Since 2014 Dr. Kathryn Rix, Assistant Editor of our House of Commons, 1832-1945 project, has been blogging about the 24 MPs and former MPs who died on military service during the First World War. We have published her posts to mark the centenary of the death of each of these parliamentarians, one of whom was in the Lords by the time of his death. We’re delighted to announce that her research has had an unexpected outcome, with the addition of a missing name to the recently renovated Parliamentary War Memorial in Westminster Hall, as she explains below.
On 25th September 1916 2nd Lieutenant Gerald Archibald Arbuthnot, of the Grenadier Guards, was killed in action during the Battle of the Somme, while making an attack on the village of Lesboeufs. The regimental history records that after the British artillery bombardment had failed to cut through the German wire, Arbuthnot and three other officers
gallantly advancing by themselves proceeded with the utmost coolness to cut gaps in the wire. Their one thought seems to have been that the attack must not be checked on any account, and as the task of cutting the wire meant almost certain death, they never thought of sending on any of their men, but decided to do it themselves.
Arbuthnot and two fellow officers were killed, and the fourth was wounded, although their efforts enabled the Grenadier Guards to achieve their objective.
Arbuthnot had served as Conservative MP for Burnley in 1910, winning the seat at the first general election of that year in January, but losing it at the December 1910 contest. Following his death, fulsome tributes were paid to him in his former constituency, with obituaries in the Burnley News and the Burnley Express and Advertiser. At a town council meeting, a former political opponent praised Arbuthnot for his skills in party organisation and his gentlemanly manners, with ‘a pleasant smile for all those who came into contact with him’. Well-attended memorial services were held in Burnley parish church and St. Margaret’s, Westminster. Arbuthnot is buried at Citadel New Military Cemetery, Fricourt, where his widow chose the inscription ‘Faithful Unto Death’ for his headstone.
However, one place where he has not been commemorated – up until now – is on the Parliamentary War Memorial in Westminster Hall. I first realised that his name did not appear when I gave a talk in 2017 about my research on the MPs and former MPs who died on military service. This was taking place in one of the rooms off Westminster Hall, which prompted me to look at the memorial in more detail.
So why was Arbuthnot forgotten? When the memorial was first constructed in 1921, only the names of sitting MPs who had fought and died during the war were included: 19 names of members of the House of Commons appear on the panel to the right of the Recording Angel in the centre of the memorial. One former MP, Charles William Reginald Duncombe, is listed with fellow peers in the panel to the left of the Recording Angel, since he had succeeded to the House of Lords as the second Earl of Feversham in January 1915. He was the only person who had been a member of both Houses to be killed in action during the First World War.
Arbuthnot’s omission in 1921 is therefore understandable, since aside from the Earl of Feversham, no former MP was listed. However, almost as soon as the memorial was completed, errors were discovered. The decision was taken to extend the memorial, rectifying various mistakes, and also adding the names of sons of MPs and of Officers of the House of Commons who had died. It therefore grew from two panels to eight, unveiled in November 1922.
One of these panels, headed ‘Members of the House of Commons killed’, added three new names. John Esmonde, a captain in the Royal Army Medical Corps, had been missed off the original House of Commons panel, despite being a sitting MP at the time of his death from pneumonia in April 1915. One of the oldest MPs to die, he was not killed in action, having been stationed in county Tipperary. The fact that he was not killed in action may in part explain his initial omission, although the original panel with 19 MPs included others who died due to illness or accidents. The two other names added – Charles Lyell and Thomas Kettle – were both former MPs. Lyell had retired from the Commons in May 1917, while Kettle had stepped down in December 1910.
With the inclusion of former MPs, Arbuthnot should also have been added in 1922, and we can only speculate as to why he was not. The shortness of his parliamentary career may be one reason he was overlooked. In contrast with the modern ability to search records and press reports digitally, the task of drawing up the list of names for the memorial was far less easy in the 1920s. Indeed so great were the difficulties that in October 1921 the committee in charge of extending the memorial made an appeal in the press for information about sons of MPs who died. They did not, however, announce that names of former MPs were to be added, which may explain why no-one lobbied on Arbuthnot’s behalf.
My own project to write about MPs and the First World War has benefitted from the excellent modern record-keeping of Stephen Lees, and I am grateful to him for sharing with me his list of MPs and former MPs who died on military service back in 2014. When I noticed in 2017 that Arbuthnot’s name was missing from the memorial, I raised it with the Curator’s Office in Parliament. James Ford, one of the assistant curators, took the matter forward, with the memorial’s renovation in time for the centenary of the armistice in November 2018 providing the ideal opportunity to rectify this omission.
One of Arbuthnot’s former parliamentary colleagues, Sir William Bull, wrote in 1916 that ‘he leaves behind him a name that will be remembered for sincerity, high ideals, and devotion to duty’. That name has now been given its rightful place on the Parliamentary War Memorial.
See also this BBC News feature on the addition of Arbuthnot to the memorial.