Here’s the next instalment from Dr Kathryn Rix (Assistant Editor of the House of Commons 1832-1868 project) in her series commemorating those MPs who died during the First World War. You can see the rest of the series here…
On 14 September 1918 Lord Alexander Thynne became the final serving Member of Parliament to be killed in action during the First World War. A Conservative, he had sat since January 1910 for Bath, the city which gave its name to his family’s title. Thynne was the third and youngest son of the fourth Marquess of Bath, of Longleat House, Wiltshire. One of his brothers, Lord John, died in 1887, but the oldest son, Thomas Henry, Viscount Weymouth – who was Conservative MP for Frome, 1886-92 and 1895-6 – succeeded their father as the fifth Marquess in 1896.
The Thynne family had a long tradition of parliamentary service, and his brother’s accession to the House of Lords provided Thynne, who was educated at Eton and at Balliol College, Oxford, with his first opportunity to try to win a parliamentary seat. He stood in his brother’s place as the Conservative candidate for Frome, but lost to a Liberal at the by-election in June 1896. It would be almost ten years before he made another attempt to enter the Commons.
In the meantime, he spent several years in South Africa. He had joined the Royal Wiltshire Yeomanry as a second lieutenant in April 1897, and was subsequently seconded for service with the 1st battalion of the Imperial Yeomanry during the Boer War. He was involved in ‘a great deal of fighting’ in South Africa and was awarded two medals. After the war ended, he served as private secretary to the Lieutenant-Governor of the Orange River Colony. In 1903-4 he accompanied the Somaliland Field Force as a special correspondent for Reuter’s news agency.
Having returned home, Thynne stood at Bath at the 1906 general election, but was among the many Conservative candidates defeated in the Liberal landslide. He was more successful as a candidate for the London County Council (LCC). He had represented the City of London from 1899-1900, and in 1907 was elected as a councillor for Greenwich. In 1910 he changed seats again, becoming a councillor for East Marylebone. He chaired the LCC’s Improvements Committee from 1909 until 1912. This fuelled his interest in social reforms, a question he also spoke on after his election to the Commons.
Thynne topped the poll at Bath at the general elections of January and December 1910. He asked several questions of ministers in his first Parliament, but it was not until 2 March 1911 that he made his maiden speech, which ‘created a very favourable impression’. He denied that the general election result had given Asquith’s ministry a mandate to reform the House of Lords, arguing that
at the last election we saw an expression of gratitude, and of a profound gratitude, [from voters] for the old age pensions which they had received from the Chancellor of the Exchequer. That was coupled with the desire for another helping from the same dish.
In contrast, Thynne argued,
these questions of procedure, these subtleties of constitutional reform, this adjustment of electoral machinery, which are of so much interest in this House, leave the man in the street comparatively cold.
As well as being an able speaker, Thynne was noted for his good looks. One newspaper report observed that
if you were to ask any M.P. who was the handsomest man in the House he would tell you that (after himself) Lord Alexander Thynne was an easy first.
He was said to have inherited ‘much of the sober sense and business ability of his late father’, together with ‘a certain brilliance’, prompting suggestions in 1916 that he would be a useful addition to the government.
Thynne was, however, already actively engaged on military service. When the war began, he was training with the Wiltshire Yeomanry, holding the rank of major. He then went to France as second in command of a battalion of the Worcester regiment, before being transferred to command a battalion of the Gloucestershire regiment. On 30 July 1916 he was seriously wounded during the battle of the Somme. Having been shot in the chest, he took several months to recover, but returned to France at the end of the year, taking command of a battalion of the Wiltshire regiment.
He was awarded the Distinguished Service Order, making him one of the most highly decorated MPs to serve. He also received the Croix de Guerre and was mentioned in despatches several times. He was wounded again in April 1918, this time in the arm, but was soon back in France. Sir Donald Maclean, one of his Liberal opponents at Bath, wrote that
it would have been easy and honourable for him to have taken in these later years of the war a post in the Army where his life would not be constantly at hazard. But he chose the forefront of the battle.
On 14 September 1918 Thynne, by then a lieutenant-colonel, was killed at Béthune in northern France when a shell exploded as he and other officers were on their way to take over fresh headquarters. He was buried at Béthune town cemetery. His death marked a second blow for his brother, whose heir, Viscount Weymouth, had been killed in action in 1916, aged just twenty.
Although Thynne was the last sitting MP to die while serving in the forces during the First World War, this does not mark the end of our blog series, as we will be commemorating the death of a former MP, Charles Lyell, next month.