Economics of Downton Abbey: War Memorials (or Sympathy Butters No Parsnips)

(Season Five, Episode Three)

The debate over the war memorial for Downton village has come up in all the episodes of Season Five thus far. I like this storyline; it represents a conversation that was happening in communities across Britain. Following the end of the Great War, people, quite naturally, wanted to commemorate the fallen soldiers in some way. The appropriate way to do so became a topic of national discussion. Debates swirled in newspapers across Britain, including the Times, with letters being written urging commemoration to take one of a variety of forms: scholarships, hospital additions, parks, or monuments, to name a few. As one Times editorial stated, “Memorials should add to the beauty of Britain and commemorate not only the soldiers but what they were fighting for: happiness.”

I highly recommend Alex King’s book, Memorials of the Great War in Britain, used here to flesh out insights about the continuing debates driving this plot line of Downton Abbey. The book’s discussion of the symbolism of and institutional influence on war memorials illuminates the many tensions and difficulties involved with creating the right kind of remembrance.

The Meaning of a Donation

The war memorials for the Great War were, for the most part, erected and paid for by local communities to commemorate local people who had been killed. While the national debate demonstrated a “uniformity of aims and attitudes” (King, p. 20), the decisions of what to do remained within each community. Public meetings were held and planning committees formed. Voluntary contributions were seen as the only appropriate way to raise funds for their creation, and community members were called upon to contribute.

Appeal for the Dover Memorial that appeared in The Times. A list of those who contributed (and the amounts) also appeared in the paper.
Appeal for the Dover Memorial that appeared in The Times. A list of those who contributed (and the amounts) also appeared in the paper.

This reminds me of Viviana A. Zelizer ‘s argument that the meaning of money and its exchange is strongly linked to the surrounding social relations and situations. In other words, a dollar is not always just a dollar (or, in the case of Downton Abbey, a pound isn’t always a pound), and money can be earmarked and valued in different ways.

With the memorials, money used for a donation was differentiated from other spending and earmarked as a way to express gratitude for soldiers’ service to their country. As King notes, a donation was seen as a concrete recognition of soldiers’ service. Participation from all classes and backgrounds was encouraged, regardless of amount, to make the memorial truly representative of the community.

Monetary donations for the creation of war memorials were socially embedded in a very public way, further adding meaning to this spending. Lists of who donated often appeared in papers and in town centers, praising those who valued the sacrifice of soldiers….and guilting those who hadn’t yet contributed. King writes that public appeals used language of “moral exhortation, local patriotism, …and even self-interest in the evasion of a future sense of guilt” (p. 32).

The intense community involvement could add a lot of pressure, and sometimes open up old wounds, as we see in Episode Three.

The Right Memory

The Cenotaph at Whitehall in London was unveiled in 1920 by King George V.
The Cenotaph at Whitehall in London was unveiled in 1920 by King George V.

War memorials were often interpreted as way for the living to resolve emotional traumas that stemmed from the war (King 1998). This comes up in Episode Three with Mrs. Patmore’s request to have her nephew, Archie, who was shot for cowardice, included on the list of those remembered on Downton’s memorial. She says the refusal to do so in his hometown “makes his death nothing at all.”

Carson’s response, harsh as it was, mirrored the national sentiment about whom to memorialize. These memorials were to commemorate the “moral heroes” of the war (King, p. 181). In considering the meaning behind a memorial, one newspaper urged, “‘Our true task is to make sure the memory is a right memory’” (King, p. 3).  The rhetoric surrounding the memorials created a memory of soldiers as honorable, moral, and selflessly patriotic. Adding Archie’s name could not be reconciled with the right memory.

Although the rules for memorials appeared to be set in stone,  public dialogue was shifting away from the traditional moral views of soldier and duty. Prior to the war, cowardice was seen as a failure of character. This began to change as the concept of shell-shock became common knowledge.  “Surely by now, we know more about shell-shock to be more understanding than we were at the start of the war,” says Mrs. Hughes.

A War Office committee was formed in 1920 to investigate connections between shell-shock and cowardice, acknowledging that perhaps cowardice might be beyond an individual’s control. Historian Ted Bogacz identifies the subsequent report as “evidence of the committee’s struggle to reconcile the modern ambiguous notion of shell-shock with traditional absolutist norms for behaviour in war and peace” (p. 248). All the same, on Downton Abbey Mrs. Patmore says that the War Office deemed those shot for cowardice as “not worthy” of being included on memorials. If this is the case, it’s not surprising; inclusion could be interpreted as an admission that the executions of more than 300 soldiers accused of cowardice and desertion were unjust. At the very least, it would challenge the “purified memory” which public remembrance had adopted (see King, pp. 173 -182).

Reconciliation would come later: in 1930, the Army abolished the death penalty for cowardice, and the 306 soldiers executed for cowardice now have their own memorial and received posthumous pardons in 2006.


Further Reading

Bogacz, T. 1989. “War Neurosis and Cultural Change in England, 1914-22: The Work of the War Office Committee of Enquiry into ‘Shell-Shock’.” Journal of Contemporary History 24(2): 227- 256.

King, A. 1998. Memorials of the Great War in Britain: The Symbolism and Politics of Remembrance (Legacy of the Great War). Berg: Oxford, United Kingdom.

Times [London, England]. 9 Jan. 1919. “War Memorials.” p. 7. The Times Digital Archive. Accessed January 18, 2015.

Times [London, England]. 20 Feb. 1919. “Dover Patrol Memorial.” p. 9. The Times Digital Archive. Accessed January 18, 2015.

Zelizer, V. A. 1995. The Social Meaning of Money. Princeton University Press: Princeton, New Jersey.

Image: The Cenotaph, Whitehall. Photo credit: Adrian Pingstone, June 2005. Accessed via Wikimedia Commons.


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