As we gear up for Downton Abbey Season 2, starting to air in the U.K. this Sunday, we thought we’d offer some historical perspective on what the Downton Abbey community is facing with the onset of World War I. Let’s just say, it’s more than tea parties, social class scuffles, and finding the right eligible man to marry!
It is fitting that the first season of Downton Abbey was bookended with a telegram—one announcing the sinking of the Titanic, and the other announcing war. When the second series of Downton Abbey opens, it is late 1916, and the leap ahead is a compelling move, for this year marked the end of antiquated Victorian tactics and the beginning of a full-scale, modern war utilizing every technological advance of the 1890s and 1900s, the beginnings of twentieth century British politics, and the foundation for the conflict in the Middle East:
The huge volunteer army that Britain had been training and equipping for two years was at last thrown into the conflict on the Somme, and there most of a generation of young men were killed. For all of the warring powers, 1916 was a year of catastrophe. But perhaps for Britain, uninvolved in any important war for a century and unused to the collision of great armies, the hideous losses of the Somme were more of a shock. There came the realization by the end of the year that the war was no closer to decision than it had been two years earlier. —Britain Since 1918 (1967) by Bentley B. Gilbert
According to Alastair Bruce, historical advisor for Downton Abbey, “the shock of the Great War was that first of all, it was most definitely not, and secondly, it went on for a great deal longer than anyone expected. And it therefore absorbed everyone into its mayhem.”
Almost immediately after the Armistice, there was a pressing urge to look backward to the glorious Edwardian age—which materialized in the flood of memoirs and reminisces by Edwardians published in the late teens and 1920s, and the attempt to turn back the clock on women’s fashions. But it was much too late: the four years of military blunders, carnage, despair, rationing, women’s independence, and political upheaval accelerated the tensions and changes in pre-war society to a breaking point, and the old order was now smashed to bits.
Each inhabitant of Downton Abbey reacts to this change in a myriad of ways:
—For the men, not only did the Great War threaten loss of limb or of life, but one’s assurance of their place in society.
—For the women, autonomy and independence were thrust upon them, whether or not they agitated for the vote and legal advances before the war.
—For the upper classes, the deaths of nearly an entire generation of young men—many of them heirs to great titles and estates—struck a blow at the foundations of their class (primogeniture) and their already depleted wealth (death duties).
—For the servants, women no longer needed the security of domestic service when they could work in a munitions factory, and the excessive kowtowing required of them grew increasingly anachronistic.
The same could be said for the men in the trenches along the Western Front. The Battle of the Somme, a major—and disastrous—offensive launched by the Allies in July 1916, dominated the second half of that year. Trench warfare was violent, traumatizing, and demoralizing. The close quarters and fatalities also broke down class lines (though not enough, as gentlemen with little to no fighting experience entered the army as officers, and their lower-class counterparts entered in the enlistment ranks), as both peer and servant, rich and poor, educated and illiterate, lived under the daily siege of poison gas, flamethrowers, machine guns, and high explosive shells. By the Somme’s end in November, it had become the deadliest operation in history with one million fatalities.
Ironically, the cut-off age firmly marked the irrelevancy of the old Victorian generation and their emphasis on the middle aged, a development which further chips away at Robert’s smug paternalism and assurance of his place in life. For William, unable to enlist at the behest of his family, and Branson, hesitant to enlist because of his political convictions, their continued presence in England no doubt tests their fortitude under the weight of wartime propaganda and the arrival of wounded soldiers at Downton.
The Home Front was no less traumatizing, where everyone was faced with food shortages, a steep decline in income (plus taxation), and the general anxiety or grief over the deaths of friends’ sons and male relatives. For women, the biggest shock was their sudden increase in autonomy. I blogged about the change in women’s roles at Edwardian Promenade a few weeks ago, where I found women’s war work shockingly broad in its scope. The 1922 edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica devotes nearly 20 pages to this topic, which ranged from civilian work (canteens, supplies, fundraising, etc), to military work (WRENs, WRAF, the Women’s Volunteer Reserve, etc), to factory work (munitions, shells, gas masks, etc), to medical work (nurses, doctors, ambulance drivers, etc), to replacing the absent men as tram conductors, police officers, and so on.
The second series will be composed of eight episodes, running from the Battle of the Somme in 1916 to the Armistice in 1918. In between those dates, other historical events the second series will cover is the Battle of Verdun, the Russian Revolution and the British capture of Jerusalem; on the domestic front there is a serious shortage of able-bodied men for home front jobs, also there is the election of David Lloyd George as Prime Minister (whom the Dowager Countess despises) and his creation of the wartime coalition. Matthew Crawley, Thomas, and William Mason are off fighting in the war, while Lord Grantham cannot serve due to his age and Tom Branson is unsure that he wants to fight for England. Lady Sybil Crawley defies her aristocratic position and enlists in Queen Alexandra’s Imperial Military Nursing Service.
Lady Sybil’s involvement with QAIMNS was daring, since aristocratic mothers continued to keep their daughters away from men—especially wounded men not of their class. However, the work could be shocking and gruesome, and it was not uncommon for young ladies to unwind with alcohol, or, as with Lady Diana Manners, chloroform, and other drugs. The most drastic change to Downton Abbey is its use as a convalescent home.
Lady Edith finds her purpose in life on the estate, taking a much larger and more administrative role that would have been impossible before 1914, and Lady Mary represents the conflict of young women of the war era, who were torn between the opportunities awaiting them and the upbringing they’d always known. The housing of wounded soldiers in Downton Abbey presents a challenge for Cora, who has lost most of her staff to active service, and, as with other ladies of her station, is faced a loss of control of her home, and as the Americans had yet to enter the war, she is no doubt placed in a difficult position regarding her loyalties. This stress definitely takes a toll on Isobel, and Violet no doubt reacts to the chaos with her customary witticism and common sense.
ITV has kept a tight lid on the plot’s twists and turns, but for those desiring to brush up on life during WWI, I have included a list of recommended books for your perusal:
The Guns of August by Barbara Tuchman
Testament of Youth by Vera Brittain
Not So Quiet: Stepdaughters of War by Helen Zenna Smith
All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque
A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway
The Return of the Soldier by Rebecca West
Good-Bye to All That by Robert Graves
Storm of Steel by Ernst Jünger
Evangeline Holland is a writer of historical romances, an amateur milliner, and a really great cook. When not writing or reading, you can find her blogging about the Edwardian era on her website, the aptly titled Edwardian Promenade.