PARDONS FOR EXECUTED WWI SOLDIERS – 18 January 2006
Dr Julian Lewis: Twice as many British servicemen were killed in the First World War as in the Second. What made this seem even worse was that the majority of those casualties were inflicted in a condensed geographical area. Whatever one's point of view about the issue in hand today, everyone would agree that no trauma affected the attitude of the British people towards war as much as the experience of World War I. Indeed, many would say that the lessons drawn from World War I had a pernicious effect in the 1920s and 1930s in making the country more disinclined than it should have been to take the measures which might have stopped the onset of World War II.
There is no doubt that this morning's debate has touched on great issues of war and courage, and war and injustice. The victor of Burma, Viscount Slim, observed that the same fighting man who could win the Victoria Cross under some circumstances could desert his post under others; it all depended on whether his commanding officers knew how to handle the resting of their subordinates. Indeed, the experience of the bravest resistance agents who fell into the hands of the Gestapo in the Second World War showed that there are issues of physical endurance which all but the very strongest minds cannot overcome if tried to the limit. Therefore, if people were insufficiently rested and if their psychological traumas failed to be recognised, even the bravest of individuals could have undertaken acts that would, at the time of the First World War have been regarded as gross cowardice.
How do we deal with those events of the early 20th century in these years of the early 21st century, and for whom are we proposing to undertake any steps that might be considered? Who is all this for? I was asking myself that when preparing for the debate and what I have heard this morning has helped me answer the question. Is it for the people themselves who were the victims? Is it for their families and others who knew them? Or is it for the historical record? As the debate has continued, I have become more convinced that it is for the families and others who knew the people concerned. If we do not take that line, we shall get into the difficulties that my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Norfolk (Keith Simpson) so admirably outlined in his excellent contribution. I hesitate to follow his speech with my historical observations, because there are people at the highest reaches of the British Armed Forces who know what they know about British military history as a result of studying under my hon. Friend when he held his senior historical teaching position at Sandhurst.
The matter of past historical experience brings several examples to mind. Let us consider three of them. I refer first to the case of George Archer-Shee. He was a young lieutenant who was killed early in the First World War, leading his men on a raid. He should not have been there, because half a dozen years before the war began he had been a naval cadet at Osborne and was wrongly accused of stealing a five-shilling postal order from another cadet. That incident became the basis of the famous Terence Rattigan play ‘The Winslow Boy’. George Archer-Shee won justice at that time, partly because his brother was a Member of Parliament and could enlist the services of Sir Edward Carson, one of the greatest barristers of the day, to fight the case, and partly because his father was determined to risk the entire family fortune or whatever it would take to clear the honour of his son's reputation.
However, even though justice was won for George, he lost. His naval career was ruined and, instead of being in the Royal Navy where he would almost certainly have survived the First World War, he immediately returned from abroad when the war was declared, volunteered, went to the Western Front and was killed early in his career fighting for the country that arguably had not treated him well as a cadet.
The next case concerns the Arctic convoy veterans of World War II, with whom some of us have been involved, particularly the hon. Member for Portsmouth, South (Mike Hancock), in fighting for recognition for a service medal for them which was not awarded to mark their specific service in World War II. The third case is that of the Chinook pilots who were killed in a crash on the Mull of Kintyre, over which the argument carries on. There is much agreement that an injustice may have been done to those dead pilots.
How do we differentiate between those cases? That brings us back to the question of whether any family members or others close to the people concerned are still alive and feeling the pain of those perceived injustices. If we go further than that – this is where I part company with my Liberal Democrat colleagues, who are urging a collective solution – and say that we must give a collective pardon to everybody irrespective of the facts of the individual cases, I fear that we will open up a Pandora's box. That was hinted at by my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Norfolk when he referred to the events of the Peninsula War and the Easter Rising. It is a convenient political cop-out to be able to say that because we would not do something in this day and age, we as parliamentarians and politicians will pass judgment on what was done in a different day and age when different standards pertained.
If individual cases are to be considered, that should be done – if it is to be done at all – on the basis of whether there is any legal mechanism to enable people who have a direct interest in such cases to bring an action. Even then, this is a matter for lawyers and the courts; it is not a matter for politicians and Parliament. In that respect I go some way towards the position of the hon. and learned Member for Redcar (Vera Baird QC), who made a thoughtful contribution. We also face a problem of boundaries. If we make the wrong decision, we will open up an endless process of historical review, which will not do good service to the cause of political debate in this country.
Let me return to the question of who this is for. If it is for the people who were killed, it can only be so in some spiritual sense that would depend on one's religious viewpoint. If one believes that those people still have some sort of entity or existence, they do so in a dimension where our consideration of their cases makes little difference. If it is for the families, then the only basis on which anything could justifiably be proceeded with would be where there are still a small number of survivors who are directly affected by what happened in the individual case. However, if it is for the historical record, we have to be very careful indeed; we as politicians would be entering into a rewriting of that record, when the historical record ought to be written by historians.
Even in our day and age, there is still not entire agreement on the record of the First World War. A recently published book by a leading historian entitled Forgotten Victory: The First World War – Myths and Realities seeks to rehabilitate many of the leading figures of that war who have been so effectively satirised in subsequent years. I think that it overstates its case, but those are matters that it is appropriate for historians to debate and settle.
In respect of our debate today, the line can correctly be drawn only at the point at which the people who were directly affected cease to be living in this world and wishing to bring an action. The strongest case that has been made in this debate for any sort of consideration has been the pain, the stigma and the shame that was inflicted on the families of those concerned. I maintain that, once those family members are no longer living, the correct approach is for justice to be done by historians, and that politicians meddle in this sensitive area at their peril.