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First World War Veteran (State Funeral)

1 pm

Mr. Iain Duncan Smith (Chingford and Woodford Green) (Con): I rise to open this short debate on the proposal that we grant a state funeral to the last surviving veteran of the first world war resident in the United Kingdom. Unusually for an Opposition politician, I begin by thanking the Minister for his remarkable co-operation, help and support, and also that of his officials, who have been incredibly co-operative and positive. I commend them for that, and I hope that the House will recognise the spirit in which the Government have approached the proposal.

This proposal originated with an approach some time ago from a constituent who was himself a veteran of the second world war. The idea was not unique to him—I believe that it had been around for a little while. He said that a state funeral would be a good idea and asked me why we could not do such a thing. I asked about the veterans of the second world war and so on. My father was one, and they all fought incredibly bravely. My constituent immediately said that the first world war was different, and that everyone who fought in the second world war recognised that. There was something peculiar about the conditions and nature of that conflict.

My constituent's proposal gave me food for thought, but the issue really came home to me when my wife and I were clearing out boxes of papers that, like other families, we had accumulated over the years. I found her on her knees, pulling papers out of a battered old briefcase. I was struck by the fact that she had been crying. I could not understand why, so I asked her, "What is the problem?" She had in her hands a series of letters from her great uncle, who had fought in the first world war. He was 17 years old when he left school. He was a scholarship student—a very bright man with a phenomenal future. He left school early and joined up in 1914. He was sent to the western front in 1915, and in the autumn of 1915 was wounded in action and died about a week and a half later of septicaemia, which is something that today we can cure with antibiotics.

My wife said, "This is our son." Our son was just turning 18, and I immediately imagined what it must have been like for mothers across the land who would have been staring at letters like those at that time. That brought the matter home to me in a way that normal discussions might not have done. For so many families, the tragedy was enormous. It covered income scales, family backgrounds and social positions. Men of different positions and backgrounds died in the same way, and their mothers and fathers wept for them in the same way.

Therefore, I was enormously pleased that so many colleagues of all political parties, including those here today, supported my early-day motion, in which I proposed that we give a state funeral to the last surviving veteran of the first world war living in the United Kingdom.

Why make the proposal? It is, of course, not just about an individual but about the representative of an entire generation. The caveat is that the individual concerned and their family must agree to the proposal beforehand. As the Minister knows from our
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discussions, the fall-back position is that there should be some form of commemoration if the family do not wish to have a state funeral. Ultimately, we will be guided by their sense of what would be right.

I stress, however, that the priority position for me and many people to whom I have spoken about the matter is that we have a special occasion, and the most powerful way to commemorate it, even if it is not the only way, is through a state funeral. In the past, state funerals invariably have been granted only to members of the royal family or to those of the great and good, even if they were commoners, who rose in political or military terms. This state funeral would be unique: it would be for an ordinary person who had served their country, a representative of the peculiar generation that started a peculiar century—the 20th century, which was the century of the common man.

The suffering and the casualty lists show why such commemoration is necessary. Perhaps I could remind the House of some of the staggering figures. The number of British and empire soldiers, sailors and airmen who were mobilised and who served was just under 9 million, of which just under 1 million died and 2 million were wounded. I should remind the House that the bodies of 500,000—half the total who died in service—were never found.

Other aspects of the first world war that made it so peculiar were the nature and horror of it. Gassing occurred for the first time. Some 8,000 British and empire servicemen died directly and immediately as a result of gas attacks, but it is estimated—we will never know for sure—that some 200,000 of our servicemen suffered from wounds and long and lingering illness directly as a result of gassing, which did not happen in the second world war. Our servicemen were not alone: all around the world, the casualty lists were staggering.

The conditions were breathtaking. To give an idea of what that sort of warfare was like, perhaps I could read a small section from John Keegan's excellent book on the first world war. He states:

as Mr. Brenan wrote—

that was during the battle of the Somme—

The conditions were peculiar, as was the nature of their service: that strange sense of duty and determination that carried them through such appalling conditions.

I have been most struck in the course of our debates and discussions by the attitudes of the young. I have received a flood of letters from people all over the country about this matter. I have been moved by many who have written to or contacted me or my office, but perhaps most moving has been the pile of letters from young people at school who, whether with their teachers
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or individually, have chosen to take up this subject and write about it. It has been heart warming to realise that they also understand the need to remember. I shall read short quotes from the letters of two young girls in year 9 at a school in Watford. The first one states that

Her classmate wrote:

That generation included people such as my wife's great uncle, who wrote this about one small episode in the trenches on 2 June 1915:

I remind the House that he was 17 and a half years old, and in charge of a company. He continues:

I believe the matter to be important because we must mark and commemorate the passing of this generation and remind ourselves that all of our commemorations started with the burial of the unknown solider from the great war. A society that forgets its past and is embarrassed about remembering the sacrifice of those who have gone before is one that loses its past and, with that, loses its future. As those young people I referred to were able to remind me and many of my colleagues, there is something special about pausing to remember. We are not dwelling on or glorifying war, but remembering the sacrifice of those whose sole responsibility was to aid and abet their colleagues and to protect and defend the society in which they lived, and which nurtured them.

Bob Russell (Colchester) (LD): I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for giving way, and for the splendid way in which he presented his case. As one who moved an amendment to his early-day motion, and as one of the parliamentary advisers to the Royal British Legion, I urge that whatever happens should be done with the full co-operation and involvement of the Royal British Legion. Although we are on the edge of history, there is always the possibility that the family of the last known surviving soldier may feel under pressure. The commemoration is well worth pursuing, but a state funeral may be a bridge too far.

Mr. Duncan Smith : I say to the hon. Gentleman that we have been in contact with the veterans association and the Royal British Legion throughout. Obviously, we have not tried to contact individual veterans directly because that would be quite wrong. We have left that to the associations. By and large, I understand that there is a compliant sense among many veterans: they think that this would be a good idea. However, that could change and there may be one or two who do not agree. Of course, we should have a commemoration if we cannot get a state funeral and the family's word is final, but I have gone for a state funeral because it is something peculiar and special in which the whole country would take part and in which we would celebrate, commemorate and recognise the peculiar sacrifice of not just this individual, but of the individual on behalf of the whole of their generation.
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I urge the Government to do whatever they can and they have already expressed that wish to me. We have Remembrance Sunday, and to those who say that that is enough, I say that there is a problem with institutionalising commemoration. There is the idea that we have set this Sunday aside, but sometimes we must challenge ourselves a little more so that when we say "we remember", we really do remember, rather than just go through the motions. Something special, such as a state funeral, would be necessary to do that.

I conclude in the words of someone who is far more eloquent than me, who died a week before Armistice day and is now remembered as one of the greatest of the first world war poets:

Gently its touch awoke him once, At home, whispering of fields unsown. Always it woke him, even in France, Until this morning and this snow. If anything might rouse him now The kind old sun will know. Think how it wakes the seeds,— Woke, once, the clays of a cold star. Are limbs, so dear-achieved, are sides, Full-nerved—still warm—too hard to stir? Was it for this the clay grew tall? —O what made fatuous sunbeams toil To break earth's sleep at all?"

I hope those words come through clearly to all who read them. They are the words of Wilfred Owen.

1.15 pm

Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock) (Lab): I want to thank the right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr. Duncan Smith) for his initiative in suggesting that we commemorate the lives of all the people who participated in the great war by having a state funeral for the last known United Kingdom veteran of that great conflict.

The right hon. Gentleman referred to some of his family and I bear in mind my grandfather, Private Edward Joseph Beanes of the Royal Fusiliers, whose medals I proudly hold today, and his countless colleagues who participated in that conflict. It is important for us to commemorate and learn lessons. As the right hon. Gentleman suggested, schoolchildren in particular can draw a great deal from that and give us older ones an opportunity to reflect on the real meaning of conflict.

The right hon. Gentleman mentioned how rarely we have state funerals and I draw your attention, Mr. Caton, to this very room. You can see opposite you the picture of the laying to rest of the unknown warrior by George V. That picture shows a state funeral. That was the beginning of the process and this proposal, if adopted, will be the end. I hope that there will be a comparable, contemporary picture marking the occasion in the House in future.

I suspect that this state funeral will take place this year or next year, so I hope that many hon. Members will join me on 1 July at the Somme in Thiepval. It will be particularly poignant and important to those people who want to commemorate the great war. I shall also reflect on the hon. Members who gave their lives in world war one. Every time we go into the Chamber, we
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notice the crest commemorating hon. Members who gave their lives during world war one, particularly Willie Redmond. Elsewhere in the Palace, Thomas Kettle is commemorated, among many others.

It seems to me that the first world war is a unique social and political watershed. It was the end of cavalry and the end of people going to war in ceremonial uniforms; the Highland regiments wore their kilts for the last time in conflict. It was the beginning of the tank. It was the first aviation war: in that short space of four years planes went from little more than kites doing a bit of scouting to the first bombers. Regrettably, it was the first time that weapons of mass destruction were used, such as chemical weapons and so on.

Moreover, Governments had to reflect on the conflict. Inadequate as the response was at Versailles and in the subsequent treaties, there was nevertheless a conscious theme that politicians had to reflect to try to avoid conflict. The creation of the League of Nations afterwards was not a failure; it was a start. The war trials that took place in Leipzig were not a failure; they were also a start, and we are still struggling today with the embryonic system of international norms for war crimes.

Most important of all, the war brought about the women's franchise: a universal franchise for the United Kingdom. After women had participated so fully on the home front, and on the western front in the various nursing services, there had to be a recognition of their efforts. There had to be universal adult suffrage. It was given grudgingly after the first world war—it was not given to women on the same basis as men immediately—but it was no longer resistible.

For those and many other reasons, I hope that the Minister and the Government will respond in the way suggested by the right hon. Gentleman. There would be overwhelming acclamation of such a decision, and we wish it God speed.

1.19 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Don Touhig) : I begin by congratulating the right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr. Duncan Smith) on securing this debate on the topic of a state funeral for the last surviving veteran of the first world war living in the United Kingdom. I also thank him kindly for his opening remarks. The meeting that I had with him was very helpful; he made some good comments and gave very helpful advice, which I appreciated greatly. He made a powerful argument this afternoon, and everyone who listened to his comments was moved not just by the content, but by the tone in which he addressed this difficult and serious matter.

As the right hon. Gentleman knows, I share his concern that the passing of this special generation should not go unmarked. Their service and sacrifice deserve our admiration, respect and gratitude, and it is the Government's intention that all those who participated in that "war to end wars", as it was thought of at the time, should be suitably commemorated. I hope to be able to make a statement to the House shortly, setting out how we intend to do that. In essence, we have focused on two main options: either to provide a high-
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profile funeral for the individual as the representative of all those who served or, following the death of the last known veteran, to hold a national memorial event for the passing of the generation. The right hon. Gentleman made that point.

Today, however, I would like to outline the main issues that have exercised us as we have been developing our plans. Recent television programmes such as "The Last Tommy" and "Not Forgotten" tended to focus attention on the role of the soldier on the western front. Perhaps the most poignant and lasting image of the first world war is that of the Tommy in the trenches in Flanders. The roles of the Royal Navy and the Royal Flying Corps can, unfortunately, be overshadowed in the mind of the public and the media. They tend to be forgotten, as do the many other theatres of war and the vital support provided by service personnel at home. The first world war was, in every sense, truly a world war.

In our armed forces, every man or woman served in the capacity to which they were directed, and it would be unacceptable to single out any branch, trade, posting or theatre for greater prominence than any other. Every one of those people made a huge contribution to victory in that awful war. Some might have served for only a few weeks by the date of the armistice, some might not have finished their training or have left the UK, and many might not have seen a shot fired in anger. That should not debar them from receiving due recognition as veterans who served during the first world war. Those who survived were all veterans.

In formulating our plans, we also need to take account of any individuals who might live in the UK but who are not British citizens, although they joined and served with the UK armed forces during the first world war. Any surviving Irish veterans, who would have been British citizens at the time, need to be considered too.

We also have a practical problem, as we are not sure who the last veteran is, or who that person will be. More than 6 million men and women served in the UK armed forces during the first world war, and more than half the service records of that period were destroyed in the blitz in 1940. The situation is worse for the Women's Army Auxiliary Corps, as only 12 per cent. of its records were unharmed. Surviving records can tell us who served, but not whether they are still alive. Most of those who survived were demobilised after the war, and for the past 90 years they have had no reason to contact us. They have no obligation to notify the Ministry of Defence of their existence, nor do their next of kin have to inform us of their death.

The first world war veterans we know about are those who have identified themselves voluntarily. To monitor the existing veterans and, whenever possible, to identify others, I and my staff have regular contact with Dennis Goodwin, chairman of the World War One Veterans Association. He acts in an informal capacity as ambassador, spokesman and co-ordinator of the small band of known veterans. We are hugely grateful for his contribution to our discussions.

Inevitably, the number of surviving veterans of the first world war will dwindle, but the number of those known to us goes up as well as down. For example, the
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announcement of the death of our last known female veteran prompted claims that there are two others still alive. My officials are researching their backgrounds to confirm whether that is the case. The French have also just discovered a further two veterans, which is not a surprise. We estimate that there are in the UK more than 400 citizens of an age to have served at some time during the first world war. It is likely that there are others of whom we are not aware.

Some people signed up under assumed names, while many others falsified their age to join. Some known veterans emigrated after the war, and there is a high possibility that others of whom we are not aware did the same. Many women who served will have married subsequently and changed their names. Tracing them all is an impossible task.

In short, there is no complete list of surviving UK veterans, nor do I think there ever will be. Consequently, identifying the very last veteran with any certainty is impossible. The US and Australian Governments have acknowledged the same problem.

We must consider another key point. Whoever the last known veteran is, he or she is not just a representative of that generation. They are also somebody's parent, grandparent, great-grandparent, or somebody's husband or wife. We must be sensitive to what the family would want in the circumstances and to how they would want the commemoration or service to mark the death of their loved one.

Veterans of many conflicts seek to forget the traumas of warfare and often desire a simple family funeral without fuss or military overtones. The right hon. Gentleman made that point fairly. A number of the known first world war veterans have indicated that they and their families would not welcome any wider public intrusion. I am sure the right hon. Gentleman agrees that their preferences should be respected. Indeed, he said as much in his speech.

Even defining the parameters of the first world war is not as straightforward as it might at first appear. End dates range from Armistice day on 11 November 1918 to the official cessation of the war on 31 August 1921. Those are some of the key issues in our deliberations on this sensitive matter. I hope hon. Members appreciate that this decision needs careful thought.

I am encouraged by the high public interest in the subject, and that interest has read across more generally into veterans' issues. I am encouraged, too, by the comments of hon. and right hon. Members in this House. Being sensitive to the fact that veterans are still alive, I hope that the emphasis being put on what we should do after their passing translates into a public celebration of their remaining time with us. That has to be recognised, and it is proper that it should be.

When the last surviving veteran dies, their memory and the living link to the horrors of the first world war will continue for at least two generations through their children and grandchildren, some of whom are themselves veterans of later conflicts.

The right hon. Gentleman referred to letters that he has received from children in his constituency. Through education and the involvement of children and schools with veterans in "living history" initiatives, an understanding and appreciation of the sacrifices of that early 20th century generation will continue.
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Whatever we do, we shall take all steps to ensure that first world war veterans and the sacrifices that they made are remembered, as the magnificent painting in this room helps us to remember the funeral of the unknown soldier. It is a duty of all of us in this place to ensure that we take the right decision. It will not be easy, and there are many sensitivities to explore, but I hope that colleagues understand that I fully take on board their points.

I pay tribute to the right hon. Gentleman, who initiated this debate, for his comments and advice. I hope shortly to make a statement to the House, so that colleagues understand how we shall take this matter forward.

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