Monday, 2 December 2013

My Accrington Pals Speech - Minister drops a kind note...

Last week Thursday the House of Commons debated a motion on the First World War. In the debate I spoke at length about the Accrington Pals, and the centenary commemorations which are taking place across the constituency in the next few years.

As I said in my speech, the 40 minute tragedy, which stole a generation of young people from in and around Accrington must never be forgotten. The Pals mean so much to the community because they were all part of the community – they were formed so that young men would have the chance to fight alongside their friends, but the tragedy was that in less than an hour in a field in France, the community was cut to the core.

The memory of the Pals is one of many things that binds the community in Hyndburn and East Lancashire and it is absolutely right that they are properly commemorated. Here is the speech I made in the debate:

Graham Jones (Hyndburn) (Lab): Today I want to remember the 11th Battalion East Lancashire Regiment, universally known as the Accrington pals. The battalion's horrific losses stand as a reminder of the gratuitous barbarity of the warfare, particularly trench warfare, during the first world war. The history of the battalion is as known now as it was in the years of suffering that followed. The tragic waste of human potential during the first world war was quite simply shocking. Young men died in horrific and frightening circumstances. Modern cinematic productions allow us occasionally to glimpse that horror and, each and every time, any thought of this being a reality is frightening to me.

Many people in Hyndburn signed up not to the pals, but to other regiments. I was fortunate enough to find a piece of information from Kew about my great grandfather's record. He served in the Royal Ambulance Medical Corps. While I knew him before he died, I recall my grandfather occasionally speaking of his father's time on the front line, carrying off young men who had lost body parts and whose bodies had been mutilated by shells, mines and bullets—some alive, some dying, many dead and many screaming out as they died. That my great-grandfather rarely spoke of those horrors, paralysed by his fearful memories, is testament to the torturous experiences many of the combatants faced. I am grateful to the Hyndburn historians Walter Holmes, who worked as an apprentice alongside my grandfather, and the late Bill Turner, for their lifelong dedication to the history of the regiment and the fallen soldiers, and personally for helping me find my great grandfather's limited Army record.

There were, of course, many pals regiments. My hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley Central (Dan Jarvis) has talked about the Barnsley pals. I applaud the successful work of my right hon. Friend the Member for Chorley (Mr Hoyle) in building a monument to be proud of and a museum in Chorley. A large number of memorials celebrate the sacrifices of the pals regiments in the borough.

The particular tragedy of the pals regiments is that their members were all friends and family from the same area, formed as a result of Lord Kitchener's desire to boost morale through the creation of a voluntary army and the belief that people would be more willing to sign up if they were able to fight alongside their community. Hundreds of people from Accrington and surrounding towns joined up together to defend this great nation.

Graham Evans (Weaver Vale) (Con): I am listening to the hon. Gentleman with interest. Is he aware of the magnificent memorial at the misleadingly named Sheffield memorial park in Serre on the Somme? The Accrington brick memorial pays a very good tribute to that regiment.

Graham Jones: I am well aware of it, and with the help of Cath Holmes, one of the granddaughters of someone who fought in the war, I helped to get a sign in Serre pointing the way for relatives to the cemeteries where soldiers from Accrington and other places in the borough are buried. We need to make more of that memorial.

The pals regiments were incredibly popular and, by 1914, 50 towns had them. The Accrington pals honoured by playwright Peter Whelan remind us of the devastating impact of the first world war. The great sadness is the colossal waste of human life. In their very first assault during the battle for Serre on the first day of the Somme, 584 of 720 pals were killed, wounded or declared missing. The fighting started at 7.20 am and by 8 am, just 40 minutes later, a generation of young men from in and around Accrington had laid down their life or had it altered for ever. What Lord Kitchener did not foresee when designing a policy intended to boost morale was that if the regiment suffered substantial losses, the whole community would be devastated.

Percy Holmes, the brother of one of the pals who fought that day, recalled:"I remember when the news came through to Accrington that the Pals had been wiped out. I don't think there was a street in Accrington and district that didn't have their blinds drawn and the bell at Christ Church tolled all the day."

The reason why the pals are so important, and why they must not be forgotten, is that they were identifiably part of the community. Helped by Hyndburn council, the Accrington pals centenary commemoration group has a programme of civic, cultural, religious, musical and even horticultural themes across the next few years that will pay tribute to the pals, including concerts, exhibitions, films, visits to Serre to lay wreaths, and the planting of poppies. I hope that Members will reflect for a moment on those 40 minutes of madness when they are able to sample the Accrington Pals ale in Strangers bar next year.

Recently, I have worked with a constituent, Cath Holmes, on getting signs put up and trying to get people to go and see the cemeteries at Serre and the other great sites. It seems like only a little thing, but to have a plain sign put up in a field in France is important for the people of Accrington and the wider area, because it is a symbol of their past and it commemorates those who gave their lives.