 2018

(6 years ago)

Lords Chamber
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Lord Ashton of Hyde Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (Lord Ashton of Hyde) (Con)
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My Lords, I thank my noble friend for proposing this excellent debate. As we have heard, troops from the Empire and Commonwealth played a critical part in the First World War, in many theatres and many roles—a crucial contribution that the Government have consistently recognised throughout the commemorations. The Government led the commemorations of the outbreak of the war, the Battle of Neuve-Chapelle, the Gallipoli campaign, and the Battles of Jutland, the Somme and Passchendaele. In August this year, we will mark the Battle of Amiens, a joint event that we are delivering with our partners from Australia and Canada as well as France and the United States, before turning our focus to the centenary of the Armistice in November.

Throughout these commemorations, we have highlighted and acknowledged the unwavering support of our then Empire and now Commonwealth partners. Their contribution, as so many noble Lords have said, tipped the scales in favour of the allies. They travelled many thousands of miles to answer the call, serving in all theatres of the war, and distinguished themselves time and again in the face of the most terrible conditions and fiercest resistance. Often, their contribution was critical to success, but at considerable cost. Of some 2.5 million men and women from the Commonwealth and Empire, some 200,000 made the ultimate sacrifice in defence of freedom. As my noble friend Lord Lexden has mentioned, in looking at any of these battles in which troops from the Empire and the Commonwealth fought, it is hard to disagree with David Lloyd George: without them, victory might well have eluded us.

It has been right and proper to highlight their significant contributions and to hear their stories and their accents throughout the events. We have been reminded in particular of individual countries’ contributions by my noble friend Lord Goodlad in respect of the Australians, the noble Lord, Lord Desai, in respect of India, the noble Baroness, Lady Benjamin, and my noble friend Lord Shrewsbury on the West Indies, and my noble friend Lord Black on Canada. We also heard about the personal connections of the noble Baroness, Lady Kingsmill, and my noble friend Lord Elton when they spoke in the gap. Their stories are indeed humbling.

We should also not forget that the Commonwealth countries have and will continue to deliver their own range of activities and events telling their own stories of the impact of this truly global conflict. I cite, for example, the opening this April of the new Australian Sir John Monash Centre in France and Canadian events in France to be held in August, as well as in Mons in Belgium on 10 and 11 November. In that month there will also be a New Zealand event to commemorate the capture of Le Quesnoy by the New Zealand Division.

Much of the Government’s wider programme reflects the contribution made by the former Empire and Commonwealth. “The Unremembered”, delivered by the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government, tells some of the lesser-known stories of those who volunteered, such as the Indian Labour Corps and the New Zealand Pioneer Corps. They served in extremely arduous and hazardous conditions, with little recognition at the time. Again, the South African Native Labour Corps, in which 25,000 men enlisted, was remembered at the SS “Mendi” commemorations in 2017, as the noble Lord, Lord Griffiths, mentioned. In 2016, 14-18 NOW, which is our cultural delivery partner, produced “Dr Blighty” in Brighton. This was a spectacular light projection exploring the experience of Indian troops recuperating at the Royal Pavilion military hospital. I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Dholakia, was able to see it and thus be reminded of his youth—obviously his youth as a schoolboy, not in the First World War. I was pleased to attend the “Stories of Sacrifice” exhibition in Manchester marking the contribution of Muslim soldiers in the First World War and delivered by the British Muslim Heritage Centre.

Throughout 2018, the role played by people from the Empire and the Commonwealth will continue to be recognised by 14-18 NOW. “Xenos”, a dance piece combining archive sources with film and artistic reflections, explores the experience of an Indian soldier during the war. In September, John Akomfrah’s new multimedia installation remembers the millions of Africans who served during the First World War. The Government’s programme aims to enable people to commemorate those elements of the greatest significance to them. The Heritage Lottery Fund has supported a range of projects, including £94 million of funding for more than 1,400 community projects. “Empire, Faith and War: The Sikhs in World War One” was delivered by the United Kingdom Punjab Heritage Association with £480,000 of funding from the HLF. Others include “The Caribbean’s Great War”, exploring the role of the West India Committee, and the “Black on Both Sides” project, on the British black and colonial contribution to World War One, which has helped young people from British-African and Caribbean backgrounds to explore the role of black people who served during the war.

I am pleased to say to the noble Baroness, Lady Benjamin, and the noble Lord, Lord Watson, that government funding has also helped to support the Nubian Jak Community Trust to install Britain’s first dedicated African and Caribbean war memorial to service men and women from Africa and the Caribbean who served during World War One and World War Two in Windrush Square in Brixton. It was dedicated on Windrush Day 2017 and is a permanent reminder of the contribution made by men from Africa and the Caribbean during the war.

In speaking of the contribution of the Empire and the Commonwealth, it is appropriate to mention, as many noble Lords did, the marvellous work of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission in maintaining the graves of those who did make the ultimate sacrifice. Many thousands of casualties from the British Empire are buried in some 23,000 Commonwealth War Graves Commission sites in more than 150 countries around the world, and indeed in the UK. These sites are a permanent reminder of their sacrifice, and I will certainly take back from my noble friend Lord McInnes his views, and indeed those of the whole House, on our duty as a Government to support the commission’s work.

I want to answer some of the points that were made in the debate. I agree absolutely with the suggestion made by my noble friend Lord Lexden that it might be appropriate to have a full-scale debate before the end of the centenary commemorations. In fact, I have already asked the Chief Whip whether that would be possible and have received a positive answer—at least, as much as it is possible for him to give one. That would enable us to think about the whole four years and possibly about the legacy of these commemorations, which would be a great thing to do. I also agree with my noble friend that the Middle East campaign should receive more study, not least because of the strategic significance of that part of the world today.

The noble Baroness, Lady Benjamin, spoke of the service at the Commonwealth Memorial Gates attended by the Prime Minister and the Home Secretary. We are very clear that the main commemoration for the First World War and, indeed, other conflicts, is Remembrance Sunday on 11 November. It has a particular resonance, especially as this year, happily, Remembrance Sunday falls on 11 November. Along with our partners, we will make sure that this day is used to highlight the significant contribution from across the Commonwealth.

On commemorations of campaigns in the Middle East and elsewhere, Foreign and Commonwealth Office posts have managed local events, particularly in the Middle East, supported by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission.

With regard to the curriculum, I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Flather, and my noble friend Lord McInnes, that it is important that pupils are taught about key events such as the First World War and all its ramifications. The current reformed national curriculum, which has been statutory since September 2014, states that pupils at key stage 3 should learn about,

“challenges for Britain, Europe and the wider world from 1901 to the present day”.

The First World War plays an important part in that, of course. However, we have not specified how individual schools should do that—the only exception so far is for the Holocaust.

Baroness Flather Portrait Baroness Flather
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I did not say that they should learn about the First World War—I think they do anyway—but that they need to know that Britain was not alone. The key thing is that it is very important for the growing generations to know that we have come here because we contributed to Britain’s well-being.

Lord Ashton of Hyde Portrait Lord Ashton of Hyde
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That is a good point well made. What I have tried to explain today is that a lot of the events throughout the community, not just the relatively few central government-organised events, have addressed exactly that point: that we were not alone and that our partners, the members of the Empire and the Commonwealth, were actively involved. The Imperial War Museum’s schools programme is a good example of what has been done during these commemorations. There are lots of opportunities to go around and talk to young people—for example, the young people who have been helping in the commemoration of the third Battle of Ypres at the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. There has been a tremendous advance in the understanding and the interest shown in the First World War during these commemorations.

Throughout the war many thousands of men and women from around the Empire answered the call to arms. The war had a huge impact on these countries and their relationships with Britain. These relationships would be tested again in the Second World War, and the steadfastness of their support was not found wanting. Although the days of Empire are over, this shared history has undoubtedly influenced a continued friendship and co-operation in the Commonwealth as we know it today. I am sure that some of the issues raised by the noble Lord, Lord Griffiths, are rightly discussed there. As I have outlined, this contribution has been rightly reflected throughout the commemorations and we are very grateful for that commemoration. As the baton of remembrance is passed to future generations, I am confident that the role of the Empire and Commonwealth and the sacrifices made by so many young men and women will not be forgotten.