The Crimson Field is a new BBC drama which has been received with what can be best described as mixed feelings by Great War enthusiasts on Twitter. It depicts a ‘Field Hospital’ close to the battlefield and while its accuracy may be questionable there is no doubt it will bring many who want to know more to the subject of WW1 medicine.
By way of contrast this image is from a small German collection that may well have belonged to a German nurse or doctor serving in Russia and in France during the Great War. This particular ‘crimson field’ is likely to be in Germany and visible are the nurses, left, and the doctors and orderlies as well as the patients at the window and on the balcony. The image gives an insight into the sophistication of Great War medical arrangements, something very lacking in the current BBC drama.
Tonight a new WW1 Centenary drama series, The Crimson Field, will start on BBC1 no doubt sparking a fresh wave of interest in the Nurses of the Great War.
This image was taken in Northern France in 1918 and shows Queen Alexandra’s Imperial Military Nursing Service and also Voluntary Aid Detachment (VAD) personnel with the Royal Army Medical Corps medical officers from a Northumbrian Casualty Clearing Station.
The role and experiences of female nurses in the German medical services during the Great War is something that seems to have slipped in our knowledge of the period. There appears to be very few, if any, memoirs of German nurses, compared to similar ones by British nursing staff. There also does not appear to be any form of official history of German nursing during this period and few mentions of them in German soldier memoirs.
So this photograph is as much a question as an answer. It shows German nurses in a building on the Eastern Front taken over as a hospital and dates from around 1916.
As Indian units began to engage on the battlefield in Flanders and Northern France in 1914 they suffered casualties. The dead were cremated or buried on the battlefield according to religion and when that was possible, and the wounded were evacuated to Britain for treatment in a number of hospitals. One of the best known was the use of the Royal Pavilion at Brighton, which were rapidly turned into an Indian War Hospital in the autumn of 1914. Indian soldiers died here and those whose beliefs dictated it were cremated on the Sussex downs above Brighton. Today the Chattri remembers them and is the scene of an annual service of remembrance for the men of the Indian Army.
This image I purchased in a Brighton junk shop more than thirty years ago. The old man who sold me it remembered the Indians as a boy in the town, and like other parts of Britain there was great local interest in these Indian warriors; stories of them filled the local newspapers. In this photograph walking wounded are out in one of the local Brighton parks and local people have come out to see them, including the young boy in front, dressed in a soldiers uniform just as no doubt his father was at the front. Men of these men in the photograph were back in the trenches a few months later taking part in the Battle of Neuve-Chapelle.
During the Great War thousands of women served at home and overseas as Nurses working in military hospitals or in Casualty Clearing Stations closer to the battlefield. They provided vital skills and fulfilled an important role, one which is often overshadowed by the events on the battlefields themselves.
This image taken at a military hospital in Britain and shows a badly wounded Sergeant of the Sherwood Foresters escorted by two of the key types of WW1 Nurses. On the left is a member of the Queen Alexander’s Imperial Military Nursing Service (QAIMNS) who were the regular establishment of military nurses serving as part of the British Army; a Territorial branch of QAIMNS also provided additional personnel. On the right is a member of the Voluntary Aid Detachment (VAD); this was what many young women joined during the war – in fact as many as 100,000 joined it by 1918. Arguably the most famous WW1 VAD was Vera Brittain whose Testimony series of books provide a fascinating insight into the work of Great War nurses and how the war affected young women.
The city of Brighton became an important hub for the treatment of wounded during the Great War. In 1914 the Brighton Pavilion had been famously used to treat Indian Army wounded and sick, with those who died being cremated on the Sussex Downs where the Chattri now stands. Many other buildings – including large houses and schools – were also pressed into use and they operated as part of the Eastern Command chain of medical facilities.
This image shows one of the Brighton hospitals in the early years of the war with nursing personnel looking after the patients. The photo gives a clear insight into how these facilities could easily be overwhelmed after a major operation on the Western Front as here there are so many patients many of them are now in impromptu wards on the balconies of the hospital. No doubt it was considered the sea air would aid in the recovery of the men! Special screens are up to reduce the brightness and all the beds are on wheels so the men could be moved inside when it rained.
The Royal Army Medical Corps was formed in 1898 to properly provide medical facilities for soldiers on the battlefields. Many useful lessons had been learnt from the Boer War and the advance in medicine in the late Victorian and Edwardian periods meant that by 1914 the RAMC provided among the best medical facilities of any combattant nation in Europe. As the army expanded the RAMC likewise had to grow too and the most common form of RAMC unit during WW1 was the Field Ambulance. These consisted of 10 officers and 224 men who operated close to the battlefield providing immediate medical treatment for casualties being brought in from the areas where the fighting was taking place. At a Field Ambulance a wounded soldier would be treated, stabilised and assessed and most likely moved on to the next level of medical facility – usually a Casualty Clearing Station – by ambulance; either horse drawn or motorised.
This image was taken on the Somme in late 1916 and shows three Stretcher Bearers of a Field Ambulance operating in the terrible conditions that prevailed during that period. The small haversacks they have are the bags containing their PH Helmet gas masks. The man on the left has a rain cover over his Service Dress cap – indicating how wet it was at the time – and all three have ‘trench waders‘. These were rubberised over trousers come boots which could be worn in flooded trenches. White Somme chalk is liberally plaster over the waders and one wonders what duties in the front line these men have just returned from? Carrying a stretcher was hard at the best of times but over wet ground and through flooded trenches was even harder and the smiles here no doubt bely some tough times during the hardest winter of the war on the British sector of the Western Front.
I was out yesterday at a local postcard fair and one of the images I found with this one. It is a small postcard image, badly creased and a little faded, and cost virtually nothing; the dealer almost gave it to me. But it is one of the more remarkable images I have rescued in a while.
Why? Photographs of the wounded, especially the seriously wounded, are far from common. It was a well known fact during the war that King George V would not visit military hospitals as it ‘upset him’. That attitude was shared with a large part of the British public not touched directly by the war. ‘Respectable’ wounded with light and less visible wounds, dressed smartly in hospital blues could easily be accepted but men with burns, or gas injuries and amputees were far less visible, and that extended to photographs as well.
This image shows three wounded soldiers who are all double amputees; with the terrible injuries caused by shell-fire in the Great War these men were far from unique but they are very much missing from the imagery of the conflict. Many veterans felt that the dead were more readily accepted that the wounded, and that those injured on active service were somehow forgotten. A century later soldiers who are double amputees just back from conflict are again part of our culture but thankfully they are accepted and treated with dignity in a way that the wounded of the Great War were arguably not; the future for the three men in this photograph was potentially bleak – a meagre pension, little chance of work and a drain on their family. Some interesting statistics on The Long, Long Trail show that of the the 2.2 million wounded serving with the British Army some 8% were discharged as invalids, as these men would have been; three of the more than 182,000 who fall into that category.
This soldier of the Royal Sussex Regiment was photographed in Eastbourne sometime in 1916. He is wearing a style of uniform that became very symbolic of the Great War: Hospital Blues.
A form of hospital uniform had been introduced even before the Boer War but in the early years of the Great War the need to ensure that convalescing soldiers had a uniform they could wear in public became quite important; if they stepped out in civilian clothes there was always the risk they might attract the attention of zealous patriots who went round handing out white feathers to men not in uniform whom they suspected were not doing their ‘bit’ for King and Country.
The Hospital Blues uniform was therefore available for convalescing troops in Britain; some were issued for France, but the emphasis on issue was on the Home Front because of the problems of interaction with the public. It consisted of a white shirt, a bright red woven tie and a blue jacket; all of which can be seen in this image. As is visible here the soldier also wore his Service Dress cap with regimental insignia; where no cap was available, soldiers often wore their regimental badge on their lapel. The uniform was worn with pride as it showed that not only was the man in the armed services, he had served overseas and been wounded.
The fact that this photograph was taken in Eastbourne may also indicate the unknown soldier here may have been a patient in Summerdown Camp; constructed on the high ground above the town, it was one of the largest convalescent hospitals in Sussex during the Great War, and photographs of it will feature in a future posting.