Wednesday, 30 September 2015

A tribute to Captain Tommy Agar-Robartes

As tensions in Syria mount and the terrible images of war are brought to us on a daily basis, I wanted to take this opportunity to pause and reflect on the War that was raging 100 years ago.   We have been marking the 100-year anniversaries of various events since August last year, but today marks an event that is particularly close to my heart.

Today, the 30th September is particularly significant for this part of Cornwall. On this very day in 1915 the incumbent MP for the old St Austell Division, The Hon Thomas Charles Reginald Agar-Robartes, was killed in action in France whilst seeking to save a fellow solider.  The fact that our own MP made the ultimate sacrifice is humbling and I wanted to share his story.

Tommy Agar-Robartes, as he was known, was born in 1880, the heir to the 6th Viscount Clifden and he spent his childhood at the family seat of Lanhydrock, near Bodmin.  He attended Eton and then Christ Church, Oxford, before returning to Cornwall to enter politics.  

After a false start in Bodmin in 1906, he was elected as a Liberal MP to represent the St Austell Division in the 1908 by-election.  He was known as ‘the farmers and miners friend’ and proved to be a popular MP for this constituency, holding his seat in both the general elections of 1910.

When war appeared to be inevitable in early 1914, Tommy drew up his will and joined the Hussars.  His political position meant that he was not expected to serve, but such was his belief in this Country, he could not stand by and watch while others fought. He was dismayed to find that the Hussars were to be stationed in England so he joined the Coldstream Guards and was deployed as Captain Agar-Robartes to Flanders in France. 

Captain Tommy Agar-Robartes was wounded by sniper fire in the Battle of Loos on 28 September while rescuing a wounded comrade.  For this act of valour he was recommended for the Victoria Cross.  He died from his injuries two days later on 30th September 1915.

He is buried at Lapugnoy Military Cemetery in France but is remembered locally in Truro Cathedral and a memorial in St Austell. His name is also recorded on a plaque on the wall in the Chamber of the House of Commons.

His grief-stricken mother carefully packed a trunk containing his military and personal effects away in an attic at Lanhydrock. In 1999, these belongings were found perfectly preserved after gathering dust for 84 years.

National Trust property manager, Andrea Marchington, who opened the trunk said; “Inside there were some of the things he used in the trenches. A trench periscope, a monocular, his sword, walnut talc holder, moustache comb, a tiny silver spirit lamp, and a little drinking cup inside a leather case, also made of silver. Everything beautifully made, each with its own case, and giving a rare insight into a serving officer’s life.”

Captain Agar-Robartes’ possessions are now on permanent display at Lanhydrock and act as a poignant reminder of life at the time of the first Great War.

During the final session of Parliament before the current recess the Speaker of the House paid tribute to the serving MPs who were lost in action this time 100 years ago. It was very poignant for me to be present to hear the MP for this constituency as one of the five names read out. I was also pleased to be able to place on record my own personal tribute.

The choices he made lie in stark contrast to the image often portrayed in the media today. Here was someone from a privileged background, privately educated at the highest schools and universities in the land. Elected as an MP and therefore exempt from having to serve in the war. Yet not only did he choose to sign up, he willing put himself in the frontline and died whilst trying to save a colleague. For me it goes to show that we should not judge people by their background, social standing or education. It is character and above all actions that should be the true test of what we stand for.

This morning I took the opportunity to place some simple flowers on the memorial to Tommy Agar-Robartes, at Truro Road in St Austell, and to pause for a moment to reflect on his life and death. In an age when politicians are often viewed as self-serving I find the story of Agar-Robartes to be humbling, challenging and inspiring. No matter what struggles and inconvenience I encounter in my term in office, remembering his story will help me keep things in perspective.