Watching Downton Abbey with an Historian: Cowardice, Shellshock, and a Right Memory -The Toast

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Tower of London Remembers project

Previous installments can be found here. There will be spoilers. “An historian” is a perfectly acceptable Commonwealth convention, haters to the left [side of the road].

After the Push, by CRW Nevinson, 1917 Image of “After the Push” by CRW Nevinson (1917) via Wikimedia Commons

In 1914, a lance-sergeant from the King’s Royal Rifle Corps deserted the army after a battle and sought refuge in a nearby French village. He was arrested in March 1915; although he had difficulty answering simple questions and eventually explained that he had had a nervous breakdown, he was shot at dawn on March 23, at the age of twenty-six. He was just one of the victims of a strict Army discipline that feared mutiny above all, disregarded the mental toll of war, and believed that exemplary executions could encourage obedience.

During World War I, some 3,000 British soldiers were convicted of cowardice, desertion, or other crimes; 306 of them were executed for cowardice or desertion specifically. In an earlier season of Downton Abbey, we learned that Mrs. Patmore’s nephew, Archie Philpotts, was one of those shot for cowardice. Now, as villages and cities erect war memorials to honor the dead, the question of how to deal with this uncomfortable legacy has surfaced.

Various forms of commemoration, including the observance of Armistice Day and the building of war memorials, flourished in the decade after 1918. The bodies of those killed in World War I were buried in the countries where they died, overseen, in Britain’s case, by the Imperial War Graves Commission. This absence perhaps gave a greater impetus to the local efforts to provide physical monuments where people could read the names of the dead. The portrayal of the process in Downton Abbey is quite accurate. As Alex King has demonstrated, local committees were designed to representative and inclusive, but large landowners also took part. Lord Grantham is perhaps modeled, in this case, on the real Yorkshire landowner Lord Derwent, who proposed an obelisk “in some conspicuous place” and who took on the burden of paying the extra cost when the price of stone rose. The Imperial War Museum’s War Memorials Archive lists nearly 44,000 memorials related to World War I.

Shot at Dawn Memorial Shot at Dawn Memorial

Public memory is usually designed with unity in mind. War memorials remind visitors and passers-by of shared suffering and shared sacrifice. In public diction, wars are remembered in the first person plural, and we are exhorted always to remember, never to forget. Yet as Raphael Samuel points out, what we forget is as significant as what we remember, and the process of constructing memory is nearly always divisive. Fault-lines buried by time re-emerge in the fight over how to remember properly. As the Birmingham Post said in 1925 in an article about that city’s memorial: “Our true task is to make sure the memory is a right memory.” But what is a right memory?

At Downton, Carson has found himself in conflict over the war memorial with the twin pillars of his life, Lord Grantham and Mrs. Hughes. Last week, they were divided over whether to create a garden of remembrance or to situate the memorial in the village center. This week, Carson and Mrs. Hughes clash over whether Archie should be remembered on the Downton memorial, now that Mrs. Patmore has learned that he’ll be excluded from the memorial in his own hometown.

Was Archie a coward? The term itself needs some context. Fighting World War I required massive mobilization for the British, but remarkably, for the first two years there was no conscription. One result of this was an extraordinary culture of recruitment. It was one that played on fears of being seen as an unmanly coward as much as on feelings of nationalism, honor, and duty. In one famous recruitment poster, two children ask their father: “Daddy, what did you do in the Great War?” Conscientious objectors were ridiculed (as ‘conshies’, linguistically only a step away from the later ‘bolshies’) and imprisoned. And, as historian Nicoletta Gullace has documented, young women handed out white feathers to men perceived to be slacking their duty by not joining up. Cheerfulness, humor, and sticking it out were the chief virtues of Tommy in the trenches. In the press, writers praised courage and the willingness to die in battle. Horatio Bottomley, editor of John Bull, wrote in 1917: “Every hero of this war who has fallen on the field of battle has performed an act of Greatest Love, so penetrating and intense in its purifying character that I do not hesitate to express my belief that any and every past sin is automatically wiped from the record of his life.” But not, it seemed, the sin of cowardice.

By 1924, though, attitudes were beginning to change. As always, Mrs. Hughes is the voice of progress, gently pushing Carson to update his views. When he balks at adding Archie to the memorial, she cites new understandings of shellshock as a reason to be more open-minded. For now, though, Carson is implacable: “But is it fair to the millions of men who stood by their posts up to their waits in mud, terrified out of their wits yet determined to do their best for King and country? Is it fair to say to them, ‘Your sacrifice weights just the same as the man who abandoned his duty and ran for it’?”

Mrs. Hughes’s insight is drawn, perhaps, from the general discussion surrounding the 1922 Report of the War Office Committee of Enquiry into ‘Shell-Shock’. From the start, shell-shock and cowardice were linked, as fears grew that the military had unjustly punished men suffering from a misunderstood mental reaction. The Report decided that cowardice meant willfully refusing to face danger; if shell-shock overrode a man’s ability to make a choice, he could not be considered a coward even if he fled danger. It concluded:

  • “That seeming cowardice may be beyond the individual’s control.
  • “That experienced and specialised medical opinion is required to decide in possible cases of war neurosis of doubtful character.
  • “That a man who has already proved his character should receive special consideration in cases of subsequent lapse.”

Archie was beyond the reach of specialized medical opinion. He would have been buried in one of the cemeteries overseen by the Imperial War Graves Commission; if his grave were lost, his name would have been inscribed on one of the memorials to the missing. Local and family memory is, of course, a different matter.

These are the murkier, more ambivalent legacies of the war. In Mrs. Patmore’s grief for Archie, as well as in Cora’s admission that she misses the busy responsibilities of wartime, the show offers a different perspective and avoids both condemnation and commemoration of a conflict whose shadow still looms. In 2006, Britain issued a blanket pardon for soldiers executed for cowardice and desertion in World War I, and they received their own memorial, the “Shot at Dawn Memorial,” in Staffordshire. Many observances of the war’s centenary, though, have echoed 1914’s tropes of manly courage, sacrifice and unity. Downton Abbey should be commended for doing something different.

Tower of London Remembers project Tower of London Remembers project


Ted Bogacz, “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 (April 1989), pp. 227-56

Nicoletta F. Gullace, “White Feathers and Wounded Men: Female Patriotism and the Memory of the Great War,” Journal of British Studies 36:2 (April 1997), pp. 178-206

Alex King, Memorials of the Great War in Britain (Bloomsbury, 1998)

Edward Madigan, “‘Sticking to a Hateful Task’: Resilience, Humour, and British Understandings of Combatant Courage, 1914-1918,” War in History 20:1 (2013), pp. 76-98

Julian Putkowski and Julian Sykes, Shot at Dawn: Executions in World War One by authority of the British Army Act (Barnsley, South Yorkshire, 1999)

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