Voices from the front line

Chris Ridgway, curator at Castle Howard, looks at some of the documents  from the estate's archive from WW1
Chris Ridgway, curator at Castle Howard, looks at some of the documents from the estate's archive from WW1
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Castle Howard is taking part in a campaign to mark the centenary of the day that Britain went to war and has produced a book chronicling its wartime stories. Chris Bond reports.

STANDING in his uniform James Mitchell cuts a somewhat awkward-looking figure.

While the man next to him stands straight-backed his gaze fixed firmly in the direction of the camera, Mitchell squints through his glasses not quite knowing where to put his hands, his gangly frame perched against the doorway.

The photograph was taken on a wintry day in 1915 outside the estate office at Castle Howard, in North Yorkshire, where he worked as a clerk. It was discovered by Christopher Ridgway, curator at the stately home, while researching his new book Duty Calls – Castle Howard And The Great War, which chronicles its role in the conflict.

Mitchell’s story is one of those featured in the book. “He had been orphaned and the countess [Rosalind Howard] took him under her wing, helping towards his education and then training him to work on the estate,” he says.

Although Mitchell was short-sighted he decided to enlist, despite attempts by his bosses to dissuade him. But rather than struggling to cope with life at the front he thrived. “He’s quickly promoted to second lieutenant and then acting captain with a hundred men under him.”

In a letter to a friend in Cumbria in November, 1916, he described life at the front: “Our work goes on just the same – the same monotonous trenches – the sludge and the dirt that is everywhere. We had a sharp frost and a bit of sleet yesterday but a thaw has set in again and of course there go our trenches knee deep.

“It is an endless task and a heart-breaking one keeping the trenches clean but the men are ever cheerful. It is one of the features out here – the way the men behave. They grumble often but always good-naturedly. I have the greatest admiration for them. They are splendid.”

However, his story, like so many others, ended in tragedy. In March 1917, he died from his injuries after a fellow officer accidentally dropped a grenade in their trench. Mitchell attempted to pick it up but it exploded before he could throw it away.

Just six days earlier he had sent a postcard home in which he marked that he was “quite well” and this is now among the items that tell Castle Howard’s wartime story. “It looks terribly dull written with a pencil on buff colour paper. But then you see the date and less than a week later he’s dead.”

Among his personal belongings sent back to Yorkshire were five pairs of spectacles, a poignant symbol of his determination to do his bit for the war effort.

It wasn’t just the workers and tenants who went off to help the war effort, members of the Howard family did, too. Geoffrey Howard was an MP when war broke out and despite the fact he had a glass eye, the result of a childhood accident, he took a commission in the Royal Naval Brigade, spending six months in France where he organised fleets of buses to ferry soldiers from the ports to the front line.

He survived the war but his younger brother, Michael, wasn’t so fortunate. Although a brave and popular officer his drinking problems led to repeated disciplinary actions and he had been demoted to the ranks by the time he was killed at Passchendaele in October 1917.

As well as producing a book, Castle Howard is running a wartime exhibition throughout the remainder of this year, drawing on its rich archives of documents, letters and photographs.

Ridgway discovered some interesting facts during his research. “The Women’s Land Army didn’t come here but there was a German PoW camp set up on the edge of the estate and I didn’t know of any of this when I started out,” he says.

Many of those who worked on the estate came from nearby villages including Coneysthorpe, Bulmer and Slingsby and their war memorials record the names of those who answered the call of duty.

Not all of them were killed. James Prest was one of those who returned home. His family were tenants at Lime Kiln Farm in Coneysthorpe. He joined the Army in 1916 at the age of 20, leaving his two brothers to run the farm. In March 1918 he was captured during a British attack at Morchies in France and spent the rest of the war as a prisoner of war in Belgium.

While a prisoner he kept a secret diary, noting everything from the weather to the food they were given, and compiling a list of useful French words at the back of the book.

He was eventually released two days after the Armistice, although by this time he was emaciated and had to be nursed back to health by a Belgian doctor. Like many veterans, Prest never spoke of his wartime experiences, and it was only after his death that his family, some of whom still live in the local area today, discovered the diary recording his ordeal as a prisoner.

As part of the nationwide Lights Out initiative Castle Howard has teamed up with Ryedale District Council to commemorate its First World War story. At 10pm next Monday, to coincide with events taking place across the country, the gilt lantern on its famous dome will be illuminated with a single light that will be visible for miles around.

Ridgway believes the idea of people turning off their lights and lighting a candle is a fitting way to mark the moment, a century ago, that Britain declared war against Germany.

“Everybody’s history clock is ticking with 1914 and this metaphor of light and dark is something that everyone can relate to,” he says.

“So if someone is switching their lights off in Cornwall and they know people are doing the same thing in Yorkshire, or Suffolk at the same time, then there’s a sense of it being a national thing.

“Most of us are only one generation away from family who were involved in the war and this is a piece of history people can understand.”