Battle of the Somme centenary debate in Parliament

Speech by Richard Graham MP for Gloucester.

You can also watch the video of it here

I thank the Member for South West Wiltshire (Dr Murrison) and the Member for Barnsley Central (Dan Jarvis) for organising this centenary debate. Its subject matter is far enough away in time for many to feel as though it is ancient history, but it is close enough for some of us to have known veterans of that battle.

Let me pay a brief tribute to those in my family, my city and my county who were at the Battle of the Somme. My grandfather, Ogilvie Graham, was 22 at the beginning of the war and an acting Lieutenant Colonel in the Rifle Brigade at 25, with responsibility for others far beyond his years, as was the way in that and many wars. In the Battle of the Somme, he was badly wounded and awarded the DSO.

Like so many of his generation, my grandfather never spoke about the war afterwards. However, there was one great, good thing that came from the Somme, for it was there that he met a young unit administrator in Queen Mary’s Army Auxiliary Corps. She refused to allow him to take over a farmhouse where her team of nurses, cooks and secretaries was based. Winifred Maud Harford did, however, allow my grandfather to marry her, so the Battle of the Somme is indirectly responsible for who I, my brother and my sisters are. I am just as proud of my grandmother’s military MBE from that war as I am of my grandfather’s medals.

My city of Gloucester, and the county of Gloucestershire, made an immense contribution to the Battle of the Somme. There were 13 battalions of the Gloucestershire Regiment—the Glosters—in that battle. Some 1,813 members of the regiment died, and about 6,000 were wounded. Carton de Wiart, who himself won a VC commanding the 8th Glosters, noted at one point that he had

“eight new officers arrive in the morning, and all were lost by the evening”.

Among the many grisly statistics of death from the Battle of the Somme, I find those among the saddest, alongside the story of the Soul family, from Great Rissington, in Gloucestershire. Mrs Soul had five sons who fought in world war one in different regiments, and all were killed.

On Friday, we will hold a commemoration in Gloucester cathedral, close to the stained glass windows that celebrate Ivor Gurney—Gloucester man and poet of the Severn and the Somme. In his poem “On Somme”, he started with these lines:

“Suddenly into the still air burst thudding
And thudding, and cold fear possessed me all,
On the grey slopes there, where winter in sullen brooding
Hung between height and depth of the ugly fall
Of Heaven to earth; and the thudding was illness’ own.”
The thudding is over, but Ivor Gurney never really recovered; he spent years in a mental hospital.

This Friday, in the cathedral, we will commemorate Ivor Gurney and all those from our city and county who fought at the Battle of the Somme. Nearby, in the parish of Hempsted, there will be on display all the research done by Hempsted Primary School on those from the village who fought and died. That will be supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund’s special World War One fund.

In our cathedral and in the Lysons memorial hall, we will all be moved again, by the tragedy of waste, whichever army it was in, and even by the story of the mules from Shandong province that my wife’s grandfather shipped to the front for a muddy death