Continuing our series on MPs who died while serving in the First World War, Dr. Kathryn Rix looks at the life of a former prime minister’s son.
One of the first MPs to die while fighting in the First World War, William Glynne Charles Gladstone, was the grandson of a former Liberal prime minister. On 15 November 1917 the son of another former Liberal prime minister, the Hon. Neil James Archibald Primrose, died of wounds sustained while fighting in Palestine. At the time of his death he was Liberal MP for Wisbech in Cambridgeshire, which he had represented since January 1910.
Born at Dalmeny House near Edinburgh in 1882, Primrose was the younger son of the fifth Earl of Rosebery, who had served briefly as Liberal prime minister from 1894-5, following Gladstone’s retirement. His mother, Hannah de Rothschild, who had inherited vast wealth from her father, died just before Primrose’s eighth birthday. Primrose had a close relationship with his father, sharing his fondness for equestrian pursuits.
Given his background, it was unsurprising that Primrose wished to pursue a political career after his education at Eton and New College, Oxford, where he spent more time on ‘hunting and racing and jesting’ than his studies, graduating with a third class degree in History. His political ambitions – at a time when MPs were unpaid – were aided by a legacy from his maternal great-aunt, Lucy Cohen, who left him £150,000 and her London house.
In April 1908 Primrose was selected as the prospective Liberal candidate for Wisbech. Despite various difficulties during his campaign – most significantly, Conservative efforts to capitalise on his father’s opposition to David Lloyd George’s ‘People’s Budget’ – he defeated his Conservative opponent, T. C. Garfit, by 200 votes. He more than doubled his majority at that year’s second general election in December. Considerable interest was generated by this contest because his Conservative rival on this occasion was also the son of a former prime minister: Lord Robert Cecil, third son of the 3rd Marquess of Salisbury.
Fittingly for the son of a peer, Primrose’s maiden speech, on 11 April 1910, was on the relationship between the House of Commons and the House of Lords, a highly topical issue given the Lords’ recent rejection of the People’s Budget. He declared himself ‘emphatically in favour of a Second Chamber’, but warned that ‘if the House of Lords is not radically and thoroughly changed, the country will not want a Second Chamber at all’. His father was among those who came to hear his speech. Although generally loyal to Liberal ministers, Primrose was not afraid of taking an independent line on particular issues. He was not a regular speaker in the Commons, but
when he did intervene in debate he was always listened to with respect and often with admiration, for there was pith in his speeches, now and then a flash of eloquence, and many a happily-turned phrase.
In the Commons Primrose was a close companion of Thomas Agar-Robartes, the Liberal MP for St. Austell, sitting with him ‘side by side on the third bench below the gangway on the government side’. They had become friends at Oxford, and Agar-Robartes returned from active service on the Western Front to be best man at Primrose’s wedding to Lady Victoria Stanley, daughter of the Earl of Derby, in April 1915. Primrose was deeply affected by Agar-Robartes’ death during the Battle of Loos in September 1915, the fifth MP since 1914 to die while serving in the forces.
Like Agar-Robartes, Primrose began his war service with the Royal Bucks Hussars, which he had joined in 1909 as a second lieutenant. (His father had an estate at Mentmore in Buckinghamshire.) Keen to serve overseas, he used his connections to secure a transfer from his regiment, which had been assigned to coastal defence duties in Norfolk, in order to embark for France in September 1914.
Primrose spent the war alternating between military service and government office. In February 1915 he returned to London to take up the post of under-secretary at the Foreign Office. His Foreign Office superior, Sir Edward Grey, had been under-secretary to Rosebery when he was Foreign Secretary. When the Liberals formed a coalition in May 1915, this post was given instead to Primrose’s erstwhile opponent at Wisbech, Lord Robert Cecil. Primrose resumed his military duties, joining the Royal Bucks Hussars, who had recently suffered heavy losses at Gallipoli, in Egypt.
In June 1916 Primrose was awarded the Military Cross, making him the most highly decorated of those MPs killed during the First World War. That September he again took office, as parliamentary military secretary to the Ministry of Munitions, and in December he reluctantly became the Liberal Chief Whip (jointly with Lord Edmund Talbot). He did not enjoy these duties, and resigned in March 1917 in order to return to active military service, reflecting that ‘I am of military age, and I feel that I ought to be doing my duty as a soldier’.
Primrose trained at Aldershot with a reserve cavalry regiment before re-joining the Royal Bucks Hussars in Egypt. He was wounded by machine-gun fire during an attack on the Abu Shushe ridge – site of the Biblical city of Gezer – and died of his wounds on 15 November 1917. He was buried at Ramleh cemetery, where his older brother, Lord Dalmeny, who was also serving in Palestine, was among those at his funeral.
Paying tribute to Primrose in the Commons, Lloyd George praised his ability ‘far above the average’ and noted that ‘in spite of the reserve and shyness which held him back, his future was full of promise’. He also observed that Primrose ‘deliberately chose the path of danger. He fell charging at the head of his troops, at the very moment of victory’. Primrose’s ‘proud and afflicted father’, Lord Rosebery, erected several memorials to him, with that in St. Giles’s Church, Edinburgh, recording that ‘his life was lovely and pleasant & he died in glory’.
- M. Gibson, Captain Neil Primrose MP 1882-1917 (Wisbech Society and Preservation Trust, 2015)