A paper delivered to the congregation of Lanhydrock Parish Church on 11 November 2011.
I am sure that at some point we have all stood in this wonderful church and looked at the war memorial above the door.
Of course, memorials like this are sited all over the country, in small churches, on village greens, in town squares and city parks. They are tangible reminders of the horrors of conflict but sadly their true meaning has been lost over time because the inscribed names are simply that, names. Names don’t tell us much about the people, who they were, what they did or in this case, what sequence of events led to their premature deaths.
One name, however, has endured the test of time – the Honourable Captain Thomas Charles Reginald Agar-Robartes MP or Tommy, as Lanhydrock staff past and present have referred to him. Regarding his legacy Tommy had the huge advantage over the others listed on this memorial as he was son and heir to Viscount Clifden and was set to inherit private wealth, huge tracts of Cornish, English and Irish landed estate and the hereditary Viscount Clifden title.
He did not have to go to war. Arguably his duty was serving his St Austell constituents in Parliament. But as war became increasingly likely he championed volunteer forces as being vital to the defence of the realm – indeed, Tommy himself was a volunteer in the Devon Yeomanry. When war was declared he considered his life no more important than that of any other Englishman so he insisted that he served at the front line. The effect of his actions changed Lanhydrock’s history for ever.
For in September 1915 Tommy advanced towards enemy positions at Loos in France with the 2nd Company, 1st Battalion Coldstream Guards. On 26 September during a fierce battle he ventured into no-mans-land to rescue a wounded comrade. He was hit by a sniper bullet and died in the field hospital four days later.
Four months before his death Tommy wrote to his constituents a letter headed ‘1st Coldstream Guards May 17, 1915 in a dirty ditch somewhere in France’. In this letter he voiced a familiar war time cry, he wrote,
every man can help! Every effort is required, for although our ultimate victory is certain, I would venture to remind the delegates that it is a long, long way to Berlin. So one and all must help.
Tommy’s call to arms echoed the expectation that everyone had a role to play. History tells us what these men experienced: slaughter on an unprecedented scale, inconceivable fear and hardship and depravity beyond imagination. A life far removed from the tranquillity of Lanhydrock.
Being respectful to Tommy’s obligation to ‘one and all’ I am sure he would not forgive me if I placed his memory any higher than that of his fellow parishioners. So in the spirit of ‘one and all’ it is fitting that I just touch briefly on others listed on the memorial who, like Tommy, left this idyllic location to venture into an unimaginable hell.
Clarence Hawken of Garden Cottage and William Roberts sought their fortunes abroad and entered the war under the Canadian and Australian flags respectively. Hawken died on the Somme battlefield alongside Roberts who had already survived the Gallipoli campaign. William Vanderwolf of Quarry Park Cottage survived the Somme but died later in Belgium, he has no marked grave.
Alfred Walkey was one of the 72,000 men reported missing at the Somme. As was Sergeant Thomas Fewell of Treffry Cottages whose best man at his wedding William Beare, who had already lost three brothers in battle, died himself at Loos. Charles Johns died in Basra, Iraq, whilst on campaign against the Turks, Joseph Coad died at Passchendale and Frank Blake died advancing on Jerusalem.
Sidney Smith, Lanhydrock’s groom, lived in the Harness block and was declared unfit for frontline duties. After caring for the horses of the Devon Yeomanry he died in London of influenza in the service of the Agricultural Company producing food for the war effort.
These names and places give emphasis of the war as a global conflict so it is not surprising that Tommy’s conviction to duty took him abroad ‘to’, in his own words, ‘assist by every possible means in the great struggle that lies before us…the final triumph of Great Britain and her Allies over the fiendish atrocities of our enemies’.
As you would expect Tommy’s life was quite different from these men listed above. He was born in 1880 and was educated at Eton and Oxford. He served as MP first for South-East Cornwall and then for St Austell.
He was a colourful character – an Edwardian playboy in every respect. He was a regular in Paris, Monte Carlo and London and was reported in the media as ‘a most eligible parti …greatly but unsuccessfully courted by matchmaking mammas’. When not sailing around the Mediterranean with the 5th Earl of Rosebery he would be at the wild weekend parties hosted by the Rothschild family. As a politician he was well respected, a witty and confident orator, a great champion of the Cornish and very popular amongst his constituents. He was widely regarded as the best horseman in Cornwall and the best dressed man in Parliament.
In February 1914 he drew up his will and took up an appointment as 2nd lieutenant in the Royal Bucks Hussars. Being stationed in England and not bearing the thought that others were taking risks that he did not share he joined the 1st Battalion Coldstream guards as a Captain. Yet, his impetuosity continued as in early 1915 he was reported to have said ‘I am getting fed up with all this training. I am moving heaven and earth and using all the influence I and my family possess to get to the front, because I want to do my little bit’. His wish was soon granted as in February 1915, after only a few weeks abroad, he wrote to Winston Churchill at the war office to ask if his chauffeur and valet could travel to France to pick him up to bring him home so that he could perform best man duties for Neil Primrose, son of Earl Rosebery.
Tommy returned to the front before once again being summoned home in September 1915 this time to vote in the House of Commons on the Conscription Bill. On his return his battalion had advanced on Loos. What happened next is recorded in the regimental war diary
At about 6AM on September 16 1915, two sergeant’s, Hopkins and Printer…went out in front of our trenches at the chalk pit…to bring in a wounded man. When they were about to return Hopkins was shot down by a German sniper. Sgt Printer continued on with the wounded man and brought him into the lines. Captain Robartes who had been watching the whole episode, at once went out with Sgt Printer and brought back Sgt Hopkins who was severely wounded. The whole ground in front of the chalk pit was covered in enemy machine guns, Captain Robartes was severely wounded shortly afterwards.
On 28 September Tommy was unsuccessfully recommended for a Victoria Cross for conspicuous gallantry in the field. He was, however, to be put forward for a high military decoration if he were to survive his injuries. Two days later, Tommy, aged 35, died in the 18th Casualty Clearing Station; he was mentioned in despatches on 30 November. Soon-after his best friend Neil Primrose too died of his wounds received at Gezer during the Sinai and Palestine campaigns.
On his death the Cornish Guardian reported: ‘His Death was Grand, The Cause was Just’; his mother simply wrote ‘we do not know how to bear our grief’. At the St Austell Liberal Club meeting on 8 October 1915 a great gratitude was tendered from the constituency members while more simple respects were paid by the estates of Lanhydrock and Wimpole in Cambridge both of which Tommy was set to inherit.
Sgt Hopkins survived the war and a letter of gratitude to Viscount Clifden for Tommy’s unselfish sacrifice survives in the collection to this day.
Tommy, like most named on the memorial, perhaps knew that they would never return from war. Indeed, the local liberal agent commented in the press that on the last occasion that he had met Tommy he conveyed the impression that he never expected to see England again.
Such resolution is something that people of my generation cannot fully understand. Many years back whilst visiting the war site and cemetery at Monte Cassino I had the honour of meeting two veterans of the conflict. At lunch, and by now fuelled by the local vino, I plucked up enough courage to ask them if they were scared as they ascended the terraced slopes towards the monastery. ‘No’ was the reply adding
We knew that we were going to die that day. The odds were against us. The Allies were shooting indiscriminately up the hill and offloading bombs randomly overhead. Coupled with enemy fire ahead the odds were certainly stacked up against us. In some ways advancing onto the Monastery made the time right.
For me these comments brought home to me the chaos of war, the futility, the scandal, the fear, the ultimate waste – all things that Tommy was a part of and party to.
The last words should be left to Tommy’s younger brother Alexander who in the weeks after Tommy’s death was himself invalided back to England. ‘To a Brother’ is a moving tribute
A life of charm has passed:
Cut short in all its ardency and might.
A life of peace, more glorious than the last,
Now floods this hour of darkness with its light.
We, as friends and brothers,
Bear hard this cruel loss which is his gain,
Although his life on earth he gave for others,
And smiled at death throughout his mortal pain.
Would we disturb his peace?
Nay, let us wait that meeting far more blest,
From strength to strength led on, till strife shall cease;
For him, for us, God knows it is the best.