There has been talk recently about the new Viscount Stansgate seeking to enter the House of Lords. His father, Tony Benn, famously resigned his peerage in the 1960s after the first Viscount Stansgate died. William Wedgwood Benn, the first Viscount Stansgate was more than just a politician – he was a bona vide hero of the Great War.
William Wedgwood Benn was born in Hackney in 1877, the son of publisher and politician Sir John Williams Benn and Elizabeth (nee Pickstone), who was distantly related to the Wedgwood pottery family. Benn was elected as Liberal MP for St George’s (made up of Wapping and St George’s in the East), for which his father had been MP in 1892-95 (Sir John was MP for Devonport in Plymouth 1904-10); the younger Benn became a party whip in the House of Commons from 1910.
The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography describes his extraordinary war experiences after leaving behind the more conventional charity-organising work that an MP aged nearly 30 would be expected to undertake in wartime:
“In 1912 he successfully organized relief of suffering during the dock strike and two years later, when war broke out, he became chairman of the organizing committee of the National Relief Fund.
In October, when over £2 million had already been raised, Benn answered an inner call and resigned this post to apply for active service. Despite his short stature, he secured a commission in the Middlesex yeomanry. He took part in the fierce fighting on the heights above Suvla Bay in August 1915, during the Gallipoli campaign, and later became an observer with the Royal Naval Air Service; he participated in the pinpoint bombing of the Baghdad railway. Among his other exploits was to be rescued from a sinking aeroplane in the Mediterranean, and to be aboard an improvised aircraft-carrier sunk by shore batteries at Castelorizo. He also commanded a party of French sailors in guerrilla activities against the Turks and served in authorized privateering in the Red Sea, before returning to Britain to qualify as a pilot.”
When David Lloyd George replaced H.H. Asquith as Prime Minister in late 1916, Benn was offered the job of Chief Whip (a pivotal behind-the-scenes role in Government), but he turned it down – apparently because he did not trust David Lloyd George. Although he was 40 years old – much older than most wartime trainee pilots, who were generally in their late teens or early twenties – Benn went through his training and became an operational pilot. Much of his work still as an observer.
He then went out to Italy, where he earned a string of medals for bravery and good service. In 1917, he was awarded the Distinguished Service Order. Working with the Italian army, he and another British pilot organised and carried out the first parachute drop of a secret service agent over enemy lines. The story is told in Robert Kershaw’s book Sky Men:
“In mid-1918 an old Savoia-Pomlio SP4 biplane piloted by two British fliers, Lieutenant Colonel W Barker and Captain William Wedgwood Benn, flew over the Piave River in darkness. Fixed searchlight beams guided them towards the approaching Austrian lines. Nervously sitting in the back with a brave face was Italian agent Allessandro Tandura, attached to a black-canopy Guardian Angel parachute fixed to an iron frame beneath the undercarriage. To drop accurately on targets in total darkness, Wedgwood Benn explained: ‘We arranged that the agent should sit in a cockpit on a trap-door hinged at the sides and opening in the middle. This floor was held in place by bolts controlled by a rope connected with the observer’s seat. The result was that it was the observer who decided when the bolt was to be drawn and the agent, waiting presumably with some qualms, at the right moment found himself suddenly with nothing under him and thus launched into the future.’
“Several attempts with dummies had taken place and the uneasy Tandura was instructed to fold his arms on nearing the objective. His predicament was closely akin to the hangman’s drop. Wedgwood Benn dryly added: ‘with little required of the agent other than exceptional fortitude, it was not thought necessary to train him in the art of parachuting. Two hand-dropped bombs were lobbed out to aid deception. Barker, piloting the aircraft, gave the signal and slowed to stalling speed, while Wedgewood Benn jerked the trap-door handle: ‘I pull, and wait. No jerk, no apparent result. The bolts have stuck” I pull again. The wire slacks with a rush, the machine shivers and resumes its course. For good or ill, Tandura is gone.’
“Tandura survived the experience and successfully completed his mission.”
In September 1918, Benn was awarded the new gallantry medal for bravery in the air, the Distinguished Flying Cross. The citation reads:
“A gallant observer of exceptional ability. After setting out on a bombing raid, the Scout machines assigned to act as an escort became separated, and it then became necessary for the bombing planes to proceed on their task without support. Captain Benn’s machine took the lead, followed by three other bombers, and succeeded in dropping his bombs (direct hits) on an enemy aerodrome. On the return journey the bombing machines were attacked by several enemy scouts, which were eventually driven away. Recently, this officer organised and carried out a special flight by night over the enemy’s lines, under most difficult circumstances, with conspicuous success. He has at all times set a splendid example of courage”
In November 1918, he was awarded the Italian Bronze Medal for Military Valour. As well as this and his British awards, he also earned the Italian War Cross and the French Croix de Guerre and was made a chevalier of the Légion d’honneur. By the Armistice, Benn had served in all three of Britain’s armed forces: the Middlesex Yeomanry in the army, the Royal Naval Air Service, and the newly-formed Royal Air Force.
In December 1918, there was another election (delayed by the war since 1915 and called quickly by Lloyd George after the Armistice). Benn, still not keen on Lloyd George, stood as a non-Coalition Liberal in Leith, Scotland, after the boundary reforms of 1918 had abolished his St George’s seat. He remained a Liberal MP until 1927 when he left the party; as a Labour MP he was Secretary of State for India in 1929-31. Although out of Parliament from 1931, he won a by-election in 1937. He rejoined the RAF in 1940 and was made an Air Commodore, he was also made a Viscount in 1942 to increase the number of Labour peers in the (predominantly Conservative) House of Lords. As Viscount Stansgate he worked on planning the reconstruction of Italy and after the 1945 he became Secretary of State for Air before being reshuffled out of that post the next year.
William Wedgwood Been died in 1960. His two eldest sons had served as pilots in the Second World War: Michael, the eldest and therefore the heir to the peerage, earned the DFC but died of wounds in 1944. Tony therefore became the heir and helped to change the constitution by refusing to take his seat in the House of Lords as the Second Viscount Stansgate after his father’s death in 1960. Tony Benn had been MP for Bristol South East for ten years and the voters there re-elected him despite the fact that he was disqualified from sitting in the Commons. The man who came second (Conservative Malcolm St Clair) took the seat and promised to give it up if Benn was able to disclaim his peerage; Benn did so after the Peerage Act 1963 allowed him to, and St Clair gave up his seat to Benn by resigning to prompt a by-election.
Now that Tony Benn has died, his eldest son (Stephen) is the Third Viscount Stansgate but is not currently a member of the House of Lords. Ninety-two hereditary peers are entitled to sit in the House, alongside the more numerous Life Peers; hereditary peers are replaced through by-elections when they die, so Stansgate may have a wait on his hands to replace one of the two Labour hereditaries currently in the House.
William Wedgwood Benn had an extraordinary Great War. He could have stayed at home and helped to steer vital legislation through the House of Commons as a whip and later as Chief Whip, but instead he served in all three armed forces and earned a staggering array of medals for his bravery and good work.