What surprised you most about Downton Abbey’s depiction of WWI?
Of course, Downton Abbey is a fictional dramatization of historical events, so I don’t watch it as a documentary but as a very interesting period depiction of life there during a cataclysmic world event. I was surprised by the really quick introduction in the first episode of the second season to combat on the Western Front. No parades, no flag waving, just here is the Somme!
What do you think most Downton Abbey fans would be surprised to learn about WWI that they might not already know?
That life went on in most of the UK like it had before the war, even though it was just across the English Channel. Of course, in the areas which were being bombed by German zeppelins and heavy bombers, the war was very much present and close.
What connections, if any, does the National WWI Museum have to Downton Abbey?
The National World War I Museum has connections with the war depicted in Downton Abbey through the collections of British Empire uniforms, equipment, weapons, documents, posters and photographs to name some of the materials. Also the museum recently acquired a temporary grave marker for Second Lieutenant H.J. Hilary, 92nd Battery, 29th Divisional Artillery, Royal Field Artillery who was wounded and died on June 2, 1917. He was buried in Duisans Cemetery in France and when the grave received its permanent stone marker, the wooden cross was sent back to England to his family. The grandson of 2nd Lieutenant Hilary who lives in New York state gave it to the museum and mentioned that his parents live very close to Highclere Castle which serves as Downton Abbey.
What effect did WWI have on the class system and the upstairs-downstairs mentality we see in the series?
At the end of WWI, the entire fabric of the world had changed, from one-person rule of the monarchies of Germany and Russia, for example, to a great feeling of nationalism that took effect in many parts of the world. Some of the sentiments expressed in Downton Abbey, especially by Thomas and the chauffeur Branson, do reflect the changing of class structure, although it didn’t occur really rapidly in England.
How was military rank affected by class standing?
Rank in the British military had traditionally been class-affiliated. Some officers actually bought rank and raised their own units before WWI. Class still had its place during WWI, but artillery shells, machine guns and poison gas were great levelers on the battlefields. Fraternization among officers and other ranks was generally frowned upon.
Who is your favorite character and why?
It is funny, but it has become Edith. In the first season, I didn’t really like her! In this season, however, her compassion for the wounded and her understanding of the need to contribute to the war effort by actually working on a farm and by driving has shown a different person. You can see how conditions really affect her.
What sort of roles did women take-on during WWI and how are these reflected in the show?
Women in almost all of the warring nations were mobilized in some fashion. In England, early on, they served as nurses, nursing administrators and in voluntary aid detachments as shown in Downtown Abbey. But quickly, women became a major force in munitions production, outnumbering men in many cases. British women were militarized to serve as reserves with the Royal Navy and the Royal Flying Corps (later the Royal Air Force) as ground support. The last survivor of WWI is a woman, Florence Green, who served in a RAF canteen. British women also served in the Land Army working on farms, in forestry units and in many other service capacities. They worked in war offices. They worked as camouflage artists, as translators and decoders. Almost every war effort task was staffed by women as well as men. Even Princess Mary, daughter of the King and Queen, raised funds and led the effort for a Christmas present to be delivered to all British servicemen and women in 1914. The beautifully crafted brass box with a profile image of Princess Mary on the lid held cigarettes, pipes and pipe tobacco, candy, pencils and paper and even a card from her wishing them Merry Christmas. They are known as Princess Mary Christmas boxes and there are some on exhibit in the museum.
Matthew takes quite a bit of leave from the front. How much flexibility did officers have or was this even a common occurrence?
Again, this is a dramatization, but a lower ranking officer probably didn’t have that much leave, especially since he was a line officer and his unit was in the midst of the war.
Anything else you’d like to add?
I really like the program and do not want it to be over. The actors are terrific and the costumes, especially of the women are fabulous and so on the mark! I think that it is great that so many shows and movies are about World War I right now, like Downton Abbey and War Horse. It brings attention to the National World War I Museum and understanding that while it has been over 100 years since the war, that its effects are still present.
Learn more about WWI, how the National WWI Museum was established in Kansas City and some of the Museum’s holdings in these pieces produced by KCPT for The Local Show:
The History of WWI
The History of the Liberty Memorial
Personal Stories of WWI
Hidden History -
Behind the Scenes of the National WWI Museum
In the climactic battle of the war, Matthew and William go over the top to an uncertain fate. Vera plays a cruel endgame with Bates and Anna. And Daisy faces the severest test of her life.
Devastating news from the front rocks the very foundations of Downton Abbey, and it is up to the Dowager Countess to buck bureaucratic protocol and bring Downton’s men home. In an unwelcome return, Vera Bates threatens to make public the scandalous story of Lady Mary’s ill-fated indiscretion. Desperate to contain the story, Mary appeals to the savvy opportunist Sir Richard Carlisle.
Mary is not the only woman to consider hard sacrifice. Some will make it against their will, some will be denied a chance, and some will refuse. Daisy may buckle from its pressure, while Lavinia desperately wishes for such a burden. Sybil must push back. And Cora, preoccupied with the running of the home, cannot see that a sacrifice may already have been made.