MPs in World War I: the Hon. Charles Henry Lyell (1875-1918)

Last month we marked the centenary of the last serving MP to be killed in action during the First World War and today we commemorate a former MP who died while on military service. Dr. Kathryn Rix, Assistant Editor of our House of Commons, 1832-1868 project, will conclude her blog series next month with a special post reflecting on all 24 MPs and former MPs who died while serving in the armed forces.

Charles Lyell’s grave in Arlington National Cemetery

The last of the 24 MPs and former MPs to die while serving in the armed forces during the First World War ended up the furthest from home. Major the Hon. Charles Henry Lyell died on 18 October 1918 in Washington D.C., where he had been serving as an assistant military attaché at the British Embassy. He was buried at Arlington National Cemetery. Lyell died from pneumonia, which he had developed after falling ill with influenza during the epidemic then sweeping the United States. His fellow assistant military attaché, Captain Angus Mackintosh, had succumbed to the same disease five days earlier.

Lyell was the only son of Leonard Lyell, 1st Baron Lyell (1850-1926), who had sat as Liberal MP for Orkney and Shetland from 1885 until 1900. His father, who was the nephew of the leading geologist, Sir Charles Lyell, was created a baronet in 1894 and a peer in 1914. The Lyells, a prominent Forfarshire family, had been lairds of Kinnordy since the mid-eighteenth century.

Major the Hon. Charles Henry Lyell

Born in 1875, Lyell was educated at Eton – where he became a member of a volunteer battalion of the Oxfordshire Light Infantry, 1893-4 – and New College, Oxford. After leaving Oxford, he travelled abroad, before spending some time as a resident of Oxford House, Bethnal Green, ‘in order that he might study the housing question in its practical bearing’. Oxford House was part of the ‘settlement movement’ which saw university graduates live in deprived areas in order to offer assistance to the poor through a variety of social and philanthropic activities. Lyell acted as private secretary to the chairman of the London County Council, Andrew Torrance MP, in 1901-2, and served on the Mansion House Committee on the ‘dwellings of the poor’.

By March 1904, when he was chosen as the Liberal candidate for a by-election in East Dorset, he had acquired a reputation as ‘a convinced free trader, a temperance reformer, and a capable speaker and debater’. Lyell won the by-election and swiftly ‘raised high hopes’ as a promising young member of the Commons, who ‘speaks with ease and point, and has strong character in his sombre face’. He retained his seat at the 1906 general election, and served as parliamentary private secretary to the Foreign Secretary, Sir Edward Grey.

In 1908, in what the Dundee Courier described as a ‘strange move’, Lyell agreed to stand for Edinburgh West, long held by the Unionists, at the next general election. While his Liberal successor in East Dorset was victorious at the January 1910 contest, Lyell failed in his attempt to win a seat in Scotland. He was not out of Parliament for long, however, as the Liberals of Edinburgh South turned to him after their constituency chairman, Edward Parrott, declined an invitation to stand for a by-election. Lyell won the seat at the by-election in April 1910, and was re-elected at the December 1910 general election. In February 1911, when he was described as ‘a fine shot, a very pleasant person, and is reported to know all there is to know about motor cars’, he became parliamentary private secretary to the Prime Minister, Herbert Asquith. He does not, however, appear to have impressed Asquith’s wife Margot, who described him on one occasion as ‘useless’.

Lyell had served as a lieutenant in the Forfar and Kincardine Royal Garrison Artillery, a militia regiment, from 1899 until 1908, when he joined the army reserve list. Shortly after the outbreak of the First World War, he was commissioned as a captain in the Highland (Fifeshire) Royal Garrison Artillery. He was promoted to the rank of major in April 1915, and went to France in command of the 1/1st Highland (Fifeshire) Heavy Battery. In November 1916 he was ‘severely burned about the face and hands’ in an accidental explosion and spent time in a hospital in France before being transferred to a hospital in England. He took the Chiltern Hundreds and retired from Parliament in May 1917. Having recovered from his injuries and returned to active service, in December 1917 he sailed from Liverpool to the United States to take up his new post as assistant military attaché in Washington D.C.

Lyell’s death in October 1918 meant that his four year old son, Charles Antony (1913-43), became heir to the family title. He succeeded his grandfather as 2nd Baron Lyell in 1926, but died in April 1943 at the age of 29 while serving with the Scots Guards during the North African campaign in the Second World War. He was awarded a posthumous Victoria Cross for his ‘outstanding leadership, gallantry and self-sacrifice’ in attacking two German gun positions.


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