CENTENARY OF THE FIRST WORLD WAR ARMISTICE – 6 November 2018
Dr Julian Lewis: It is truly an honour to follow two such humane and comprehensive opening speeches [by Jeremy Wright and Tom Watson].
Seventy-nine men from the village of Brockenhurst in the heart of the New Forest lost their lives in the Great War – 21 of them in the last year of that war alone – so it is hardly surprising that the village of Brockenhurst should have been early in the process of commemorating this particularly poignant Centenary. Only last Saturday, I attended an outstanding commemoration concert that was held in the village. Back on Trafalgar Day, 21 October, the Tile Barn Poppy Pod village was dedicated to the memory of Enda Ryan, Hampshire County Council’s greatly respected outdoor-facilities manager who recently died, far too young, from cancer.
Each unit in the village commemorates a First World War battle, and Service families can have respite breaks in the Poppy Pods at weekends, free of charge. The Tile Barn where they are sited was one of three New Zealand General Hospitals set up in 1916, during the First World War, to care for the wounded. Thousands of New Zealanders passed through it, and the 93 who did not survive are buried in nearby St Nicholas’ Church.
I am sure that in this debate we will hear many tales of poignant recollection of the sacrifices made in villages such as Brockenhurst up and down the country, so I wish to list briefly what I regard as nine necessary lessons from the First World War.
First, we must not think that we can successfully predict when a war will break out.
I have often quoted in the House Sir Maurice Hankey – I shall not quote him again today – who in 1931 reviewed all the previous great conflicts in which the nation had been involved. He pointed out that, far from having 10 years’ warning – which is how far ahead people were saying in 1931 that we ought to be able to predict a great conflict – in the run-up to World War One, we had had barely 10 days’ warning of that war.
The second necessary lesson is not to sign up to multiple bilateral alliances rather than a single multilateral alliance.
In the terrible connected development of circumstances that led to the catastrophe of 1914, we saw how individual separate alliances triggered one country after another in a process of what I suppose one could call falling dominoes, which meant that we ended up with a global conflict out of something that started on a relatively small scale. That is what explains the success of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation – the certain knowledge that any aggression against any one of its members will immediately trigger defence of that member by all the rest. I do not wish to be controversial in this debate of all debates, but that is why we have to be careful about other organisations, including the European Union, issuing security guarantees willy-nilly, here and there, because we do not wish once again to get into a cross-cutting system of obligations and alliances that can lead to a chain reaction such as happened so disastrously in 1914.
The third lesson is this: do not think that humanitarian restrictions on methods of warfare at the outbreak of a conflict will last very long.
The idea, before the Great War, that civilians would be deliberately targeted by the fighting Services would probably have been scornfully rejected; yet as early as December 1914 we had the bombardment by the German Navy of the seaside towns of Scarborough, Hartlepool and Whitby, when 137 people were killed in their own homes and 455 injured. That was followed by the Zeppelin airship raids, and the more lethal but less scary Gotha bomber raids – and who can forget that, in 1915, we saw the barbaric initiation of poison gas warfare?
The fourth lesson is: do not imagine that individual valour can overcome the mechanisation of warfare.
We had the lethal combination of the machine gun and the barbed wire emplacements. Those defences could not be breached by hurling wave after wave of human bodies against them.
The fifth lesson is: do not repeat the failed methods of warfare time and again.
My hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh) said that the troops were well led in 1918. Well, they were, at the tail end of the war; it is just a great pity that they were not a lot earlier, because time and again it was shown beyond doubt that attrition did not work, and time and again – at the Somme and Passchendaele most outstandingly – it was tried long beyond the point where failure was an absolute certainty.
Mr Iain Duncan Smith: I am listening with great interest to my right hon. Friend and I recognise what he is saying about that issue. There is another feature, which is often not well reported; I think Keegan brought it out in his book on the First World War. The fact that communications had not advanced at the speed with which munitions had, meant that often news of what was actually happening on the front took nearly half a day to arrive back at divisional headquarters, so nothing could be changed. It is a really important issue. We tend to condemn the commanders, but we forget sometimes that they had no idea, quite often, what was happening for hours, let alone minutes.
Dr Lewis: I hesitate to disagree with my right hon. Friend, particularly because of his own gallant service and that of previous generations in his family, but I would refer to accounts at the time, such as that of such a considerable figure as Sholto Douglas, later Lord Douglas of Kirtleside, who became one of the most senior RAF officers in its history, who was flying over the battlefield of Passchendaele, and who observed in his memoirs, with all that retrospective knowledge, that it was still inconceivable that the troops were sent forward time and again into a sea of mud, when it was absolutely clear that the attack had failed and had no prospect of success. I know there is a revisionist view of history that says the lessons of the Somme and Passchendaele were needed so they could get it right for the 100 days campaign at the end of 1918, but frankly, with the greatest of respect, I do not buy it.
The sixth lesson is: do not underestimate the value of surprise.
The decisive Allied breakthrough on 8 August 1918, the so-called “Black Day of the German Army”, depended crucially on the strictest operational secrecy and dominance of the airspace over the battlefield, just as the Normandy landings did a quarter of a century later.
The seventh lesson is: do not forget – we have heard a bit of this today – why the war was fought in the first place.
The war was fought because Prussian militarism and sense of entitlement to invade, overrun and occupy Prussia’s neighbours proved to be something that could be stopped only by force. Again, there are revisionists who say it would have been better if we had just let Germany get on with it and done nothing about it. I would just briefly quote the former Cambridge Professor of French History, Professor Robert Tombs, who wrote recently in the Daily Telegraph:
“democracy and liberal government would have faced a bleak future. Authoritarian regimes would have been in the driving seat.”
“If tomorrow the Russian army marched through Poland and we were faced with the prospect of hostile aircraft based just across the Channel, would we react any differently? Let us hope we never face such a choice as our great-grandparents did.”
The eighth lesson is: do not settle for anything less than unconditional surrender in a conflict of this sort.
Germany did not accept that she had been fully and fairly beaten in the field. The myth of the “stab in the back” gave fuel to Hitler’s subsequent evil campaign to say that Germany had not been defeated but betrayed.
The final lesson speaks for itself and requires no elaboration because we have heard it time and again in the present day in this House: do not stint in peacetime on investment in our Armed Forces – or we will pay a cost thousands of times greater when we fight a war that we might otherwise have deterred and completely avoided.