(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.
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.