In the latest of our blogs on MPs killed in the First World War, Dr Kathryn Rix marks the centenary of the death of Valentine Fleming on 20 May 1917…
On 25 May 1917, the obituary of Valentine Fleming, Conservative MP for South Oxfordshire since January 1910, appeared in The Times, following his death five days earlier on the Western Front. Its author – ‘W. S. C.’ – was none other than Winston Churchill, who had known Fleming not only as a fellow MP, but also as an officer in the same yeomanry regiment, the Queen’s Own Oxfordshire Hussars. A framed copy of this obituary was one of the most cherished possessions of Fleming’s second son Ian, the creator of James Bond. He was just about to turn nine when his father died.
Born in Fife in 1882, Fleming had a ‘distinguished and creditable’ career at Eton and at Magdalen College, Oxford, where he excelled at rowing and athletics. He graduated with a degree in History in 1905. His father, Robert, a wealthy financier, had purchased a country estate at Nettlebed, near Henley-on-Thames, Oxfordshire in 1903. Aided financially by his father, Fleming bought his own property in the county at Braziers Park, Ipsden, where he and his wife Evelyn lived after their marriage in 1906.
In January 1907 Fleming was chosen as the prospective Conservative candidate for South Oxfordshire (also known as the Henley division). The chairman of the meeting which adopted him noted his academic achievements, his commercial experience in the City and his involvement as an officer in the Queen’s Own Oxfordshire Hussars, which he had joined as a second lieutenant in 1904. He also considered it an important asset that Fleming had ‘a charming wife – who would be of great assistance to him in the campaign, considering the part women now took in politics’. Fleming worked assiduously to cultivate support in the constituency, attending thirty meetings in his first two months as candidate, and also became well-known in the hunting field.
At the January 1910 election, when he advocated the policies of tariff reform and colonial preference, Fleming won a convincing victory over his Liberal opponent. Giving thanks when the result was declared, he was particularly grateful to Oxfordshire’s under-sheriff for performing the duties of returning officer. As Fleming explained, ‘he has rescued me from the somewhat embarrassing position of being returned by my own father’: as High Sheriff of Oxfordshire that year, Robert Fleming should have acted as returning officer.
Fleming was re-elected at the December 1910 general election, but in April 1913 decided that he would not stand again when the next election took place. His father was taking partial retirement from the merchant bank of Robert Fleming and Co., which he had founded. Fleming therefore anticipated having to spend more time on business, especially as he would have to make periodic visits to the United States. Churchill’s obituary of him suggested that his decision stemmed also from his dislike of ‘the violence of faction and the fierce tumults which swayed our political life up to the very threshold of the Great War’.
When war broke out in 1914, Fleming, now a captain, enlisted for service with his regiment. Churchill recorded that Fleming had taken every opportunity to attend training courses as a yeomanry officer, with the result that ‘on mobilization there were few more competent civilian soldiers of his rank’. He fought at the battle of Ypres, was twice mentioned in dispatches and was promoted to the rank of major.
In the early hours of 20 May 1917, Fleming was one of five members of his squadron killed in a heavy German bombardment, while defending Gillemont Farm, near Epehy in northern France. A few weeks before his death he had sent a final postcard to his son, Ian, writing:
In the wood where we slept last night were wild boars. I killed a snake but not a poisonous one. A hedgehog came into Philip’s shelter one night. (J. Pearson, The life of Ian Fleming)
Philip (1889-1971) was Fleming’s younger brother, who served alongside him in the Oxfordshire Hussars. A talented rower, who had won a gold medal at the 1912 Olympics, he survived the war.
Posthumously awarded the Distinguished Service Order, Valentine Fleming was buried at Templeux-le-Guerard British cemetery in northern France. Churchill remembered his ‘lovable and charming personality’, while a fellow officer wrote that
The loss to the regiment is indescribable. He was … absolutely our best officer, utterly fearless, full of resource, and perfectly magnificent with his men.