The British Army regiment in the 19th century had the function of a self-contained social group, based on the ideas of aristocratic paternalism and philanthropy, and each regiment had its own style of uniform and custom. The paternalistic and deferential relationship between master and servant, landlord and tenant corresponded directly to the regimental world and the separation in military rank between officers and men matched directly with the real differences of the circumstances of birth.
The regimental family imitated the aristocratic family with its dependent families and servants, and the officer’s wife looked after the female members of the regiment just as her husband looked after his men. The Army regiment operated after the feudal system of the landlord-tenant, lord-servant relationship, with its aspects of paternalism and philanthropy, reflecting the values and attitudes of British society as a whole, which might explain why Robert so much enjoyed being in the army. Not only did it appeal to his innate conservatism and sense of duty, but in an all male regiment his dominant male status was unchallenged, his decisions and orders carried out and his rank commanded respect; which must have made a change from being at home.
Lord Grantham is a man’s man – with his education and upbringing he couldn’t be anything else – and the regiment of the 19th century army was nothing if not masculine. The regiment of the 19th century British army was the very heart of the British army, a hierarchical extended family that echoed the status of its members in the outside world. As long as he was in the army a man belonged to his regiment and it was his family; not just his destiny but his upbringing and education had been directed to placing Robert there.
The heart of an officer’s day to day existence was the mess and his life revolved around it; much like a private club, it was the centre of his social existence. The mess consisted of a reading room, ante room and dining room. Before and after a meal, as well as when off duty, the officers could retire here to engage in various activities such as chess, dominoes, reading, or playing the piano. Because visiting military and civilian guests would be spending time in this room, the officers would want to be able to show off the fact that they were of the upper class by decorating the room with taste and elegance; regimental mementoes, silver plates, cutlery, glassware. The mess was the centre of social activities for the men and became an institution that followed its members wherever they went.
The walls and tables are adorned with trophies, war relics, portraits of commanders, plate and the numerous curiosities which British troops collect in their varied and extensive wanderings. (Grierson). Such a display was a matter of regimental pride.
The officers had their own kitchens run by a “Mess Man” who was usually a capable sergeant. He would train mess servants. The cook was a civilian, usually French, who was paid with or from mess funds. The Mess Man was an enviable position because of his connections to the officers and his access to good food. Naturally, the food was of a better quality and more abundant. Officers ate breakfast, lunch, high tea and the main meal of the day, supper which would include several courses. Each officer paid into a communal fund for the upkeep of the mess; 30 days’ pay on his first appointment and monthly subscriptions of two thirds of one day’s pay.
Despite the tables being set with crystal, china and silver, conversation would be limited to trivia. The army had found early on that when men have been drinking there are topics – sex, women, politics, religion and work – that lead to arguments and fights and so talking about these was strictly banned. That doesn’t mean that dining in the mess was dull; after dinner there was often singing, betting and rougher activities such as High Cockolorum when wise mess servants removed the more fragile fittings; while more senior officers retired to play billiard, bridge or read the papers.
In times of peace the day to day life of an officer was not arduous. A typical working day consisted of physical training, drill or manoeuvres before dawn followed by a hearty breakfast followed by more training until lunch time. Battalions were generally run on a day-to-day basis by the commanding officer, the adjutant and the quartermaster. One young officer when asking his commanding officer for leave to go hunting was told – “As long as there is one subaltern left in barracks to do the work on a hunting day I do not want you to ask for leave”. Always go”. To control this (and the running of the mess) the Adjutant always kept a “Warning Out Book” for young officers to notify him of their intentions and get his clearance to be out of barracks without bothering the CO. Hubert Gough was a subaltern in the 16th Lancers in the 1880s
We led a cheerful carefree life….what duties we had to do did not call for much mental effort. Afternoons were usually free for most officers. We played polo and some cricket at the Aldershot Club in summer. We took the coach, with four horses and two men, to almost every race meeting round London. As another (unnamed) source observed “The bachelor is not always the ideal officer, whose soul is centred in his corps or regiment…he is often a somewhat pleasure-loving individual who is very fond of running up to town, and going to balls and race-meetings.” Leave was generous – generally at least two months a year. In the Guards a subaltern could obtain four months leave out of every twelve and a captain could count on six; so there would be plenty of time for travel, social duties and learning to run the Downton estate.
Sport and games were almost as important as the business of soldiering; some regimental histories have more information about sports than battles. Hunting, shooting, fishing, cricket took up more time than regimental duties – “for most officers, soldiering in the 1900s was an endless round of polo, parties and playtime (Cannadine)”. Even at war due attention was paid to sports – brigade orders for the Guards Brigade in South Africa during the Boer War have a list of events for New Year’s Day, including an Officer’s Race and the high jump.
Of course a young officer’s life had its’ serious side. If someone like Robert was serious about his army career, that would mean studying for promotion. By the end of the century formal and practical examinations were required for every step from lieutenant to lieutenant-colonel and involved increasingly detailed study of Regimental Duties; Drill (practical and written); Military Law; Field Duties; Topography; and Tactics. Additionally Military Law and Duties in the Field included two four month course of garrison duty on either Gibraltar or Malta; and while this knowledge had to be mastered and the examinations passed it was not “good form” to be seen working hard or devoting oneself to practice of one’s military profession. We are given the impression throughout the later series that Lord Grantham is stupid, but it’s a fair assumption that he did not reach the rank he did simply because he is Lord Grantham. He might not be the sort of officer for whom progression is effortless but as a character he is conscientious and dutiful, and while he might not have been one of the army’s outstanding soldiers there’s no reason to believe he was a dunce.
We know that Robert married because his family was in need of money to save Downton, and series 5 implies that he’s in his early twenties. Officers generally were discouraged from marrying until at least their early thirties – there was an army saying
“A Subaltern may not marry, captains might marry, majors should marry, and lieutenant-colonels must marry” – and young junior officers were discouraged from marrying as it was felt that it could ruin them financially when the cost was added to the initial outlay for commission, uniforms, equipment, subscriptions and the mess. The purity of the mess was disturbed by marriage, as it took the officer out of the all-male warrior clique, and an officer who married without getting permission from his commanding officer severely jeopardized his chances of promotion. Custom, economics, and peer pressure combined to postpone marriage until quite late in life, and the army very much disapproved of it in the same way employers disapproved of servants marrying; it divided and diluted loyalty.
His choice of bride might also have raised eyebrows; not that Robert had to marry for money – that was so usual it wasn’t worth remarking – but being American she would have no influential family and friends who could be lobbied for lucrative postings or staff appointments. Marriage was not just a matter of personal preference and liking for people like Robert Crawley; money, suitability, and in the case of an officer serious about making the army his profession the influence the bride’s family could exert to further her husband’s career were all taken into account. The objection to Cora is not that she is American and half Jewish (although Society in general did not share the Prince of Wales enthusiasm for either Americans or Jews), but that for a professional soldier Robert is marrying very young, which would lead his regimental superiors to doubt his commitment and would affect his progress up the regimental ranks; and his wife comes from outside the ranks of the British peerage and gentry hence cannot make up for that with her family influence and connections. Being young and a stranger to English high society she is probably also inexperienced at the social events she is expected to host as subtle political manoeuvres on her husband’s behalf.
It’s either Robert or Cora who says in series 1 that for the first year of marriage they were miserable, and once the dots are joined it’s very easy to see why – not least the fact they are virtual strangers. Courtship rituals involved a grand social life, strictly regulated by chaperones, and they probably spent very little time alone together before they were married. Robert stays in the army long enough to participate in the coronation of George V in 1911*, so he’s not dilettanting around for a few years until he inherits the earldom and has to run the estates; he’s serious about the army as a profession. His marriage not only reveals that his family are broke and have to chase an heiress to save the estates, but puts his career in serious doubt with his superiors; and no doubt he resented having to dance attendance on a new wife and being expected to produce an heir at a time when he’d rather be attending to his duties. The fact that he did reach the rank of major or lieutenant general after a professional setback like his early marriage shows that he really put his back into it from 1890-1911 to prove himself.
What did Cora think of him being a soldier and being away for months on military duties – did she accompany him to the Mediterranean when his regiment was sent there, or did she stay at the Abbey? We have no idea. If she decided to join him on Gibraltar she’d have found “Officers quarters, commodious and pleasantly situated” and enjoyed steamer trips to Malaga, Seville, Cadiz and Cordoba, garden parties, receptions and balls at the Governor’s residence and plenty of chances for sailing, boating and walking; or perhaps a visit to the Garrison Library, “well-stocked with books &c, and contains spacious reading and lounging rooms.”
I have the feeling from series 1 when they discuss Bates that the army is a bone of contention between them. Clearly Cora knows and Robert knows Cora knows that the army is important because he uses attendance at a regimental dinner as an excuse when he wants to meet Matthew Crawley for the first time – so perhaps Roberts uses the excuse of an army function as a way to stop Cora from arguing with him; she doesn’t necessarily like it but the army means so much to him she knows that it’s not negotiable; and interestingly Robert must know that and use it to get something he wants without the usual argument. In the end I feel that the army was such an important part of Robert’s life that it became both a refuge and shield against the home; he may be devoted to Downton but the army is where he truly feels free and most himself.
Just a shame we never saw Hugh Bonneville in a busby….
*George V Coronation medals were given to members of the armed forces and the police who took part in the parade and lined the procession route. 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. The medal was awarded to certain civilians, but Grantham seems unlikely to have fallen into the categories for this.
**I’m assuming Robert’s regiment was the Grenadier Guards for two reasons. One, in series 2 his uniform has Grenadier collar insignia, in the 2012 Christmas special he’s wearing a Grenadier regimental tie and in the 2013 a Grenadier dress uniform. Two, the Grenadier Guards is the senior regiment of the British Army and I can’t imagine an earl’s heir considering any other regiment as a suitable one to serve in. Robert Grantham is nothing if not traditional. As the leading infantry regiment of the British army, the Grenadiers, with a history dating back to 1659, was one of the most prestigious regiments, socially and militarily, that a man could join.
1. Officers of 3rd Battalion Grenadier Guards at the Modder River 1899
2. Guards at the funeral procession of Edward VII May 1910
3. Social Life in the Army 4. Grenadier Guards recruitment poster (1914)
5. Grenadier Guards during an inspection
6. Lord Grantham Series 2 pictures
David Cannadine. The Decline and Fall of the British Aristocracy (London, 1992)
Lieut Colonel James Moncrieff Grierson. From Khaki to Scarlet – The British Army of the Eve of the Boer War (London, 1899, 1988) – as a note to a previous blog about Robert at 50 being too old to fight in 1916 – Lieut Col Grierson died in 1914 aged 55 – “in the prime of professional life” according to the introduction to this edition.
Byron Farwell. For Queen and Country – A Social History of the Victorian and Edwardian Army (London, 1981)
Jeremy Paxman. Great Britain’s Great War (London, 2014)
John Masters. Bugles and a Tiger (London, 1956)
Army & Navy Calendar for the Financial Year 1883-1884
Syllabus of Subjects For The Examination Of Officers For Promotion
Hansard 19 October 1899