§ Motion made, and Question proposed, "That a sum, not exceeding £991,000, be granted to His Majesty, to complete the sum necessary to defray the Charge which will come in course of payment during the year ending on the 31st day of March, 1921, for certain Salaries of the Imperial War Graves Commission and a Grant in Aid of the Imperial War Graves Commission Fund, formed under Royal Charter, 10th May, 1917."— [Note.—£500,000 has been voted on account.]
§ Sir JAMES REMNANT
I beg to move that the Vote be reduced by £5.
I move this reduction not with any idea of making an attack upon the Government, but in accordance with the practice of this House that, where it is desired to call the attention of the House to any particular subject, this is considered the best way in which the views of the House can be taken upon it. The Government that decided that, in the Division which we hope will be taken on this painful and fateful subject, the House shall be left free to vote as it wishes without any interference on the part of the Government Whips. One cannot help thinking that this must command the agreement and approval of the whole House rather than confining to strict party lines the decision in such a matter. The whole subject is extremely painful, and one would rather not have been called upon to debate it in public. I hope that anything I may say will not embitter or hurt the feelings of the bereaved in any way. One would have wished that the Press itself had not attempted to attribute motives to hon. Members, and that the hon. Member for Westminster (Mr. Burdett-Coutts) had not issued a statement which commences by stating that it has the approval of the 1930 War Graves Commission, and which attributes to me—so I read it—a view which is entirely foreign to my thoughts. These statements can do nothing but make mischief in that they try to make out that any opposition to the proposal of the War Graves Commission is based on a favouring of the rich as against the poor. In the presence of death there can be no such question as rich and poor, and I very much regret that that should have been put out as the motive of any opposition that there may be to the proposal of the Commission. I can only speak for myself in this matter, but I am anxious that there should be equality for all, and that the right which is inalienable to every man, the right to do as he likes with his own dead, should not be taken away. Relatives should long treat their own loved ones in their own distinctive way, and I hope the House of Commons will hesitate long before it allows that right to be taken away or any interference with it. The dead are certainly not the property of the State or of any particular regiment; the dead belong to their own relations, and anything that savours of interfering with that right is bound to create opposition among the inhabitants certainly of our own Empire.
I desire to make two requests to the Government. First, that the relations of the dead should have the right, within properly defined limits, as to size, taste, design, expense, and even of material to be used, to erect what headstones they like as representative of the personality of the individual, and as a personal tribute of affection to their own dead. The second request perhaps is more difficult of accomplishment or to grant. Still, it is a natural request. It is that where it is possible the body itself might be brought home to rest in England. With regard to the first request, the chief objection of which I know is that if you allow relatives to put up their own distinctive headstones, it is liable to create jealousy among the bereaved in that some may not be able to afford the expense to which others have gone. I do not think that contention can be substantiated. If there be one period of one's life when there is less jealousy shown, it is in the face of death when people choose to put up what headstone they like to their own. Supposing there be some who cannot afford to pay the small difference between what the Government propose 1931 to allow and the actual cost of the design, I have no hesitation, after my experience of the House of Commons, in saying that they have always shown their sympathy, and still more in all cases of distress during the War, and no one need be afraid or hesitate to plead with the House to provide any small financial assistance necessary. I am quite sure that it is not the money, but it is the feeling of our people that ought to be considered.
The War Graves Commission say that you must have uniformity in order to produce a sufficiently artistic effect. I doubt if that really be a serious contention. We know that in our village churchyards there is a great want of uniformity, all members of society, whether fortunate or unfortunate, being able to put up what headstones they like, and there in God's Acre beauty still remains and is a joy for ever to those who look upon it. There need be no serious obstacle to granting my first request. I would like to refer once more to a very pathetic feature in regard to these headstones. There are many sad cases of men who have fallen on the field and whose comrades who loved them have there and then fashioned out of the best material which they could get together memorials and have placed them with suitable inscriptions over the graves of those who have fallen. Those memorials are treasured beyond measure by the relations. Surely it is not a great thing to ask, if they conform with the limitations laid down by the War Graves Commission, that they should be allowed to be placed over the graves of the men who have earned them at the hands of their comrades. From what we hear nothing out of uniformity is to be allowed, not so much as flowers or any other adornment. The whole situation is extremely difficult, and it may be that the War Graves Commission have reasons for what they have done and that the difficulties to carrying out the suggestions made may be almost insuperable. If so, and they appear to the House to be absolutely insuperable, then those who long for what they are asking must submit, but, as far as I can find out, the House has never been consulted on this matter. Beyond the Appropriation Bill of last December when the Noble Lord (Lord 1932 R. Cecil) introduced the subject, the Government have not had an opportunity of taking the House into their confidence and consulting it. If only one good thing comes of the present Amendment, we shall, free from any ideas of party strife or politics, be able to discuss this question with the Government and decide it once and for all.
Although one would like to see it done, it is extremely difficult to bring the bodies home. It has been done in some cases, and I am afraid that those few cases where it has been permitted have created a larger amount of the unrest in reference to this matter. I should myself like to see it done and, if possible, this permission granted to the relatives. I do not wish to embarrass the Government, and I hope the Government will not think that I am moving this Amendment in any disagreeable sense. Whether we get what we want, or part of what we want or nothing, I believe that I am right in saying that all feel sincerely grateful to the right hon. Gentleman, the Secretary of State for War, for the sympathy that he has shown in this matter. They certainly feel under a deep debt of gratitude to the War Graves Commission, and, if I may mention one name it will be that of one who perhaps has had more work than anyone else to do in connection with it—I allude to Major-General Fabian Ware, an old personal friend, who has shown, as everyone who knew him expected he would show, a rare and manly sympathy with those who suffered loss during the War.
§ Mr. BURDETT-COUTTS
I listened with great regret to the complaint which the hon. and gallant Baronet (Sir J. Remnant) made against myself in alluding to the paper I have circulated to hon. Members. I confess that I cannot find any justification for that complaint. I put forward in that paper the policy of the Commission, which was equality of treatment in the matter of graves expressed by uniformity of design. For a long time there was on the Table of this House a Motion which was all I had to guide me in drawing up this paper, a Motion in the name of the hon. and gallant Baronet, which said:That in the opinion of this House the relatives of those who fell in the War should be allowed to erect monuments of their own choosing.1933 That is a direct negative of the policy settled by the War Graves Commission, and it is on the lines of the division of opinion between those two policies that this discussion will, I imagine, proceed, and that the Division will be taken. I had nothing before me but the Motion that stood on the Paper in the name of the hon. and gallant Baronet, and in view of that, if I can be accused of misrepresenting him in the use I made of that Motion, or if he feels the slightest personal sense of injury, I can assure him I apologise most sincerely for it. But I do not think any such interpretation can be placed on the paper which I issued.
Fortunately, the easy medium of the post has relieved me of the necessity of going into a great many facts and arguments which I have embodied in the statement of reasons which I have issued to hon. Members. But there are a few points to which I have not perhaps given due prominence in that statement, and to these I would like to refer now. The object of this Motion, in spite of the somewhat modified terms in which the hon. and gallant Baronet referred to it, is as I understand it, that in addition to the personal details provided for by the Commission's design, in addition to the incised cross or other symbol of faith and the text or inscription chosen by the relatives, in cases where the relatives can bear the expense, the whole monument within the limits of space assigned by the regulations is to be specialised according to their varying tastes, so as to represent some cherished characteristic in life or some peculiar phase of heroism in death appertaining to the one they mourn. I may say also that some propose, and this is a suggestion which has been strongly supported in many quarters, that some special form should be given to the monument to meet the deeply-felt religious sentiments of the relatives. No one could possibly be more reluctant than I am to deprive relatives of anything that can in any way assuage the irreparable sorrow which they will carry to the end of their days. They have had to meet awful trials in this War and they have borne themselves in their darkest hour with a heroism which has seemed to reflect and form a very part of that shown by those whom they mourn. The women: the mothers, the wives, the daughters and sisters of England and of Great Britain! We used to read of the 1934 Roman women in this connection. But classic story contains no examples of mingled resignation and pride comparable to that shown by British women in the 20th century of the Christian era. Can I say less of the men—the fathers who have lost their sons, often an only son. I can only say, and I think many hon. Members have felt the same thing, that when one met them for the first time after the blow had fallen, something came into your throat that almost prevented your speaking. And there they have stood, speechless too perhaps, but brave, proud, calm and uncomplaining. It has been wonderful throughout the War, for it is they themselves whose light of life has gone out who seem to have died the death for their country. No, it is no want of sympathy that will lead a single member of this Committee to go into the Lobby, as I hope a large majority will do, to confirm once for all the policy of the Commission—the policy of equality of treatment and uniformity of design. It is rather the natural movement of sympathy into the largest channel, and one where it is most needed, that will do it. I will say a word about this later on.
I should like to refer for a moment to my own case, because I think it has some significance with regard to the policy of equality of treatment and uniformity of design adopted by the Commission. I approached this subject with an absolutely fresh mind. Having been very little in the House all last year I knew nothing of the discussions that had taken place here, mostly by question and answer across the floor of the House. Therefore, my mind was not only fresh, it was uninformed. I was only the man in the street. It was in that position that I answered the first circular I received from those who are moving this reduction. I answered it, declining to support the movement, and at the same time I wrote a letter to the "Times" which brought me a good deal of information. Then I went to work on the OFFICIAL REPORT, and all the facts I gained from that source confirmed me in the conclusion I had come to. Then I constructed my Paper. All this time I had nothing to do with the Commission. I knew nothing of it; I did not know a single member on it, except one man, the great poet of the Empire, who kindly came down to this House the other day and made a most convincing speech to a meeting of hon. Members. At the 1935 time I speak of, however, he was away, and I could not get at him. I cannot help, however, reading one sentence from a letter I received from him a day or two ago. The letter is marked "private," but I do not think he will object to my quoting this sentence, because it applies to the pathetic case of so many relatives, and while coming from him it will touch a chord of sympathy throughout the English-speaking race, that sympathy will cover thousands of other mourners in the same position. The words are these:You see we shall never have any grave to go to. Our boy was missing at Loos. The ground is of course battered and mined past all hope of any trace being recovered. I wish some of the people who are making this trouble realise how more than fortunate they are to have a name on a headstone in a known place.That is from the man whose genius and patriotism, and devotion to the needs of others, have largely inspired this great national work. To continue my own story. Desiring that the service I thought I could render to hon. Members should be as complete as possible, I then got into communication with the Commission, and from them I learned many more facts that I have embodied in my statement. I have only told this personal story because I think it is in a measure indicative of public opinion which, so far as I have seen, has not in the face of many somewhat bitter letters on the other side, had adequate expression in the public press.
In the course of my communications with the Commission two things struck me. One was the infinite consideration and sympathy which—short of abandoning their fundamental principle of equality of treatment—they had shown to all classes of relatives concerned in their pathetic task. Nothing could be further from the truth than to say that the Commission has been, or is, animated by a spirit of officialdom or bureaucracy. Secondly, I became aware of the seriously hampering effects on their complicated work created by the atmosphere of doubt now thrown around their fundamental principle. There were three outstanding considerations which influenced me in the conclusion to which I came, and, as I believe they make the widest public appeal, I can leave myself out of the question now—and I am only too glad to do so—and deal with them as the 1936 collective view of those who support the policy of equality of treatment and uniformity of design. First, there is what I will call the genius of this War, so far as we were concerned, which has never in history had an opportunity of expressing itself before. That is the solid and united effort, embodying its unity in forces drawn from every island and continent under the British Flag, fused and welded into one, without distinction of race, colour, or creed, fighting, ready to die, and dying for one common cause that they all understood. It is that great union, both in action and in death, that the Commission seeks nobly to commemorate and make perpetual by its policy and design.
In the second place, there is a peculiar feature about our Army, as I have understood it, and as I have heard it from many officers and from thousands of wounded soldiers with whom I talked during the War, and that feature has a distinct and direct bearing upon the policy of the Commission. While Army rank, of course, is, and always must be, essential to discipline, there was a spirit of brotherhood and comradeship which levelled all ranks and distinctions of another kind, and made our Army in the highest, truest, and best sense a democratic Army. The Commission could not be blind to it.
In the third place, there is the subject to which my hon. and gallant Friend, who moved this reduction, referred, apparently, with some indignation, and that is the subject which would come under the head of the difference between rich and poor. My hon. Friend said that I had attributed that as the motive of the opposition to the Commission. I never did anything of the kind. I spoke of it as the effect of a change in the policy of the Commission. Whatever is intended— and I have not been able to ascertain what it is that those whom I call the Opposition wish—whatever is intended, there is no doubt that it would take the form of extra embellishment or ornamentation of the monument.
§ Mr. BURDETT-COUTTS
I will put it in this way. There is no doubt that a monument treated in this special way would stand out amongst, and be more conspicuous than, the rest of the monuments. It is very difficult to estimate 1937 exactly what proportion of the monuments would receive this special treatment, but there can be no doubt that the vast majority of them would only have the ordinary monumental stone. I venture to think that it would be worse than a blunder to place, or to leave, in the mind of the vast majority of mourning relatives, this sense of differentiation—to put it in its mildest form—with regard to the graves of those who are just as dear to them and whom they would be just as anxious to honour in the same way as the others, if they only had the means to do so. Among the communications that I received consequent upon my letter to the "Times," there was one which said that this point was introduced as a matter of prejudice. I need not say that that was an unworthy suggestion. The writer went on to say thatThe poor of this country are too generous to rob their fellow-sufferers of the solace of the individual memorial because they themselves cannot afford to erect one.I have not the slightest doubt that the poor of this country would be generous in such a matter. My point is that we, who speak for the nation, ought not so to act that the mourning woman in cottage or tenement, or in a moderate home, often not so well off as the wage-earner, should say to herself, or should have in her heart the thought, even if silent and unexpressed, "My man made the same sacrifice, died the same death, for the same cause as that one. Why should he not have as beautiful a monument? To my mind it is absolutely hateful to think of introducing these differences of means and opportunity into the atmosphere of this great National Memorial.
There is only one other point upon which I would touch for a moment. I should like to ask my hon. and gallant Friend, and those who are with him in this matter, what they think the opinion would have been of the officers, because it must never be forgotten that this change would apply in most instances to officers. Do they think that officers who now lie shoulder to shoulder with their men, if they could speak would wish any difference to be made between themselves and the men who followed them so bravely and met a splendid death side by side with them? I can speak for one of them, who died at the mouth of a machine gun, and who lay "there in the grey light of morning 1938 amongst his men, as he would have wished to remain, only as their brother and their comrade. Knowing his feeling for his men, and theirs for him, my mind recoils from the idea of expressing by a special monument any difference between him and them. But in this matter the dead speak from the graves where they lie, as I can show by a very remarkable letter which I received from an officer whose experience covers far wider ground than anything I can say. The name of the writer is Colonel H. Lewin, R.A. He sent me a letter which he wrote to the "Times" immediately after mine appeared two months ago. It was not published then, but I am not certain that it has not been published since in another quarter. It is so important that I would beg the Committee to listen to what he says:As one who had the honour to command troops in France throughout the War, and who was at some pains to ascertain their views regarding the decisions of the War Graves Committee, I desire to support strongly every word of the letter on this subject from Mr. Burdett Coutts, M.P., which appeared in your issue of the 23rd instant. It was in the winter of 1917–18, at the conclusion of the long Passchendaele offensive, that the proposals of the War Graves Committee were submitted to units to obtain their views. Drawings of the pro posed gravestones and sketches indicating how it was proposed to lay out the cemeteries were sent out on such a scale that it was possible for all ranks to see and study their effect. In order to obtain a detailed opinion of how the proposals were viewed, I assembled a small committee of all ranks in each unit, whose duty it was to draw attention to the proposals of the Graves Committee, explain them fully, and obtain individual expressions of opinion from every man serving. The replies I received from these committees were remarkable in their unanimity. The uniformity of design was what appealed most strongly to all. That the fellowship of the War should be perpetuated in death by a true fellowship in memorial was the unanimous and emphatic desire of everyone, officer and man. Death, the great leveller of all rank, was very near to those men at the time, and their deliberate and expressed wish was that, as they fell, so they should lie, and their memory be perpetuated in like form throughout. Since the taking of that census of opinion many of those who voted have been laid to rest in France. They lie buried now on the fields where they sealed their royal fellowship of death and sacrifice, and I for one feel that I shall betray their memory if I do not protest to the utmost of my power against any reversal of the decision which they then gave.I think the Committee will attach due importance to that letter. But in a matter 1939 like this the wishes of the dead themselves lay upon us an imperious and solemn mandate. The Imperial War Graves Commission has dealt faithfully with that mandate, and I think this Committee cannot possibly refuse to carry it out.
In conclusion I would ask the Committee to look for a moment at the two pictures that arise out of this discussion. On the one hand, a cemetery, we will say, of 50 graves with half-a-dozen of these special monuments standing out conspicuous amongst the rest, or a cemetery of a thousand graves, with 20, 30, 40 of these special monuments equally conspicuous, and all the rest turned into Government stones, called so, placed in that category, by the mere existence of these special monuments. On the other hand, there is the picture that portrays all alike, great and lowly, peer and peasant, rich and poor, learned and ignorant, raised to one supreme level in death by common sacrifice for a common cause. The two pictures apply to 2,000 or 3,000 cemeteries in France and Flanders. I cannot doubt which of the two the Committee will choose.
§ Viscount W0LMER
I very deeply feel it unfortunate that this Debate has to take place at all, and I think it might have been avoided had the matter only been brought to the House at an earlier stage when the appointment of the War Graves Commission itself was first made. But since this House has never been consulted on the matter, and since the War Graves Commission has acted in a way, although I know with the truest motives of kindness, humanity and line sentiment, yet have succeeded in arousing very poignant feelings among a large section of the community, it is necessary that this Debate should take place. We have just listened to a very eloquent speech, and the War Graves Commission has also taken very elaborate steps to put their point of view before hon. Members. I listened to my hon. Friend very carefully, and I have carefully studied all the documents, and I find that we come back in defence of the attitude of the War Graves Commission to two points. The first is the obsession that there may be some distinction between rich and poor if you allow any diversity of monuments. 1940 They claim equality for all. That is a claim which we who oppose the present policy of the War Graves Commission endorse to the full. We demand equality for all. Uniformity is not and never can be equality. You might as well say it was equality to order that every man should wear boots of number five size, or that everyone should live in a particular style of house. That would not be equality. There is an absolute distinction between uniformity and equality, and, indeed, an antagonism between them, which those who support the attitude of the War Graves Commission almost entirely miss. My hon. Friend who introduced this subject has explained that those who are asking for diversity of monuments entirely agree that there must, of course, be limitation of space, for obvious reasons. We entirely agree that there must be limitation of cost, and we claim that that meets in every way the arguments of my hon. Friend (Mr. Burdett-Coutts). If we say the War Graves Commission fixes a limit of price and guarantees that no man's monument is more costly or more ornate than another man's, you can get absolute equality in that way.
Then my hon. Friend says the very fact that five or six relatives in a cemetery of 50 graves would select a different form of pattern from the remaining 45 would single those particular graves out and destroy the equality which we all desire. I believe my hon. Friend is entirely wrong in his anticipation. I am absolutely convinced that if you gave liberty to relatives to select their own form of monument, you would not get 10 per cent. choosing diversity, but would get 90 per cent. choosing diversity, and in support of that view I would ask hon. Members to go to any churchyard in the country and study the graves of the humblest and the poorest and see the variety of ornament, the difference of conception, the difference of ideal, and the differences of individuality which exists in every single tombstone erected in the country. It is an absolute mistake to think that the English people like uniformity. It is an absolute mistake to think that if you gave the poor of this country the chance of choosing between what my hon. Friend calls Government stones and a design of their own choice and selection, they would not in nine cases out of ten choose the latter.
§ Mr. BURDETT-COUTTS
I said that these monuments designed by the Commission would be called Government stones if special monuments were allowed.
§ Viscount WOLMER
That might be, but my point is that the vast majority of relatives would reject those stones and that only those relatives who liked them would have them and therefore would presumably be contented. If you allow relatives to choose, subject to limitations of space and of cost for their own graves, that which pleases them best surely their neighbours can have and would have no grievance against them. There are no practical difficulties in that matter.
But there is a further point on which my hon. Friend laid stress, the conception that you have in the graveyards designed by the War Graves Commission a great national Imperial memorial, a great war memorial, a great memorial to the British Army. I entirely agree that such memorials are very fitting, very natural and very necessary after a great war of this sort. By all means have memorials. Make them out of Government stone if you like. Make them uniform. But you have no right to employ, in making those memorials, the bodies of other people's relatives. It is not decent, it is not reasonable, it is not right. A memorial is something to be seen. There will be two classes of people who will visit these graveyards: there will be the idle tourists in the first place, and secondly there will be the bereaved relatives. Are you going to consider the feelings of the bereaved relatives or the artistic susceptibilities of the casual tourist These graveyards are not and cannot be war memorials. Have your war memorials in England or in France or wherever you like and according to what pattern and design you like, so that all can go and admire them or not admire them, as the case may be, but you have no right to take the precious remains of bereaved widows, parents and orphans and build them into a monument which is distasteful and hateful to those relatives, as in many cases it is. There is a terrible confusion of thought—terrible because it is causing so much anguish to the country—which underlies the whole conception of the Imperial War Graves Commission, the idea that you are entitled to take the bodies of heroes from the care of their relatives and build them into 1942 a national State memorial. Then my hon. Friend in his most interesting memorandum calls it an Imperial memorial for the freedom of man. What freedom is it if you will not even allow the dead bodies of the people's relatives to be cared for and looked after in the way they like? It is a memorial, not to freedom, but to rigid militarism; not in intention, but in effect.
There is another terrible confusion of thought in this conception, and that is that you make gravestones properly uniform. "Uniform gravestones" is surely a contradiction in terms. The object of a gravestone is to distinguish an individual from the surrounding graves. The Commission recognised that by having different lettering and different inscriptions on the gravestones. What difference in principle is there then in having different shape as well as different lettering? If you want by gravestones to perpetuate the individuality of dead men, those gravestones must be individual and they cannot possibly be uniform. Therefore the War Graves Commission has, in the first place, got hold of a wrong conception. They have tried to use the dead bodies of fallen heroes to build them into a national memorial. Then they have set about it in a manner which has undoubtedly caused the greatest anguish to some of the bereaved parents. I must ask the House to bear with me while I read some of the hundreds of letters I have received from bereaved relatives, widows, orphans, fathers and mothers, who feel most terribly and acutely on this subject. The hon. Member for Westminster spoke about the voice of the dead. No doubt it may be the case that some of the men who have died would have liked to be buried in the way that the War Graves Commission has decided.
§ Viscount WOLMER
How does the hon. Member know? What right has he to say that? I know of the case of a boy who told his mother that he would "hate to be buried like a dog." Those were the words he used. That boy is dead, and that is how he is going to be treated.
§ Viscount WOLMER
I do not mean treated like a dog, but treated in a way which he thought was to be buried like 1943 a dog. Because a large number of men who fought at the front like the pattern of the Imperial War Graves Commission is no argument why you should impose that patter upon those who dislike it. You would grant to the men who fought and died for their country what they would like according to their known wishes with respect to their tombs, but because a particular design happens to agree with your artistic sense or because it happens to meet the artistic sense of some dear friends who have since died, that is no reason why you should impose it upon those who dislike the pattern. As I have said, I know a case where a boy, who was subsequently killed, expressed the greatest disgust at the conception of the Imperial War Graves Commission.
§ Viscount WOLMER
He had seen the pamphlet which they circulated. I will read a few extracts from the numerous letters I have received on the subject. Here is a letter from a mother:I think the people who keep writing to the papers opposing the wishes of the relatives have got hold of the wrong idea. They none of them seem to realise that no one, as far as I am aware, wishes to make any difference between the graves of the officers and those of the men. I am sure that my son would not wish any difference to be made, but everyone, or nearly everyone, is horrified at the idea that the tombstones should resemble so many milestones.Another of my correspondents writes:I have written to the Member for this Division on the subject, but he has not even had the courtesy to acknowledge receipt of the letter. There seems to be very little sympathy from those who have not suffered.I should like you to know that I feel very strongly that, as far as possible, the crosses should remain in simplicity, so marking for all time the true comradeship of officers and other ranks which existed, I do know, through the greater part of the regiment.Another letter says:The limitation of space, though it would necessitate some regulation as to size, would not affect the form of the memorial. It is a most tyrannical measure, and one that weighs most heavily upon the poor, for you are doubtless aware that those who can afford to do so are evading the decision of the War Graves Commission by purchasing the ground on which the grave of those they love is situated.That is a point which I would commend to the hon. Member for Westminster. It 1944 is perfectly true that this is happening, and it shows that this policy of the War Graves Commission is making a very real difference between the rich and the poor, which is the very thing we all wish to avoid. Another of my correspondents writes:I feel very deeply in the matter. It seems a most unwarranted and cruel step that the Government is taking, and I should think the nation will greatly resent it.Another says:If there is one dissentient voice it should be listened to in a case like this.Another writes:I sincerely trust that the strong opinion of those of us who dislike the uniform gravestone approved by the Imperial War Graves Commission may be fully represented. The feeling here in Inverness is strong on the subject.Another letter says:It is so natural that we should look on our dead as belonging primarily to us as individuals, and it seems so strange that the Government cannot confine their attentions to those graves only where there are no relations to see to the last sad duties. If the Government were content to do that, there might be a chance of suitable monuments being erected.Another letter says:On the 15th ult. I wrote to the War Graves Commission pointing out that the name and rank of my son were wrongly given on the temporary cross erected by them over his grave—the marble cross which we erected in 1915 having been destroyed by enemy fire, and requesting permission to erect a simple stone or marble cross in its place. I received the usual official bureaucratic reply that the War Graves Commission adhere to their original decision as to uniformity and as to the character of the headstone which they propose to erect, with which, of course you are fully acquainted. Their leaflet, dated 4th June, 1919, was also enclosed. Should they adhere to their policy on uniformity as indicated, I do not propose to accept their invitation to add anything to what they choose to put upon the stone, as I do not wish to desecrate my son's memory by countenancing in any way the hideous and unchristian memorials which they propose.I do not wish to endorse all the views expressed in the letters I am reading. I am reading them to show how terribly upset these bereaved relatives are. When you have people writing by the score, as anyone who takes a public part in this question must have, you realise the enormous amount of preventable misery that could be avoided if the War Graves Commission would only give a little more 1945 latitude in this matter. In another case a mother writes:Our son's grave in the East is a particularly scandalous case, because there is not the slightest necessity to impose any restrictions. The poor boy, Corporal—, dispatch rider, motor cyclist, Signal Corps, contracted typhoid fever on active service and died in Alexandria Military Hospital. He is buried in Chatley Cemetery, and there is a large wooden cross marking the grave erected by his comrades. My husband and I immediately applied to buy the grave and for leave to erect a stone. We were told there was no need for the former but we could erect a stone at any time we liked. … On applying for permission in January, 1919, I received an intimation that it would not be permitted, and I have been treated throughout with the utmost intolerance and high-handed insolence.That is a sentiment which I should not like to endorse, because I know how the members of the War Graves Commission have tried to be polite to relatives; but the House must be aware of the very strong way in which these unfortunate relatives feel as to their treatment. Surely if we could avoid, if we could mitigate, if we could diminish the pain and the grief which these people are suffering it is our duty to do so by whatever means we can.
The hon. Member for Westminster has tried to argue that diversity would mean inequality. I think we have a complete answer to that. We can have limitation of dimensions and limitation of cost, but if you give liberty of choice to parents I am certain that you will see so much diversity in the graveyards that there will be uniformity and diversity as well. It has been said, and I believe Mr. Rudyard Kipling made this point with great effect at a meeting of Members upstairs, that every gravestone has to be erected on concrete, and that if you leave it to the relatives to concrete their own stones you will delay the fixing of the concrete. Surely that is a technical difficulty that can be very easily overcome. You have only to leave a socket in your bed of concrete opposite the grave and the base of the gravestone provided by the relatives must be made to fit into the socket. It would go into that socket as soon as the War Graves Commission have completed their job. It has been argued that any alteration in the proposed plan would cause delay. That, surely, is a point for the relatives themselves. Let them arrange for the manufacture and construction of the gravestone, but, if 1946 they cannot get it done so quickly as the Government can, then let the Government do it if they like. That is purely a matter for them to settle. It has been said that you would have to circularise 500,000 relatives. You are circularising them already. The next of kin are being asked to provide the inscription that they would like put on the gravestone. Therefore, it is a matter of the utmost ease to ask them also whether they would like to have the Government pattern or a pattern of their own selection. We are told in the Memorandum of the hon. Member for Westminster that any alteration of the present plan would be breaking faith with the Dominions. I have only one word to say on that, and that is that the Dominions have complete freedom in regard to their own graves, and surely they would not like or desire to dictate to the relatives of English, Scottish, Irish, and Welsh soldiers.
Something has been said about the constitution of the War Graves Commission. I do not desire to say a word against the constitution of that Commission except this: I realise fully the sympathetic manner in which they have tried to act. I realise fully the high ideals which they have had before them, and I also know that two or three members of the Commission are themselves bereaved parents, but I think it is extremely unfortunate that the whole scope of the Commission's activities was not discussed in Parliament before its appointment, and it is exceedingly unfortunate that there is not a single woman upon that Commission. I listened with admiration to the eloquent passage in the speech of the hon. Member for Westminster when he spoke about the women of England. Why are they not represented upon the Commission? Of the hundreds of letters that I have received the greater part of them come from women. Women feel more acutely upon this question than men. That is only natural. Why are the women not represented on the War Graves Commission? We come here, not to ask that relatives should be allowed to display wealth or privilege upon the graves, but only that they may show their love, that love which is itself stronger than death, the only thing that is, that love which makes the churchyard of our countryside beautiful in spite of the uncouthness of many of the tomb- 1947 stones or the lack of taste shown in particular ornaments, that love which alone can defy death, which robs man of everything except his bare personality. It is that love which will carry mourners to these graveyards in France, and it is to that love to which we as a nation owe a debt which we never can repay and which we ought in a matter of this sort primarily to consider.
§ Mr. ASQUITH
It is very much to be deplored that we should have anything in the nature of a controversial discussion upon this topic. There are some of us, of whom I am one, who have a direct and personal interest in this matter, and I only rise to say in a sentence what I know to be the feelings of large numbers of grieved parents and relatives, as they are my own. These men, be they officers or rank and file, who fell, died with the same courage and the same devotion and for the same cause, and they should have their names and their services perpetuated by the same memorial.
Like my right hon. Friend who has just sat down I, too, deplore that anything of a controversial nature should be said in connection with the work of the Graves Commission. Those who have spoken in favour of the Amendment do not realise fully the great difficulty of the task, the colossal task, which the Commission had before it. Consider, in the first place, the work that has to be done by the responsible officer who is representing the War Office at the present time, because remember that the cemeteries have not been handed over to the Graves Commission yet except a proportion of them, and at the present time the entire work has to be carried out by the War Office representative in France, who has a depleted staff with which to do it, and the work that has been done by that officer and his staff is worthy of all commendation in this House. The work that he has to carry out is to try to concentrate the remains of the dead into a certain number of cemeteries. At the present time the bodies are interred in some 4,000 cemeteries in France and Belgium, and when we realise the necessity in future of preventing overcrowding in these cemeteries, and of seeing that everything is done and kept in proper order so that the dead may be honoured as they should be, it would be difficult, if not impossible, to allow 1948 the graves to remain in the 4,000 cemeteries in which they are at present. Concentration is gradually being carried out and the exhumation and reburial have been done with the greatest care. Nothing to hurt any individual could be seen in any of these ceremonies, and the bodies are re-interred in the presence of a chaplain in one of the cemeteries.
One of my hon. and gallant Friends and I have bean recently in France. We have seen four of the cemeteries that were completed as they all will be in the course of time, and I can imagine nothing more impressive or more restful than those completed cemeteries as they are now, with the stone of remembrance and the cross of sacrifice, in each of these cemeteries, which will last, I should say, for a thousand years; and though all these graves are similar in design, there is grass in between, and there are beautiful flowers in all those graveyards at the present time. The War Graves Commission has a horticultural staff, and it has instituted nurseries in the five different areas into which the burial grounds are divided, and these have started nurseries to grow shrubs and flowers to make these graveyards beautiful, and they will there collect a year's supply, or the best part of a year's supply, of seeds, in order to plant them in the different burial grounds. The British people can materially assist by sending saplings and seeds also to supplement those that are being sown in the cemeteries.
When we compared those cemeteries with the French communal cemeteries which are all over that part of France, I thought that the comparison was very greatly in favour of the British cemetery, and when you came to look at those cemeteries, and you saw all the level grass with no raised mounds and compared them with the French cemeteries with their headstones of different types and patterns and the raised mounds of earth all over the cemeteries the comparison was very greatly in favour of our cemeteries, and when we went among the graves I ask any hon. Member what could be finer than to see there the rows of graves with those of a general, a private soldier and an unknown soldier, all the same. I have suffered in this War like my right hon. Friend. I know not where my boy's body is. His grave is not known, 1949 and whether he is buried or not is more than I can say, because the Germans came into the trenches where he was killed; and when I looked and saw the grave of a general and on either side that of an unknown British soldier, I felt proud to think that my boy may have been one of these unknown British soldiers.
Difficulties have been set forth by many of the hon. Members who have spoken, and the difficulties of having different headstones are very considerable. The Imperial War Graves Commission is now at a standstill, and what it wants to know is that it may proceed to get all these cemeteries in order in the quickest possible time. As things now stand, I believe it would take some fifteen years before they can all be completed. Remember the difficulties that there are in the way. In the first place, it is a very difficult matter to get a contract for the headstones. I think that I am right in saying that recently a contract has been made for 100,000 headstones. When the Commission has a free hand, and is able to get on unfettered, and knows that it is the wish of the British nation that the work shall be carried out by it, things will advance more quickly, and I think that a worthy memorial of the British nation and the British Empire will be seen when all those cemeteries in France and Flanders are completed. There are difficulties still to be overcome, but when the wish of the people is known that wish will be carried out.
When my Noble Friend (Viscount Wolmer), who spoke last, read some of the extracts from the letters that had been received, may I say that the experience of everyone of us is not like his. I have had letters from, and, what is more, I have had conversations personally with relatives who have lost their sons or their husbands in the War, and I have not heard one single individual say that he was not delighted that all the graves, whether of a field marshal or of a private soldier, are of similar design, and that those men who died in the same cause lie side by side. I think that it would be ungrateful if we had to go even to a division. I think that it would not be doing honour to our dead, and I am sure that hon. Members in this House and large numbers of people outside would feel very strongly if they thought that the question of the memorials to be put over the 1950 bodies of those men who died for their country, it should be a matter of discussion about which this House would have to divide. I think that the sense and feeling of the House will ordain that we shall not have to go into the Division Lobby.
I have listened to the various statements of hon. Members as to the number of letters they have received on this subject. If the decision of the War Graves Commission were reversed Members of the House would have some indication of the strong feeling that exists in the country. I go beyond that and I say that we have no right in this House to ignore the wishes of those who have lost loved ones, or to disregard the people who have made the greatest of all sacrifices. No supporter of this Amendment would dare to get up, and say that he was expressing what he believed to be the desire of those who have passed away. It is not possible to interpret the feeling of officers and men. I emphasise "officers," because I refuse to believe that the officer who fought and died in this War desired any different treatment from, or wished to be buried otherwise than side by side with, those who made an equal sacrifice with him. Long before there was any controversy on this question, I had a letter which reflected the opinion of humble people. I visited France many times soon after the death of that brilliant young man, Mr. Raymond Asquith, the son of my right hon. Friend (Mr. Asquith). I saw his grave. Close to, by the fortune of war, there was the grave of his cousin, young Tennant. Between were the graves of humble British soldiers, and as I stood there I thought of the equality that was responsible for that circumstance. I thought of the events that had brought the statesman's son, the peer's son, and the humble British soldier together, all with the same kind of tombstone, each burial place indicated in the same way. I was so struck with it that I put in my notebook the names of the soldiers, and I brought home from the grave the leaves of a humble flower. At Derby, later, I was speaking at a meeting of my constituents, and I told them of the incident. It was reported in the Press. A few days after I received a letter from Leicester, and it was to something like this effect: "I see in the Press that you have been 1951 near the grave of Raymond Asquith. I lost my only boy in the War. I am blind and his mother is deaf. I was told by some friends that he is buried near Raymond Asquith, and I wonder whether you could tell me that the grave is well kept." The name was Simon. I looked into my book and I found that was the lad whose name I had put down merely by chance. I replied to my correspondent and said that not only could I say the grave was well kept, but that I had picked a leaf from the grave and that perhaps he would like to have it. I leave Members of this House to imagine the reply I got. You may call it sentiment if you like, but I submit that it is a beautiful sentiment.
For the magnificent way in which the War Graves Commission have performed their duty no praise can be too high. I have never known anyone who has been privileged to visit France and to see these cemeteries who did not speak with admiration of what had been done. I have always deplored the fact that poverty has prevented many fathers and mothers from visiting France and seeing the graves for themselves. The Noble Lord (Viscount Wolmer) said he was in favour of a limitation in the cost. Was there any limitation in the sacrifice that these men made? Although I quite understand that the supporters of the Amendment do not desire elaborate memorials, and that they do not wish to differentiate between the rich and the poor, I beg them to realise that that is the only way in which their action will be interpreted by other people. There are hundreds of thousands of poor people in this country who will feel that because they are poor they are deprived of honouring their sons as rich people have done. This Committee has no right to give any such ground for suspicion; no one in this House desires it. I believe it will be a mistake for the Committee to divide on the subject. These men died fighting in a common cause; they made the common sacrifice. They are buried as they desired to be. Let this House do the right thing by giving expression to every one of their wishes.
§ Mr. TURTON
I hope the Committee will bear with me while, as far as I can, I put before the Committee the views of parents. I can say most assuredly that I hope the recommendation of the right 1952 hon. Gentleman the Member for Paisley (Mr. Asquith) will be followed, and that we will for the rest of this Debate approach the subject in the most temperate and calm fashion. Surely to all of us it is regrettable we should be almost obliged to discuss on the floor of the House a matter which is so extremely painful. The hon. Member for Westminster (Mr. Burdett-Coutts) said he did not know what it was for which we parents were asking. I entirely concur with that portion of his statement in which he said that he hoped there would be no more hampering of the work of the War Graves Commission. The House will be unanimous on that point. The matter must be disposed of to-day once and for all, and I hope we shall have a reply from the Secretary of State for War sufficiently satisfactory to justify those of us who have put down an Amendment for the reduction of the Vote. I was glad to hear that the Whips are not to be put on. I agree with the last speaker that in a matter of this sort we ought to avoid a Division. I have put down the Amendment standing in my name in no spirit of revolt against the War Graves Commission. I think every speaker has been unanimous in praise of the courtesy of the Commission. What was called the pathetic task in which they are engaged has been carried out with great consideration, and I wish to give here my personal testimony to the courtesy and the kindness that I received from Sir Fabian Ware when I went to Winchester House to seek information. It is only right that those outside should know that the different officers engaged in this work have never failed to show the utmost consideration to those who, like myself, have gone on a very painful and difficult errand. In answer to the hon. Member for Westminster, let me say that we are asking for nothing that cannot be granted to the humblest and poorest in the land. I would not stand here for one moment to claim any privilege which the poor would not be entitled to share. Is it really suggested that we are asking to be allowed to put up some vulgar obelisk or what the hon. Member called a conspicuous memorial—I suppose a broken column of white granite?
§ Mr. BURDETT-COUTTS
The opportunity would be limited, as there is the same space allotted for all the graves.
§ Mr. TURTON
The hon. Member used the word "conspicuous," and I did not "understand what he meant. I am obliged to him for his explanation. May I say that I agree with a leading article in one of the papers this morning which emphasised the fact that the men fought on equal terms and that in death they were not divided. There has been throughout equality of sacrifice. It has been our proud boast that there has been no difference between peer and peasant, and that all were ready and willing to give their lives. I should be a traitor to the memory of my son if I attempted here to claim for him any privilege or any right that could not be shared by the humblest private. What is it we are really asking for? We are asking that we should be allowed to put up a cross instead of a stone slab. The hon. Member knows that we are asking for nothing higher, as the space is very limited. We ask for nothing higher than the present stone of three feet six inches, I think. We do not ask for any embellishment, or that it should be in any way conspicuous, but we do claim the right to put up a cross. It is not a question with us of artistic taste or any question of sentiment. If it was a question of taste this Debate need never have taken place, and if it had been a question of sentiment equally this Debate need not have taken place. It goes far deeper than that. It is a question with us of absolute religion. We claim that we should have the right to put a cross over our sons' graves. On Sunday of last week I was in Belgium standing at the graveside of my only son in one of those large cemeteries just outside Poperinghe. I only wish that we could preserve what we have there to-day, those beautiful white simple crosses. I am perfectly well aware that that is an impossibility, but there is something so beautiful in their "Simplicity that one cannot help wishing that it could have been possible for them to have remained. We are asking for uniformity of design by all means, and I am not suggesting that parents should go outside what was originally put on the floor of Winchester House, where we then saw the slab, as I call it, and also the cross. Will the right hon. Gentleman be able to assure us that in these large cemeteries we are really going to have uniformity? You have the bodies of French, Belgians, and others, and is it 1954 certain that there will be this uniformity of which we hear so much? If you do not have absolute uniformity surely you can give to us that which we understand France is not prepared to agree to at present. But though you have uniformity, why should you also have monotony? Will the Committee try for one moment to realise what it means in one of these large cemeteries, circled round with a stone wall, where I suppose there will probably be some seventeen thousand graves, all of them with headstones of one pattern and of exactly uniform size? Surely it would be more restful to the eye to have here and there a cross instead of the monotony of a countless sea of headstones.
I think the Secretary of State for War will admit that we parents in one respect have not been unreasonable There are many of us who would have given all we possess if we had been allowed to bring our boys back to England and to put their bodies in the churchyard, where eventually we shall be laid ourselves, and where Sunday after Sunday we could see the grave. We accepted the decision of the War Office that that could not be done, and we have not been unreasonable in that respect. I understand that the War Office intimated to America that the same policy was to be followed with them, and that there was a difficulty of transport, but it only required one letter from the American authorities for permission to be given to have the bodies removed if they so desired. We have not required that our sons' bodies should be brought back to England. Some fathers were fortunate enough, either by influence or otherwise, to have that done. As we have not been unreasonable in that matter, surely we have the right to make an appeal to the Secretary of State. My final appeal is this. He has already intimated that all those who are next-of-kin are being written with regard to what is to be placed upon the headstones. Will he consent to have the further question put to them: "Do you prefer a headstone or do you prefer a cross?" I have reason to believe, and I speak with some authority on the subject, that the next-of-kin, parents or widows, or whoever they may be, if they were asked a question of that sort would reply asking for a cross to the extent of between 30 and 50 per cent. If that number of those vitally interested asked that there should 1955 be placed what to them is a matter of religion, namely, a cross over the grave surely the right hon. Gentleman will not refuse that that should be done. If he would give an intimation to that effect, I can assure him, though I can only speak for myself, that that would meet, I believe, the wishes of many parents who I know are in a difficult position over this matter. They want no difference whatever, but that the War Office should provide, as they originally intended to do, a cross. We have been lulled into security by what we were shown at first at Winchester House, where we saw a simple headstone and also a cross, which we understood was to be allowed. I do ask the right hon. Gentleman, even now at this eleventh hour, to allow parents to say whether they prefer a cross or a headstone, and if he will give consideration from that point of view, then I would be more than satisfied.
§ 6.0 P.M.
§ Mr. LANE-FOX
My only claim to speak is that I have recently had the opportunity of going on behalf of a committee to visit a large number of cemeteries in France. I should like to bear my testimony to the wonderful way in which that work is being carried out, and to the unfailing courtesy, kindness and consideration of those responsible for the work, and which has been so generally acknowledged in this Debate. It seems to me that the strongest argument of those who moved this reduction would be to suggest some alternative design which would be satisfactory; but nobody yet has done so. The hon. Gentleman who has just spoken says that what is wanted is a simple cross. All these designs have been considered, and I think he must be aware that a simple cross within the limited space could not possibly give sufficient room for the inscription, badge, and name. I think he knows, too, that after very careful consideration this particular form of headstone has been adopted for the reason that it provides for all those things. The hon. Gentleman said also that it is a matter of religion, and that so many feel that they must have a cross upon the graves of those whom they love. What about the old churchyards? What is it that makes them so beautiful? Is it a series of crosses? Hon. Gentleman know that it is the old-fashioned headstone which adds to the natural beauty. I ven- 1956 ture to say that fifty or a hundred or three hundred years hence, when these headstones have weathered the time, and have remained, they will be considered far better than what would be, owing to the limitations of space, a flimsy cross that could not possibly stand the wear and tear of time. Something has been said outside in criticism of the work of the War Graves Commission, but I am thankful that we have not heard anything here. Statements have been made as to their work, which I am anxious to contradict. It has been said that bodies have been unnecessarily exhumed. I can assure the Committee that in no case, except for some very urgent and special reason, is a body exhumed. It must be obvious to the most ordinary intelligence, considering the vastness of the work that has to be performed and its complicated nature, that no body would be exhumed unless it were absolutely necessary, and it certainly is not the desire of the Commission to do so.
It has also been said that the cemeteries are neglected. I admit that the staff is quite inadequate for the work that has to be accomplished, but to say that those engaged in the work are deliberately neglecting it, is a gross libel. I desire to pay the highest tribute to the way in which the work has been carried out. I went out with an open mind and on the condition that I should be absolutely free to express my opinion when I came back, and that was freely granted. I was allowed to see the plans and to go with the other members of the Committee to any cemetery we disired to see, and I can testify to the unmitigated care which I found, and to the desire to consider in every way the feelings of those bereaved parents who are beginning to go out to see the graves of their dead. The question under discussion has been so completely argued that it is not necessary for me to pursue it beyond suggesting that those who are urging this do not realise the vastness of the problem. It is estimated that in any case, even under the scheme of the War Graves Commission, the scheme cannot be completed under 10 or 15 years, and if hon. Gentlemen will think what it would mean, first of all to get these designs executed, then carted there by some means, and eventually deposited, if possible, on the right grave, they will realise how immensely 1957 the difficulties would be increased. The Noble Lord said he wanted equality, but not uniformity. I venture to suggest that by this scheme you do not get uniformity, because there is ample opportunity for different inscriptions and forms, and you do get equality.
I should like to make a few suggestions as regards the present position out in France. I think what is most urgently needed is some improvement in the Information Department. The great difficulty now is that parents are going out, and that they find the greatest difficulty in finding the graves of their dear ones. That is not the fault of anybody out there. There has been a great shortage of staff, and the clerical staff particularly has been very short, and I urgently suggest to this Committee that they should be increased. Already inquiry bureaux are being set up in the principal centres. I think these centres are, if I remember aright, Ypres, Armentières, Arras, Albert, and Amiens, and I suggest that that information should be made known in every post office, so that relatives could go to the post offices for their information, then find out from the Graves Commission to which centre they should apply, and then go to that bureau and get instructions as to how to arrive at the particular cemetery they want. I would suggest that we might employ the great tourist agencies to help us in this matter. The provision of adequate guides and information is badly needed. There are many parents now travelling about the roads trying to find graves that they cannot find, and I am sure a great deal of the difficulty would be got over if some arrangement of that sort could be made. My last suggestion is that the staff of gardeners should be increased. It is not I think, sufficiently known in this country that there is a very large demand and an urgent need for an increased staff of gardeners. It would be a permanent job. They would have the job of looking after the cemeteries, and after all it would be a great labour of love. It is a great opportunity for widows of soldiers who have fallen to take up their residence out there permanently and look after the cemeteries in which the graves exist. At this moment there are 200 urgently wanted, and as the cemeteries go on being taken over the demand for 1958 gardeners will increase. I am sorry to trouble the Committee with so many details, but this is a subject of intense interest, and no one in the House, I am sure, whatever his view, would wish to see a real, bitter difference of opinion on this subject. I would suggest finally that those who are critics of this scheme should, instead of writing epigrams to the " Times " newspaper or circulating statements, by pamphlets or otherwise, against the scheme, go out for themselves and see what is happening, and that meanwhile, seeing that this seems to be the only possible scheme, without any alternative, they should use their energies in helping forward what is the only possible scheme in the general interest of equality.
§ Lord ROBERT CECIL
I do not know that there is anything much to be gained by Continuing this Debate at unnecessary length. I feel that perhaps everything that can be said has already been said, or very nearly so, and therefore I propose to say a very few words to explain why I am a supporter of the Motion made by my hon. Friend. My hon. Friend who has just sat down (Mr. Lane-Fox) has, if I may venture very respectfully to say so, made a very characteristic speech, that is to say, a speech full of good feeling and good sense, and it increases the difficulty which I should always feel when I find myself differing in opinion from him. I hope he will not think that I take that stand lightly or because I do not give full value, as far as I can, to all that has been said on the other side. He made a good deal at the end of his speech of the practical difficulties. I really do not think, in a matter of this kind, practical difficulties should stand in the way. The issues are so important, the feelings roused are so intense and acute that really, if it is a question of the cemeteries being completed a little earlier or later, I do not think that is a consideration which ought to weigh with the Committee one way or the other in determining a question of this kind. I have had some experience now of the practical difficulties raised by those who, quite rightly and properly, are anxious to avoid a change in their own scheme. They do see always the practical difficulties very much larger than, when the change has been made, turns out to be the case. How often have I 1959 heard evidence given in perfect good faith that such-and-such a scheme is practically quite impossible to carry out, and then, when the Committee upstairs has decided in favour of the scheme, it is carried out without the slightest difficulty. I do not think the Committee would be wise to attach too much importance to that argument.
I hope it is unnecessary for me to repeat—I should have thought it quite unnecessary but for an observation which fell from my right hon. Friend the Member for Derby (Mr. Thomas)—that this is not a question as between rich and poor, and is not intended to be. Before I conclude my observations, I think I shall be able to show to the Committee that this is a question really in which the poor take far more interest than the rich, broadly speaking. It is quite true that the rich have great powers of expression and can write more easily to the papers, but I am convinced that this matter, rightly or wrongly, is one which touches the heart of the poorest in this country quite as much as, and, indeed, more than, it does the heart of the rich. My right hon. Friend said that whatever we intended, we should be regarded as urging the case of the rich. I have no doubt that anything that one does in public life is liable to misconstruction but I do not think a man who is afraid of taking the course he thinks right because he is afraid of misconstruction is justified in remaining in public life. I am quite sure that my wish is not to make any distinction between the rich and the poor, that I am as keen and as anxious for equality of treatment as anybody in the House, and I will not be afraid, because it may be said, maliciously or carelessly, that I am actuated by any such motives, of maintaining the view which I have formed in this matter.
I do not care myself very much about memorials, tombstones, or cemeteries. They do not, in fact, appeal to me very much one way or the other, and I do not take any part in this discussion for my own personal point of view. I have lost relatives, like everybody else, but I should not care really, as far as I am concerned, what memorial was erected over them, though personally the memorials actually suggested do not appeal to me as being those which I 1960 should care for; but the matter does appeal to others profoundly and tremendously. I do not think it is possible to exaggerate the strength of feeling excited by this question. It is not peculiar to a few people or to a section of the community; it is not peculiar even to this country; all over the world, through-out all history, there has always been this profound sense of attachment to the tombs of those who have died on the part of those who have survived. Therefore, it is really a matter which the Committee must not decide on any light ground, and I am sure they are not going to. They must consider it as one in which their decision, one way or the other, is going either to console or upset people out of all proportion to any reason or apprehension that they might individually be able to give. I feel that there is really at the bottom of this—apart from what I think is an entire misapprehension, namely, the question of equality, in which I do not think there is really any difference of opinion between the two schools of thought—a fundamental difference of opinion. It is expressed very clearly in the pamphlet issued by my hon. Friend the Member for Westminster (Mr. Burdett-Coutts), on page 5, where he says:It is not intended to express only or mainly the personal sorrow of relatives.That is what he thinks, and that is what is the foundation of the policy, which I think is a mistake. In the next sentence he says:It is a collective tribute by the Empire and the nation to those who all alike made the same sacrifice, to the same cause, and between whom, therefore, as individuals no distinction of rank, position, or means should be made apparent.I entirely agree that no distinction of rank, position or means should be made, either apparent or otherwise, but the real question is, Is it right that this should be a national monument, or, as he puts it, a monument intended to express the personal sorrow of relatives? Is it, in other words, to be a personal thing or a national thing? That is the fundamental difference, and I do not think my hon. Friend disagrees with me in that. Should the individual tombstone put over the individual grave be a national monument or a personal one? Right through the Graves Commission is the conception of a national monument; that has been their 1961 governing conception. May I just remind the Committee that that is an entirely novel idea? It has never been done before in the world's history, by any Government, at any time, in any nation, in any place, in any age, in any civilisation. It has never been said that the State has a right to turn the individual memorials to individual persons into a national memorial against the will and against the desire of their relatives. It is an entirely new idea.
May I remind the Committee that, even in the case of a distinguished person, for whom a statue is voted in this House, it is never done against the will of the relatives or of the person in question? In this case you are going to do something entirely novel, for which no precedent in the world's history can be found. It may be right, but it is an entirely novel thing. It is characteristic of that way of thinking that on this Commission, which was evidently selected with great care, and in many respects is a most admirable Commission, with representatives of the Army, the Navy, official classes, Labour, and a great many representatives of artistic feeling, and so on, there are no women and no representative of any religion. You would naturally have representatives of the great religious bodies on the Commission if you were looking at it from a personal point of view. It is essentially official.
§ Mr. BURDETT-COUTTS
Does the Noble Lord know of the extent to which the representatives of religion have been consulted?
§ Lord R. CECIL
I know nothing at all except what is contained in this document. I am merely talking about the Commission itself. I do not want to make the slightest reflection. I am sure they have done their best, and given a great deal of devoted thought to the subject. That is not the point I am making. Go on a little further. You are going to have a national memorial. You do not even allow relatives to plant flowers on the graves.
§ The SECRETARY of STATE for WAR and AIR (Mr. Churchill)
After the work is completed relatives can plant flowers on the graves.
§ Lord R. CECIL
I understand that is all under the control of the Kew 1962 authorities; they have a staff of gardeners.
§ Lord R. CECIL
That is an exception to the general principle of which I am very glad. A gentleman writes complaining bitterly because he was not allowed to move his son's body from one of these cemeteries into a French Communal Cemetery. It is the same idea. Personal consideration is, I do not say absolutely wiped out, because certain concessions have been made, but the dominant note is that this is a national memorial and not a personal memorial. Something has been said in the same order of idea about the importance of making these memorials permanent. I cannot help thinking that is a mistaken view. You are going to have them erected very firmly in concrete. Is that sound? Is it really a reasonable thing to consider that they should last for three hundred years? [HON. MEMBERS: "Why not?"] I will tell you why. There have been great deeds done, not only by individuals but by armies. The deeds of our armies in France and Flanders are imperishable, but they do not depend on memorials. Their memory remains, and always will remain. It will not depend on whether you fix the stone in concrete or anything of that sort. It is a delusion and a snare that you can affect the memory of deeds like these by anything you do in stone. That is entirely a misapprehension. Then I am told that these memorials are to be beautiful and artistic. I am not going to argue about the question of what is artistic; but one thing is quite certain, and that is that it is a matter which will change with each generation. There is nothing so impermanent as artistic feeling. That which one generation thinks beautiful, the next generation almost always thinks the reverse.
I come to the real case, as I see it, on the other side. To my mind, the object of a tombstone is really a memorial to the individual. It is so in this case, and it must be so in every case, and I cannot think, when you once admit that, that it is not better, within the limits of practicability, that the people who should chose the memorial are those who were most near to them in affection and relationship. 1963 It does not seem to me there is anyone else you can suggest, once you conceive the thing as a memorial to an individual. It has been said with a great deal of force that the dead themselves should be allowed to choose, and the hon. Gentleman who made that point said he had no doubt they would all choose these headstones. But who is really to say what the dead would choose? Is it to be the parents or the comrades in arms?
§ Mr. BURDETT-COUTTS
Was the Noble Lord in the House when I read the letter showing that the proposals had been widely submitted to troops, and that every care had been taken to ascertain their opinion?
§ Lord R. CECIL
That does not prove anything. I am afraid I do not really attach any great importance to this kind of consultation, unless I know how it was carried through. I will undertake to consult anybody and get the proper replies I desire. Assuming it really represented their wishes, even then they can only speak for themselves: they cannot speak for the dead. I think the people who are far more likely to know the wishes of the dead than anyone else are the parents and those who have known them all their lives, who have got that instinct of affection and sympathy which really makes them judge far more closely than anyone else. Let me ask the hon. Member whom he would trust to know his own inmost feelings. Would he trust his colleagues in his profession or his nearest relatives? I have no doubt which answer he would give. Therefore, if it is to be a question of individual memorial, surely it must be those who are nearest and closest to the deceased who shall be given the greatest possible measure of choice. There is one other aspect of a tombstone. It has been throughout regarded by all religious men as a witness to the faith in which the deceased died. It has always been so, and it is obvious that, from the point of view of the religious man, it is merely the beginning of a new life, and it is natural, therefore, that if you are going to put up a memorial to his death you would wish to make it symbolise the religious faith in which he lived. Who is to judge what is the best symbol for his faith? Can you really suggest anybody except those who knew him most intimately, who 1964 had the most sympathy with him, and who lived all their lives with him? Surely it must be the relatives as far as possible.
I come back to this: Is not the real question to be asked in dealing with this question, what is it that the nearest relatives really want? Is there anybody's claim that can be put in front of that? Is there any professional or military conception, any artistic preference, any feeling of fitness that can really and honestly be put against the desires and wishes of the relatives? I cannot think so myself. I hope the Committee will not think I am being didactic, but I cannot bring myself to believe anything else. To me it is incredible to set aside such considerations as those. I cannot say how bitterly it offends every fibre of my being that you should turn round and say to those women who have suffered prodigiously, "No, we take from you what every woman in the land prizes and what she exercises under every other condition." If her son died on the way home, she would be allowed to say exactly how she would have the grave. If he died in hospital, the same. No one would have dreamt of doing otherwise. There would have been a revolt in the country if you had interfered with their wishes. I cannot bring myself to believe it. If the people are to be consulted, I agree there are limitations which you must put in order to avoid offence. You must say that there shall be no ostentation, that no greater expense is to be incurred by one person than another, and that the Government will insist that they shall all be treated alike. I can understand all this, and the conditions as to space. I even understand that a completely free choice may be impossible. I am ready to believe that. I am ready to say that if it be really necessary to limit the choice, let them be given alternative designs from which to choose. That is the best you can do; find out generally what it is they want.
Does any human being in this Committee doubt that if you sent round such a request and consulted the parents and relatives, if you said to them, "Will you have what the Government chooses for you, or would you rather have a voice in choosing the tombstone for your son, husband, or father, I say can anyone doubt that every single woman would say, 'I would rather have a voice in the matter '" It is, as some hon. Member 1965 remarks, a question for the poor. Let them have their choice. The Government ought to pay in either case the same sum, but give them a choice as to the form, spirit, and nature of the design. I have not the slightest doubt of what the reply would be to a request such as I have indicated. For what it is worth I will read to the Committee one little piece of evidence in support of what I am saying, written by a chaplain who had formed a view, generally speaking, in favour of the Government's proposals. He is a Scottish clergyman. He says:I have written to our Member asking him to support your point of view, not because of my own instincts as to the desirability of a uniform memorial for a uniform sacrifice, but in talking it over with various bereaved mothers and widows I find that the prevailing feeling is in favour of their having the right to put up their own monuments.That is, I am convinced, the overwhelming feeling. I am quite sure that the Graves Commission ought to take such steps as are right, proper, and possible to deal with that demand, and ought not to be led away by the specious arguments put forward by the hon. Member for Westminster, and so turn these graves into a national memorial, whereas, in truth, they are a memorial to the individual suffering which these women have undergone and a witness to the faith in which those whom they loved died.
§ Mr. G. THORNE
I think it is probably the general desire of the Committee that a discussion so painful to all of us should not be unduly prolonged. I, for one, would not have risen but for the fact that I desire, if I may be permitted to do so, to impress one aspect of this matter which has been very little dwelt upon. Like my hon. Friend opposite, I am one of those who will never even have the melancholy consolation of mourning at the grave of my son. The appeal I desire to make is on behalf of those, of whom I think there are some in this Committee, and many thousands outside, that in those cemeteries which will be scattered over the world even we may have some share in the memorial which will be erected to our honoured dead. May I convey what is in my mind by an illustration? A young officer leads his gallant men into a German trench. The Germans evacuate the trench and shell it. The officer and his men are shattered and the trench becomes their tomb. The Germans 1966 afterwards re-possess the trench. It is impossible thus to secure individual graves for our boys; but those boys are as much loved by us as any of those who have individual graves, and we would, therefore, without any controversy what ever, appeal to the Commission to see whether it is not possible that in the cemetery nearest where many came to their death there cannot be some memorial where their names are recorded, so that all dying in that locality may have the honour of being recognised by this country? If under the conditions we cannot go and kneel by the side of the individual grave, we can at least go to the memorial where our boys' names will remind us of what they suffered and sacrificed for us. I do not know whether it is possible—
§ Mr. THORNE
I hope it is possible, because it will bring satisfaction to tens of thousands of hearts in this country. May I appeal to my hon. Friend, with whom I feel complete sympathy, not to force this to a Division. A Division on such a subject would harass every one of us. Our men, officers and men alike, on every stricken field have fallen together. In their death they were not divided. Let us, their fathers, not be divided here.
§ Mr. CHURCHILL
It will certainly be possible to meet the wish which my hon. Friend has just expressed in regard to the memorials of those whose bodies have not been found. The Commission are considering an alternative proceeding— either the one suggested by my hon. Friend of putting up a general memorial in the cemeteries nearest the scene of the fighting on which the names of those who were missing in those operations could be recorded, or, alternatively, choosing a memorial for the regiment with which they fought and inscribing on that general memorial of the regiment the names of all who, wherever they fell, have not had their bodies recovered. I would not prejudge the result of that examination, but in one way or the other that aspect of the case must be fully met.
I would venture to share the hope expressed by my hon. Friend that, if possible, this harassing Debate may terminate without a Division being necessary. My Noble Friend (Lord R. Cecil) has stated with great moderation and 1967 appealing force the point of view which he holds so strongly. I must, however, for a moment dwell upon the practical aspect of the case. This is a unique undertaking from the point of view of its size and scale and the conditions under which the work is to be carried out. In France and Flanders alone there are 500,000 graves to be dealt with. The means for making tombstones in this or any other country are limited—local and limited—and they are more or less proportioned to the ordinary rate of mortality. This task which is now entrusted to the Imperial War Graves Commission can only be achieved within a reasonable period of time if standardisation plays a large part in the production of the tombstones. It is not merely a question of standardisation, but of these memorials arriving at the graveyards at the same time so that the work can be immediately undertaken and the graveyard brought into complete existence. Many of these places, as the hon. Gentleman who spoke from below the Gangway said, are situated in the desolate war-shattered wildernesses of th Western Front, 10 or 20 miles from the present habitations of men. It is necessary that the working parties engaged on this work shall be fed, housed and maintained in these districts by an elaborate organisation, and it is absolutely necessary that as each cemetery is taken in hand the memorial shall arrive at the right time, and shall not be broken or shattered in transit, so that the work can be completed as speedily as possible.
Even with this strict standardisation which is being followed, it is calculated that more than ten years will elapse before this task can be completed. If there was to be extra complexity in this task, if, as the Noble Lord suggests, 90 per cent. of relatives were to exercise an independent judgment, and produce independent memorials, you would not get these graveyards finished within the lifetime of the present generation. That would mean that a large number of graves would be left untouched during the time that most of us here are alive, and consequently those whose dear ones are in this position will have suffered really serious injury, more serious, I think, than that suffered by the restrictions on individual choice which it has been found necessary to impose. These practical reasons must be examined in 1968 another aspect. It has been suggested that there should be several forms of standardisation of tombstone from which a choice could be made. To that extent no doubt there would be simplification upon that universal freedom of choice which some who have spoken desire. The complications would still be very great. I know that the line of argument which has led the Commission to the adoption of this particular headstone is one which has steadily overcome objection and alternative suggestions in the minds of everyone who has studied the subject. It is perfectly true that more written matter can be contained within the limits of space allowed on a stone of this shape than on any other form of stone which can be devised. It is perfectly true that this particular form is more durable and more likely to survive the ravages of time than any other form that can be devised. I was at first very anxious to lend any influence I might possess with the Committee in the direction of creating a cruciform headstone as an alternative, but I was convinced by further study that really this was impracticable. Either the stone so finished would cost more than the present uniform stone, or else it would be of a flimsy character which would, in a few years, be defaced by time After all, the religious faith of every soldier or officer is to be denoted on the stone by the symbol of his creed, and where reason to the contrary does not appear, the cross will be universal on every stone. The incised cross is far more ancient than the cruciform headstone. No argument can be maintained which says that there is any particular religious sanctity about the cruciform headstone which is denied to the incised or embossed cross. If you accept the conditions of equality of treatment, which no one here has disputed, and which all agree should guide us, if those conditions of equality, of space and of cost are at once admitted, I do not believe it is physically possible, within those limitations, to design any satisfactory practical alternative to the stone which the Commission have adopted.
There is, however, another aspect, and that is permanence and durability. If a variety of types were permitted there would be great varieties of durability and great variation, and part of the graveyard would be falling into disrepair while other portions remained intact. 1969 That, I am sure, would be regrettable, and would conflict with the principle of equlity which has animated the Commission. My Noble Friend, in his thoughtful arguments, even seemed to challenge the propriety of aiming at an element of permanence, and he said that the great deeds of history did not depend upon memorials of stone or brass in order to remain in the minds of subsequent generations. That is quite true. We do not think that the work of the Imperial War Graves Commission will be the sole memorial of the deeds done by our armies in the great War. The Imperial War Graves Commission have a definite task, and they must be judged by how they fulfil that task. These memorials which they are endeavouring to set up do aim at permanency, as far as human effort and human power to foresee the future exists. There is no doubt whatever that the Commission have aimed at permanency or durability through long periods of time. Is that wrong? Does that conflict with any other conception, historic or religious? It is all we have in our power to do. It is little enough, but that is the least we can do. We can give these soldiers who have perished in the War memorials which will last for hundreds of years. Does that add to the pain of human being or can it take away in any degree from the consolation of human being? Is it not, on the other hand, in the feeling of ordinary people in this country more likely to be a form of comfort and of consolation to them to know that the humblest soldier who has fallen will, as far as we can foresee, and as the result of the policy which this nation has embarked upon, be remembered; his name, his regiment, the place where he fell will be remembered through periods so remote that probably all the other memorials of this time will have faded and vanished away.
Why should we not have respectful regard to this idea of permanency which underlies the work of the Commission. There is nothing wrong or irreligious about it. It is a mere effort of reverence to do what little lies in our power to express those deep sentiments which we hold and which we feel. I should like to remind the House that these graveyards will be different from all other graveyards by their simplicity and their symmetry, and I think there is some justification for our considering the collective and the cor- 1970 porate aspect of the memorials, as we also consider the collective and corporate aspect of the sacrifice. If you visit the churchyards of this country you will see that there are very few memorials more than 100 or 150 years old. Unless you visit our cathedrals it is only under very extraordinary circumstances that you come across a tomb which dates back to the Stuarts or the Tudors, and only 300 or 400 years separate us from that period. In the process of time, as the frailer memorials moulder, the ground is cleared and new stones are erected once the old ones have been removed, and so in the short time of a few centuries most memorials have probably disappeared altogether.
The cemeteries which are going to be erected to the British dead on all the battlefields in all the theatres of war, will be entirely different from the ordinary cemeteries which mark the resting place of those who pass out in the common flow of human fate from year to year. They will be supported and sustained by the wealth of this great nation and Empire, as long as we remain a nation and an Empire, and there is no reason at all why, in periods as remote from our own as we ourselves are from the Tudors, the graveyards in France of this Great War, shall not remain an abiding and supreme memorial to the efforts and the glory of the British Army, and the sacrifices made in that great cause. Personally, I believe, from what I have heard, that nearly all who have been to see these cemeteries have been profoundly impressed by their sense of beauty, of repose, and of dignity, and few have come away from them without a feeling of reverence and of comfort. To suggest that there has been any want of religious feeling in those who have undertaken this work, is altogether wrong. A Cross of Sacrifice will be in every cemetery, and the religious feeling of every creed, so far as is humanly possible, has been studied with the utmost care.
I have heard it said that the stone of remembrance is a meaningless symbol, not possessing any Christian significance. The stone of remembrance, however, is part of the effort of the Commission to secure a permanent memorial. I have been speaking about periods of 200 or 300 years ago, which, after all, we may make arrangements for as far as we can, but these great stones of which I speak 1971 are of Portland stone, weighing about 10 tons, with a common inscription, "Their name liveth for evermore," and there will be 1,500 or 2,000 of them on the plains of France alone, and these stones will certainly be in existence 2,000 or 3,000 years hence. We know the mutability of human arrangements, but even if our language, our institutions, and our Empire all have faded from the memory of man, these great stones will still preserve the memory of a common purpose pursued by a great nation in the remote past, and will undoubtedly excite the wonder and the reverence of a future age.
I realise altogether that no conception of this task pushed to its extreme brings us to any other conclusion than the impotence of man. Even when 200 or 300 years or 2,000 or 3,000 years have passed, one sees that in the end the all-effacing hand of Time must wipe out every purely human effort, but so far as the Commission is concerned, they have believed in this idea of testifying, so far as they can, in stone to the memory of the deeds that have been done and the sacrifices that have been made, and this may bring a measure of comfort and consolation to many of those who have lost their dear ones. Certainly, it is a conception which in no way excludes those spiritual and religious significances which are attached to the life and action of human beings.
I trust and hope that without asking for too much or too great a refinement in a task of such magnitude and such difficulty, the House, as a whole, will support the policy and the scheme which the Commission have so patiently and laboriously evolved. I have a feeling, after having listened to this Debate, that they have judged and rightly interpreted public opinion. I am sure that they have judged rightly in interpreting the soldierly opinion, and I believe that they have judged rightly in interpreting what is called democratic opinion. If it be true that they have interpreted the prevailing general sense and wish of the community, I do trust that they may be authorised to go on with their scheme free from any sense of uncertainty, and that those who cannot agree with it, and do not like it, may feel that they themselves have been called upon to make only one further sacrifice amongst the 1972 7. 0 p.m. many great ones they have made already. I trust that the Committee, in coming to their decision, will bear in mind the very grave practical inconvenience that will be caused here and throughout the Dominions if any action is taken which would paralyse or overturn the whole scheme, on which action is already. proceeding. I venture to interpret the sense of the House by making a final appeal that as this case has been argued so fully, we shall, if possible, however painful it may be to individuals, decide this matter in the sense of the general wish, without indication of division, or sentiment, or views.
§ Sir J. REMNANT
Will the Committee allow me to say that with the consent of hon. Members who have supported and would support the Amendment I have had the honour to move, we have agreed we will accept the suggestion of the right hon. Gentleman? I do not, therefore, propose to divide the Committee.
§ Lord R. CECIL
No, not withdrawn. Speaking for some interested outside, I am sure many of them feel so deeply that there is no question of its being settled; they will go on fighting for this cause.
§ Question, "That a sum, not exceeding £990,995, be granted for the said Service," put, and negatived.
§ Original Question put, and agreed to.
§ Resolution to be reported To-morrow; Committee to sit again To-morrow.