A treasure trove of diaries and letters charting one man’s experiences in the Great War are to go on display at Scotney Castle in Kent today – 100 years to the day that he first went to war.
When Ray Shayler and his fellow volunteers began clearing out one of the attic rooms of the Victorian house at National Trust property Scotney Castle, little did they know they would uncover a time capsule holding the personal effects of one of the former inhabitants of the house, including diary entries from almost every day of the First World War.
Scotney Castle is a country house that overlooks a romantic and labyrinthian garden and 14th century moated castle. It remained in the ownership of the aristocratic Hussey family for three generations until it was bequeathed to the National Trust in 1970, and Brigidier General Arthur Herbert Hussey, whose memorabilia was found, was the son of Edward Hussey III, the man who built the house that stands here today.
Inside the black tin box that Shayler and his team found were 11 diaries and over 160 letters, written both in the run up to and during the First World War, as well as photographs and battle plans belonging to Arthur. These artefacts have now been turned into a fascinating exhibition, Arthur’s War, charting the First World War as seen through the eyes of Arthur, and how his experiences compared with those of other men who joined the war effort from the nearby village of Lamberhurst.
Although the original copies of all the artefacts and their black box are kept safe in a display case in the library, visitors can sit down at a table with facsimiles and typings of some of his original diary extracts and letters; you can even take a selection and sit in one of the comfy armchairs by the fire. A lovely touch that really enables you to delve into Arthur’s story.
Most of the letters are to Arthur’s beloved sister Getrude, and give slightly more away about Arthur’s character than his diaries, which come across as quite emotionless, such as when he describes the Armistice on 11 November 1918, an event than many celebrated emphatically, but which Arthur described very matter-of-factly:
“Armistice has been signed. We heard it about 8am and received it with curious apathy, partly I suppose because we had been expecting it. Hostilities ceased at 11am.”
Of course, unlike many of his men and indeed his close friend Siegfried Sassoon – who wrote very differently of his war experiences – who signed up through a sense of patriotic duty, as a career soldier Arthur was all too familiar with the brutalities of war.
Describing the historic find, Ray Shayler said: “When it [the black box] was first found it was locked and we had no key to see what it contained. We had no idea that it would help to highlight how senior officers conducted the war or fill in the blanks of one of the Hussey family members.
“It’s been fantastic to be part of the work to turn this chance discovery into an exhibition – we’re all hoping we find more inspiring objects in the attic.”
The Arthur’s War exhibition will run until 22 March 2015 and is the first of what is hoped to be many exhibits showing the hidden collections of Scotney Castle.
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