Wartime tales of heartache and heroism at Chatsworth

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A new wartime exhibition at Chatsworth House offers a fascinating glimpse into our past. Chris Bond reports.

WHEN Britain found itself dragged into the Great War in the late summer of 1914, the response to Lord Kitchener’s call to arms was astonishing.

Around 30,000 men enlisted every day in August and by the middle of September half a million people had volunteered to join the army. They came from all walks of life and to mark the centenary of the start of this conflict, as well as the 75th anniversary of the outbreak of the Second World War, Chatsworth House has launched a new exhibition, Chatsworth in Wartime, which tells the story of the historic country estate during these wartime years.

“We’re not trying to tell the story of the wars, but rather the story of Chatsworth and what was happening here on the home front,” says exhibition curator Hannah Obee.

“Men and women were involved in the war effort and what’s really important is the individual stories, so it’s not just the story of the Devonshires but also the people who worked here.”

Both estate workers and members of the Devonshire family fought on the front line, from the Somme to Gallipoli, and the exhibition tells some of their stories.

Bullets and bombs have no respect for rank and background and both the Duke and Duchess lost brothers early on in the war, while Edward Cavendish, later the 10th Duke of Devonshire, fought at Gallipoli in 1915.

“He was a member of the Derbyshire Yeomanry and he fought at the same time as a gardener from Chatsworth. We’re fortunate to have the duke’s boots and greatcoat from the war along with his medals and we also have lots of letters and photographs,” says Obee.

Cavendish was later invalided back home, but not everyone escaped with their lives. “Twenty-five workers from the estate died on the front line which is a significant loss and shows the scale of the human tragedy.”

Chatsworth itself played an important role during the conflict. “One of the buildings, which is now the state office, was turned into a hospital and sailors who had been badly burned were sent here to convalesce. They enjoyed good meals and had access to the pubs in Bakewell which they no doubt enjoyed. The only thing they didn’t seem to enjoy was being massaged with olive oil, because it brought them out in spots.”

Obee believes these people and their stories are worth honouring and remembering. “Chatsworth contributed men, timber and food. Part of the estate was given over to the army for training and to help men convalesce, so it really did play a significant role.”

Chatsworth in Wartime runs until December 23 this year. For more information call 01246 565 300.