100th Armistice anniversary: Richard Leonard’s speech
It is important that the Scottish Parliament marks the centenary with the solemnity that it deserves, and with due regard to the commemorative tone of this remembrance.
Many of our own families were directly affected by the first world war. My grandfather, Richard Hopkinson, never spoke of his wartime experiences in France. They were locked away. They were compartmentalised, never to be released, and were taken to the grave—and little wonder. He volunteered with the Bradford Pals, who were part of the West Yorkshire Regiment, at the start of the war in 1914, at the age of 18. He witnessed at first hand the grimmest horror of trench warfare. He fought in the battle of the Somme, where, of the 2,000 men in the first and second battalions of the Bradford Pals, as The Yorkshire Post reported, 1,770 were killed or badly injured as they walked into a hail of German bullets in the first hour.
Over the following 140 days of the Somme, there were 1 million casualties, and we know that the wounds were not merely physical. My grandfather served until armistice day a century ago. In his world that I knew, of bowling greens, of family—a daughter and grandchildren—and an apple tree in the back garden, the snarling cry of the machine gun from half a century before was shut out. That was not the full story of his early life experience. There were also his brothers and sisters, who were themselves slain before the war—lives cut short by tuberculosis and slum housing.
That was a generation that suffered much; a generation to which we still owe an incalculable debt. It is fitting that this Parliament and this country remembers them—those who made it to old age and, more poignantly, those who did not; those who fell on those cold battlefields a long way from home; and those who served on the home front.
At times like this, Parliament is at its best, when we stand together across the political divides—not just to remember those who fought in the first world war, but to remember those who fell in later conflicts in the 100 years since 1918. To the families of those fallen soldiers we also owe a debt, and to the veterans who survive we have a special responsibility. Our duty is to provide them with the support that they need, when they need it. As we commemorate the fallen, we must also speak out and take action for the living. That means that Parliament must do what it can for those who cannot shut out the trauma—the physical and the mental anguish.
We cannot change the past, but we can understand it and so build a better today and tomorrow. We can create a better future and so pay back our debt to those whose sacrifices have been great. We can do that by investing—as a priority—in public health and in public services, by tackling poor mental health and ending the stigma around it, and by working to build a future that is founded on peace and not on war, and which does not lead us into believing that there will, necessarily, be a war to end all wars.
As we commemorate those who laid down their lives, we should recall that the great war poet Wilfred Owen wrote some of the most harrowing poems ever written in the English language—the poem about
“The old lie: Dulce et Decorum est”,
and the “Anthem for Doomed Youth”. He wrote them while being treated for shellshock—which is now known as a form of post-traumatic stress disorder—at the Craiglockhart war hospital in this city.
We should not airbrush from our history, either, the prominent members of the Independent Labour Party, including James Keir Hardie, John Wheatley, Jimmy Maxton, Tom Johnston, and Arthur Woodburn, or those who formed the women’s peace crusade in 1916—Helen Crawfurd, Agnes Dollan, Mary Barbour, Agnes Hardie and Annie Swan—who opposed the war on grounds that were at once both moral and political. It was an opposition which, in the words of Maxton, took “a world-wide humanitarian view”.
We must learn all the lessons of all our history, and remember the 135,000 women and men from Scotland who gave their lives, and whose names will be projected on to the Parliament on Sunday: those who are commemorated in every city, in every town, in every village and on every war memorial, where we will stand in silence and pay our own respects, and draw on our own memories this Sunday, at the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month, and resolve, as a nation, that we shall never forget.