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Remarkably, the families and loved ones of the soldiers who were shot at dawn were told their sons had
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died as war heroes. Their were buried in Commonwealth War Grave Commission cemeteries across northern France and Belgium where their names are recorded, and they are rightly “Remembered with Honour”. It is fitting, therefore, that the House should do the right thing and remove the stain on their character.

The full truth of the executions in the first world war has taken an awfully long time to emerge. My hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock presented me with a copy of “Shootings at Dawn: The Army Death Penalty at Work” by Ernest Thurtle, who was MP for Shoreditch. The book was published in the 1920s, and the cases it highlights still make for difficult reading. Responding to an intervention, my hon. Friend pointed out that the Australian army did not impose the death penalty for battlefield offences. Anyone who has read Field Marshal Haig’s diaries will know that he viewed that as a serious weakness that made it difficult to maintain discipline in the Australian army. However, the lack of a death penalty did not stop the Australians from playing a full part in the eventual allied victory in the first world war.

I wish to turn to the case of Lance Corporal 13857 James Holland of the 10th Battalion of the Cheshire Regiment, which was part of the 7th Brigade of the 25th Division of the 3rd British Army. Lance Corporal Holland was shot at dawn. On the night of 19 and20 May 1916, the Germans launched a heavy bombardment against the British positions at Berthonval facing Vimy ridge. At 5 am on 21 May, the bombardment intensified. At 3 pm, following a pause, the British front line was once again pummelled by intense enemy shelling, mortar shelling and tear gas. The 10th Battalion of the Cheshire Regiment was stationed at the front line at Berthonval. In a four-hour period, 80 German artillery batteries positioned along a 1,800 m front launched 70,000 shells at the British positions around Berthonval in front of Vimy ridge. That was the heaviest enemy shelling of the war sofar. The British trenches were levelled and all communications were severed. The British artillery replied, but to no effect.

At 7.45 pm, the Germans blew a mine under the British position, lifted their artillery barrage and directed it at the British support lines. At the same time, the German infantry launched a ground attack across the smashed British defences, and crossed our front line, where they met little resistance. The German infantry secured their objectives. The 10th Battalion of the Cheshire Regiment was tasked with holding the flank of the British position during the German onslaught. On 23 May 1916, the British counter-offensive to re-establish a defence line failed. The Germans anticipated the counter-attack and launched their own artillery barrage of heavy shells against the British lines. The British infantry ground assault scheduled for 8.25 pm was met immediately with German machine gun fire and repulsed before it began.

On 26 May, the British high command decided that the artillery necessary to support a major offensive to regain our former position on Vimy ridge would be better deployed on the Somme so that our forces would be ready for a planned summer offensive against the
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Germans. The Germans began to dig in and fortify their positions. The British Army lost 2,500 men between 21 and 24 May 1916. The 7th Brigade ofthe 25th Division lost 637 men. At some time during the German artillery bombardment—the heaviest of the war so far—followed by a German infantry attack, Lance Corporal James Holland left his post. He was found guilty of cowardice by a court martial, and he was shot at dawn on 30 May 1916. He was the son of Mary and Samuel Holland, who lived at 16, Flower street, at Northwich in my constituency.

Lance Corporal Holland is buried in the Ecoivres military cemetery in Pas de Calais. When my righthon. Friend the Secretary of State announced the Government’s decision to grant the pardon, his announcement was covered by the Northwich Guardian. It interviewed an Army veteran from Weaverham in my constituency. Eighty-eight-year-old Harry Littler of Walnut avenue, who served with the British armed forces for six years in the second world war, said:

The Government have absolute support for what they intend to achieve in the Lords amendment.

At 3 o’clock on Sunday afternoon, the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, my hon. Friend the Member for Halton (Derek Twigg) and I will stand at the war memorial at Runcorn. We will do so in the full knowledge that we can pay tribute to those who have fallen in service of their country, giving their today for our tomorrow, as Parliament will have done the right thing and honoured those who were shot at dawn. I therefore urge the House to support the Lords amendment.

8 pm

Mr. Wallace: As a Lancashire MP, I join in the tribute paid to the soldier of the 2nd Battalion of the Duke of Lancaster Regiment who was killed in Basra on Monday. He will have been doing his best for, and with, his comrades, and carrying out the task that the Government sent him there to perform. We shall not forget him on Sunday, and I hope that his family derive some comfort from the personal support that I know that the Secretary of State gives to all the victims of the current Iraq and Afghanistan conflict.

I thank the three Ministers from the Department for staying for the debate. We do not often see the full complement, on either the Opposition or Government Front Benches. The Secretary of State and the Minister of State for the Armed Forces should be congratulated on staying, and I welcome that they have done so.

War is tragic. It is full of fear, and full of people who do not know what the next day will mean for them. War is confusing, and it separates people from those whom they love, and, very often, young men of all classes and all educations find themselves in positions that they would rather not be in. However, few of them feel that there are people to blame for the position that they are in. They do what they do because they feel that
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it is the right thing to do at the time. Many of them look back and ask, “Should I have been doing that? Should I have been in Northern Ireland? Should I have been carrying out the wishes of the Government of the day?” However, tragedy—feelings of loss and suffering—is part of war, and that tragedy cannot be picked apart because that suits us by our values of today.

The case that has been put forward for the pardons is, in my view, misguided. Much of that case is also full of inaccuracies. For example, the fact is that we did recognise shell shock at that time, but what we did not do was treat it correctly. We often took officers out of the field and sent them far back to Blighty, where they received what we now know to have been the wrong treatment. Although we got our medical treatment wrong at the time, should we judge the people of the day because their knowledge of medicine was not as good as ours is now?

That case is also full of inaccuracies because the names of many of the people for whom pardons are sought have changed—they have fluctuated. It is interesting that the Government cannot produce a definitive list of those who were executed in the war who deserve a pardon. As we know, there is a lack of records. Members of various parties have made it clear that in the cold light of day, perhaps by judicial committee, they could not make decisions on whether a pardon would have been an appropriate way of dealing with some of the problems.

I am mystified that people convicted of “mutiny and sedition” under section 7 of the Army Act 1881 will be pardoned. Mutiny is not cowardice. Mutiny is not desertion. Mutiny is undermining the very core of military discipline, sometimes for subversive reasons. As many of the French corps and British units in the first world war knew, it can cause catastrophic problems for fighting on the front, and, in the end, it can lead to a breakdown of the whole war effort. I am amazed that a pardon for that has been added.

It is important that we recognise that these are real offences that have a real impact on war-fighting. In today’s world, if a warehouse security guard falls asleep, someone comes in and nicks all the stock. But if someone falls asleep on sentry, they might well condemn their men to death—not only in their platoon, but perhaps, in their company. There are plenty of historical war stories of such events occurring in every conflict; they have occurred in Northern Ireland, and they have happened since time immemorial. This is not the kind of issue that we can just move aside because that suits us. Some of these offences have real consequences for other people who were doing their job: hundreds of thousands of such people have died in the first world war and many other conflicts.

It is dishonourable for us in this House, in this century, with our values, to decide whether people of that era would have a different view. I was not around in 1918 or 1916. I know that, as a soldier, I would never have the audacity to compare my military experience today with that of those who were in the military nearly 100 years ago. We all face different challenges in different conflicts, and our values will always be different. For us to go back into the first world war and pick and choose what suits us is an insult to all who
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fought in that campaign, and all who did their best to make sure that Britain was victorious in a war that would have affected our freedoms if we had failed in it.

The class issue has already appeared in today’s debate. There is a romantic notion that General Melchett was condemning people to death from behind the lines. Many of the men concerned were tried by their peers from their battalions, who themselves had been through the same conflicts. People did not appear from nowhere dressed in nice pressed shirts to judge these men; they were often tried by their peers. We might not like the trial process that they faced, but sometimes they faced those trials because of the conditions that people were in—because they did not have the luxury of being able to leave the front line, as they had to get on with doing their job, which was playing their part in defending Britain and ensuring victory in the first world war. We should not be persuaded by such romantic visions, or by the comedians whom we often see on television.

Mr. Kevan Jones: Does the hon. Gentleman not agree with me that, as was said by the hon. Member for Mid-Norfolk (Mr. Simpson) in his eloquent speech, officers who were exposed to shell shock weresent home, whereas privates from working-class communities such as mine were sent before the firing squad?

Mr. Wallace: The hon. Gentleman misses the point. They were sent home by people in that era, making judgments on their values, not our values. I do not think that that is the right way to go about such matters, but that was the way they went about it, and who am I to stand here and judge them? Such decisions were based on a class system that is, I hope, on its way to being defunct, but that system was historical fact, even if it is not of today. Therefore what the hon. Gentleman says is not the right argument to use as an excuse for pardons.

Mr. Jones: I take on board the hon. Gentleman’s point, but that stain is still on the character of those families in working-class communities throughout this country; it has not been erased through the passing of the generations. That might not affect the middle-class homes that the hon. Gentleman might want to represent in this House, but for working-class communities, that stain is there, and it has been there for generations.

Mr. Wallace: That is the most patronising pap that I have heard for a long time.

Mr. Keith Simpson: Can I intervene on what sounds a little like an old-fashioned class-war disagreement? I do not think that we should go down that route. I, as a military historian, accept that, at that time, an officer’s chances of being executed were far less. However, I also must say that the soldiers convicted and executed during the first world war of a capital punishment came from wide and varied backgrounds. They were not all inarticulate working class by any means. I think that we should now continue by listening to the main line of the eloquent speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Wyre (Mr. Wallace), rather than get drawn down this negative route.

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Mr. Wallace: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his advice. I certainly agree that this debate is not about class, and that it is not about today’s values. A lot of it is about yesterday’s historical values.

Patrick Mercer (Newark) (Con): Does my hon. Friend agree that the hon. Member for North Durham (Mr. Jones) has not quite put his finger on the point, and that he should look with a little more historical accuracy at the sort of men who, certainly by late 1915, were being commissioned and were taking the brunt of the infantry platoon commander’s battle? Many of them came from working-class backgrounds, as he might define them.

Mr. Wallace: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that clarification. We must recognise that the stigma will still be there. The amendment states that the relevant section that gives a pardon to those who were executed does not

I take that to mean that there will still be people convicted of cowardice, desertion and all the other offences, and that is stigma enough. Regardless of whether or not I was executed, I would not like to have a conviction for cowardice.

This is the problem with the amendment and the gesture politics behind it. If the Government wanted to grant a pardon, they should have tabled an amendment that granted a proper pardon, rather than one that removes the stigma only for those who were executed, and not for those who were convicted. That is the flaw in the amendment—that stigma will still be there for those war widows and others for generations to come.I would welcome some clarification from the Government on this issue. Will such people still have a conviction?

Mr. Touhig: The pardon is not perfect, and thereare matters—the hon. Member for Mid-Norfolk (Mr. Simpson) discussed them—that cannot be covered. There is no perfect solution to this problem, but if the hon. Member for Lancaster and Wyre (Mr. Wallace) felt that this was the wrong amendment, it was open to him and his colleagues to move a better one. We all want closure and a resolution to this issue, in the interests of those who suffered and of the families who still suffer.

Mr. Wallace: My idea of closure is to learn from history and not tinker with it. We should recognise the tragedy that was the first world war, warts and all. This should not be about tinkering in order to make us feel good in our beds. If we do not learn from history, we will not learn for the future. I hope that this Government recognise that we in this House are at our worst when we are pious and apply our values to yesterday, rather than learning the lessons of yesterday and taking them forward, in order to avoid such tragedies and such loss and hurt to our country.

Mr. Kevan Jones: I rise to support the amendment, which I believe is the correct way to put right a dreadful wrong done to many people in my constituency, and others. I accept and respect the fact that there is an alternative position. It was a pleasure to listen to the hon. Member for Mid-Norfolk (Mr. Simpson), who explained his position in a well informed, thoughtful and well argued speech, but who recognised that there
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must be some form of closure. I disagree with his conclusions, but I respect his position.

What I cannot accept, however, is what we have heard tonight from Opposition Front Benchers. They have criticised the Secretary of State for taking this decision—I congratulate him, and I also congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Islwyn (Mr. Touhig) on his part in the amendment—but they have not got the guts to vote against the amendment tonight. It was open to the Opposition to table amendments in another place, but they have not taken that opportunity. That would have been a far more respectable position to adopt.

The hon. Member for Blaby (Mr. Robathan)—he is not in his place—sought to imply that, because the three Ministers on the Front Bench have not got military experience, they are somehow dabbling in the military process. If the hon. Gentleman were here, I would tell him that he should take a look at his own Front Benchers. There is the honourable exception of the hon. Member for New Forest, East (Dr. Lewis), who is a naval reservist. I think that the hon. Member for Aldershot (Mr. Howarth) made the Air Cadets and no further, and unless—

Mr. Gerald Howarth: Just to put the record straight, the hon. Gentleman knows perfectly well that I was commissioned in the Royal Air Force volunteer reserve as a member of my university air squadron.

Mr. Jones: And did not go any further.

The nearest that the hon. Member for Forest of Dean (Mr. Harper) got to action in the trenches—unless he has not told the House about his military record—was defending against the critics in his role as operations manager from 2000 to 2002. So the criticism levelled at Ministers for taking this decision, and the argument that they do not understand the military, is completely unworthy of this debate.

Mr. Robathan: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Jones: With pleasure.

Mr. Robathan: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman; I had not intended to rejoin this debate. My aim was not to attack the Ministers on the Front Bench, for whom I happen to have—to varying degrees—grudging regard, but to point out that when Major Attlee was Prime Minister and when that famous Labour Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald was in power, they took no action. What has changed except the passage of90 years? The hon. Gentleman has been attacking my hon. Friends, but I should point out that we in the shadow Government have a very large number of people with military experience, including myself, my hon. Friend the Member for Westbury (Dr. Murrison), who has been in Iraq, and my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Milton Keynes (Mr. Lancaster).

8.15 pm

Mr. Jones: I am well aware of that and I have to pay tribute to people such as the hon. Member for North-East Milton Keynes (Mr. Lancaster), who serves on the Defence Select Committee and who has been in Afghanistan over the summer. I am sorry, but I
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will not accept this nonsense that, because people have not got military experience, they are somehow inferior to those who have served in our armed forces. To say that is not to criticise those Opposition Members—or anyone else in this House—who have served in Her Majesty’s armed forces.

I want to pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay), who has campaigned tenaciously for this amendment; it is a great tribute to his persistence. I also want to pay tribute to John Hipkin, who was a constituent of mine when I was a city councillor in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, and who has fought for many years for the pardon that the House will hopefully agree to tonight. John, a cabin boy, was the youngest prisoner of war during the second world war, and as my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock reminded me, he featured in a documentary last year that showed the pressures he experienced serving his country as a teenager.

The amendment will not solve every single problem, and if we are looking for perfection we will not find it there, but it will enable a line to be drawn under these events.

Lance Corporal Peter Goggins, of South Moor, Stanley—he is the uncle of a constituent of mine, Marina Brewis, who also lives in Stanley—was shot at dawn in 1917. He and his comrades, who were part of the 19th Durham Light Infantry, were guarding their positions on the western front. They were retreated when a senior officer informed them that an ambush was taking place that was advancing from the German lines. That proved to be unfounded, and Corporal Goggins was tried on Christmas Eve 1916 and executed in January 1917.

Private Albert Rochester witnessed the execution. His diaries state:

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