Centenary of the Battle of the Somme

This week, Parliament paid remembered those who took part in the Battle of the Somme in 1916. Today there are services of remembrance all over the country for those who fought there. I was fortunate to be called to speak during our commemoration in the Chamber, and to have the opportunity to highlight the work people in Portsmouth are doing to keep alive the memory of the sacrifices our people made. The photo here is of my great-uncle's grave who died in the war and I was able to visit him last autumn.

This is my speech:

"I thank my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for South West Wiltshire (Dr Murrison) and the hon. and gallant Member for Barnsley Central (Dan Jarvis) for giving us this opportunity to pay our respects as we commemorate the centenary of the Somme, a battle that had such an unhappy impact on so many homes in our country.

We also raised Pals battalions in Portsmouth. The Pals battalions were made up of men drawn from recruiting drives from local areas which benefited massively from the wave of patriotic sentiment that swept the nation at the outbreak of war. Pals battalions allowed friends, colleagues and even relatives to join up together, to do their bit for king and country. However, the Pals battalions system was a double-edged sword. Pals battalions meant that many men from a single town or city all fought in the same battles, in the same section of the battlefield. It was perhaps an unforeseen consequence that where the Pals battalions suffered heavy losses, there would be an immediate, devastating impact on the local community that they came from.

The Somme marked a change in how the Army was supplied with recruits. The close-knit Pals battalions were replaced with largely indiscriminate conscription, bringing together men from across the country to fight together in single units. That may have lessened the impact of a single day’s losses on local communities, but the industrial scale of the first world war would mean that no town, city or village would find that their men were immune to the slaughter. The Pompey Pals took part in the battle of the Somme, and they fought in battles before and after it during world war one. Many other men from Portsmouth took part in other formations in the Army at the Somme.​

We are fortunate to have in Portsmouth some great people who keep alive the memory of the Pompey Pals. I should like to pay tribute to Bob Beech, Alan Laishley and their colleagues who have been doing this work for many years. A couple of years ago, they created a memorial to our battalions at Fratton Park, our football ground in the heart of the city. It is a fitting place for it, since many of those who joined up were recruited directly from the crowds who poured through the turnstiles there.

The 14th Battalion of the Hampshire Regiment was the formal name of the first Pompey Pals. They participated at the Somme from August 1916, taking part in the push on the River Ancre. In their first major engagement, the battalion suffered 440 casualties in one morning. The 15th Battalion of the Hampshires, the second Pompey Pals battalion, joined the Somme campaign at Flers in September 1916. With several displays of courage, they secured the village of Flers and held it despite constant artillery fire and German counter-attacks. As a result of this action, 305 men were wounded or killed. The two battalions fought along the western front throughout the war, and the second Pompey Pals formed part of the Army of Occupation of Germany afterwards. When the war memorial by Portsmouth Guildhall was unveiled in 1921, a parade of veterans from both battalions was held. The memorial remains a focal point for commemorations to this day, and it is a place for reflection.

We should remember the role played by women in supporting the troops at the front. Many of those women were nurses close to the lines, and they were not immune to the risks of war or the hardship it imposed. Many nurses, in places of grave danger, cared for the wounded and dying with great devotion. We had a memorial service in their honour last autumn in Portsmouth, under the direction of Emma D’Aeth, at the Holy Spirit church in Southsea. Our general hospital in Portsmouth, Queen Alexandra, was originally a military hospital. It was named in honour of the Queen of Edward VII, who sponsored the Army Nursing Corps. As well as those in the Army Nursing Corps, we must remember the women of the Voluntary Aid Detachment who worked in hospitals in the UK and in field hospitals near the front. World war one was the first time that women started taking on roles traditionally done by men, and our nurses were there at the front.

Last November, I visited the battlefields of the Somme and the memorials when I visited my great-uncle’s grave. Francis Douglas Adamson died at Cuinchy in November 1915, aged 24. Like many others, he was a much loved son and brother, and his death had a major effect on my family. I recently read a letter from his father—my great-grandfather—in which he reflected on the fact that it was difficult to travel to see the grave, and he said that he hoped that members of the family would visit it. I think I am the first one of my generation to have done so. My great-uncle’s photo hangs on the wall in my house in Southsea, and I think of him often.

So many of those who died in the first world war were young men who did not have a chance to start families of their own. These men left no direct descendants to remember them, and it is important that the great-nephews and nieces pass on their stories to the children whom we have been blessed with. I hope that others, like me, will track down the graves of their family members, ​which remind us all of why we need to continue to work closely with our dear friends in Europe to stop any further conflicts."

You can read the full Hansard of the debate with all the contributions here: https://hansard.parliament.uk/commons/2016-06-29/debates/16062978000001/CentenaryOfTheBattleOfTheSomme