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I was told on the highest legal advice at the time—I can say that now that I am not a Minister—that I could not give a legal pardon. As it was explained to me, I understand that it is impossible to give such a pardon, first, because there were no surviving witnesses, and secondly, because there was no real evidence to overturn a duly arrived at verdict. Thirdly, of those 306 people, even if there had been sufficient evidence in the numerous pages of brown foolscap paper—often they were not transcripts, but summary records of what had happened in the field general courts martial—we would have had to test perhaps 14 cases and left those in the remaining 280 to 290 cases re-condemned. I took the decision at
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the time that we could not give a legal pardon, but that we should go as far as we could. I will return to that in a second.

I was very grateful to get a second chance at the Ministry of Defence some years later, when I returned as Secretary of State for Defence. During the interval between being Armed Forces Minister and being Secretary of State, I discovered that New Zealand had apparently managed to accomplish that which I had been told was impossible in Britain. Naturally, and in my normal delicate fashion, I interviewed some of my officials who were still there about why that which we had found impossible had been found possible elsewhere. We re-opened the inquiry, and I am glad to say that my successor, my right hon. Friend the Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Des Browne), did a great deal of work on the matter as Defence Secretary. The result is as is known.

The reason that I am supporting my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, South-East tonight is that even at the first stage, in 1998, when we were saying that there was no legal pardon available—I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay) was deeply disappointed by that—I said that, although I found it impossible to give a legal pardon, we would redefine “pardon” as something other than a legality, and say that, in the eyes of all humanity in this country, those people who had suffered such a terrible fate would indeed be pardoned, in substance if not in legality. Subsequently, of course, we were able to add a legal pardon to that.

At that time, I did three things simultaneously. The first was to say that, as those people had been pardoned, their names should be added back into the books, and on to the memorials and cenotaphs. Secondly, I said that they should be recognised as victims of the great war, just as everyone else who had fallen in that war was recognised. In that way, their relatives would have a cloud lifted from them. Thirdly—although it was hardly noticed at the time—I announced the abolition of the death penalty in the British armed forces, which was enacted by the next Armed Forces Bill. Yet, some 10 years later, some of those names have apparently not been added back in that way.

I hope that what my hon. Friend said tonight was true, and that the case of Jimmy Smith is about to be rectified by having his name added back on to the memorials. I hope, moreover, that that will be an example for other councils and authorities throughout the country, and that they will now recognise what has been recognised over two stages in Parliament, over 10 years—namely, that the names should be added back and that the families involved should have no shame.

Having been a Minister, I now have this rare opportunity to say thank you to those who pricked the conscience of Ministers and cajoled, persuaded, drove and whipped them into line. That includes several Members who are here tonight. There cannot be many more worthwhile causes to which they could have applied their minds throughout that period, and I am delighted to be here tonight, no longer as a Minister, but as someone who is part of a group who fully support what my hon. Friend is asking for.

9.7 pm

Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock) (Lab): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, South-East (Dr. Iddon) on his debate. I mean it from the bottom of
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my heart when I say that he has written a page in Bolton’s history tonight. One thing that emerged from the campaign to grant pardons, which lasted 14 years in this place, was the fact that this part of British history had been suppressed, and not explained. I believe that history has to be written with clarity and precision, and that includes the parts with which the establishment are unhappy and uncomfortable.

One of the delights of getting the pardons in 2006 was the fact that so many of our countrymen and women—and school students in particular—had learned more about the first world war as a result of the campaign. Through my hon. Friend, I want to congratulate Bolton council on its initiative. I have visited the town hall at Poperinghe, where this soldier’s first trial took place, on many occasions, and I have seen a post of execution there. Many people were executed in Poperinghe town hall’s courtyard. I have also been to Kemmel. I hope that those on Bolton council, and many of the schools there, will take that short trip across to Belgium, so that people can reflect on this soldier and the many others from the Bolton area who lie buried in sacred territory there.

Dr. Iddon: I have a great deal of respect for my hon. Friend, especially regarding the campaign we are discussing tonight. He might like to know that I intend to send this speech to the secondary schools in my constituency, so that they are made aware of a little part of their history.

Andrew Mackinlay: I think that that is a wonderful initiative, and I know that other Members of Parliament will want to follow suit in according respect to soldiers with roots in their constituency.

The Minister of State and his predecessor went to great lengths to mark the 90th anniversary of the Armistice—and they did so very successfully, as three veterans were in attendance. That means that this is not ancient history: those people, living beings from the great conflict, were actually there. My follow-up point—my hon. Friend’s contribution this evening endorses it—is that just as the American civil war has become a part of the American psyche, so has the first world war become part of ours. The conflict in which the soldier we have commemorated tonight took part represents a seminal moment in our history. When this soldier went to war, there were cavalry participating and many of the combating forces wore bright uniforms; yet by the end of the war, we had seen weapons of mass destruction and bombers. At the same time, there was tremendous social change with the extension of women’s suffrage and greater popular representation in this place after the war.

We cannot, therefore, overdo this issue. My hon. Friend has reinforced the importance of the first world war tonight—it is something we need to understand and we need to reflect more on the brave soldiers who fought just like the soldier from Bolton—so I would encourage the Minister to do more to widen access to information about world war one and to encourage school students to study it, to reflect on it and to commemorate the brave struggle of men who did their very best on behalf of their country in this most awful conflict, which still has its resonance today.

9.12 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Kevan Jones): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, South-East (Dr. Iddon) on securing
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tonight’s debate to highlight the tragic story of Private James Smith and on his campaign to press for the local authorities in Bolton to add this soldier’s name to their book of remembrance. I also thank my right hon. Friend the Member for Airdrie and Shotts (John Reid) for his contribution and I pay tribute to his involvement in the process of finally getting pardons for these individuals. I pay tribute also to my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay) for his tenacious campaign to secure the pardons. I know that he worked closely with an old constituent of mine from when I was a member of Newcastle city council—John Hipkin from Walkergate in Newcastle, who wrote a book and was unrelenting in his campaign to secure the pardons.

In 1998, on the 80th anniversary of the Armistice, the poet laureate, Andrew Motion, wrote:

I reflected on those words when, on the 90th anniversary last November, we witnessed a very moving ceremony at the Cenotaph at which the three surviving UK-resident veterans of world war one laid wreaths to commemorate those who lost their lives in that great war. Sadly, one of them has passed away since that commemoration.

There are few alive today who have personal memories of those who marched away to war, but never came back. However, across the UK, millions of men, women and—as my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock said—children shared that poignant moment through the medium of television, and nowadays through the internet. I reinforce his point about ensuring that these tragic events are not forgotten and that future generations learn from them.

Clearly, the first world war is part of the UK’s culture, which is not surprising. It represented war on an industrial scale, and I do not think that any family in any community throughout the United Kingdom was untouched. My office in the Sacriston community centre contains a list of names of the fallen in the small mining village of Sacriston. Anyone who looks at the list and notes the number of individuals who fell in that small community will appreciate that it must have had a devastating impact, which I do not think we can imagine in modern times.

We must not forget the events of that time. My hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, South-East has done two things tonight. Obviously he has raised a very important case, but, as the hon. Member for Thurrock said, he has not only put on record his tribute to this individual but raised a wider issue, and I thank him for that.

A part of my job that I find fascinating is the history of my Department, and the living history with which we are dealing today.

Mr. Devine: Speaking of living history, a constituent of mine, John Patterson, flew on 37 bombing missions in the second world war and ended the war flying around Africa with Lord Mountbatten. He now visits schools to explain exactly what things were like during the war: real live history. I do not know whether we have a checklist of such people who are still alive and can tell real stories, right up to this moment, including people
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who are serving in Afghanistan and Iraq. As a local Member of Parliament, I have no way of contacting those people. A checklist would preserve the memory of people who have been in combat, and allow some contact with those who are currently in combat.

Madam Deputy Speaker (Sylvia Heal): Order. I have no desire to take anything away from the valued work that those individuals have done, but I think the hon. Gentleman will have noted the title of tonight’s Adjournment debate. Perhaps he will be able to raise his point with the Minister on another occasion.

Mr. Jones: I will of course follow your guidance, Madam Deputy Speaker, but my hon. Friend has raised an interesting point. My hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, South-East said that he would send copies of the report of tonight’s debate to schools, with the aim of communicating the facts to future generations, and my hon. Friend the Member for Livingston (Mr. Devine) has spoken of veterans visiting schools to pass on their memories.

In Fromelles in northern France, the graves of 400 British and Australian soldiers were recently discovered. A project is now under way, involving the Australian Government and the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, to recover, identify where possible and rebury those remains in the first newly created CWGC cemetery since the second world war. That has stimulated a great deal of interest, not just in this country but, according to my Australian counterparts, in Australia as well.

Increased participation not just in the educational projects that have been mentioned tonight but in genealogy means that many relatives are researching their family histories and uncovering facts surrounding their forebears for the first time. Some of those discoveries have been disturbing, revealing executions during the first world war.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, South-East pointed out, some of the relatives knew the circumstances of their loved ones’ deaths, and certainly did not see them as a cause for shame or any stain on the character of their families. However, I hope that the granting of the statutory pardon in November 2006 has ensured that relatives who did feel shame have experienced some relief, and have recognised that no shame attaches to any of the individuals who were executed or their families. The stigma of dishonour should have been well and truly lifted.

Those executions were tragic episodes, but as the hon. Member for Thurrock pointed out, they must be set against the unprecedented scale of the slaughter during the first world war. Granting the pardon may have little meaning for the individual men, but to the individual families it has meant a great deal.

Thankfully, public perception has changed. That is why, when we introduced the pardon in 2006, it was broadly welcomed by most individuals, although I recognise the strong disagreements that there have been about the issue over many years.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, South-East has said, Private Smith is officially commemorated by his headstone in Kemmel Chateau military cemetery. His name also appears on the Commonwealth War
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Graves Commission “Debt of Honour” register. Additionally, symbolic wooden stakes are set around the “Shot at Dawn” memorial at the National Memorial Arboretum near Lichfield, Staffordshire. Those bear the names of British or Commonwealth servicemen executed during the first world war. I was privileged in January to visit that memorial. I recommend that hon. Members who have not had a chance visit the National Memorial Arboretum. The “Shot at Dawn” memorial is a simple but moving memorial. Private Smith is among those individuals who are commemorated there.

The Cenotaph, the nation's war memorial, bears only the inscription “The Glorious Dead” and the dates of the two world wars. No distinction is made in respect of race, gender, colour, creed, or place or circumstances of death of those whom it commemorates. So, too, in the thousands of cemeteries and memorials across the world, without distinction, the Commonwealth War Graves Commission officially commemorates all the men and women who died in the service of Britain and her empire during the first world war. Many do not appreciate that, from the outset, those who were executed by firing squad were commemorated equally with their comrades who died in other circumstances during the first world war. The commission provided identical graves and appropriate headstones for their graves. Some of those graves were lost later.

While commending any initiative that commemorates the sacrifices of those who served in Her Majesty’s armed forces, it is important to understand that, beyond
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the official commemoration to mark a serviceman's final resting place, the Government do not have responsibility for either the funding or maintenance of many memorials such as the one at Bolton town hall. As my hon. Friend and many hon. Members know, there are around 70,000 war memorials in the United Kingdom and they take a wide variety of forms, including books, to which my hon. Friend referred, windows, lichgates, playing fields and buildings—even hospitals, chapels and community halls.

I know that the names of many of those executed men have already been added to many local war memorials as a result of local pressure or family initiatives. I think that that is appropriate; those individuals should be added to those local memorials. I fully support the inclusion of Private Smith's name in his local book of remembrance and I am very pleased to hear that Bolton council will agree tomorrow to add Private James Smith's name to that roll of honour. It is a fitting tribute that his name will be added to the roll of honour. My hon. Friend has paid him a great tribute tonight by speaking about him many years after his death and by putting him on the record of the House, so that future generations can not only read the debate but ensure that we do not forget about brave individuals such as Private Smith.

Question put and agreed to.

9.24 pm

House adjourned.

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