Lanhydrock Church, 27 September 2015
A sequence of events, one century ago, changed the future of this parish forever.
On 13 September 1915 the Honourable Thomas Charles Reginald Agar-Robartes, Captain in the 1st Battalion Coldstream Guards, was recalled from the trenches for Parliamentary duties. After two days at Westminster he returned to his Cambridgeshire seat, Wimpole Hall, where, on the 17 September he spent the day at the races. The following day he wrote a note to a friend, it read
I shall return to London after Newmarket for noon – when I hope I may find you – like you to dine with me on Friday?
Tommy never made this lunch appointment. Instead he was immediately recalled to the Western Front to help plan a military assault on the industrial mining town of Lens in north-east France. He led his men to within 20 miles of the village of Loos, where a letter from Major General, the earl of Cavan awaited their arrival, it read
We are on the eve of the greatest battle in history, the future generations depend on the result…great things are expected from the Guards division.
On the 25th Tommy’s men captured and moved into an enemy trench which, it was reported, was littered with dead bodies. From here there were further orders to advance, this time towards a wooded area and then to a chalk pit beyond. Both objectives were fulfilled but with heavy casualties.
On the 28th, during fierce fighting and with a strong smell of noxious gas in the air, Sergeant Hopkins of the 5th Reserve Battalion was shot by a German sniper. Tommy could not abandon his comrade so, in Hopkins words ‘[Tommy] came 80 to 100 yards right across the open in broad daylight and within 200 yards of the enemy and dragged me into safety’. This unselfish, spur of the moment, action cost Tommy his life. After being hit by a German sniper Tommy died in a casualty clearing station on the 30 September.
After his death many tributes were paid yet nowhere was Tommy’s loss felt more than in Cornwall. Joseph Broad, addressing Viscount Clifden as Chair of the St Hydroc’s Church Tower Committee, summed up the nation’s feeling when he proposed a vote of condolence ‘…to Viscount Clifden and family on the lamented death of Captain Agar-Robartes who had laid down his life for his King and country after performing a gallant and self-sacrificing act’.
Six days after that missed lunch appointment in London the son and heir to the Lanhydrock estate, the future 7th Viscount Clifden, was dead. My tribute to Tommy is to recreate his missed lunch appointment. Most likely held at either Claridges or the Ritz, two of his favourite restaurants, I will invite five contemporaries, all of which had an impact on his professional and private life.
At the head of the table would be Tommy himself ̶ a convivial host, educated, fun, debonair, a spirit unto himself. A man the media portrayed as an Edwardian playboy, often seen sailing around the Mediterranean or walking the Monte Carlo or Paris boulevards, described by some as the best dressed man in Parliament and by others as the most reckless horseman in Cornwall.
Alongside Tommy at the table I would sit his political idol and mentor, the 5th Lord Rosebery, short-lived Leader of the Liberal Party and one-time Prime Minister. Together they shared a common passion for horse racing, cricket, yachting, society life and politics. I would hope that they would look back fondly on a political rally held in the Bodmin Public Rooms in 1905 when Rosebery, fully supported by Tommy in the Chair, made a heated and heartfelt speech in which he appeared to betray the leader of the party, Henry Campbell-Bannerman. The sitting Tory government immediately saw a treacherous split in their rival party and called a General Election. The Tory’s completely misjudged the situation and the Liberals won a landslide victory with Tommy gaining his first seat in Parliament. As member for South-East Cornwall and later St Austell, he was a popular, engaging and confident politician, a great champion of Cornwall, the Cornish and advocate of the working man.
His sense of fairness undoubtedly came from his devoted mother Mary, Viscountess Clifden, my next dinner guest. She raised all nine of her children to observe Christian values and follow strict moral codes. War split families, and with four sons in military service no-one was more aware of this than the Viscountess. She might recall her sadness of Tommy’s last Christmas, spent in Norfolk, away from his family, serving on the home-front with Royal Bucks Hussars. On Boxing Day 1914 from Sennowe Park, the Norfolk home of the holiday magnate Thomas Cook, he wrote of his request to transfer to the Coldstream Guards, which he did on 5 January. What drove him was an eagerness to serve on the front line and a conviction that his life was of no more importance that any other Englishman, no doubt a consequence of the values of benevolence, duty, loyalty and unselfishness installed by his mother. His loss to the family was immeasurable. In a letter, dated October 1915, two weeks Tommy’s death, she wrote ‘we do not know how to bear our grief’, in February 1916 Tommy’s brother, Gerald, wrote ‘my mother and sister are anxious to have some flowers planted on the grave’.
Next at the table would be Lord Rosebery’s youngest son and Tommy’s best friend Neil Primrose, Liberal M.P. for Wisbech. Together they were known as the ‘inseparables’. It is a fair assumption that Tommy’s choice of London address in Great Stanhope Street was to be close to Primrose who lived just a few doors down. They travelled America together and were constant companions at the races. Tommy joined Captain Primrose in the Royal Bucks Hussars in 1914, the same year they joined fellow Liberal back-benchers in a revolt against Lloyd George’s budget. The conversation at dinner would, I hope, not dwell extensively on politics but on happier times when on 7 April 1915 Tommy returned from the Western Front to perform best man duties at Primrose’s wedding. Tragically, Primrose was killed in action not long after Tommy however their friendship remains marked in the House of Commons where their armorial crests are positioned side-by-side above the Speaker’s chair.
Through Primrose, Tommy was a regular house guest of the de Rothschild family at Mentmore and Waddesdon. During this time he struck up a close friendship with my next dinner guest, Dorothy de Rothschild who was regular correspondent. In August 1914 he wrote of his optimism for a quick resolution to hostilities ‘we move from Reading in a few days to the East Coast probably and then I hope we shall lunch at Ostend a week or so later and dine some months afterwards in Berlin’. In May 1915 his outlook was less positive; he wrote ‘I now command a Company. I was hit three times in one day on May 9th but only slightly- I found my own iodine sufficient to deal with the wounds! I am rather depressed today as I have just heard that Ferdy and Denny two of my closest friends have been killed –also Francis…and John…’ In July 1915 we get a glimpse of irony when he wrote ‘We are in the trenches at Cambrai which is rather a lively spot as the Germans are only about 15 yards away in one part of my line – we have great bombing spats every night in the crater of a mine which is called Etna…we have just had a heavy thunderstorm which has soaked everything’.
With only one space left at the table I am struggling to make the last selection. His twin Everilda would give us an insight into Tommy as a caring and attentive brother. Sergeant Hopkins, the man Tommy saved from no-mans-land at Loos, would tell us of his heroism and sacrifice. And then there is the author and Tommy’s political agent Arthur Quiller Couch who would attest to Tommy’s love of the turf as well as all things Cornish. It would be fitting to invite any of the men listed on the war memorial above the church door ̶ all would have known Tommy, all would have shared his heroic values, his commitment and sense of duty to his country. Likewise any member of the Lanhydrock or Wimpole staff would have been welcomed to the table and been fully engaged into the conversation despite their more modest backgrounds. Maybe we should all imagine ourselves in that last space, listening intently to the conversation and thinking on what might have been.
And this, for me, remains the most enduring accolade to Tommy ̶ he was an English gentleman who mixed freely with people regardless of class. As eldest son and heir he not only measured up but exceeded all of the expectations placed upon him.
As a son he was equipped the take the family forward. As a future landlord he was benevolent and dynamic. As a brother he was a loyal and dedicated. As a scholar he was cultured and well-informed. As a sportsman he was a leader and a captain. As a politician he was popular, a man who followed his convictions. As a soldier he displayed great leadership skills and earned the respect of those who served beneath him.
I will finish with two contemporary tributes. The first is an unsigned card sent to the family presumably in 1915 with a hand painted bunch of violets on the cover (below) which reads
He was the soul of honour and of fearless chivalry. No braver or skilful officer has led the Coldstream Guards into action.
The second quotes Arthur Quiller Couch who said at Tommy’s memorial service in St Margaret’s, Westminster,
..he had in him, and he carried it eminently, that which I think, if men could be judged like thorough-breds in a show, would make a man an English gentleman, recognisable from every gentleman in the world. And the mark of it is that he, the English gentleman, treats life under God, as the finest, the gallantest, and the most glorious of all sports…that was Mr Robartes.