Finding chivalry with the Forces

I was saddened to read Michelle Dockery’s statement that the art of chivalry has been lost, “because it’s not the culture any more.” Whilst this may be true for many groups in society, this mindset has not been extinguished completely. We can see this in Harry Wallop’s stance – that he opens doors because it is polite, and not because he doesn’t believe women are capable. This may be controversial, but I think that is entirely appropriate and ought to be encouraged. Dockery is right, in that such behaviour has been in decline, but, again, this is not true of all quarters.

As I read her piece, I felt disinclined to accept its premise unquestioningly, and determined to show that this art has not been entirely lost. Since the word “chivalry” is derived from an Old French word meaning “knighthood”, it is unsurprising that I found my answer with the armed forces. Scoff all you like, but there is more to this than uniforms (alluring though they undeniably are). I was struck by the universal gentlemanliness of the officers I met on Wednesday night (London Poppy Day), whilst selling poppies for the British Legion.

It is an effective marketing technique – who could deny a serviceman asking for donations to help wounded troops? Certainly not any of the girls I know. The Poppy Appeal does tend to inspire an egregiously generous response*, not least because it is an annual collection so the public does not have a chance to grow jaded.  Remembrance Day does also encourage a sense of patriotism which has become unfashionable at other times of year.

That is the same fate which chivalry itself has often suffered. However, I am delighted to report that I was very well treated that night. I have to confess that I was in my element – travelling with a group of RAF officers to a drinks party attended by all the forces. The men did not complain when required to carry multiple boxes of donations and leftover poppies; they walked on the outside of the pavement; they leapt to give up their seats when women approached. Admittedly there were no doors that needed held open, but I feel sure they would have been.

When we arrived, I enjoyed a few pleasant hours of charming conversation with men who appeared both interesting and interested. They all had such fascinating stories of their experiences, which they told only when asked, without arrogance or hyperbole. The way they addressed me was deliciously courteous and respectful, with just one aberration from a man who asked me how old I was (although it transpired he was 19, and thought I was rather younger than I am).

There was an especially lovely moment when a member of the British Legion came round and handed us all thank you gifts – cuff links for the men and beautiful brooches for the women. I turned to the gentleman sitting next to me, who was visibly touched by the gesture. I found this very moving, as we both commented that the Legion could easily have sold our gifts to raise more funds but instead used them to convey their gratitude. Sadly, the men had to leave when their bus arrived, but the departures were typically civilised, and sweetened with hopes that we would see each other next year (and a kiss on the cheek).

Is this, then, an argument for bringing back National Service? That military training teaches values such as respect and courtesy? This is, after all, a question which was widely considered in the aftermath of the riots. I am not necessarily convinced though. That conclusion presupposes that it was the job which improved these men, who could not have possessed such admirable qualities before. It is fallacious to make such an assumption when looking at a self-selecting group, especially since many join the armed forces out of a sense of duty and patriotism which already exists. Contrary to popular belief, chivalry is not dead – you just have to know where to look for it.

*The target figure for this year was £500,000.

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