Penny McMahon, Outreach Archivist at the Parliamentary Archives, on William Leveson-Gower a Parliamentary clerk eager to serve his country during the First World War whose personal papers and story are featured in their exhibition, Parliament & the First World War
Before joining the army at the outbreak of the First World War, William Leveson-Gower was a clerk in the House of Lords Journal Office, which maintains records of membership and business of the House of Lords and compiles the Journals of the House (the authoritative record of proceedings). Working here, he had a unique insight into the political developments unfolding in the years up to World War One.
In a diary entry he made on May 21 1914, he wrote: ‘There was a scene last night in the House and things look worse than ever for our distracted country. It seems almost inevitable that within a few weeks we shall some of us have to reach momentous decisions and choose between alternatives every of which involves consequences of unthinkable horror.’
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As a junior officer in the Inns of Court Officer Training Corps, Leveson-Gower’s first job in the War was training troops in Canterbury, but by late 1916 he had been transferred to a staff job in Brentwood, Essex. The position was very much a nine to five role, dealing with paperwork and administrative duties. These years spent in England seem to have sheltered him from the hardship and realities of life at the front, but the routine was one of boredom.
Throughout his diaries and letters from 1916 he expressed a strong urge to travel abroad and see combat duty. In October 1916 he wrote:
‘Staff work is very different and is one thing after another and it requires an effort both to keep human and to keep fit…I often wonder also whether I oughtn’t to make a move and get back to regimental life and get abroad, before I become the complete civilian clerk.’
In the same month he attempted to join an attachment of the Indian Cavalry but was unsuccessful. Then on September 10 1918 he travelled to France to join the 1st Battalion Coldstream Guards. He was quickly appointed a Company Commander, an ambition he described as being ‘beyond my wildest dreams.’
On arrival Leveson-Gower fond life ‘very civilised’ and there was even a band to entertain troops before dinner. In a letter to his father on September 17 he stated: ‘We had the most delightful four days here; nothing to do but to enjoy the good things in life.’
But the administration duties soon returned and Leveson-Gower was put to work censoring soldiers’ home-bound letters. During the First World War more than 12 million letters were sent home each week to friends and family and there were strict rules on what could and could not be included.
The main fear for Military Command was revealing operational details that the enemy could benefit from. Other prohibited information included criticism of superiors, troop numbers and even the weather as this could indicate the conditions soldiers were experiencing.
But the danger of the trenches was never far away and as Leveson-Gower’s company drew closer to the enemy, the destruction caused by artillery bombardment and trench warfare became apparent and in a letter to a friend the young officer described the devastation that lay before them:
‘… to the East of us everything is desolation and outer darkness, trenches, and heaps of stone where there used to be villages…’
On October 9, as his troops approached German trenches in the vicinity of Forenville near Cambrai, an enemy shell landed nearby killing him instantly.
Leveson Gower served at the front for less than a month before being killed. Peace was declared a month later.
A significant part of the collection at the Parliamentary Archives is the collated and bound books of condolences that his father received – and documents relating to the search for his war grave.
Parliament and the First World War is at Westminster Hall, Houses of Parliament until September 28 2017. See more at www.parliament.uk/ww1
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