Disclaimer – I am not a historian of the Great War, and my research is by no means exhaustive. I write about the topics that arise from watching Downton Abbey and that interest me as an amateur student of history. I am always happy to be corrected by the better-informed if I have misunderstood, misinterpreted or just plain missed things. That, after all, is how you learn. I apologise as well for any wild assumptions I have made about Lord Grantham’s military career and experience.
Julian Fellowes says in the series 2 scripts that Lord Grantham is 50, thus as the series starts in 1916 he was born in 1866. He also says that although Robert has been a career soldier he is too old to fight and the army won’t be interested in a middle aged landowner. For various reasons I disagree with such a definitive statement and intend to explain why.
As to Robert’s army career, again we can only make assumptions. Born in 1866 he would have entered Sandhurst around 1884/5. He wears the George V Coronation medal*, so he was in the army at least until 1911, and after leaving the army he went into the Reserves. He wears the uniform of the Grenadier Guards (or the travesty that passes for a Grenadier tunic in the Downton costume department) so I have taken it that’s his regiment (and what other would be conceivable for an earl than one of the British army’s elite fighting regiments?). He married an heiress because his family was poor, so after graduating from Sandhurst a cavalry regiment, where he would need at least £ 500 a year (approx £25,000 today) to live up to the style of the regiment was probably out of the question.
When series 2 of Downton Abbey aired I was puzzled why Robert, apparently in his mid-forties and a former soldier who had fought in at least one major campaign, was given a job that he bitterly described as making him no better than a chocolate soldier. The puzzlement deepened when I received my copy of the series 2 scripts and saw Julian Fellowes’ confident pronouncement that Robert doesn’t go to war because “the truth is, he’s too old.”
I was not the only one baffled. Allan Mallinson, a military historian and former professional soldier, posed this very question. Mallinson certainly thought that Robert was young enough to go to the front and wondered if there was some dark secret about Robert that the War Office knew and decided to keep him away from the fighting, citing his age as an excuse.
The lack of any overarching theme in Downton Abbey and the inconsistent quality of the writing make it difficult to make out whether we are meant to see Robert’s desire to fight and his rejection by the army as a pointer to the increasing obsolescence of his class. In any case, the most cursory of research shows that in saying Lord Grantham’s age makes him unfit for military duty, Fellowes is ignoring the historical reality.
I have a personal interest in this. My great grandfather Frederick Hildred was born in 1870, making him four years younger than Robert. He too fought in the Second Boer War. Family legend passed down from his daughter (my maternal grandmother) is that on the outbreak of war he went to the local recruiting office and was told he was too old and to give up his place to a younger man. The truth, as my brother found while compiling our family tree, is completely different.
Frederick Hildred was a roadmender for Brighton Corporation; he was used to digging, building, repairing and hard labour in all weathers. For two years 1915-1917 he served in France in a Pioneer battalion – digging trenches, laying barbed wire, picking up barbed wire, digging graves, collecting and burying bodies, laying and mending roads; and when called upon, fighting alongside the infantry repelling attacks. It occurred to me that if the army had found a use for Private Fred Hildred, volunteer, why was the Earl of Grantham, former professional soldier, cast on the scrapheap and is the charge of “too old” actually true?
Hugh Thomas has this to say about Sandhurst graduates who served during WW1 as officers:
“The morphology of the passage of these cadets through Sandhurst is curiously interesting. In the late 1870s and early 1880s most of the leading army commanders of the First World War were at the College. The following thirty years at Sandhurst marks a steady declension in the rank gained in that conflict. The men of the late 70s and early 80s were the strategists, army or corps commanders, who were to pass the First World War at general headquarters. The men of the late 80s and early 90s were field commanders. The men of the late 90s and early 1900s were generally captains at the start of the World War and emerged from it, if at all, as lieutenant-colonels.”
Lord Grantham then would in 1914 have been a field commander. After the declaration of war when men rushed to enlist the army would have been mad to turn down the experience of even a mediocre soldier with battle experience; and being a mediocre or disastrous soldier was no bar to employment in 1914.
Ian Hamilton (1853-1947) was Commander in Chief of the Mediterranean Force at Gallipoli, and Frederick Stopford (1854-1935) commander of the Suvla Bay landings in August 1915 (although admittedly their involvement in the Dardanelles campaign led to the end of their army careers). However, their dates of birth give the lie to Robert being too old to serve. Even in the last months of the war the extension of the Military Service Act 1916 made men up to the maximum age of 56 liable for call-up, so he might still have been hopeful of seeing some fighting.
Mobilisation and recruitment of men at the start of World War I was on a scale never seen before. On 7th August 1914 the Prime Minister asked Parliament for permission to sanction an increase in the army to 500,000 men. By the 5th September the PM announced that 250,000 to 300,000 men had enlisted and two days later that figure was amended to 439,000 men. Patriotic fires burned high, and by the end of 1914 1,186,337 men had enlisted; in the words of HG Wells, “No-one wants to be a non-combatant.”
In the city squares you saw them drilling – at first without uniforms, in their city clothes, the half the men in uniforms and half not. It made the heart ache…for these men had never thought of being soldiers, but they came gladly when their country needed them.
– A Home Front Diary 1914-1918
And these men – labourers, clerks, stockbrokers, solicitors – needed training; and it would take months, if not years to do so. Keen and efficient as the real life officer counterparts of Matthew Crawley undoubtedly were, they, like the men they commanded, were as inexperienced as their men in the ways and methods of the army and wholly unaware of the demands of military discipline; so, even if the army had some reason for not wanting him to fight at the Front, Lord Grantham could have been extremely useful running a training camp. Catterick garrison and camp is only 20 miles from Ripon, and as Robert goes to a mess dinner at Richmond in 1916 he’d be well aware the camp was under construction and no doubt wonder why he couldn’t be camp commander or in charge of training. (Let’s not ask why the army has left it two years to tell him he’s not wanted and insults him with the position they do give when his experience should have made him one of the first men to be called up).
When the army was raising pioneer battalions I referred to earlier it relied upon old soldiers, who returned to the Colours and often to their former regiments to instruct recruits in the rudiments of army life. Although these men had no knowledge of pioneering work, and often their words of command were obsolete, the provided the newly appointed officers with a wealth of experience and support – in other words, they had been out of the army for years but were still needed and had something to contribute; and “dugouts” – officers recalled from the retired list – offered their services and were eager to do their bit by taking over battalions and training men until new young officers were trained and could take command. If that was the case for pioneer battalions it must also have been the case for the rest of Kitchener’s army, struggling with the influx of new and raw recruits who had flocked to the colours in 1914. They had to be whipped into shape and fast and the army did not have the luxury of turning its nose up at a trained soldier because he was deemed to be too old.
Another baffling statement of Lord Fellowes is that Robert was not required because he is a landowner, and as non sequiturs go that’s a champion. Perhaps we should make allowances for him – not being an aristocrat by birth or descent but merely as a political appointment perhaps he is unaware of the concept of noblesse oblige. Robert is the sort of person who is expected and expects to step up and fight for his country – aristocratic birth was regarded as conveying natural leadership. The basis of land tenure for centuries was military service, for centuries the aristocratic classes raised and led armies, fought wars and died in them; and despite the reforms following the Crimean War, a lot of officers were still from the upper classes.
Being a landowner did not stop Robert fighting in South Africa, and if being a landowner had been a disqualification the male members of the peerage would have been sitting at home twiddling their thumbs for four years from 1914. After the Zeppelin raids on London in 1915 there were renewed calls for men to join up and fight. The Daily Express said “300,000 are wanted at once…unless you are making munitions, your duty is to join the army today.” No caveat there about how old you are or how many acres you own. On the contrary; according to Vanity Fair in March 1916, by the sixteenth month of operations eight hundred men of title had been killed in action or wounded, and over one thousand more were serving with land and sea forces; leading the author of the article to speculate on the doubtful future of the House of Lords when an entire generation of nobility had been wiped out. Noble families were undeterred by ever-growing casualty lists; one peeress looked back after the war on the “pride and exaltation of fond parents and wives, their willing offering of their sons and husbands, to fight in so great a cause.”
In 1930 The Complete Peerage compiled a list of all peers and peers’ sons who had played a part, large or small, in the Great War. It ran to 67 pages.
The overriding quality that distinguishes the character of Lord Grantham is duty; such a man would regard fighting and dying for his country as the rent to be paid for privileges enjoyed. When he says “this is where I belong” during that unfortunate mess dinner he is saying that the army and its’ values are an integral part of his identity. Fellowes’ complete lack of research in this area shows as well in the ludicrous comment when Robert says he “offered his services” the day after war broke out; when men had been mobilising for weeks and he was in the Reserve and a Lord Lieutenant. He’d be well aware of troop movements and be awaiting his call up telegram and instructions to report. Here are some of the huge flaws with Downton Abbey and Julian Fellowes writing and ones that irritates me intensely – the bland assurances that it’s all historically accurate (which it certainly isn’t), the assumption that none of us are informed enough to know better and the failure to make a character act consistently or in the way a real life counterpart would have done.
While I understand the need for Robert to remain at the Abbey so that Fellowes can unfold the character’s story lines, the comment that Robert is not wanted because of his age is very far from being “the truth” and ought not to be presented as such; is, in fact inaccurate, misleading and downright wrong,. If Robert considered that he should have been serving at the front, there were plenty of men his age and older who he could have pointed to as examples.
Henry Rawlinson , 1st Baron Rawlinson 1864-1925
Alfred Rawlinson, 3rd Baron Rawlinson 1867-1934
William Robertson, 1st Baronet Robertson 1860-1933
Walter Norris Congreve 1862-1927
Frederick Lambart, 10th Earl of Cavan 1865-1946
Frederick Ponsonby, 1st Baron Sysonby 1867-1935
Julian Byng, 1st Viscount Byng of Vimy 1862-1935
Horace Smith-Dorrien 1858-1930
Vor Trower no dates but he was in South Africa in 1879, in 1914 raised the 5th battalion South Wales Borderers and remained in service into his sixties.
And there were no doubt many more.
*Given to military personnel and police who took part in the Coronation. Robert has the silver version with the military riband so he would have been in the Coronation parade. If he was merely attending then his medal would have had the civilian riband.
PS A Home Front Diary says that men too old to join the army or prevented in some way joined the National Guard instead. I haven’t been able to find anything about this, does anyone know what it was or if it existed?
Vanity Fair March 1916 – The Aristocracy at War – the doubtful future of the House of Lords
Article 27 June 2014 by Lord Lexden on the peers killed in battle Politicshome.com
Allan Mallinson. The Making of the British Army (London, 2009)
Lillie Scales. A Home Front Diary 1914-1918 (London, 2014)
Hugh Thomas. The Story of Sandhurst (London, 1961)
KW Mitchinson. Pioneer Battalions of the Great War (London, 2014)
The Great War (BBC series, 1964)