MPs and the First World War

Since 2014 Dr. Kathryn Rix, Assistant Editor of our House of Commons, 1832-1868 project, has been writing blogs to mark the centenary of the death of each of the 24 MPs and former MPs who died on military service during the First World War. This blog looks back over that series, reflecting on this group of men who went from Westminster to war, but did not return.

Within three months of the outbreak of the First World War in August 1914, 126 Members of Parliament had volunteered for service in the armed forces. By January 1915, five months into the war, 184 MPs were on active service. Overall, 264 MPs – or 40% of the total membership of the House of Commons – served in some military capacity during the war. Twenty of those MPs, together with four former Members (one of whom, Charles William Reginald Duncombe, 2nd Earl of Feversham, was in the Lords by the time of his death), died on military service between 1914 and 1918.

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Hon. Arthur O’Neill, the first MP killed in action in the First World War

The first MP to die was the Hon. Arthur Edward Bruce O’Neill, Unionist MP for Mid Antrim, who was killed in action near Ypres on 6 November 1914. He was remembered by his colleagues when the Commons reassembled for the start of the new parliamentary session five days later. He was the only MP to die on military service that year. Seven MPs or former MPs died in 1915 and six in 1916 – five of these were killed in September 1916, at the height of the Battle of the Somme, including two on the same day. Four died in 1917 and six in 1918. The last of these came less than a month before the end of the war, when the Hon. Charles Henry Lyell, a former MP, died from pneumonia in the United States, where he was an assistant military attaché.

The MPs and former MPs who died on military service came from across the political spectrum. Of the 24, 14 were Conservatives and Unionists, 7 were Liberals and 3 were Irish Nationalists. The youngest MP to die was the Hon. Charles Thomas Mills, who was 28 years old when he was killed in action on 6 October 1915 during the Battle of Loos, an engagement which had already claimed the lives of two other MPs, the Hon. Thomas Agar-Robartes and Lord Ninian Crichton-Stuart. Mills had been the ‘Baby of the House’ when he was elected as Conservative MP for Uxbridge in January 1910.

The oldest MP to be killed in action was twice Mills’s age. William Hoey Kearney Redmond, younger brother of the leader of the Irish parliamentary party, was 56 years old when he died of wounds sustained during the Battle of Messines in Belgium. His age and poor health meant that he spent much of his time serving behind the front line, in staff jobs, but he persuaded his superiors to allow him to take part in the attack on Messines Ridge on 7 June 1917, when he died after being wounded by shell-fire.

Redmond was the longest serving MP to be killed, having sat in the Commons since 1883. In contrast with this 34 year parliamentary career, the shortest serving MP to be killed, Oswald Cawley, had been in the Commons for less than seven months when he was killed in action in France in August 1918. Tragically, also among this group of 24 MPs was Oswald’s older brother, Harold, who was killed in action at Gallipoli on 23 September 1915.

Although MPs served in all the major theatres of war, the majority of those killed died on the Western Front: 13 in France (which included one death in a car accident) and two in Belgium. Harold Cawley was the only MP to die at Gallipoli, but another was killed in Egypt and two in Palestine, while Charles Lyell’s death in Washington D.C. was the furthest from home. The remaining four in this group died on home soil, two – Duncan Campbell and the Hon. William Walrond – from injuries or illness sustained during service in France. The only MP who died who did not serve overseas at some point was John Esmonde, the Irish Nationalist MP for Tipperary North. The second oldest MP to die, aged 53, he was serving as a captain with the Royal Army Medical Corps in Tipperary when he died of pneumonia in April 1915.

The final MP to die at home was the Hon. Francis McLaren, killed in a flying accident off the Scottish coast on 30 August 1917 while training with the Royal Flying Corps. McLaren was the only one of these 24 parliamentarians to have served in the Royal Flying Corps, although his war service had begun in the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve. Gerald Arbuthnot, who had served in the navy as a young man, also joined the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve at the start of the war, spending 15 months on mine-sweeping duties in the North Sea, but transferred in 1916 to the Grenadier Guards and was killed during the Battle of the Somme. All the other MPs who died served in the army.

Around two-thirds of these 24 MPs had military experience prior to 1914, whether in the regular forces, the militia, the volunteer yeomanry or the territorial forces. At least six of them had served during the Boer War, five in South Africa and one, Michael Hicks-Beach, on the island of St. Helena. One MP who had military experience before the war was Valentine Fleming. A banker by profession, he had joined the Queen’s Own Oxfordshire Hussars in 1904, where his fellow officers included Winston Churchill. A framed copy of Churchill’s obituary of Fleming in The Times was one of the most cherished possessions of Fleming’s son Ian, best known as the creator of James Bond, who was eight when his father died.

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William Glynne Charles Gladstone

Several of those MPs who died came from families with strong traditions of political service. The Hon. Neil Primrose, Liberal MP for North Cambridgeshire, who died of his wounds while serving in Palestine on 15 November 1917, was the second son of the former Liberal Prime Minister, Lord Rosebery. Another notable name among the Liberal MPs who died was that of William Glynne Charles Gladstone, grandson of another former Liberal Prime Minister. He was the second MP to be killed in action. After his death in France in April 1915, his family secured permission for his body to be returned home for burial at St. Deiniol’s church, Hawarden. His case prompted Major Fabian Ware (later the vice-chairman of the Imperial War Graves Commission) to secure an order from the Adjutant-General banning future repatriations, believing that all classes should be equal in death.

Gladstone is the only MP other than those who died on home soil to be buried in the British Isles. Most of the rest were buried in military or local cemeteries close to where they fell, although four have no known grave. With the recent addition of the name of Gerald Arbuthnot, these 24 men are remembered together in Parliament, on the memorial in Westminster Hall.

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Parliamentary War Memorial, Westminster Hall

KR

This marks the conclusion of this First World War blog series. The rest of the series can be found here.

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