A reply to the Downton Historian’s post – The Earl of Grantham: War Hero and Gentleman Officer (Part 2 – Training)

Background

The second part of this response to Downton Historian’s post is about what sort of training someone like Lord Grantham would receive in order to become an army officer. While she’s correct that the aristocracy and military service have traditionally gone hand in hand, by Lord Grantham’s time (he would have then been Viscount Downton), the aftermath of the Crimean War and the Indian Mutiny where the British Army met disaster meant that reforms were sorely needed, and this included the necessity for and improvements in military training both for officers and the rank and file. Chief among these reforms were those proposed and enacted during the tenure of Edward Cardwell (1813-1886) as Secretary of State for War under Prime Minister William Gladstone. These included shorter enlistment periods for men, army estimates in keeping with the Liberal party’s idea of retrenchment, amalgamating both the functions of Horse Guards and the War Office under the Secretary of State and controversially the abolition of purchase. However, while these were all implemented, the results were mixed. Cardwell himself had trouble having several of these reforms passed through Parliament owing to fierce opposition on both sides and especially from the Duke of Cambridge (who was the Queen’s cousin and commander-in-chief of the Army). Despite all this, the reforms remained in place despite attempts to reverse them and historians today agree that the Cardwell Reforms paved the way for more changes than were proposed and enacted over the next decades leading to the First World War.

Edward_Cardwell,_Vanity_Fair,_1869-04-03

The dawn of the twentieth century resulted into more discussion about army reform especially in the light of military disaster during the Boer War (1899-1902). The war in South Africa also made Britain the subject of hostility abroad and left her vulnerable. As a result, Britain abandoned its old policy of “Splendid Isolation” and began to seek alliances with other countries as a way to achieve both security for the British Empire and stability on the Continent especially with Germany increasingly being seen as a threat.

During this period, military and naval armaments and technology were being revolutionised. The launch of HMS Dreadnought in 1906 resulted into a new arms race between Britain and Germany which led (not without controversy) to the Royal Navy being allocated more funds to build more ships  and remain at the forefront of innovation in shipbuilding and naval technology.

What of the army during this time? Despite the perception that it was more  a junior partner to the Royal Navy, there was the general consensus that the reforms enacted in the past had not gone far enough and more would be needed if Britain was to be able to cope with large scale modern warfare. The return of the Liberal Party to power in 1905 under Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman led to the appointment of Richard Haldane (1856-1928) as Secretary of State for War, and together with a group of reform minded generals he enacted reorganisations that would make Britain much more responsive to the needs of the changing nature of warfare. These included the creation of an expeditionary force that would be specially trained, prepared and mobilised, as well as the state taking over the railways in the event of a major war. In addition, the reserve forces were restructured and expanded with the Militia and Yeomanry merged in 1907 to create a new Territorial Force and in order to encourage the development of military skills, an Officer Training Corps were established in public schools and universities to boost officer numbers in the event of a war. There were also changes and restructuring into how military strategy was developed and the continued reforms of the regular army through new operational and training doctrines as devised by Major General (later Field Marshal) Douglas Haig. Some of the reforms were put to the test with the outbreak of the First World War when it came to the speed by which the British Expeditionary Force were mobilised and transported across the Channel to assist French and Belgian troops already fighting the Germans.

(c) Government Art Collection; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Training an Officer – Sandhurst

The series of reforms enacted during the aftermath of the Crimean War and the Indian Mutiny also touched on recruitment and training. There were already two institutions in existence – the Royal Military Academy at Woolwich and the Royal Military College at Sandhurst that provided training for officers. Of the two, the RMA is older having been founded in 1741 while the RMC was established in 1800. Woolwich was the training ground for officers of the Royal Artillery and Royal Engineers while Sandhurst trained officers for the infantry and cavalry. Since Lord Grantham was an infantry officer (being in the Grenadier Guards) he would have received his training at Sandhurst, which was the main route to a commission for the Guards, cavalry, infantry and the Indian Army. Despite raising the admission age to 18 and attempts to reform the curriculum, the RMC was seen to have more feel of a public school than a professional institution; despite the purely military instruction it was found to be deficient with less than adequate provision for training of horse riding, shooting and musketry and digging trenches. The academic curriculum was also seen as inadequate, with not enough time spent on tactics and too much on topography (which was seen more as a sketching exercise) while the teaching of military history as well as languages was found wanting.  The Sandhurst curriculum, while not perfect, at least provided a structured and reasonably extensive military education that could not be matched by the any of the alternatives.

The route to Sandhurst began with public schools such as Eton, Harrow, Winchester and Rugby (during the Boer War for instance 62% of regular officers came from public schools). Several public schools had “army classes” and cadet corps to prepare boys for admission to Sandhurst and Woolwich, there were also cram schools to help prepare for the entrance examinations. It was not uncommon for boys not to enter Sandhurst on their first attempt; Winston Churchill for instance was only able to get into the RMC on his third attempt. While a small number came from grammar schools, those from public schools were preferred as Edward M. Spiers wrote:

A public school education, nonetheless, was deemed invaluable because of the qualities of character which the schools were thought to develop. These included the training of the mind in the classical tradition, with its emphasis upon order, authority and discipline and the training of the body and spirit through the cult of team games. If boys played rugby and cricket, it was widely assumed that they would develop not only the physical attributes of health, strength, co-ordination and quickness of eye – all essential military requirements- but also moral virtues like self-discipline and team spirit – qualities with could be transferred into regimental service. Above all……. the public schools were thought to inculcate loyalty, which ‘began with loyalty to your house…….and rose through loyalty to your school (a paradigm of the nation) to loyalty to your country, faith and leaders.’ Boys possessing such attributes were readily welcomed as potential officers. (pp. 97-9)

As a result of the over-representation of public school alumni at Sandhurst and among the officer class, it is not surprising that the officers of the British army were overwhelmingly drawn from the aristocracy and the gentry. In terms of the social composition of the army, the abolition of purchase did not mean a change in its makeup; those who comprised the army in the 1880s and 1890s would be no different from those in the 1850s and 1860s. The army was still characterised by officers from the upper classes with private income with the rank and file coming from both the urban and rural poor.

Why was this the case? The upper class male was restricted in his choice of career, with the only avenues open to him the Church, law, politics, the Civil Service and the armed forces. The army could be seen as an attractive “stop gap” for some and a way to enjoy congenial companionship, travel, sport, excitement and leisure for a few years. Others however made the army their life and career, eventually rising through the ranks and distinguishing themselves as soldiers, commanders or administrators.

In addition, to be in the army was to be low paid and necessitated the need for a substantial private income. The expenses alone were staggering – officers had to provide their own uniforms, cases, furniture, mufti, servants’ outfit and incoming mess contribution. Monies were also required for entertaining, dining out, sports, expensive wines, fine food, upkeep of the regimental mess (including the band, and silver as presents for occasions such as marriage, promotion, transfer, retirement. It’s likely that had Lord Grantham not married young to a wealthy wife he would have had to transfer into a cheaper and much less prestigious regiment than the Grenadiers). The Victorian public school system with its ethos continued to supply the cadets into the military academies which resulted into the general social homogeneity of the officer corps at least until the eve of the First World War.

Were there any other alternatives?

Yes they were but many of them would not have been available in the late 1880s and 1890s when Lord Downton was considering a career in the army. It was possible to obtain a commission into the army through the Militia, which would remove the need to sit for the examinations required to enter Sandhurst or Woolwich; but that avenue was more for those who failed the entrance exams and was very much seen as a way to enter the army through the “back door”.

As for the universities, it is important to note that the Officer Training Corps (OTC) was only conceptualised in 1906 and implemented as part of the Haldane Reforms of 1908. The OTC was meant to provide officers for the regular army during war time and for the territorial forces during peacetime. Those who wanted to join the regular army made their way to Sandhurst after receiving their degree but suffered the disadvantage of being older and placed under the command of junior officers younger than they were. So this option would not have been available to Lord Downton and bearing in mind that he was the heir to an earldom, going to university would have highly unlikely to have been considered. That was the preserve of younger sons in order to equip them for a career. The Yeomanry would have highly been unlikely too given we’ve seen enough clues in the uniforms and medals that Lord Downton would have been in the regular army. If a man wanted a serious career in the army then going to Sandhurst or Woolwich was seen as highly desirable, given the training in the Militia and the OTC were not up to the standard offered by the RMA and RMC.

Finally, as for simply “winging it” and “the only qualifications for receiving an officer title were having good manners and good character”, that was simply no longer adequate in the aftermath of the Crimean War, the Indian Mutiny and especially during the Wars of Unification (1864, 1866 and 1870-1). The Prussians had demonstrated how an efficient war machine comprised of well-trained officers and rank and file men can produce quick decisive victories and this didn’t escape the notice of those who had long campaigned for army reform. Professionalism was needed for Britain to have an army that could face any threat to its borders and its empire. Yes, the army expected its officers to be of good character but there were professional standards that needed to be met; and in an age where warfare was changing beyond recognition what mattered was attracting a better class of soldier and raising standards in recruitment, training, organisation, logistics and strategy in order to meet the challenges.

Notes:

I would like to thank Dr Max Jones (University of Manchester), Professor Gary Sheffield (University of Wolverhampton) and Dr Andrew Morton (Archivist, Sandhurst Collection) for taking time from their busy schedules to answer my questions and direct me to sources that I would have overlooked.

Further reading:

C.B. Otley. ‘Militarism and the Social Affiliations of the British Army Elite’ in J. van Doorn (ed.) Armed Forces and Society: Sociological Essays (The Hague, 1960) (p. 84-108)

Edward M. Spiers. The Army and Society 1815-1914 (London, 1980)

Correlli Barnett. Britain and Her Army 1509-1970 (London, 1970)

Gary Sheffield. Forgotten Victory: The First World War: Myths and Realities (London, 2001)

Edward Spiers. ‘The Late Victorian Army 1868-1914’ in David G. Chandler and Ian Beckett (eds) The Oxford History of the British Army (Oxford, 1994), pp. 187-210

Edward M. Spiers. The Late Victorian Army 1868-1902 (Manchester, 1992)

Timothy Bowman and Mark Connelly. The Edwardian Army: Recruiting, Training, and Deploying the British Army 1902-1914 (Oxford, 2012)

Winston Churchill. My Early Life (London, 1930)

Allan Mallinson. The Making of the British Army (London, 2011)

David Cannadine. The Decline and Fall of the British Aristocracy (London, 1990)

Dominic Lieven. The Aristocracy in Europe 1815-1914 (London, 1992)

W. L. Guttsman. The British Political Elite (London, 1968)

Albert V. Tucker. ‘Army and Society in England 1870-1900: A Reassessment of the Cardwell Reforms’. Journal of British Studies, Vol. 2, No. 2 (May, 1963), pp. 110-141

C.B. Otley. ‘The Educational Background of British Army Officers’. Sociology 7 (1973), pp. 191-209.

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A reply to the Downton Historian’s post – The Earl of Grantham: War Hero and Gentleman Officer (Part 1 – Medals)

While trawling for something online, I came across this blog post from someone calling herself “Downton Historian”, it was a reply to two questions posted on her page asking for more information about the medals on the Earl of Grantham’s uniform and what form of military training would he have received in order to be commissioned as an officer.

I have to give credit to Downton Historian for her efforts in research, trying to find the answers and informing people. It’s also good that a TV programme has been spurring people to find out more about the past and I would like to add and expand on Downton Historian’s post, particularly to clarify a few points where she has made errors of fact and wrong assumptions.

In several episodes in series 2 and 5 and the 2013 Christmas special, Lord Grantham is seen wearing four medals all of which were earned during his stint in the army. From left to right, we have the following:

Robert_S5_uniform close up

The Queen’s and King’s South Africa Medals

The Queen’s South Africa Medal was a campaign medal issued to personnel who served in the Boer War between 11 October 1899 and 31 May 1902. They were awarded to units from the British Army, Royal Navy, troops from the Empire, civilians employed in official capacity and war correspondents as well as also awarded without clasps to troops who guarded Boer prisoners of war at the POW camp on the island of St. Helena. The King’s South Africa Medal was awarded to all troops who served in South Africa on or after 1 January 1902, and completed 18 months service before 1 June 1902. The KSA was always awarded with the QSA.

For the Queen’s South Africa Medals, there were twenty six clasps that could be added which indicated each action or campaign during the war. Regulations for awarding the medals and clasps state that “that anyone who was issued with a clasp for an engagement within a state was not thereafter eligible for the clasp for that state.” In addition, no recipient could be awarded both the Cape Colony and Natal clasps.

Lord Grantham’s QSA is shown with two clasps and whilst we cannot be certain which specific battles and reliefs he would have been involved in, the mess dress he is wearing in series 2 and the regimental tie he wears in the 2012 Christmas special indicates that he served with the Grenadier Guards. The second and third battalion of the Grenadiers saw action in the Boer War with the third battalion spending the entire war in South Africa. The regiment was involved in key battles and campaigns such as Belmont, Modder River, Transvaal, Cape Colony, Wittebergen and Dreifontein.

tumblr_n1hpcmjyMS1tsofceo2_400robert_travelling

Back in series 2 and the 2013 Christmas special, there was only one clasp on Lord Grantham’s KSA medal which is technically incorrect because as Captain Jocelyn noted all those “who have served in the later period of the war, viz., on or after 1 January 1902, having completed 18 months’ service on that date, or before 1 June 1902” were entitled to two clasps except for troops from New Zealand and nurses. During the final episode of series 5, the earl’s King’s South Africa medal correctly has two clasps.

The King Edward VII Coronation Medal

Contrary to what the blogger states, this medal isn’t a mystery at all or rare, they do turn up at specialist, antique and collectible shops both on the High Street and online as well as eBay. The medal was struck to commemorate the coronation of King Edward VII and Queen Alexandra on 9 August 1902 and was given under conditions similar to those prescribed for Queen Victoria’s Jubilee medals; members of the royal family, foreign princes and high officials of their suites, government officials and  senior officers of the Navy and Army. It also went to officers, soldiers and members of the police who took part in the parade and lined the procession route.

There were three types of medals which were for navy and army, civil and police which were distinguished by their ribands:

Naval and Military – 1 ¼ inches. Royal blue, broad red centre stripe and white edges

Civil – dark blue centre stripe divided by a narrow white stripe and broad red border stripes

Police – scarlet, with bright blue centre stripe 1/8 inch wide

As seen in the photo, Lord Grantham’s coronation medal has the naval and military riband which indicates that he took part in the Coronation parade; and that he must have hurried back from South Africa the moment peace was declared, as he had to have been in the colony on 1 June 1902 to qualify for the King’s South Africa medal.

The King George V Coronation Medal

This medal was given under conditions similar to those prescribed for Queen Victoria’s Jubilee medals. Unlike Victoria’s Jubilee medals and Edward VII’s coronation medal, there were no distinctions for the armed forces, civilians and police. Given that both Victoria’s Jubilee Medals and Edward VII’s coronation medals were given to members of the armed forces and the police who took part in the parade and lined the procession route, it was to be the same with George V. The picture clearly shows that Lord Grantham has the George V coronation medal which would indicate that he did take part in the parade thus would have been in the army until at least 1911.

Crucially, this was the first coronation medal where a number were allocated to local authorities. Whereas coronation medals in the past were allocated to royals, politicians, senior members of the armed forces and the police, the notion of them being given to ordinary people was part of George V’s idea to make the monarchy more accessible to the ordinary man and woman. The medals given out by local authorities were for local worthies and officials and hence the idea of a peer of the realm receiving his medal from the local mayor is unthinkable.

Another crucial point is that while we commonly associate medals with bravery and valour, they are also given to individuals who have worked on behalf of the community, in public service and those who have passed landmark years of service; for instance with the Royal Household. There are also those struck and given to commemorate events such as coronations and jubilees hence Coronation Medals have nothing to do with bravery and valour, it is to celebrate an important event and it has nothing to do with courage or participating in a military campaign at all.

On a final note, campaign medals are different from those awarded for acts of bravery and valour. Campaign medals are given to those who participated in a military operation in one capacity or the other. The fact that Lord Grantham has both Boer War campaign medals indicates that he did serve in South Africa but given we don’t hear anything about his war services there is no evidence about how he fought and if he was a good, bad or mediocre leader of men. All we know is that he came back alive and if he did fight valiantly then Lord Grantham would have been awarded the Conspicuous Service Cross (now known as the Distinguished Service Cross) or the Distinguished Service Order or even the Victoria Cross. As he has none of the medals for valour, then all that we know is that he served in South Africa, fought in several major battles and returned home alive.

Further reading:

Henry Hanning. The British Grenadiers: 350 Years of the First Regiment of Foot Guards 1656-2006 (Barnsley, 2006)

Captain Arthur Jocelyn CVO. Awards of Honour: The Orders, Decorations, Medals and Awards of Great Britain and the Commonwealth from Edward III to Elizabeth II (London, 1956)

http://www.angloboerwar.com/medals-and-awards/british/1875-queens-south-africa-medal

http://www.angloboerwar.com/medals-and-awards/british/1723-ksa

http://www.army.mod.uk/structure/32322.aspx

http://www.royal.gov.uk/MonarchUK/Honours/MilitaryHonoursandAwards/MilitaryHonoursandAwards.aspx

Additional notes:

The photos of Lord Grantham have been taken from various Downton Abbey fan sites. As they have been stored in folders for a long time now, I cannot remember which specific sites they first appeared. I wish to acknowledge the sources and apologise that I cannot do so by name.

I would also like to thank the proprietor of the London Medal Company (whose name sadly escapes me) for patiently replying to my questions about the South Africa Medals and the clasps.

Several medals are on display at various regimental museums across Britain, the National Army Museum and the Imperial War Museum, Lambeth (Lord Ashcroft Gallery). Some of the medals belonging to Grenadier Guardsmen are on display at the Guards Museum in London.

When Downton Abbey finally jumped the shark

Americans have an interesting turn of phrase to describe that moment when a television programme loses that “spark” that made it so popular, loved or even compelling in the first place; it’s called “jumped the shark” and you can read how it came about here. One can have a lively debate or conversations with others about when a programme has finally jumped the shark and there are no right or wrong answers but generally a consensus emerges about that precise moment when viewers realise that there is nowhere to go but down.

Downton Abbey is no different and several critics, bloggers and viewers have their own views on when it  jumped its own personal shark. One writer is of the opinion that it had already done so as early as the first series with the Pamuk story line; while others have pointed to series two, especially with Matthew making a miraculous recovery from his injury (I thought it was possible but the execution was poor and Fellowes explanation that such a recovery was indeed medically correct did not ring true). But I’ve noticed that many viewers tend to veer towards two events – Matthew’s death in the 2012 Christmas special and Anna’s rape in series 4 as the turning point.

Matthew

anna bates

Viewers have their reasons as to why either Matthew’s death or Anna’s rape can be seen as that pivotal moment when Downton has finally jumped the shark. The case for Matthew’s death being accorded that dubious honour is compelling – being killed off moments after the birth of his son via a wholly avoidable road accident seemed to have been pointless. After he has survived the war, managed the impossible and overcome his injuries long enough to marry and impregnate Lady Mary, he is dispatched in one of the most clichéd ways possible.

Julian Fellowes and the producers have claimed their hand was forced after Dan Stevens had informed them in advance that he was not renewing his contract. “There was no other way!” was their cry during the firestorm that ensued after the episode was telecast. Many have pointed out that there were other ways of writing out the character; having Matthew set off on an extended business trip or contriving to have him as part of Lord Flintshire’s entourage with the death happening off screen later or having him return in a cameo for the final episode when Downton finally bows out.

More perceptive viewers have noted that perhaps once Stevens had made his decision, series 3 should have been the last. After all, Downton Abbey was initially contracted for three series so Fellowes should have stuck to that and used series 3 as a way of tying up loose ends, with the final scene showing us Matthew and Mary with baby George or a fast forward scene with the new Earl and Countess of Grantham surrounded by their children.

Others believe however that the rape Anna Bates suffered at the hands of the servant of a visiting house guest should have that dubious honour instead and again there are compelling reasons why this is so. Many criticisms centred on how the rape was unnecessary as a story line, the aftermath becoming all about Bates rather than Anna and eventually viewers were denied a closure with the assailant meeting his death off-screen after a traffic accident.

The response from the producers and actors was predictable. Joanne Froggatt claimed that the story line was “beautiful and brave” while the producers insisted that they wanted to depict how women particularly from the working classes were hard done by. Such pronouncements sound very lame, especially as series 4 went on and the story line limped on towards an unsatisfactory conclusion or lack thereof. Let’s leave aside the claim that a brutal physical assault on a woman, even a fictional one, can ever be described as either beautiful or brave, or why Fellowes leaves it until the fourth series to abandon his soft focus view of the master servant relationship and depict the risks run by working class women in a big house full of young men. Claims of “bravery” and “beauty” ring hollow when we recall that a rape storyline is a tried and tested (let’s not say weary and worn out) dramatic device to get the viewers talking and revive a flagging drama, and one that has been wheeled out over the years by pretty much every programme that calls itself a drama since the original Forsyte Saga used it in 1968; a truly shocking moment in the history of television. Had Downton been the first programme to use this then I might reluctantly accept the claims of bravery. As it is it just looked like an author who has lost his original narrative purpose grasping at any storyline to whip up interest.

Looking at both arguments, I find myself more in the camp that believes that Downton finally jumped the shark with Matthew’s death. The subsequent two series have shown that Fellowes had no Plan B should his major actors Dan Stevens and Michelle Dockery (especially the former) decide not to renew. Despite the insistence on the house being the focal point of the narrative, the reality is that Matthew is the centre around which all the others revolve and the harbinger for change that will mirror what is happening to Britain around that time. The raison d’ etre for the programme was always to have Matthew as the Earl of Grantham which would signify the changing of the guard and a movement into the post war world and the challenges it brought.

But Stevens’ departure scuppered that ending and both series 4 and 5 have demonstrated what happens when that main focal point of the narrative is gone. Fellowes (who critics have noted is much better with one off dramas and feature films) has increasingly been raiding his own work, the soap opera canon and even works of literature to pad out his increasingly threadbare narrative. People could suspend their disbelief during the first three series because there was Matthew holding it all together and his marriage to Mary and accession as Earl of Grantham to anticipate. Once Matthew was killed off, the story lines lost their way with each becoming more ludicrous than the last, and with the PR working overtime to distract viewers from the increasing lack of content; with  promises of gripping and controversial storylines that turn out to be anything but and promising storylines that end not with a bang but a whimper and are neatly tidied away so as not to interfere with the next plotline coming up.

So in conclusion, my opinion is that Downton Abbey jumped the shark once Matthew met his end on that roadside; and despite the PR since series 4 with Mary as the centre of the narrative, or even persevering with the fiction that the house itself as the main focus has meant that the narrative has lost coherence and shape. Perhaps Julian Fellowes, the producers and ITV should have taken heed of Yeats:

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;

Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,

The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere

The ceremony of innocence is drowned

And indeed Matthew’s death has resulted into the narrative falling apart to the extent that we have been time and again served the “anarchy” of improbable plots, anachronisms, set pieces, visual tricks, hammy and wooden acting and recycling of both stories and characters to cover up the fact that the programme itself is a pale shadow of what it was in the beginning. Perhaps it’s time to consign Downton Abbey to the television graveyard before it descends further into farce.

Further reading:

http://masrizone.blogspot.co.uk/2014/01/downton-abbey-jumps-shark-julian.html

http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/turning-straw-gold/201401/has-downton-abbey-jumped-the-shark

https://garyholmes76.wordpress.com/2014/01/13/downton-abbey-jumps-the-shark/

http://blogofthecourtier.com/2014/01/13/the-downfall-of-downton-abbey/

http://www.radiotimes.com/news/2012-12-26/downton-abbey-christmas-special-review—two-hour-tearjerker-or-dreary-disappointment

http://www.dailymail.co.uk/tvshowbiz/article-2253544/Is-time-Downton-Abbey-died-went-TV-heaven.html

How Not to Honour the War Dead on Remembrance Sunday

May contain spoilers for those who have not watched Series 5. Please bookmark to read later or proceed with caution.

On Remembrance Sunday my husband and I went to check out the Rembrandt exhibition at the National Gallery, then after lunch we decided to wander down to the Cenotaph to see the poppy wreaths that had been laid out. When we arrived, despite the official celebrations being over, there were still a fair amount of people in the vicinity of Whitehall and various groups such as the Salvation Army and Veterans for Peace laying their own tributes to the war dead. We ended up staying longer than we intended, having chatted to a policeman, a middle aged couple living in North London and an old man who was an evacuee during the Second World War and took part in the official celebrations earlier in the day. Afterwards, we headed to the Tower of London to see the poppy installation (Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red to give its formal name).

If the wreaths that adorned the Cenotaph were moving then nothing prepared us for the poppy installation at the Tower (despite us having gone to see it in the daytime a few weeks earlier). It was dusk and the area surrounding the installation was filled with people wanting to have a glimpse of the poppies. If the sight of the installation was poignant during the daytime then even more so as the sky turned dark, there was something eerie as the red of the poppies were only illuminated by the street lamps dotted around the Tower and the street as well as from the lights from the surrounding buildings. It was as if the Tower was standing in a vast glistening lake of blood that had poured from the fallen.

Tower_NightCenotaph Nov14

Over dinner, my husband and I talked about how we were both moved by sight of the Cenotaph and the poppy installation and that we were fortunate to have seen both especially on this very important Sunday. With that in mind I was also looking forward to the last episode of Downton Abbey given there was to be a scene featuring when the village war memorial was to be finally unveiled.

I have to say I was very disappointed with the episode. Truth be told I wasn’t expecting much given how Downton Abbey has lurched from mediocrity to mediocrity since the end of series 2, but I had expected that since the last episode coincided with Remembrance Sunday that the war memorial scene would be handled with sensitivity and respect for the millions of war dead. It wasn’t meant to be.

I felt that the scene was far too rushed, there was nothing of the solemn dignity that I saw at the pictures of the various Remembrance Sunday ceremonies up and down the country and the memorial itself was a let-down. It was a hasty conclusion to an episode that had too much in terms of plot, heavy handed recycling and the lack of development.

Worse of all was the inclusion of a tablet for Mrs Patmore’s nephew who was shot for cowardice during the war. The subplot involving the war memorial story line was Mrs Patmore’s campaign to have her nephew Archie Philpotts’ name included in the Downton war memorial given his own home village refused to do so. With Lord Grantham’s help, Mrs Patmore managed to have her nephew remembered even if his name wasn’t included in the Downton memorial. While some viewers might have been touched by such a gesture, I wasn’t.

S5_ep8_memorial1S5_ep8_memorialS5 war memorial 2

Critics have always carped that Downton Abbey’s biggest Achilles heel is the general implausibility of the series. Chief among this is the relationship between upstairs and downstairs and the Crawleys themselves behaving more like an upper middle class suburban family from Pinner rather than being a member of “God’s elect.” Crucially what is jarring is the insertion of twenty first century values and sensibilities in a programme set in the early twentieth century.

As the saying goes, the past is a foreign country and no period drama or historical novel no matter how well written and researched will totally capture the attitudes and sensibilities of the past. Despite all the claims of accuracy, research and that the stories and people were inspired by true to life events and personalities,Downton Abbey has consistently failed to present to viewers the values of that era and how the characters would have behaved faced with situations and their attitudes towards the world they lived in. Fans might say it’s fiction, so what? But even fiction especially set in the past needs to be true to the reality of the time it was set.

The final episode is a clear illustration of this problem. While today there will be greater understanding of and sympathy towards what makes soldiers desert their positions in the front, in the past, such understanding did not exist. The view was that a soldier like Archie Philpotts deserted his position and as a result let down his comrades and destroyed the esprit de corps that is the bedrock of army discipline and morale. The army’s view was that cowardice was a dereliction of duty and therefore carried out the necessary punishment. Hence the refusal of the memorial committee to include his name in the memorial given they were of the view that Archie Philpotts did not deserve to be included in the roll of men who gave their lives for King and Country.

Along with the problem of the implausibility of the series is the lack of character development which reduces them to chess pieces all moved around for the sake of the plot. Someone like Lord Grantham, who we are told was in the army, would have lines that were that weren’t crossed and which were fundamental to him as a soldier; values such as loyalty, fidelity, courage; and he wouldn’t have agreed to put up a memorial to a deserter who had committed the cardinal soldier’s sin of letting down his comrades, however sympathetic he felt personally. In his view, the man had failed in his duty as a soldier and that was that.

What Downton Abbey got right was the refusal of Archie Philpotts’ home village and the reluctance of Mr Carson to add his name to the memorial given that he was regarded as a coward even in death. Families of such soldiers were officially penalised; their widows not entitled to pensions, their deaths not commemorated and their behaviour seen as a disgrace to the community. However harsh and unpalatable that is to our modern day sensibilities, putting up a memorial to someone shot for cowardice would have been seen as an insult to those who fought and remained at their positions and who were commemorated on the war memorial.

And hence why I was left unmoved by the war memorial unveiling scene and that of Archie Philpotts’ tablet. It might have made some viewers cry and given the impression that Lord Grantham had exhibited a Solomon-like wisdom in balancing the wishes of the community and his head cook but it left a bitter taste in the mouth for me. On Remembrance Sunday of all days Julian Fellowes, the cast and crew trampled all over the memory of millions who died, by making the nephew’s memorial the focus of the scene and glorifying a coward at their expense.