Several summers past, I sat down in the study in the Castle to write “Lady Almina and the Real Downton Abbey”: a story about Highclere before, during and after the First World War. By the end of June, I was writing about the Battle of the Somme which was actually launched on July 1st 1916.
Historical statistics relate that one million men were killed or wounded, but how can we imagine the lost sons, husbands and brothers? I was also writing about Almina’s hospital at Highclere, the nursing and the world of medicine, the attempts to heal. I read that 400 British surgeons were also killed in the first few days of the Battle of the Somme – what a loss of knowledge which could have helped others. I spent much of the time near tears.
Apart from carefully chronicling facts and the course of the battles, I read again the poetry of Sassoon, Rosenberg, Owen, Kipling…about the futility of war, the pointlessness, the tragic heroism. Wilfred Owen wrote “My subject is War, and the pity of War.The Poetry is in the pity”.
I was not sure it mattered which side you were on and I read German poetry as well. The fighting was in Holland, in France, in Belgium, in Germany, in Greece, in the Balkans, at sea and outside Europe as well. All of Europe was involved. A little later, in 1939, the war continued in another global version with unbelievable horrors, at the end of which the impetus was to stand together, finally.
In 2014 we gathered a few thousand people together at Highclere to mark the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War. The idea was to raise money together for today’s victims of war. It was an extraordinary day as Ambassadors and representatives from the EU as well as Commonwealth countries all arrived. The Luxembourg Ambassador arrived to find his flag to one side of the Castle’s front door. It was very positive to work with the cultural part of the EU.
The Australian baritone, Morgan Pearse , sang “Silent Night” and we replayed a football match. Appropriately England and Germany drew. Last December we tried a new fundraising day called “Songs of Peace” which we will be holding again this year. Through gathering a few hundred people together we hope to raise money for those struggling with shelter and food in refugee camps. We have already linked up with others to do the same, just trying to sing the same songs or hymns…
I have personally found the last week rather depressing and it has just made me very sad. I presume that even football may be further challenged and inspiring mangers such as Claudio Ranieri may no longer be able to work here….
However, I do hope we remember the words:
“If you break faith with us who die we shall not sleep
though poppies grow in Flanders fields”