Video and gallery: ‘It was all grand and yet awful’ – Exhibition uncovers First World War stories from the Holkham estate
A First World War exhibition is about to be unveiled at Holkham, exploring the service and sacrifices of the Earl of Leicester’s family, and the conflict’s impact throughout the north Norfolk village.
Killed in action: Arthur Coke
Arthur Coke, grandfather of the present Earl of Leicester, spent his early service days in the Royal Navy before moving to the Horse Guards and seeing action in Flanders in the first Battle of Ypres.
The exhibition features extracts from letters which he wrote from the front. One says: “7th November: Yesterday, I had my first experience of real fighting – a French regiment had lost all its officers and the Germans broke through. We galloped to their help and then dismounted and drove the retreating French back who then fought splendidly... I always thought I might rather funk it... it was all grand and yet awful.”
At the end of 1914, Arthur transferred to the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve Armoured Cars, and was stationed in Lemnos, a Greek island used by the allies as a base to try to capture the Dardanelles Straits. With the cars waiting for action, Arthur volunteered to help man the SS River Clyde which was the first troop ship to put men ashore at ‘V’ beach on the Gallipoli peninsula.
He was put in charge of five machine guns in the bows. The battle lasted for 13 hours, but despite heavy losses the beach landing held. Arthur described this action as: “The greatest day of my life.” He went on to join the battle for Krithia, but was killed on May 2, 1915.
Throughout his time in Gallipoli, Arthur was accompanied by his faithful Airedale terrier, Jack.
Following his master’s death, Jack was brought home to Holkham by Arthur’s fellow officers. The dog lived out his days at the estate and was buried near the orangery in 1918.
The indiscriminate hardships inflicted by the Great War reached into every corner of our communities – and the village of Holkham was certainly no exception.
But an exhibition opening next week also proves that the conflict’s sacrifices spanned all social classes too, from the sons of an Earl to the labourers in his fields.
The display at Holkham Hall explores how the war affected one of Norfolk’s most prominent families, as the 3rd Earl of Leicester’s three sons left their ancestral home to fight in some of the most pivotal battles of the war. One of them, Arthur Coke, was killed at Gallipoli. But the exhibition also aims to tell the stories of more than 90 Holkham men who are commemorated on the estate’s Roll of Honour, through personal letters, archives, books, photographs and artefacts.
Among the relics on display are bayonets, a German flare gun, a traditional British steel helmet and the medals earned by Tom, Roger and Arthur Coke during their campaigns on land, sea and air across Europe.
Tom, a veteran of the Boer War, was recalled into the Scots Guards when war broke out in 1914. He fought with his brother Arthur at Ypres and later witnessed the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1918. Roger, the youngest, served in the Royal Navy and became a flight commander with the Royal Navy Air Service, rigging airships for action.
But the most poignant tale is that of Arthur, whose devotion to duty led to his death in April 1915.
His great grandson Viscount Coke, the current custodian of the family estate, said: “The making of this exhibition has been fascinating. I knew a fair bit about my great grandfather Arthur’s service and his ultimate death at Gallipoli, but we have unearthed so much more about his brothers’ involvement in the war and that of many other Holkham men and women. I challenge our visitors not to be moved by it.
“As a former soldier myself, it moves me because I know from experience the trials and the suffering that soldiers go through. The Great War was one hell of a sacrifice and the way it was fought, with 19th-century tactics and 20th-century weapons, was calamitous.
“For Arthur, it was definitely about duty. He described the landing of soldiers off his troop ship as the greatest day of his life. He realised the importance to land those troops successfully. I felt the same when I served in Northern Ireland. It is the feeling you get when you believe that you are doing an important job.
“So I understand why he called it the greatest day of his life, but it must have been one of the most frightening as well. He was killed just a few days later.”
The exhibition also describes life on Holkham’s home front, with one account describing how the Countess of Leicester sent a message to the First Sea Lord, Winston Churchill, enquiring about her son, Lt Roger Coke. Churchill’s reassuring telegram sent in reply, which is one of the exhibits, says: “Roger still in (HMS) Indomitable and now chasing the German battlecruiser Goeben.”
Much of the information was researched and collated by a team led by Colin Shearer, the hall’s collections and security manager, who was assisted by room steward Mac Graham. Mr Graham said: “What I think is really fascinating is telling the social story. Of course we have got to commemorate those who died, but beyond that there was a world that was just carrying on with all the mundane problems about how the estate would keep running while all the fit men had gone to fight. All the male staff from the hall had volunteered, so they had parlour maids taking on the role of butlers.”
The wartime exhibition at Holkham is complemented by two specially-commissioned features in the courtyard, showcasing the creative talent of students from Norwich University of the Arts.
NUA students Andrew Rhodes, 32, from Lowestoft and Jason Billman, 29, from King’s Lynn, spent a week building a two-thirds scale profile of a Mark V tank, and a 20ft painted representation of a trench in the Somme battlefield, complete with three painted soldiers, grimly preparing to go “over the top”.
The exhibition at Holkham Hall, called Duty Calls: Holkham 1914 to 1918, will be open to visitors from April 1 until the end of October. For more details see www.holkham.co.uk.