Stories of a German family in England during the First World War

Leonard Messel in uniform on horseback

Leonard Messel in uniform on horseback - Credit: Archant

At the outbreak of the war, Colonel Leonard Messel of Nymans in West Sussex was debarred from active service on account of his German ancestry. Keen to play his part, instead he devoted his time to training battalions of the Royal East Kent Regiment known as the Buffs. It was these young men who wrote to him throughout the war..

To mark the centenary of the First World War, Nymans is displaying selected contents of some of the 491 letters Colonel Messel received alongside audio recordings.

Discovering the letters

The personal nature of the soldiers’ letters illustrates the close bond that existed between the Colonel and his troops. They also convey an unusual openness between men from very different social backgrounds, a blurring of the boundaries that had held Britain’s rigid class system in place.

Victoria Messel, Leonard’s grand-daughter, remembers: “Amazingly, I found this book of letters when turning out the house after the death of my aunt in 1992. How it survived the fire at Nymans, I simply don’t know; it’s like a phoenix rising from the ashes.


Extracts from some of the letters

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For the soldiers of the Buffs, corresponding with Colonel Messel would have been one of the few opportunities to put in writing their personal experiences of life in the trenches; something that many of them would have kept hidden from loved ones back home:

“Dear Col Messel

I had no idea until after his death what a favourite he (Harold) seems to have been with everyone; from the High Commis of New Zealand in whose employ he was, and all heads of departments, down to small shopkeepers in our neighbourhood who have spoken to me in the same strain. He was so awfully keen too, to get to the front, and to do his ‘bit’.”

“An attack was arranged for at two o’clock the second night but we were delayed until 2.30am. After getting about 250 yards we had to retire, the Germans getting to know that an attack was going to take place, ‘and shouting to us we were half an hour late’.”

“The most interesting work perhaps is going out to listen between the trenches; they are usually singing….”

July 16 1915, Sergt Mitchell, G.H, B Coy, 8th Batt, A&S Highlanders, 51st Division, British Expeditionary Force


Visitors will also be able to discover the impact of the war on other people within the Nymans circle, from Leonard’s father Ludwig, who is said to have died broken-hearted by the conflict between the two nations he loved, to his wife Maud and her household who worked tirelessly at the nearby VAD hospital.

Highlights of the exhibition

• Leonard Messel’s personal copy of transcribed letters, which he treasured and carried with him. Known to be at least 70 years old, the book miraculously survived a devastating fire at Nymans in 1947.

• A new insight into the personal stories of several soldiers from the Buffs.

• BBC radio recording featuring an interview with Leonard’s granddaughter Victoria Messel.

• Leonard Messel’s original First World War uniform.

• A look at the anti-German sentiment and First World War propaganda of the time.


‘The Great War - Stories of a German family in England’ runs from 14 June to 31 August.

For further information, visit our Nymans’ page or call 01444 405250