IT’S one of England’s finest tourist attractions. But few people are aware of the role Blenheim Palace in Woodstock played in wartime. Matt Oliver went along to its new exhibition A Great Estate at War: Land, Sea and Air to find out more
WHEN the First World War broke out on July 28, 1914, a generation of young men put themselves forward to serve their country in the armed forces.
It may be 100 years ago but the impact of that conflict is still keenly felt today and that applies to the noble families of Oxfordshire too.
Blenheim Palace, more commonly known as the birthplace of Prime Minister Sir Winston Churchill, became a convalescent hospital for wounded soldiers and there is a recreation of a section of this hospital at a new exhibition at the palace which runs until April.
What is today the Long Library, considered to be one of the finest rooms in the house, was occupied by a medical ward after the war broke out and visitors to the special exhibition will get the chance to see some of the authentic medical equipment of the time donated by the Red Cross.
- Large scale models of planes used by the Royal Flying Corps
Just like those who worked the grounds of the Blenheim estate, the men of the Marlborough family joined up and went to war.
Now their stories will be told, side by side, at the exhibition which has just opened.
It marks the centenary of the First World War and also features extracts from war diaries of Oscar Guest, one of the “flying cousins” of the 9th Duke of Marlborough, Charles Spencer-Churchill, who was in the Royal Flying Corps in France.
Never before seen, the diaries reveal a fascinating insight into the life of Guest who flew on many reconnaissance and combat missions before being seriously wounded.
The duke’s sons John and Ivor Spencer-Churchill, known as Lord Blandford and Lord Ivor respectively, also did their bit for the war effort.
In fact Sir Winston wrote about the actions of the brothers, who were his cousins, in his diary.
He described how Lord Blandford, the future Duke who was sent to France, came under sporadic attack by German shells while staying in the village of Jeancourt in May 1917.
- John Albert Spencer Churchill, Lord Blandford, who later became the 10th Duke of Marlborough. He was in the Life Guards from 1916-18
On the same trip, Sir Winston, then Lloyd George’s Minister of Munitions, was accompanied by Lord Ivor, who although medically unfit for active duty, had been serving in the Royal Army Service Corps.
The later wartime Prime Minister was said to have commented that Lord Ivor had stood up very well to the noise and conditions in the trenches.
A reconstructed trench is just one of the exhibits on show, faithfully recreated by modern-day staff at Blenheim.
A family tree, on display, shows men from every branch of the family either fighting in the air, in the trenches or at sea, including a snapshot of Sir Winston’s frontline service.
The “formidable ladies of Blenheim” also get their moment, with sections dedicated to their contribution.
Everyone who lived and worked on the estate was changed by the conflict and that is reflected in tales of the heroism of local people and the joy when they came home.
One example is Captain George Woodford, whose father and brother both worked for the duke as did he as well. He was awarded the Military Cross by King George V at Buckingham Palace after the war for “conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty.”
- Captain George W Woodford, third from right, front row, and below, who won the Military Cross (MC) while serving in the Queen’s Own Oxfordshire Hussars. He later followed in his father’s footsteps and became a tenant farmer of the 9th Duke
It was said to be for his extreme valour when he came under fire delivering supplies to the often-targeted communications trenches.
At the end of the display is a tribute to Lt Col Rupert Thorneloe of the 1st Battalion of the Welsh Guards – the highest ranking army officer killed in Afghanistan in recent times.
Lt Col Thorneloe, who grew up in Kirtlington and also worked at Blenheim as a teenager, was killed in an explosion near Lashkar Gah, Helmand Province, in July 2009.
He is survived by his wife, Sally, and two daughters, Hannah and Sophie.
His uniform has been lent to the exhibition by parents, John and Veronica Thorneloe.
- Karen Wiseman with the display commemorating Lt Col Rupert Thorneloe MBE
Though a modern display could seem out of place, Karen Wiseman, head of education at Blenheim and mastermind of proceedings, said it was a conscious choice to link the wars of the past and present.
She said: “I wanted to remind people that even though we are not in a war like the First World War, we are still in a war.
“It must have been very difficult for Veronica to get out Rupert’s old uniform, but bless her that she did.”
Lt Col Thorneloe’s colleague and friend in the Welsh Guards, Lt Col Giles Harris, has also shared his thoughts on the exhibition.
He said: “It is very moving and a reminder of a soldier’s position in the national construct.
“Some generations are called to arms and some are not.
“What stands them apart from us is how World War One affected a whole generation. I think now we go into things with our eyes a little more open.”
In line with this year’s centenary theme, cash collected at the exhibition will go to Help For Heroes. So far more than £400 has been raised. The exhibition will be on show in the Gallery Room Stables Courtyard until April 21.
- Entry to the exhibition is included in the price of entry to the palace, park and gardens or free for annual pass holders. Entry prices for the palace, park and gardens start at £11.80 for children.
A LUCKY ESCAPE
Extract from the diary of “flying cousin” Oscar Guest, Friday November 26, 1915:
“On the way home over Ypres [we] were attacked by a Fokker Monoplane Scout. He came on us suddenly from the right and as luck would have it both our guns were fixed on the left pointing forwards. I heard his guns firing and turned right but he got round behind me and left them firing merrily, so I nose-dived and he went away. He got within 50 yards of us. On landing we found the machine was pretty full of holes... great luck we were not trenched.”
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