Continuing our series of short biographies of the MPs who sadly lost their lives fighting in the First World War, today Dr Kathryn Rix of the Victorian Commons, discusses the second MP to die at the Somme, Thomas Kettle…
Five days before his death in France on 9 September 1916, while leading his men at Ginchy, Thomas Kettle wrote to a friend in Dublin:
This note is really a conditional “good-bye” to you all. We have been on the march for days, sleeping on the bare ground, eating what we could … and are moving up to-night into the battle of the Somme. The bombardment, the destruction and bloodshed are beyond all imagination. Nor did I ever think that the valour of simple men could be quite as beautiful as that of my Dublin Fusiliers. I have had two chances of leaving them – one on sick leave, and one to take a Staff job. I have chosen to stay with my comrades.
Described as ‘one of the most brilliant minds of his generation in Ireland’, Kettle had sat as MP for East Tyrone from July 1906, when he was returned at a by-election, until his retirement at the December 1910 election. His father, Andrew, a farmer who supplied barley to Guinness and Jameson’s, was a founding member of the Irish National Land League, together with Michael Davitt and Charles Stewart Parnell. He made unsuccessful attempts to enter Parliament in 1880 and 1891. Tom Kettle shared his father’s commitment to the Irish nationalist cause, and was a leading figure in the foundation of the Young Ireland branch of the United Irish League in 1905. Although he had qualified as a barrister after studying at University College Dublin, he devoted most of his time to political journalism. He briefly edited the weekly newspaper, The Nationist.
A gifted orator, Kettle made a deep impression on one contemporary with his maiden speech in the Commons, ‘when he stood up among the Irish members, a tall, slim, dark young fellow, with a wide humorous mouth, sparkling dark eyes, and a brogue that would charm a bird off a tree’. He toured the United States speaking and raising funds on behalf of his party in 1906. At Westminster, Kettle acted as the Irish parliamentary party’s chief spokesman on financial matters, attacking the costs of British administration in Ireland. Unlike many Irish MPs, he was favourable to the cause of women’s suffrage, with which his wife Mary and his sister-in-law Hanna Sheehy Skeffington were involved.
In October 1909 Kettle was appointed as Professor of National Economics – although his preference would have been for a chair in English Literature – at University College Dublin, where his papers are held. He was re-elected for East Tyrone in January 1910, but decided to step down when a second general election took place that December.
Well-travelled in Europe, where he had spent some time studying at the University of Innsbruck, Kettle was in Belgium when it was invaded by Germany in August 1914. He remained there for two months as war correspondent for the Daily News. Horrified by the events he witnessed, he declared that ‘it is impossible not to be with Belgium in the struggle’. For Kettle, his Irish nationalism – he had gone to Belgium to procure arms for the Irish Volunteers – was not incompatible with his decision to join the British army to defend the cause of liberty in Europe. For Kettle, he was fighting ‘not for England, but for small nations’.
Poor health (including a struggle with alcoholism) meant that he was assigned to recruiting duties, using his oratorical talents to make over 200 speeches in England and Ireland. This, however, alienated him from many in the nationalist movement, including his brother-in-law, Francis Sheehy Skeffington, who was killed during the Easter Rising. The ‘sneers of critics’ that Kettle was ‘but a platform soldier’ prompted him to renew his efforts to be posted to the front, and he sailed for France in July 1916.
With no known grave, Kettle is among the soldiers commemorated on the Thiepval memorial. He was also – rather belatedly – remembered with a bust on St. Stephen’s Green, Dublin. A memorial fund had collected over £500 and selected a site for their tribute by 1917, but it was decided to postpone its erection until the war was over. In 1923 the memorial committee decided that given the ‘present circumstances’ in Ireland (where the war of independence had been followed by civil war), the unveiling of the bust should be delayed. Following further delays caused by a dispute over the inscription it should bear, the memorial was finally unveiled – without any official ceremony – in 1937. It bears lines from Kettle’s poem, ‘To my daughter Betty, the gift of God’, written in the field at the Somme in September 1916:
Died not for flag, nor King, nor Emperor, –
But for a dream, born in a herdsman’s shed,
And for the secret scripture of the poor.
You can read the rest in our MPs in World War I series here.