MPs in World War I: Gerald Archibald Arbuthnot (1872-1916)

100 years ago yesterday the Somme claimed another MP: Gerald Archibald Arbuthnot. Dr Kathryn Rix of the Victorian Commons, blogs on his life…

Gerald Archibald Arbuthnot by Kittybrewster - Own work, Public Domain
Gerald Archibald Arbuthnot by Kittybrewster – Own work, Public Domain

Gerald Archibald Arbuthnot was killed in action on 25 September 1916 while serving with the Grenadier Guards during the Battle of the Somme. Like Guy Baring, whose death we marked two weeks ago, he is buried at the Citadel New Military Cemetery, Fricourt.

Arbuthnot’s parliamentary career had been a brief one. After unsuccessfully contesting the Lancashire borough of Burnley for the Conservative party in 1906, he worked hard to improve his position in the constituency. As well as making himself familiar with the town’s mining and cotton industries, he took a keen interest in party organisation. He initiated a Junior Unionist Association, while his wife began a Women’s Unionist Association, and together they started a Children’s Unionist Association. The Burnley Express later paid tribute to ‘his wonderful organising abilities, his genuine interest in the constituency, his charming manner and sincerity of purpose’. Arbuthnot’s efforts paid off, and at the January 1910 election he defeated the Labour incumbent, Fred Maddison. However, having spent just nine months as an MP, he was defeated at the December 1910 general election by the Liberal Philip Morrell, who was a noted pacifist during the First World War.

In contrast with his short stint in Parliament, Arbuthnot’s political career was a lengthier one. After serving as a midshipman in the navy from 1886 until 1891, he had studied at Trinity Hall, Cambridge, but did not take a degree. He then spent a decade as private secretary to the Conservative Cabinet minister Walter Long, who served as President of the Board of Agriculture from 1895, President of the Local Government Board from 1900, and briefly as Chief Secretary for Ireland in 1905. Long described Arbuthnot as ‘an ideal private secretary’, who also ‘possessed a remarkable power as a public speaker’. He used his talents on the platform as vice-chairman of the Budget Protest League, which campaigned against Lloyd George’s ‘People’s Budget’, and was a prominent speaker against Irish Home Rule.

Primrose League badges, via Wikimedia Commons uploaded by Henrygb CC-BY-SA-3.0

In 1912 Arbuthnot told Burnley’s Conservatives that he would not stand again for that constituency. However, he continued to devote himself to Conservative organisational work, and in 1912 became vice-chancellor of the Primrose League, of which Long was chancellor. The Primrose League, which sought to attract men, women and children as members through its lively programme of social activities, was the largest political organisation of its day, with over two million people having enrolled by March 1910. The number of current members was, however, rather less, at around 656,000 in 1912. Arbuthnot took a leading role in efforts to galvanise the League into renewed activity as the rise of the Labour party presented fresh challenges for the established political parties.

Having previously served in the navy, Arbuthnot joined the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve on the outbreak of war in 1914. He spent around 15 months on mine-sweeping duties in the North Sea. Wishing to play a more direct role in fighting the enemy, he secured a commission in the Grenadier Guards, becoming a 2nd Lieutenant in January 1916, and went to the front in France that May. Killed at the age of forty-three, he was survived by his wife and three daughters. He was the fifth MP or former MP to die on military service in September 1916.


You can read the other posts in our series marking the lives of MPs who died fighting WWI here. The series will return next year.

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