Throughout this year, we’ll hear much about the “Great War:” the first World War 1914-1918. Like many Newham people, my family fought in it. My great grandfather and his brothers, all from Canning Town, went, fought and survived. Many friends and neighbours weren’t so lucky.
That war’s true causes are many and complicated. The assassination of Archduke Ferdinand in June 1914 was just the spark that ignited all those guns and cannons. Millions died, many very young men, amidst the blood and squalor of the Somme, Verdun and Gallipoli. It’s a war many say we sleepwalked into, because of bellicosity and idiocy. Salutary lessons, indeed; sadly, still unlearnt.
A visit to West Ham Cemetery in Forest Gate was a poignant reminder. The Commonwealth War Graves Commission tends the graves of our war dead and showed MPs the devoted, respectful work they do. 136 soldiers from the “Great War” rest in that well-kept, tranquil place. The Commission is keen to share its work and archives with young people, students and anyone keen to trace their ancestors.
Helped by the WGC, my in-laws travelled to France searching for a family member who was, like many another, too young to go and too young to die, leaving behind an anger and sadness that still reverberates.
As we walked amongst the graves, it was right also to consider those serving now who work with unequivocal courage and professionalism and protect them, as they protect us.
Shockingly many of our soldiers are refused service in hotels, pubs and elsewhere. They find it difficult getting mortgages and even mobile phone contracts: no credit rating. Many with families continually move from base to base, struggling to place their children in schools, or join council housing lists.
Commemorate the dead. That’s right and fitting, but also look to the living. Labour wants to make it a criminal offence for someone to discriminate against members of the armed forces, to ensure our armed forces are treated with dignity and respect. If this Government won’t do it, we will.
Let’s ensure our soldiers enjoy the basic rights we all take for granted.