Sign in

The 8th Duke of Northumberland and the First World War

Alan Ian Percy, the 8th Duke of Northumberland (1880-1930), served as a war correspondent to the Intelligence Department of the War Office. He was a Vice President of the Natural History Society of Northumberland, Durham and Newcastle upon Tyne from 1918 until his death.

The 8th Duke of Northumberland served as Vice President of the Natural History Society, after his father’s death in 1918 taking an active interest in the natural history of the region. The 8th Duke also helped found the Northumberland and Newcastle Society which was dedicated to the preservation of the country’s natural heritage. He was also the President of the Newcastle Society of Antiquaries until his death.

Alan’s father, the 7th Duke of Northumberland, has been a member of the Natural History Society since 1899, holding the position of Trustee and Vice President.

The Percy family had a long association with the Society since its formation in 1829. On August 19th of that year, a meeting was held at the Literary and Philosophical Society on Westgate Road at which founding members discussed the details of the creation of a new society to study and promote natural history in the North East. It was during this meeting that Hugh Percy, the 3rd Duke of Northumberland, was elected as the first Patron.

Hugh Percy, 3rd Duke of Northumberland, NHSN Archives

Successive Dukes of Northumberland served as Patrons until 1896, after which time, they served as Vice-Presidents until 1931 and thereafter as Presidents.

Alan, the 8th Duke, who succeeded to his father’s title in 1918, had an active military role during the First World War, taking him away from Northumberland. He had retired in 1912, having served in the Egyptian Camel Corps. But, with the outbreak of war in August 1914, he re-joined and served with the Grenadier Guards in France.

The Northumberland Estates Archive Collections at Alnwick Castle, the seat of the Percy family, provide an insight into the Duke’s experiences during the war. The collection includes a series of letters penned by the Duke over the period of the war, detailing his work both at home and at the front.

“It does seem wicked that good lives should be sacrificed to the megalomania and ignorance of a miserable politician!” Alan Ian Percy, 8th Duke of Northumberland, October 17th 1914

In these letters, Alan writes to his father and criticises the great losses as a result of war. His letters offer a glimpse into his experiences at the front as he tries to convey how thousands of young men have paid the ultimate price. Throughout their correspondence, the 7th Duke of Northumberland, and his son, debate military strategy. Alan frequently rebuts some of his father’s ideas, pointing out his misconceptions about the conflict.

“I am afraid you must have got a very false idea of this war if you think we have ‘licked’ the Germans.” Alan Ian Percy, 8th Duke of Northumberland, October 23rd 1914

The Duke was involved with writing despatches for the intelligence department of the War Office. In a letter to his father he reveals that Lord Kitchener often felt out of the loop with events at the front. As a result, Alan became a war correspondent, providing eye witness accounts, informing Kitchener and others in the War Office of developments in France. In October 1914, he embarked for France, never revealing exactly to his father his whereabouts for security reasons. Soon after arriving however, he complains of boredom, and that his role as a correspondent was more inferior than he had expected. Of course, censorship restricted what the Duke could write about in order to protect military strategy and morale at home.

However, despite his initial complaints, the Duke went on to be made a Chevalier of the Légion d’Honneur, which recognised his contribution to the war effort. By the end of the war, he had risen to the rank of Lieutenant-Corporal and in 1925 he was awarded with the Order of the Garter.

The 8th Dukes brother William, also served during the conflict in the Grenadier Guards, and it is mentioned in letters between Alan and his father that William was wounded in 1915. Fortunately, he recovered and was later decorated with the Distinguished Service Order in 1917. Closer to home, estate land opposite the family seat at Alnwick Castle, became home to a military encampment. This was originally intended for training volunteers but it later became used as a convalescent hospital for wounded troops.

1918 was a significant year for Alan Percy, marking the end of the war and also the year that he became the 8th Duke of Northumberland. With his father’s death in May 1918, the new Duke also inherited his role as the Vice President of the Natural History Society of Northumbria.

The table below illustrates the Percy family’s connections to the Society, detailing the role served by successive Dukes over the years.

Dates in office Role Name
1829-1847 Patron

3rd Duke of Northumberland

Hugh Percy





4th Duke of Northumberland

Algernon Percy


1865-1867 Patron

5th Duke of Northumberland

George Percy


1867-1899 Patron

6th Duke of Northumberland

Algernon Percy


1904-1918 Vice President

7th Duke of Northumberland

Henry Percy


1918-1930 Vice President

8th Duke of Northumberland

Alan Percy


1935-1940 President (joint)

9th Duke of Northumberland

Henry Percy


1945-1988 President 

10th Duke of Northumberland

Hugh Percy


1988-1995 President

11th Duke of Northumberland

Henry Percy


Written and researched by Ashleigh Jackson, a History and English Literature undergraduate student from the University of Edinburgh on a summer placement with the Natural History Society of Northumbria in 2016.