Sir Edward Garnier, MP for Harborough, was the guest of the Market Harborough Branch of the Royal British Legion for its 91st annual dinner held on Saturday, 22 March at Market Harborough Golf Club and gave the toast to the Branch. The Branch Chairman and former RAF Chaplain, the Most Reverend John Morley presided and Colonel Robert Martin, the County President of the Royal British Legion, replied to Edward Garnier’s speech. There were many members of the Branch at the dinner in this centenary year of the outbreak of the First World War.
In his speech Edward Garnier reminded those present of the devastation caused by the War and sacrifice of so many young men and women at home and abroad in the defence of freedom and to defeat German aggression. It was a period of immense upheaval at a diplomatic and high political level but its consequences reached into every home in the country. Market Harborough was no exception. E Company of the 1st/5th Battalion of the Leicestershire was raised in the town. On 6 August, two days after the start of the War, they paraded in the town square and marched off to war. Many never returned.
“I picked a few days from around 22 March in the years of the 1914-18 War to illustrate the geographical spread of the conflict, the first war to have been waged on an industrial scale, with mechanised units and formations, with vast numbers of artillery and machine guns being deployed by both sides, and millions of men ranged against each other. The casualties were vast and the destruction of bodies, minds and emotions indescribable and long lasting in its effect.
“From the assassination of the Archduke Ferdinand in Sarajevo, the catalyst that set the smouldering fire of central and southern European tension ablaze in the summer of 1914 – his last words to his dying wife were to ask her to care for their children – through to the killing fields of Northern France which yielded up their fatal harvests from the very outset of the war, through to the failed naval action to force a clear passage through the Dardanelles on 18 March 1915 which cost us the loss of 4 capital ships and 700 men, followed by the subsequent and disastrous land invasion of western Turkey, where my paternal grandfather was wounded whilst leading his men ashore; on to February 1916 when at the start of the Battle of Verdun the Germans opened up with an artillery barrage from 1220 guns firing 2 million shells at the French; to April 1916 where a small British and Indian expeditionary force was defeated by the Turks at the Battle of Kut in Mesopotamia, a battle that saw two Army chaplains, one Catholic and the other CofE, display unimaginable bravery by repeatedly going out onto the battlefield, armed with no more than the crosses round their necks, to rescue wounded soldiers, and which campaign saw Lawrence of Arabia come into his own and turn the tide against the Turks, if not single-handedly at least as a major player; and bear in mind that this was at the same time as battles were being fought in the trenches and the Easter Rising was brewing up in Dublin.
“Then in March 1917 Tsar Nicholas abdicated, the Zimmerman Telegram was intercepted and decoded (as it happens, by my maternal grandfather’s first cousin) which had a direct bearing on bringing the United States into the War as it showed that the Germans were prepared not only to engage in total submarine war against any ships, enemy or neutral, trading with the allies but also to get Mexico to invade the southern US; and finally to 21 March 1918 when in their last push the Germans fired 1.1 million artillery shells in just 5 hours at a section of the allied front in northern France.
“Both of my grandfathers were decorated for bravery in the War, both were wounded more than once and yet, miraculously they both survived and like so many millions of others, and we here are just some of their descendants, they did their duty so that we might live in freedom and under the rule of law. In this the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of that War and at the 91st anniversary dinner of this Branch of the Royal British Legion it is right that we remember, that we give thanks and that we promise never to forget.”