I was a keen follower of the first series of Downton Abbey. As someone from a working-class background I’ve never been too keen on toffs, but I’ve been persuaded over the past few years that as a researcher of Great War nurses, a basic knowledge of upper-class whims, desires and inter-marrying might be useful background. And so it has been. When I heard that the second series was going to see the Abbey as a hospital I was very aware that it would be too easy for the writer(s) to get it wrong. But I was unprepared for just how wrong it could be. I’ve read that the first series cost approximately £1 million an episode, so presumably this second series is no cheaper, and with that budget it might be hoped that a few pounds would be spent on decent research into the formation, organisation and administration of military hospitals during the Great War.
Not a bit of it. The portrayal falters at every step. I can see only too clearly that there are not a lot of sources out there to punch a writer in the face, and it might need a bit more digging to uncover the real story, but come Lord Fellowes, with a million an episode this is poor stuff.
During the Great War military ‘hospitals’ were divided into two types, central hospitals and auxiliary hospitals. The former were the larger units run under the auspices of the War Office. They were staffed in the main by officers of the Royal Army Medical Corps and nurses of Queen Alexandra’s Imperial Military Nursing Service and the Territorial Force Nursing Service. Men were admitted to a central hospital, assessed and treated, and when appropriate (days, weeks or months) transferred out to one of the many satellite auxiliary units for which each central hospital had responsibility. The auxiliaries came under the control of the Joint War Committee of the British Red Cross Society and the Order of St. John, and were staffed by nurses under contract to them. Downton village cottage hospital could be nothing but an auxiliary hospital. And as a small, local, auxiliary hospital, it would still have conformed to the very high standards set by the Joint War Committee. So where does it fail?
Auxiliary hospitals did not employ Royal Army Medical Corps orderlies. Thomas could never have worked there. But then, the whole tale of Thomas’ return is pure fantasy.
Auxiliary hospitals did not, except in the rarest of circumstances, admit men direct from disembarkation. Their patients would already have been treated and cared for at a local central hospital. The raggle-taggle stream of wounded officers, shirts hanging out, blood oozing from their dressings, arms in slings bandaged over their uniforms was less likely than Haig riding in on his horse. Are these supposed to be men ‘straight from Arras.’ Quite ridiculous.
So many beds would never been crammed into such a small space. How does the writer imagine that nurses would have walked between the beds? Washed the patients and dressed their wounds? Fed them? Cleaned the floors? The ward looked worse than the worst of the casualty clearing stations on the Western Front in 1914. Far worse than Bedlam. Is Lord Fellowes aware that officers were treated rather differently from other ranks? His ‘ward’ is barely fit for pigs, let alone soldiers, and never officers.
Why is there no uniformed trained nurse? I’m afraid Mrs. Crawley, for all her wise words and ‘experience’ simply won’t do. She might act in an administrative role as Commandant, but wouldn’t be allowed to take part in giving out drugs or patient care. Mrs Crawley and the Major moving patients on stretchers was laughable (if it wasn’t so tear-inducing). And rookie VAD Miss Sybil doing a medicine round – complete poppycock. She’d have been lucky if she’d been allowed to wash the lockers or set trays.
The VADs were in the wrong uniform. They wore the grey dresses of St. John’s Ambulance Brigade VADs, but with the armlets of the British Red Cross. If they were supposed to be BRCS VADs, then they should have been in blue dresses, if St. John VADs, they should have been wearing the appropriate armlets. But of course, nobody ever gets the uniform right – only nurses so it’s hardly important.
It was fun to see Thomas being asked by Mrs. Crawley to stand in for Lady Sybil and do her VAD duties so she could go home for dinner. Fun? Nonsense.
And finally (for now), a blind officer would never, not in a million years, wash up in a tin-pot cottage hospital in Yorkshire. From fairly early in the war all blind officers were treated at No.2 London General Hospital (Territorial Force), Chelsea, where they received the most up to date and experienced care available, later almost certainly being transferred to one of the London hostels of St. Dunstans.
I suppose there’s always next week. I wonder what a ward in Downton Abbey itself will add to the hospital picture? I feel sure that it has to be better – I pray it couldn’t be any worse. And to exit where I entered, there are so few sources on Great War hospitals, and so much inaccuracy and misinformation spread around, both in books and on the web, that there is a great need for intelligent research. This Downton portrayal will now whip around the world and be used as a model of the truth by one and all, especially those who misguidedly believe it’s a fly-on-the-wall documentary. It will leave a legacy of falsehoods. Julian Fellowes has the background, he has the money, but unfortunately he lacks the knowledge.