HC Deb 01 March 1926 vol 192 cc1090-9

Motion made, and Question proposed, That a Supplementary sum, not exceeding £48,700, be granted to His Majesty, to defray the Charge which will come in course of payment during the year ending on the 31st day of March, 1926, for certain Salaries and Expenses of the Imperial War Graves Commission, including Purchase of Land in the United Kingdom, and a Grant-in-Aid of the Imperial War Graves Commission Fund, formed under Royal Charter, 10th May, 1917, and a Contribution towards an Endowment Fund.


I should like to explain how this matter arises. Before the end of the War a Commission was set up to manage the cemeteries on all those fields of battle in different parts of the world where British subjects had fallen, and were buried. I am sure every hon. Member feels that this was a matter to which the fullest possible respect should be given, and that those cemeteries deserve the most respectful treatment and the greatest possible care for their provision in the future. A Royal Charter issued in 1917 brought into being the War Graves Commission, which was empowered to establish an endowment fund and to appoint trustees for its management. For some time, of course, it was not felt that it was possible to begin accumulating There was a very large initial outlay in the preparation and care of these numerous, and some of them very large cemeteries, but in the summer of 1925 the various Governments concerned, that is to say, all the Governments of the British Empire, including British India, agreed that the time had now arrived when it would be wise to begin accumulating the fund until it reached a capital sum which would provide in perpetuity an income sufficient to maintain these cemeteries as the nation desires them to be maintained. It was estimated that the necessary sum for this purpose would be somewhere about £200,000 to £250,000 a year, which would mean a capital sum in the neighbourhood of £5,000,000 sterling. In order to carry out our part of that agreement—because we are entirely confined to our own part—I have to ask the Committee to pass this Vote. The Government have to provide, under the terms of the Charter, 81.52 per cent. of the cost. That percentage is arrived at in this way. From the first the various Governments concerned—the United Kingdom, the Dominions and British India—have borne the cost of management in proportion to the numbers of their own graves, and this country is therefore responsible for their proportion of the cost.

When this matter was considered with a view to this Estimate in the Treasury, it was found that under our existing law it would not be possible to form the fund in the way proposed, by trustees until it reached the sum of £5,000,000. Therefore it was found necessary to proceed by Act of Parliament, and a Bill for that purpose has been introduced and the House will be asked to give it a Second Reading almost immediately. In the meantime, in order to provide the sum necessary for our first contribution towards the accumulation, this Estimate is put before the Committee. I want to emphasise the fact That this is the first contribution to a capital sum which will be gradually built up on a scheme which has been agreed upon between the various Governments but over which, of course, the House from year to year will exercise its own discretion and control. At all events, what the Government propose is to ask the House to vote £50,000 for the purpose this year and to vote the same sum for the next two years, and after that the magnitude of the contribution will be enlarged according to the scheme, and it is hoped that at the end of 15 years by the accumulation of interest on these grants, and the contributions which will come from the Dominion Governments, we shall arrive at a sum of £5,000,000, that is to say, if it is necessary to accumulate to that extent. It will always be open to the Governments concerned to say if they think a smaller sum than £5,000,000 will be sufficient. In the meantime, the scheme is to accumulate up to £5,000,000, and we are asking the Committee now to make the first provision for it. I do not know that there is any question likely to arise on this Estimate beyond what I have already stated, but the Secretary of State for War who, of course, is more nearly concerned with the matter than I am, is here, and I have no doubt he will be able to deal with any question that arises. I feel that in present circumstances this is a very substantial sum to ask Parliament to vote at the end of the financial year, but nevertheless it is an object which will have the entire sympathy of hon. Members in every part of the House.

6.0 P.M.


I wish to raise a point which has been put before me by one of my constituents. I think, according to the Charter, monuments are to be erected over the graves of soldiers who have died, if it is desired by their families. Owing to the fact that the Charter evidently only extends to the end of the War, which is officially declared to have terminated on 31st August, 1921, no memorial will be erected over the grave of any soldier who has died since that date. We may, therefore, possibly have the position that two widows have each been drawing a pension from the Ministry on behalf of their husbands. In the one case, because the husband died before this date, a memorial will be erected over his grave, but if the other died in 1924 his widow, on making application to the Commission, is informed that no memorial can be placed over her husband's grave. Can it not be arranged that there shall be an extension, so that there can be no sense of grievance on the part of any widow whose husband was killed or who died as a result of service in the War? It seems to me that the case has been made out perfectly in the one instance just as in the other by the Ministry of Pensions paying pension to the woman, and surely she is entitled to have this token of national respect by the erection of a monument on her husband's grave, just as her neighbour, without any question. I would like the Secretary of State for War to say whether arrangements could be made in the Bill to that effect, or could he suggest some way whereby there could be this extension made in order to avoid any sense of grievance? The Financial Secretary to the Treasury was very illuminating in his speech, and I do not want to raise any discordant note, but I would like some assurance that means will be taken in order to avoid any sense of grievance and that the Government will take steps in that direction.


We are all sympathetic respecting the case mentioned by the hon. Member who has just spoken, and I take it that the matter will be considered by the War Graves Commission who, possibly, may make some recommendation. I do not want to criticise the work in any way. It is a work which commends itself to the House and to the Empire as a whole, because it is a fulfilment of the pledge made to the relatives that the last resting place of their dear ones would be properly looked after. It is gratifying to know that all the Dominions are taking a part in this guarantee. I presume that similar legislation will be introduced in the Dominions in order to provide that a fixed sum shall be contributed annually. I have had an opportunity of seeing a draft of the Bill that will be brought forward, and the only exception that I would like to take to it is with respect to the investment of the fund. Perhaps the Secretary of State for War can explain the reason for confining the investment under the Bill to Government securities in this country. As this is a matter which affects the whole of the Dominions, that provision might be amended in order to allow investments to be made in the securities of the British Empire, or in trustee securities. It might be construed as an implied reflection upon the securities of the other countries. I should be glad if the Secretary of State for War could give us some idea of the number of graves involved. I understand that something like 600,000 graves have to be attended to and that they are scattered over France, Gallipoli, and other parts of the world, Holland and elsewhere where fighting activities did not actually take place.


I should like to raise a point in regard to the children of the men who have been taken over to France to keep the graves in order. A considerable number of these men have gone over there and, in a good number of cases, they have sent for their wives and families, in view of the fact that they will probably be there for a good many years. A question was asked some months ago as to what provision is being made for the education of the children while in France. I believe the answer was, that the French authorities were making as good provision for the education of these children as they did for the education of the children of French people. These British men, however, are rather afraid that because no particular provision is made for the teaching of the English language in the French schools their children will not have an opportunity of learning the language they desire. The question was asked with a view to ascertaining what was being done in providing education upon these lines for these children. I would like the Secretary of State for War to tell us whether extra provision has been made on behalf of the children whose parents have expressed a great desire that such education should be at their disposal.

The SECRETARY of STATE for WAR (Sir Laming Worthington-Evans)

I have been asked whether the graves of those who died since the termination of the War cannot be dealt with in the same way as the graves of those who died during the War. I regret that I cannot tell the hon. Member what has occurred in the past. I am not sure whether the Charter limits the activities of the Commission to the graves of those who died during the War. I do not want my hon. Friend to take it from me as definite, but I think their power is limited to the graves of those who died during the War. That is not from want of respect to those who died after the War, but the fact is that they are not empowered to go beyond that.


I have a definite statement from the Secretary of the War Graves Commission that that is so; that their Charter only extends to those who died before the 31st August, 1921. I would like to ask the Secretary of State for War whether he could not arrange, while this endowment fund is being put through, that there should be a co-ordinating action to extend the Charter in order that there may be full respect paid to all who have been the victims of the War.


I am afraid that nothing that one can do in connection with this Estimate can possibly extend to the Charter. They are two different things and do not run together. Other action would have to be taken, and the case would have to be considered on its merits, in regard to the extension of the Charter.


Will the right hon. Gentleman look into the matter and see whether anything can be done?


I will consider the hon. Member's suggestion, but I do not want him to think I am pledging myself in any way, because I have not been able to consider it except in the last few moments. The hon. and gallant Member for Richmond (Sir N. Moore) asks how many graves are being looked after by the Commission. The actual figures of the graves of British soldiers, apart from the Dominions, is 603,420. I think the total is 725,000, including the Dominions. With regard to the draft Bill and the Investment Clause being limited to British securities—


United Kingdom securities.


The Investment Clause refers to contributions made, not by the Dominions, but by this House, including the Vote before the Committee to-day. The proper time to raise that point will be when the Clause is before the House. I will note my hon. Friend's suggestion. With respect to the education of the children of the men who are in charge of the graves, I cannot give any further information than we gave in answer to the question which was put previously. I cannot undertake the education of English children in France, indeed, not only in France, but all over the Continent and all over the world. If the parents, quite naturally, have their children with them, the children must rely partly on the education which their parents can give them and partly on the education which is given in the foreign countries in which they are residing. It is impossible for the War Graves Commission to undertake to set up schools all over the Continent for the purpose of teaching small groups of English children there.


Is it not a fact that in some places in France—


This question of the education of children is out of order on this Vote.


The question of the graves is one in which I am very personally interested. The point raised by the hon. Member for Camlachie (Mr. Stephen) has been a matter of serious concern for the Commission. The difficulty is that the Charter prevents anything being done at the present time. The Dominions are already doing what the hon. Member suggests. While we are debarred by the official date of the termination of the War, the Dominions are going beyond that date and dealing with all those who lost their lives in consequence of the War. One is particularly interested, because of the wonderful spirit of equality of treatment and sacrifice so readily accepted by everybody.

With respect to the proposed endowment fund, there are many people who are anxious about the welfare of the graves. The endowment fund will have the effect of putting these people at rest in their minds for all time that the graves will always be kept in order, despite any change of feeling that may arise in years to come on the part of people who are not so deeply affected as we are. When we get the £5,000,000 endowment fund, we can be sure that the graves will last for hundreds of years and that they will not be allowed to get into a state of bad repair, which would be a calamity in view of the way in which they are now being preserved. Whatever party changes there may be in the future, this endowment fund will receive its contributions, and will be built up with the co-operation of the Dominions, and we shall feel that the work of looking after the graves will have been thoroughly done.


I understand that there are three Commissioners, two representative of this country and one who represents Canada at the present time. I would like an assurance that as time goes on that proportion will be maintained, and that in the event of one Commissioner dropping out the Government will see that the Dominion Commissioner is retained.


That is the intention. The Trustees are General Sir Herbert Lawrence, who represents what I may call the British part of the Joint Authority, Mr. Peacock, who was a director of the Bank of England and is a director of Baring Brothers, and who is a Canadian by birth and represents the Dominion side, and Major-General Sir Fabian Ware, whose wonderful work on the Commission is well known. He is the liaison officer, the link between the Commission and the Trustees. It is intended that the Dominions shall always be represented by someone among the Trustees. If Mr. Peacock, who is now the representative, should fall out, the Dominions will be asked to make another appointment.


I should not like this Vote to pass without expressing, as I have done on a previous occasion, my appreciation, as one who is deeply interested in the maintenance of these graveyards and who has made a personal inspection year after year in order to satisfy himself that they are being maintained, of the work that is being done. No work arising out of the War demands the sympathy and interest and the warm appreciation of every Member of this Committee more than the work of the War Graves Commission. The extraordinary orderliness and beauty of the cemeteries, the way in which they are constantly being added to, shows at once the marvellous way in which these cemeteries are being maintained. No effort is spared by the botanical section in the cultivation of suitable plants and no effort is spared to ascertain what trees and plants will grow in a particular district. I have seen what to me seems to be a most stupendous work, work which is against the forces of nature herself, at the great cemetery at Etaples, where the sand blows in periodically and makes vegetation almost impossible. There they have made such advances in ascertaining what vegetation and trees will grow that they have succeeded, and before many years are over we shall find an oasis there due entirely to the industry and perseverance of the staff whose efforts are beyond praise.


The Financial Secretary to the Treasury said that a Commission is being set up to deal with war graves due to the great War, but I am sure he, and also the Secretary of State for War, knows that there are other graves in existence as the result of previous wars. The only thing that moves me to speak on this Vote is that a short while ago I visited Gibraltar, and I saw there a cemetery that seemed to be a perfect gem in its way. Many men who were killed in the battle of Trafalgar are buried in the cemetery at Gibraltar, and I should like to know whether it is possible that some oversight should be given to a little cemetery like this—

The TEMPORARY CHAIRMAN (Mr. Dennis Herbert)

The hon. Member is now getting beyond the scope of this Vote. These other cemeteries do not come under this Estimate.


The only point is, that now we are going to create a fund of some millions in amount, I should like to see this job well done, and I do not think anyone in this country would begrudge the small amount it would be necessary to spend in keeping in order such an historic cemetery as that at Gibraltar. I felt when I looked at it that it was one of the most sacred pieces of ground in the world and in the history of this country. That is the only thing that moves me to rise now. I think a little attention might be devoted by the centre of the Empire to these small places which occupy such a big part in the history of this country.


I only rise for one purpose, and that is to ask whether any charge at all is made in connection with these war graves upon the dependants of people who have been gathered into these spots? I ask this question for this reason. A letter was sent to me the other day by a dependant of one who has been buried in one of these war graves. Unfortunately, I have mislaid the letter, but I remember quite clearly its purport. It was to this effect, that this particular dependant had been asked to make a payment of a certain sum in respect of the clearing and keeping in repair of a particular grave. I replied to this effect, that I was quite sure such a charge was never made and was never authorised. I should be glad, indeed, to have that statement endorsed in this Committee to-night.


The hon. Member's reply was perfectly correct. No charge whatever is made.