On Thursday I attended on behalf of parliament the official memorial and wreath laying ceremony for the first Member of Parliament to die in the Great War on 6 November 1914. It was a very poignant ceremony and was attended by members of the O’Neill family. It took place at the Great War memorial window in Westminster Hall. Mr Speaker preceded and Lord Eames conducted the religious ceremony.
Wreaths were laid on behalf of parliament and the family.
22 MPs lost their lives during the Great War of 1914-18. I was aware that the MP for what was then Mid Antrim (now North and East) was one of those members, as his family plaque and coat of arms is immediately under the gallery as you enter parliament. He was in fact the first member to give up his life in the war.
Arthur O’Neill was born on 19th September 1876 and was the son of Baron Edward O’Neill. His political career at Westminster began in 1910 when he succeeded is uncle Robert Torrens O’Neill as the Member of Parliament for Mid Antrim, a post that he held up until his death. His son was Terence O’Neill. He of course went on the be Northern Ireland’s Prime Minister in the Stormont parliament and whom my father challenged in 1969 over his leadership of unionism. The current North Antrim seat is made up of Captain Arthur O’Neill’s former seat.
It was exactly 100 years ago to the day when Captain O’Neill was killed in Belgium on the 6th November 1914 on Klein Zillebeke ridge on what was one of the most critical days of the first battle of Ypres, as the Germans sought to gain control of the Channel Ports.
The circumstances of his death bring home the horrors of war. He had helped give cover to his squad and was dashing back to them when he was shot along with his colleague. He rolled around injured on the ground and gave more cover to his colleague who was rescued. Germans then came upon Oneill as he lay wounded and one officer stood over him and shot him three times. It was murder on the battle field.
At the memorial service I read a letter sent to his family that Lord Rathcavon let me read detailing his murder is was appalling and a great reminder of the awfulness of war.
Captain O’Neill joined the 2nd Life Guards in 1897 and prior to the Great War he fought valiantly in South Africa, being awarded both the King’s Medal and The Queen’s Medal with three clasps for his bravery between 1899-1900.
I found an extract from the Ballymena Observer dated the 20th November which talks of Captain O’Neill’s death. The letter is written to the family of 2nd Lt W.S Peterson from his fellow soldiers to deliver the news of his death. The following is taken from the letter:
“Our brigade, the regiment itself, were known to stay in the trenches longer than anyone else. Your brother died with two other officers of the regiment, Major Dawney, commanding and Captain Arthur O’Neill, in driving the Germans back; they accomplished this work and in so doing actually saved a great defeat of our arms; the fact is recognised by the General. I heard – I do not vouch for the truth of it – they killed 16 Germans before they were killed.”
It is obvious from the descriptions of his death as well as his decorated military career that Captain O’Neill was a leader of men both on the battlefield and in politics.
I found a biography of Captain O’Neill in the House of Commons library which was a description of his character at the time of his death.
“He was greatly valued for his amiable and stainlessly upright career. If he was less widely known, it was because his modesty and intelligence and sweet temper made less display of the vigour and firmness which he showed later, not only in the South African war and his political life, but also in the patriotic organisation of his native Ulster”
Lest We Forget