James Sunderland recalls talking to veterans at the D-day 75 commemoration in Portsmouth last summer and calls for an end to visa fees for British soldiers from Commonwealth countries when they leave the service and for an amnesty for the group of Fijian-born soldiers seeking right to remain through the courts.
When the guns stopped in 1918, at the 11th hour on the 11th day of the 11th month, the curtain effectively fell on the most devastating world war we have ever seen. I have never understood why we call it the “great war”, because there is nothing great about warfare whatsoever, but it may just be that the greatness refers to those who fought in such appalling conditions and gave so much. Exactly 100 years ago today, the unknown warrior was interred at Westminster Abbey, and the poppy is still worn with pride by so many people today as a memory of the appalling circumstances of Flanders fields and elsewhere.
Today, many wars later, Armistice Day is commemorated by so many people, but for different reasons. For world leaders, politicians and dignitaries, it is about marking democracy—marking the freedoms we have, and the sacrifices that were made. For veterans groups, it is about coming back together in solidarity to mark their service and their comrades. For veterans like me, it is about thinking back on former colleagues, friends and soldiers, many of whom are no longer here with us today. For families, it is about handing medals down and wearing them with pride. For the rest of us, it is simply about saying thank you.
One of the most poignant experiences of my life took place last summer, in June, at the D-day 75 commemoration in Portsmouth. It was a spectacular, magnificent event that had everything: royalty, Presidents, Chancellors and Prime Ministers; fantastic fly-pasts; ships in the Solent; and brilliant stage shows. But for me it was all about those wonderful veterans, resplendent in their immaculate uniforms, polished boots, polished medals and shiny brass. The twinkle in their eye was matched only by the brilliance of the sunshine.
Talking to these heroes, these living legends in their 90s and 100s, two things really struck me. The first was a sense of fuss, as they wondered, “Why all the fuss? Why are the Government and all these nations going to so much trouble for us?” They had a sense of bewilderment, as they thought, “We were just doing our job.” Funny thing that, they did their job and fantastically so. Bizarrely, they also had a sense of shame. When I scratched the surface with many of these fantastic people, I found it was a sense of shame that they had lived long and fulfilling lives whereas so many of their friends and comrades never came home. That is exactly why we remember these important events on Armistice Day. We do so to pay homage to those who have gone before and to those whom we owe so much.
Before I finish, I wish to make some quick points that I believe are relevant to today. First, I was proud earlier this year to introduce the Desecration of War Memorials Bill to this House with my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Jonathan Gullis), a good friend of mine. It is absolutely right that we bring that legislation into law. Secondly, the Government, in their 2019 manifesto, were clear that they wanted to bring the armed forces covenant into statute. I absolutely endorse and support it, and look forward to the Bill coming to this House in January or February next year. I will be supporting it, as will the all-party groups, I am sure.
Lastly, I am clear in my mind that when someone serves as a soldier in this country—when they wear the uniform, bear arms, serve the Crown and go on operations—they are British, wherever they come from. I want to make the point right now: this nonsense about visa fees for Commonwealth soldiers must stop. I also hope that we can be magnanimous in giving an amnesty to our Fijian friends who still suffer today. I am grateful for the opportunity to be here, after many years of service, and I thank all of those who have gone before.