Sylvia Vetta sees how the palace is commemorating the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War

Blenheim Palace reopens on February 15 with ‘A Great Estate at War – Land, Sea and Air’, an exhibition to mark the First World War centenary year. Tapping into the popularity of an upstairs/downstairs view of early 20th-century life, the exhibition will tell war-related stories of both the Marlborough family members and the workers on the Blenheim Estate. The exhibition will be held in the recently renovated Gallery Room in the Stables Courtyard.

In one Downton series, the abbey was turned into a hospital. That happened for real at Blenheim. The long gallery became home for wounded soldiers, and the photographs of that convalescent hospital are among the most fascinating in this exhibition. A small section of the hospital will be recreated in the Long Gallery with the help of medical equipment from the time, kindly donated by the Red Cross.

The stories of the war across land, sea and air are brought to life using original props, scale models of early planes from Farnborough, costumed characters, video, and a display of original paintings. Most ambitious is the section of a trench built within the gallery — but without the mud! Visitors will be able to get in and look through a periscope at the reality of the trenches.

The upstairs stories include the ‘flying cousins’, relations of the Marlborough family who served in the Royal Flying Corps in France flying over the trenches and behind enemy lines. The Royal Flying Corps was the precursor to the RAF. One of the cousins, Oscar Guest, flew on reconnaissance and combat missions over no-man’s-land and behind German lines. One exhibit is an original propeller from a Sopwith Camel. There is a small section on Winston Churchill’s service on the front.

Many of the downstairs estate workers of the appropriate age were recruited into the Queen’s Own Oxfordshire Hussars (QOOH). These men were part-time soldiers, the equivalent of today’s Territorial Army. Many others joined The Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry.

A wedding photograph shows George Woodford, a tenant farmer on the Blenheim estate, marrying head dairy maid Christina McDuff in 1911 before George was sent to the front with the QOOH.

In 2014, A Great Estate at War – Land, Sea and Air is likely to be the first of many commemorations of the First World War and it is appropriate that Blenheim is honouring the brave and the fallen. It will not romanticise the trenches — the QOOH were at Ypres in 1915 when the Germans first used gas as a weapon. Anyone who has read the poems of Wilfred Owen can visualise the ghastly effects of the use of poison gas and picture the trenches in stark reality as places of rats, mud, disease and death.

George Woodford was lucky to survive while delivering supplies to the often targeted communications trenches. He was awarded the Military Cross for extreme valour under fire. One can imagine Christina’s joy when George came home. The war affected everyone who lived and worked on the estate and the exhibition will also give an insight into the changes brought by war.

The exhibition does not leave out the women of Blenheim, from the Marlborough family and the estate who literally kept the ‘home fires burning’.

First World War Exhibition
Blenheim Palace, Woodstock
February 15-April 21