led to the
high toll of
World War I.
relax on the grounds
at Highclere Castle.
The 5th Earl of Carnarvon was also known as
Motor Carnarvon. He owned cars, which he
constantly drove over the legal speed limit. Not
long after Queen Victoria’s funeral, he had a
serious accident, and Almina nursed him back to
health. She found that she enjoyed nursing and
was suited for it.
When war broke out three years later, Almina used
her love for nursing to turn the Castle into a
Almina appointed Dr. Marcus Johnson, the family’s
personal physician, to be medical director of the
new facility. A GP, he moved into the Castle on
August 12, 1914. He was a good choice, and the
two worked together well.
She hired 30 nurses, mostly Irish and mostly good-
looking. She thought it would be good for morale.
She had uniforms made for them with starched
white aprons and caps, and a high-fashion
uniform designed for herself of fine wool in
cheerful crushed-strawberry pink, which she wore
throughout the war.
The maids at Highclere doubled up in their
bedrooms to make room for the nurses. Everyone
had an increased load. It was like moving a
permanent house party of 50 into the castle. But
everyone was eager to do what they could for the
Almina recognized the importance of comfort to the
healing process. She had blinds made to install
on south-facing windows of the castle to shade the
rooms from the summer sun.
Almina’s use of Highclere as a hospital led to one
of the historically accurate sections of Downton
Though the Downton Abbey TV show begins in the
Edwardian Age—that last lavish gasp of upper
class privilege in England, a time of glittering balls
and fancy dress--the country, the TV show and the
Carnarvon family came down to earth with the
reality of the first world war (called the Great War).
World War I brought death and suffering to an
extent never before experienced. England’s
losses were second only to Russia’s. The male
population was decimated. Those who returned
home often had sustained horrific injuries.
Germany, Russia and Austria had been building
their armies and railroads in preparation for war.
When Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand was
assassinated at Sarajevo on June 28, 1914,
Austria declared war on Serbia.
The assassination was merely an excuse for the
war everyone had been expecting. Other
European nations followed as their alliances
dictated, until the whole of the continent was
divided into two camps, with Britain, Russia, and
France facing Germany, Austria and the Ottoman
Empire. Great Britain declared war in August 4,
Carnarvon’s sister Winifred wrote him, referring to
the Sunday after the assassination as “the last
Sunday morning of the old world.” She was right.
Everything had changed—especially at Highclere
The current duchess points out that the guestbook
at Highclere has “’August 1-4 WAR!’ written in a
shaky hand across the top of the page.” Everyone
expected it to be over by Christmas.
The war would drag on for five years. It was the
fifth deadliest in history, due in part to trench
warfare, with its lines of trenches facing each other
across a No Man’s Land. Anyone who raised his
head was likely to be shot, and progress was
nearly impossible. The new railroads that brought
soldiers to the trenches carried the dead and
wounded back home.
Carnarvon’s brother Aubrey was seriously
wounded and captured in France. When the
French retook the German camp, the seriously
wounded had been left behind. He was returned
to England to recover, later returning to the front.
By September, Highclere held a dozen patients.
Lady Carnarvon greeted each at the door and
showed them to their rooms, like the house
guests she wanted them to feel that they were.
Then she telegraphed their family. One patient
later wrote, “You get on as well as they do in fairy
tales, however grievous your hurt may be.”
Almina could serve up to 20 patients at a time in
individual rooms—40 if they doubled up. They
could eat in their rooms or at a large table at the
end of the North Library, where they were waited
on by footmen. The Library—a sunny room
overlooking the gardens--was used as the men’s
day room. Chairs were added so they could play
cards or read in the elegant surroundings with
lamps set next to overstuffed sofas
As more than a million men dug in across
Belgium and northern France, casualties rose.
Almina hired an orthopedic surgeon named Jones
and set up a second operating theater in the
Arundel bedroom on the first floor opposite the back stairs for
easy access to hot water. Dr. Jones developed the use of
traction to keep broken bones end to end so they could heal.
In addition to shrapnel and bullet wounds, the men suffered
from gangrene, tetanus and typhoid. The journey from the
front to a hospital in England took up to three weeks. Many
died on the way.
It was December before anyone at Highclere died.
At Christmas, Almina decorated the house and served the
men soup, roast goose, plum pudding and brandy.
Meanwhile, on the front lines, German and British soldiers
coming out of the trenches to bury their dead played football,
exchanged sauerkraut and sausages for chocolates and
sang “Silent Night” together in German and English.
In 1915, the war expanded to Italy, the Balkans and the
Middle East. In April, the Germans first used poisonous
gases. Five thousand French soldiers died in 10 minutes
after gas was thrown into the trenches. Thousand were
blinded and maimed as they tried to get away.
At Gallipoli, the Turks on the cliff tops opened fire on British,
French, Australian and New Zealand troops as they waded to
the beaches from their ships. They killed about ten per cent
Highclere was reaching its limits—running at top efficiency.
Almina moved the hospital to larger facilities in London. She
leased 48 Bryanston Square in Mayfair, overlooking a
garden. The new hospital was better equipped, closer to
specialists, with double the capacity of Highclere.
Almina installed an elevator and operating theater and
purchased one of the new x-ray machines that could locate a
bullet without exploratory surgery. She hired a cook, a dozen
maids and several footmen. Fresh food was provided from
In January of 1916, conscription was required for all single
men from 19 to 41. In May, it was extended to married men
without children. The Carnarvons’ son Porchy trained for the
Cavalry. World War I was the last to use horses.
There were 60,000 casualties on the first day of the Battle of
the Somme July 1, 1916. Four hundred of them were
doctors, which had a huge impact on hospitals. In one
regiment, 500 out of 800 were killed, whole battalions were
wiped out. It was a “lost generation” in England.
The tank entered warfare, and mental breakdowns became
common. World War I marked the first use of aerial
bombardment. Hundreds of thousands were injured,
recovered and returned to the war. By the end of the Battle of
the Somme, 415,000 British were killed or wounded and 1.5
million total from among all the nations fighting. Never had
the world experienced such loss.
As 1917 dawned, Germany adopted a “sink on sight” policy
for its naval warfare. U.S. and other civilian ships were
increasingly targeted. The U.S. declared war.
Germany was winning; the French and Russian armies were
mutinying. The tsar abdicated and Lenin and the Bolsheviks
seized power in the October Revolution.
The Rothschilds and the British Royal Family had both
English and German members. In the summer of 1917, the
royal family changed their name from Saxe-Coburg and
Gotha to Windsor, a more English-sounding name.
Though the army had reached its target strength of 800,000
men, the number of those who were fit was falling to the
extent that only half could be given the leave they’d
In June of 1917, the British captured the Messines Ridge and
began using mines before an artillery attack. Casualties
were kept low.
That fall, the Battle of Passchendaele was a constant
bombardment of heavy shells. No Man’s Land was covered
with large craters that quickly filled with rain, blood and
bodies. It rained all but three days that August, and the
Finally, on November 11, 1918, the ceasefire was
announced, and everyone headed home.
On November 17, Lord Carnarvon spoke at a service of
thanksgiving, telling the dignitaries that, although it was
proper to rejoice, the people could never repay the debt they
owed those who fought. Almina and Eve were at his side, but
Porchy had to stay in Mesopotamia for a couple more months.
The hospital at Bryanston Square would be dismantled, but it
still held some 20 men. When she returned to London,
Almina caught the Spanish flu, as did some of her patients.
The epidemic would claim many more lives than the war
had. At least 50 million died all over the world.
Alfred de Rothschild, who had recently died, left Seamore
Place, a huge house in Mayfair filled with priceless paintings,
to Almina, together with a tax-free legacy of 50,000 pounds.
Her son and daughter, Porchy and Eve, each received 25,000
When the hospital closed in February, 1919, Prince Arthur,
Duke of Connaught, came to personally thank the staff for the
work they had done. In 1921, the Carnarvons left for Egypt for
the first time since 1915.
The peace treaty was concluded on June 28 in the Hall of
Mirrors at Versailles. The Germans lost various territories
and were fined billions of gold marks. The reparations were
reduced in 1924 and again in 1929, but German
resentments would lead to Hitler’s rise.
Highclere Castle in World War I