Parliament, War and Remembrance
This year marks the 100th anniversary of the official end of World War One, (the Versailles Treaty of 28th June 1919) and the 80th anniversary of the start of World War Two. These conflicts were the cataclysmic events of the 20th century and it is difficult to quantify the scale and depth of human suffering that was endured. Over the last few weeks, our social media channels have been dominated by the act of Remembrance.
We tend to ignore perspective sometimes, especially in these days of political crisis over leaving the European Union. What we are experiencing now is nothing compared to what the men and women of our armed forces faced in 1914/18 and 1939/45. We tend also to forget the stakes involved in those huge and bloody conflicts. We nearly lost the First World War in its last year with the onslaught of the German Spring Offensive in March 1918. If they had succeeded and it initially looked very likely, the shores of Britain would have been defenceless and at the mercy of the German army and invasion.
In the Second World War even by 1942, half way into the 6-year struggle, the outcome was still not certain and as the war progressed, the bloodier it became. It is worth remembering that the casualty rate under Operation Overlord, following the D-Day landings, was higher than on the Somme 28 years earlier and 50% of all German soldiers who died in the Second World War did so in the final 12 months.
What is not so well known are the stories of MPs, Peers and Parliamentary staff who served gallantly in both wars. 236 MPs and former MPs, a fifth of the total serving in Parliament served in the armed forces of the First World War, of which 24 of them made the ultimate sacrifice. They lead often from the front. Arthur O’Neill, the MP from County Antrim was the first MP to fall. He was killed on 6th November 1914 in an action near Ypres. A contemporary account read, “He was shot on Klein Zillebeke Ridge, near Ypres, and shouting to his men to line the ridge [he] was being carried out when he received another wound and then begged his bearers to leave him and save themselves. He did not know what fear was.”
All of Arthur’s three sons grew up to fight in the Second World War and two of them, Brian and Shane were killed in action. The youngest, Terrence went on to become Prime Minister of Northern Ireland.
Valentine Fleming was born in 1882 in Newport-on-Tay, Fife, Scotland. He went on to contest and win the seat of Henley in Oxfordshire during the 1910 General Election. Prior to the start of the First World War, he had served as a Captain in the Queens Own Oxfordshire Hussars. As soon as war broke out, Valentine and the regiment were deployed to France by the end of September. He quickly developed a fearsome reputation as a brave and uncompromising leader, entirely devoted to his men and leading always from the front. On one memorable occasion whilst in reserve, he ran through heavy shellfire up to the men on the line to see if they wanted any ammunition. On another, hearing of a private being seriously wounded, he forged forward, bandaged him and personally carried him back to the dressing station in full view of the enemy. By December 1914 he was promoted to Major before becoming second in command by January 1916.
Major Fleming fell on 20th May 1917. During an intense artillery bombardment, Valentine Fleming left the safety of his HQ and made his way up to the front-line trench to support his men and repel an anticipated enemy attack. He never made it. After the enemy had been beaten back his body was found on open ground.
A tribute in the official regimental history wrote: “No greater blow could have befallen the Regiment than the death of Major Fleming. Beloved by his friends, worshipped by his squadron, admired and respected by all, he was a most gallant officer, a born leader of men. Deriving authority from his own ability and merit, being also a man of notable courage, he was able to control his men freely by strength of character and personal example rather than by force of military discipline.”
Major Fleming left behind a wife and four sons, the youngest, Ian went on to become an Intelligence Officer in the Second World War and creator of Secret Agent, James Bond.
When you walk up the steps of Westminster Hall, you are confronted with two grand memorials to those Parliamentarians who fell in both world wars. The Recording Angel remembers the fallen of the First World War and the stained-glass window above it remembers the fallen of the Second, 23 of them MPs. It is worth stopping there for a moment to reflect on the ultimate sacrifices men like O’Neill and Fleming made in those great conflicts.
Parliament’s history is interwoven and threaded by a deep tradition of political public service by members of our armed forces. They have served in every political party at every level and at every epoch of our parliamentary history.
The operational experiences of Iraq and Afghanistan has reminded the people of the United Kingdom not only of our service and sacrifice, but also the training, values and professionalism we brought to bear even under the most trying of circumstances. In the last Parliament, around 51 MPs had a degree of military experience, with a number serving on operations.
This cannot go to waste. It is now needed more than ever in Parliament and our Local Government. But for now, we remember. Lest we forget.
Art Conaghan, November 2019