Commemorating the First World War Centenary: Cliveden House, The Canadian Red Cross and Nancy Astor

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2014 marks the centenary of the start of the First World War. Here, Vivian Vassos shares, in the final part of a four-part series, how England remembers, this week from Cliveden House in Buckinhamshire along the Thames, where the famed American high society heiress and her husband, Waldorf Astor, plotted their political strategies, and gave back to the war effort by opening their home to those in need.

Formerly the seat of the Duke of Buckingham, Cliveden, like India’s Taj Mahal, was built for love. In the late 1600s, the Duke was so enamored with his mistress, the Countess of Shrewsbury, he created the estate as an escape and for their extra-marital escapades.

More than 200 years later, a different labour of love ensued. After failing the medical test required to enlist, Waldorf Astor still felt he had something to give. He and his infamous wife Nancy’s offer to convert part of the estate to a hospital was turned down by the British Army but the Canadian Red Cross saw potential.

It opened in 1915, was named the Duchess of Connaught Red Cross Hospital and, over the course of The Great War, tended to 24,000 men. According to reports, Nancy was tireless, caring for and nurturing patients back to health, and converting her glorious flower gardens to vegetable patches and farmlands to grazing lands for sheep and poultry, all to help feed the service men who were in hospital. The sunken Italian garden was converted to a peaceful cemetery. There you can find the final resting place of many Canadians who gave their lives, names like William Albert Atkinson, age 19, a private in the Canadian Infantry to John Graham, age 45, a Corporal in the Canadian Railway Troops to Miriam Eastman Baker, age 32, a Nursing Sister in the Canadian Army Medical Corps. A Bertram MacKennal sculpture,

The gardens have been returned to their former glory, and are now cared for by The National Trust. It is a must see, and the house itself is now a hotel. The house, too, has its share of history, some even scandalous: it was the site of the famed Profumo affair, where, in 1963, the war minister at the time, John Profumo, met the young Christine Keelor, and almost brought down an entire government. Its said that Ms. Keelor was also having an affair with a Russian spy. How very cold war, darling.;

See the first, second and third parts of a four-part series, Commemorating the First World War – How England Remembers. For the author’s video tour of Highclere Castle’s grounds and Secret Garden, go here.

Click through for a photo album of Cliveden House