Ghosts of WW1 haunt the Lords

Amid one of the most moving debates in the Lords for many years about senseless aggression, a Labour peer stands up and invites Michael Gove to a fight. The irony of it all is painful.

Lord West of Spithead, the former security minister and first lord of the admiralty, was just wrapping up his argument about why the conflict was a just war when he suddenly segued into an attack on Gove. The education secretary, of course, had earlier this year attacked "left-wing academics" for feeding "myths" about the conflict which "belittle Britain and its leaders".

Here's what Lord West had to say:

I have no doubt at all that Europe would have been a worse place if Germany had won, so our nation did the right thing. In that, I agree with the secretary of state for education that it was a just war. I think that he has been reported wrongly because I read that he had said that socialists were unpatriotic. I am sure that he did not mean that and, if he did, I am willing to discuss it with him—inside or outside a boxing ring—and we will see how we go from there.

Gove is not a fighting sort of man, so this particular match is unlikely to take place. Still, it says something about West's hawkish attitude that he was prepared to take it outside. His comment brings to mind that infamous line from the film Dr Strangelove when the crisis-ridden president rebukes his generals: "Gentlemen, don't fight in here, this is the war room!"

The First World War is closer to the Lords than the Commons because the upper House is, put bluntly, full of old people. Many of its very senior inhabitants were children when the Great War, as they knew it, came to a close. They knew and worked with people who fought in the conflict. So yesterday's debate on the government's plans to commemorate its centenary turned into a festival of personal stories and anecdotes – and was one of the most moving debates seen in the Lords in many years.

Compare and contrast West's remarks with those of Lord Graham of Edmonton, the Labour peer, who told peers he was with former Cabinet minister Lord Houghton two days before he died.

I went to see him in hospital and said, 'Douglas, tell me about Passchendaele'. He said, 'It's all in one word—mud'…The tears ran down his face."

Houghton, a dying man, then proceeded to tell Graham exactly what Passchendaele was like.

He said that the night before the great attack they were lined up on their side of no-man's land and the sergeant said that in front of them was a sea of mud that they had to cross and get to the other side. They had to dive into a shell hole and wait for orders. During the night, men had been out and laid duckboards across the mud. If they stuck to the duckboards they would survive. If they fell in the mud they were told, 'You can't be saved; you'll be dead'. He said, 'So we went off and after about 50 yards, a strangled cry came from another line, and my dear friend, Percy, was in the mud trying to survive. The sergeant drove us on and I landed up in a shell hole for three days and three nights and cried my eyes out'.

Houghton subsequently bumped into Percy in 1924 while on a London bus. The pair had a "good drink", but never saw each other again.

Watch Lord Graham of Edmonton tell Lord Houghton's Passchendaele story from 16:37:00

This was just one of a whole raft of tales being told in the Lords in an unusual atmosphere of reverence and even awe. The Earl of Shrewsbury even began his speech by reciting a powerful poem about returning to the site of the War. So it was that Lord West's remark was utterly incongruous – if not the only unexpected reference to the way the conflict links up with 21st century politics.

That's because the debate revealed significant disquiet among a number of peers about the way the centenary of WW1 is being handled. There is a serious fear that some of its lessons are being forgotten. The point was put most powerfully by the Earl of Clancarty, a crossbencher, who warned that "there are traps that can colour these commemorations and I worry that they are already doing so".

Respect and remembrance alone can so easily turn into justification, and I sense this when I see schoolchildren interviewed on camera across the channel against the backdrop of World War I cemeteries expressing similar platitudes about 'the sacrifices of our heroes' and 'plucky little Belgium'. This is not, of course, the fault of the children, but it has a lot to do with the current mood. Jonathan Jones writing in the Guardian in May… said 'It's as if the clock is being turned back and the propaganda of the war believed all over again'. I agree with him. I feel concern about the context of remembrance and the strong military context of the schoolchildren’s visits. I feel concern that this is only or largely about Britain.

Lord Scott of Foscote, another crossbencher, made clear his reservations about celebrating the start of the war and not its end:

Whether the war was a political necessity I do not know. I do not know enough about the history to know whether, at that time, it was necessary to preserve the safety of this country and its citizens. Whatever the justification—or lack of it—the war itself was surely a terrible event for all those who had to take part in it. They deserve commemoration and I wholeheartedly support the notion that they should be commemorated, but not that the war itself should be.

Conservative peer Lord Elton echoed the earl's words, saying: "I fear that there is a danger that they will be used improperly to glorify the heroic sacrifice of our ancestors. It was glorious, but it was also a terrible disaster."

Their point appears to be borne out by the views of Lord West and co, who made strong cases in favour of Britain's involvement in the War which echo those heard a century ago. It's certainly true that the hawks outnumbered the doves in the debate. Even the government backed the war, with minister Lord Gardiner of Kimble insisting that "we are not apologetic" about the conflict.  He said:

Our predecessors were overwhelmingly confident that resisting a militaristic aggressor satisfied the moral preconditions for a just war and that it was right to honour our treaty commitment to Belgium. Of course, different views were taken at the time but whatever the family history of people alive today—whether their ancestors were conscientious objectors or active in the forces—a hundred years on it is surely right for us to remember together as a nation.

Lord West, before offering to punch Gove repeatedly in the face, offered the Tony Blair defence that "Europe would have been a worse place if Germany had won". The Bishop of London cited the articles of the Church of England stating that it is entirely Christian "at the commandment of the Magistrate to wear weapons, and serve in the wars".

The temptation to engage in a debate which is now 100 years old was resisted by the wisest of peers. Among them was Lord Hannay of Chiswick, Britain's former ambassador to the United Nations, who warned playing the "blame game" is "misconceived and misleading". "The hard fact is that there was a systematic failure of diplomacy by what were in those days known as the great powers, responsibility for which was very widely shared," he said. What then followed was a striking warning of the real lessons that need to be learned from the First World War:

Above all, there are risks in periods when power relationships are changing rapidly and both rising and declining powers feel insecure and are tempted into errors of judgment. That, I fear, is what we have around us now. That is when you most need something stronger than loose networks, when you need the multilateral alliances and disciplines which we have built up since the Second World War in the United Nations, in NATO, in the European Union and in other international organisations. That is when you cannot afford to turn your back on any of them.

Perhaps the wisest words of all, though, came from Baroness Williams of Crosby, the Lib Dem stalwart whose mother Vera Brittain's memoir remains one of the most powerful anti-war books to emerge from the period. Williams' point had the added bonus of reinforcing her party's line on Europe in a way which Nick Clegg somehow failed to achieve during the recent debates on the continent.

It is worth saying, here and now, that there are reasons to thank God for the fact that for 70 years we have not had a war in western Europe, and that we cannot imagine one happening now; in other words, the political mission of reconciliation has made war, at least here in Europe, close to an impossibility.

There is peace in Europe, but not in the Lords. If a certain retired admiral has his way, he will soon be coming to blows with the education secretary. "I thank the government," Lord West said at the end of his speech, "for the things they have done in laying this out in the right sort of tone". Biff! If only he had followed their lead…

Tony Robinson, Rowan Atkinson and Hugh Laurie starred in Blackadder Goes Forth – which Michael Gove earlier blamed this year for 'belittling Britain' and pedalling "myths" about the Great War