‘The first M.P. to fall’: the Hon. Arthur Edward Bruce O’Neill (1876-1914)

Over the next four years, we’ll be blogging short biographies of the MPs who died fighting in the First World War. Dr Kathryn Rix, of the Victorian Commons, looks at the ‘first to fall’, 100 years ago today: the Hon. Arthur O’Neill…

Hon. Arthur O'Neill
Hon. Arthur O’Neill

Reporting on 11 November 1914 at the start of a new parliamentary session, The Times observed that,

It will be an unfamiliar House of Commons which assembles to-day. About one-fifth of its members are actively serving in the Navy, Army, and Auxiliary Forces. Many are at the front. One, Mr. Arthur O’Neill, the brave young Ulsterman, has laid down his life for his country. Mr. Aubrey Herbert has been wounded. Lord Dalrymple is a prisoner of war in Germany.

The first Member of Parliament to be killed in action during the First World War, Captain Arthur O’Neill, who had sat as a Unionist for Mid Antrim since January 1910, died on 6 November 1914 near Ypres. One subsequent account (L.A. Clutterbuck & W.T. Dooner, The bond of sacrifice (1917), i. 291) recorded that,

He fell while leading his men in a most gallant attempt to save a situation. He was shot on the Klein Zillebeke Ridge, near Ypres, and shouting to his men to line the ridge [he] was being carried out when he received another wound, and then begged his bearers to leave him and save themselves. He did not know what fear was.

Further details of the day’s events can be found in the regimental war diary, which has been transcribed here.

This was not O’Neill’s first experience of military action, as he had also taken part in the Boer War. Born on 19 September 1876, he was the eldest surviving son of Edward, 2nd Baron O’Neill, of Shane’s Castle, county Antrim, and his wife, Lady Louisa, whose father was the 11th Earl of Dundonald. Educated at Eton, Collins joined the 4th militia battalion of the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders before transferring to the 2nd Life Guards in May 1897. He was promoted to lieutenant in June 1898. He served in South Africa during the Boer War, taking part in the relief of Kimberley (as commemorated in this composite photograph); operations in the Orange Free State and the Cape Colony; and actions at Driefontein and Colesberg. He was awarded the Queen’s South Africa medal with three clasps. Promoted to captain in January 1902, he then served as adjutant of his regiment for a year.

The O’Neill family had long provided representatives for County Antrim, and O’Neill’s father sat for the constituency from 1863 until 1880. The county was divided into four separate seats in 1885, and O’Neill’s uncle Robert was elected for the Mid Antrim constituency. When Robert retired after a quarter of a century in the Commons, his shoes were filled by O’Neill, who was elected without a contest at both the general elections of 1910. When first adopted as parliamentary candidate, he promised to ‘use his best efforts to combat Home Rule in any form whatever’, and he was among those who supported Edward Carson in his staunch opposition to the Liberal government’s Home Rule Bill.

Described as ‘musical, a good shot, and fond of all sports’, O’Neill was a rare contributor to debate in the Commons. His first major speech, 27 June 1910, was on alterations in army regulations which affected officers who were Members of the Commons. Given his untimely death in action, it is rather poignant to read his assertion that he was ‘very glad’ to ‘think that we in this House may be called upon compulsorily to serve on active service’. Having gone on half-pay in the army when he took up his parliamentary duties in January 1910, O’Neill resumed his position as a captain in the 2nd Life Guards when war broke out in 1914, rejoining his regiment just three weeks before his death. He is commemorated on the Menin Gate and with a heraldic shield in the Commons chamber.

The family tradition of parliamentary and military service continued after O’Neill’s death. His younger brother the Hon. (Robert William) Hugh O’Neill was elected in his place for Mid Antrim at a by-election in February 1915. His youngest son, Terence O’Neill (1914-90), who was only two months old when O’Neill died, was a long-serving member of the Stormont Parliament, and was Prime Minister of Northern Ireland from 1963 until 1969. O’Neill’s other sons, Brian and Shane, were killed in action during the Second World War.


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