It is not the length of existence that counts, but what is achieved during that existence, however short.
William Charles Glynne Gladstone, 1885-1915
Just yards away from the imposing tomb of his grandfather, the four-times Prime Minister William Ewart Gladstone, a marble plaque sits on the wall opposite the pulpit in St. Deniol’s Church at Hawarden, Flintshire. It is dedicated to William Glynne Charles Gladstone, himself a Liberal MP from 1911 to 1915, and Lord Lieutenant of Flintshire. I had the pleasure of staying at the Gladstone library in 2015, researching the life of W.G.C. Gladstone, and paid another visit at Easter 1916 whilst in the area.
Memorial plaque to W.G.C. Gladstone (c) Dawn Broom 2016
Whilst it is relatively unusual for sitting MPs to have served in the Armed Forces in recent Parliaments, Dan Jarvis and Johnny Mercer being two notable exceptions, in January 1915 184 out of 690 sitting MPs were on active service. In line with the overall casualty rate of around 10%, 17 were never to return to their constituencies alive. William Glynne Charles Gladstone was one of these men.
Much of what we know about William Gladstone jr comes from a book written by his uncle, Herbert Gladstone, in 1918, available online here.
Born on 14 July 1885, William was the only son of William Ewart Gladstone’s eldest son, William Henry, who died of a brain tumour when William jr. was five years old. His mother Gertrude, to whom he wrote regular letters while he was serving in France, was the youngest daughter of the 12th Lord Blantyre. He inherited his grandfather’s devout Christian faith and sense of public duty. Herbert wrote of William’s quiet Christianity after his death:
When he was nine he asked for a Bible. His mother, thinking it best for a beginning, gave him a New Testament. Will was not at all satisfied, so the Bible was given to him. The Bible was in singular degree the foundation of his character. He read it regularly, marking the passages which struck him. It was his constant companion. No one, not even his mother, knew what it was to him throughout his life. It is rare, indeed, to find a boy who in complete privacy reads and studies the Bible. The Psalms had a special hold on him, and in scarcely less degree Job, Proverbs, Isaiah, some of the shorter Epistles and the Revelation.
All the leading passages on purity, peace, rectitude, fortitude, self-sacrifice, quietness, justice, mercy, faithfulness, personal conduct and duty to God, are marked….He re-read carefully, pencilling out his own marks if a passage did not seem to convey a sufficient lesson.
The Bible is the key to his character…moral truths and a never-wavering belief in God held him from the first, and guided him from day-to-day.
William Glynne Charles Gladstone, with his grandfather Prime Minister.
Educated at Eton and at New College, Oxford, William developed his debating skills as president of the Oxford Union, and gained a second class honours in History. In 1906 he took over the management of the family estate at Hawarden, Flintshire. However before committing himself to becoming the fourth generation of his family to serve as an MP, he decided that he needed a wider experience of the world, and visited Ireland, India, Japan and the USA.
Returning to the UK in 1911, William was successful in a by-election at Kilmarnock Burghs. He was described as
The death of the sitting Liberal MP caused a by-election in the Kilmarnock Burghs in September 1911, for which Gladstone was asked to stand. He was elected with an unexpectedly large majority. One Scottish observer praised his abilities as a speaker, noting that:
He has a ready wit, a caustic humour, and, like his great namesake, deep, silent convictions that make him, on occasion, blaze into righteous indignation.
In 1912 he spoke in support of the Home Rule for Ireland Bill, a cause to which his grandfather had been committed.
When war broke out in 1914, he used his position as Lord Lieutenant of Flintshire to campaign for recruits for the armed services. Despite admitting to his uncle that ‘far from having the least inclination for military service, I dread it and dislike it intensely’, he led by example and enlisted himself.
Second Lieutenant W.G.C. Gladstone, Royal Welsh Fusiliers
Although he initially considered joining as a private, as he did not consider himself a natural soldier, he was persuaded to seek a commission, and became a 2nd Lieutenant in the Royal Welsh Fusiliers. After completing his training in Wrexham, William left for France for the front on 15th March 1915.
He wrote back home to his mother of his first experience of trench life:
On 11th April he moved up to the front line near Laventle. He began to write a letter to his mother, describing the `whistle of stray bullets’ above the trenches and being awoken at 4am for the stand to, ready for a dawn attack.
Tragically these were the final words William wrote. Two days later one of those snipers’ bullets entered his head. Having lain wounded, but apparently painless, for two hours, his life slipped away.
The unfinished letter was returned to his mother.
Having initially been buried in France, special permission was granted by King George V for his body to be brought back to the United Kingdom. Nine days after his death, his body was disinterred and re-buried in the churchyard of St Deniol’s at Hawarden, Wales. The village came to a standstill as thousands came out to pay their respects.
W.G.C. Gladstones Funeral
William Gladstone’s case prompted Fabian Ware to set up the Imperial War Graves Commission, realising the impossibility of repatriated all of the growing number of war dead, that all should be equal in death and be buried near to where they fell in the publicly managed war cemeteries which evoke such emotions today.
Herbert Gladstone’s book concludes:
I am led to reflect that we live in a generation of a political class which does not always appear to have the same commitment to public service as shown by William Glynne Charles Gladstone and dozens of his colleagues. Furthermore, for many that commitment to the service of others was to a large degree fuelled by a Christian faith. Two notable members of the generation which saw action in the First World War, Winston Churchill about whose relationship with Christianity I have blogged here and Clement Attlee, would marshal that sense of Christendom as Prime Minister and Deputy Prime Minister twenty years later. Once again, to fully appreciate the culture of the generation which went to war in 1914, and the succeeding generation which fought a reprise from 1939 onwards, an acknowledgement of the pervasiveness of Christianity needs to be made.
If you would like to find out more about the different ways in which Christianity could be interpreted across the political and faith spectrum, you may be interested in my book, Fight the Good Fight: Voices of Faith from the First World War. It contains a foreword by the aforementioned Dan Jarvis MP, Labour’s spokesman on war commemoration. For a signed copy priced at £16 plus £4 p+p please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.