War changes things. So they say on Downton Abbey, so they say in books and on TV. It’s the feeling floating around in the air as the war begins, that this’ll change things in a profound way somehow.
This post was requested by a reader. She wanted to talk about how the rank of the solider becomes relevant–during wartime and beyond–and how others, at home or outside of the armed forces–can start to assume that because a man is serving his country, that he is being noble or heroic and not unscrupulous and taking advantage.
What triggered this? Major Bryant on Downton Abbey.
|Major Bryant and Ethel|
Here Be Downton Spoilers
Creepy Mustache Man is in the British army. We don’t know anything about his background or even what his conduct on the field was, but evidently he gets wounded and sent back to England.
He is sent to Downton Abbey once the house has turned into a convalescent home. It’s for officers only.
There, he meets one of the maids, Ethel. As you can probably tell, they get quite friendly. They’re found out and Ethel is summarily fired. Maids at the time were not allowed to have relationships. In particular, being an officer, Bryant must be some sort of upper middle class or aristocratic chap outside of the army. I hear that we’re going to meet his father soon, so I suppose we’ll find out then.
Ethel, despite her big dreams, must come from a poor, country background, as many of the maids at Downton do. Ethel falls pregnant. After she gives birth, she tries–in vain–to contact Major Bryant, who has recovered enough to leave Downton. Bryant will have nothing to do with Ethel or the baby.
By the social structures of the time, Ethel has broken the cardinal rule of giving in to her desires and is paying the price. She lies in order to work, telling her employers that her husband was in the army and was killed.
The New Maid
In Ethel’s place, Downton takes on a new maid. Jane is a war widow and must now take a job and earn her living in order to support herself and her son. Though there is a little resistance to hiring a mother at first, the butler, housekeeper and Lord Grantham decide that Jane should get the job.
Not only is she qualified, not only does she have a son, but her husband died serving his country and there is a pervasive sentiment that as her husband died serving his country, we owe him our thanks and will help his widow.
The only difference between Ethel and Jane is that Jane was married.
The Soldiers of Downton
Downton becomes full of recuperating soldiers, all officers. When war breaks out, Lord Grantham, who served in the Boer War, expects to be taken back into the army and perhaps even sent to France. Instead, he is given the title of Lord Lieutenant of Yorkshire–a ceremonial title–and is made the honorary Colonel of a regiment.
I assume the regiment goes to France, but Grantham does not. It’s likely because of his age–though perhaps, his rank as an earl may have something to do with it.
The Grantham heir, Matthew, signs up for the army almost as soon as the war is announced. He is a Lieutenant in 1916, making him a junior officer.
By 1918, Matthew is a Captain and while fighting in the Battle of Amiens, becomes severely injured. He is self-loathing, despondent and confused. He feels worthless after his wounds.
In the meantime, downstairs, William the footman joins the army, all puffed up to fight for King and Country. He doesn’t seem to question why there’s a war on–in fact, the only character I’ve seen question that is Branson the chauffeur–but is desperate to join the fight. As a servant outside of the army world, William is probably a private and becomes batman to Matthew.
A batman was a personal servant to officers, sort of like a trench valet.
William is even more severely injured than Matthew, comes back to Downton–where it takes the Dowager Countess meddling and string-pulling to get William back to Downton Abbey. Because he’s not an officer, the doctor in charge of the convalescent home and local hospital says, he doesn’t want William back at the house, despite him being a servant there before the war and being from the local area.
Thomas, the other footman, joins up early. He becomes a medic, thinking that he won’t have to see much action that way. Thomas is an astute, if scheming character, and likely knows that with the war, enlisted men will bear the brunt. However, Corporal Barrow ends up treating the men in the trenches.
After some scheming, he ends up serving the rest of the war back at Downton, first the hospital, then the house. He is promoted to Sergeant because it’s felt that the men recuperating at the house will better listen to a higher ranking man.
This topic made me think of a few other examples, non-Downton.
- Rhett Butler in Gone With the Wind. Rhett does not join the Confederate army. He is a blockade runner and speculator–he makes a profit off the war and is derided for it by the other characters. Yes, he takes advantage of the war and associate with Yankees, but he does it quite openly. In the end, as Sherman marches toward a burning Atlanta, Rhett joins the Confederate army for one last stand.
- The Waterloo Roll lists men, by regiment, department, rank and remarks on whether they died, were wounded, etc. As I had planned on having several characters in my Regency project fighting at Waterloo, I read the roll call. I found that reading ranks such as “Capt. The Hon. ____” made me feel as if I’d plunged myself into a Regency novel. “The Honorable” is a quasi-designation given to the younger sons of earls, all sons and daughters of viscounts and barons.