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February 2012 Item of the Month

A journey through the Near East.

Journal of an Imperial War Graves Commission tour of inspection. August-September, 1937.

The catalogue of the papers of the Labour Party politician Jack Lawson (1881-1965), held in Durham University Library's Special Collections, has recently been completed. Lawson's working life began in Boldon colliery, and his political career grew from early struggles to improve his fellow coal-miners' pay and working conditions. He was M.P. for Chester-le-Street from 1919 to 1949, and shortly thereafter was appointed to the House of Lords.

In 1916 Lawson suffered a deep personal blow when his younger brother William was killed on active service. William had shown great promise, tutored in part by his elder brother, and followed him to Ruskin College, Oxford: a cache of war letters from William in the collection clearly demonstrates their closeness. Nevertheless, Lawson took an unpopular line after the war, in arguing against the imposition of heavy punitive reparations. His appointment to the Imperial War Graves Commission, serving from 1931 until 1947, must have been a welcome one. However, he was never a pacifist, and, like Churchill, he saw the threat of war sooner than many of his contemporaries, writing in 1936 of its inevitability.

Lawson published much literary and journalistic work throughout his life; his 1932 autobiography A Man's Life was widely praised. Photographs, detailed journals and reports of official overseas visits are also present in the collection, among them this record of a 1937 tour of inspection of war cemeteries in Gibraltar, Egypt, Palestine, Syria, Lebanon, Turkey , and Greece.

The illustration is of a journal entry on Lawson's outward leg, made as he steamed north from Gibraltar towards Marseilles. He comments on the 'piratical' presence of German military aircraft, flying from bases on the Balearic Islands "to kill & maim thousands of men, women & children in Spain". Four months later he visited Republican Spain with a Labour Party delegation, and again wrote his journal whilst sheltering from just such an air raid. Upon his return from Spain, he came to this conclusion. "The Spanish Army lacks the necessary modern weapons. They lack Ammunition. Shame on Democratic nations that they do. But inferiority is made up in superior Moral, and the Burning Conviction of a Just Cause against Invading Hosts."

Every month we showcase here an item from our Heritage Collections.