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.
It is often forgotten how many families went to France and Flanders during the inter-war period; by the 1930s Ypres alone was receiving more than a quarter of a million visitors from Britain and the Empire. Most such pilgrimages were subsidised in some way as the cost for the average family was prohibitive, but the desire to make that journey was a strong one.
This image is from a small collection taken during one such pilgrimage in the 1920s. There are no captions on any of the pictures but evidence seems to suggest this is Lijssenthoek Military Cemetery, near Poperinghe; at that time it was the largest British cemetery on the Western Front with nearly 10,000 graves; Tyne Cot, today the largest, had as yet not been finished.
And when you focus in on this image, among the sea of wooden crosses, there she is – a women looking back at the photographer. Was she a mother, a sister, a wife, a lover, a friend? The half-seen face with the smart dress, arms at her side almost as if at attention by the grave – what must have crossed her mind, and the thousands and thousands of other women like her who visited the Old Front Line to make some sense of loss, some sense of the cost of that war? Looking at the name on the cross would she have echoed the words of Vera Brittain, following her own visit to her brother’s grave?
“At every turn of every future road I shall want to ask him questions, to recall to him memories, and he will not be there… How trivial my life has been since the War ! I thought, as I smoothed the earth over the fern. ‘How mean they are, these little strivings, these petty ambitions of us who are left, now that all of you are gone! How can the future achieve, through us, the somber majesty of the past?’ ” (Testament Of Youth)
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.
It is often not realised that the Women’s Land Army – something very familiar for WW2 – actually was founded in the Great War. With war volunteers, and then conscription, the farming community rapidly found itself stripped of a workforce and from 1915 women began to take the place of the men in the fields. By 1917 a quarter of a million women were working on farms across Britain.
This unknown Woman’s Land Army worker wears a typical uniform of the period; a wide brimmed hat with the Women’s Land Army badge of the period, a rubberised waterproof jacket very similar to an army despatch riders coat, jodpers, good shoes and leather gaiters. It was very much practical and not stylish.
Women like this did very important work in the Great War, now largely forgotten a century later and somewhat overshadowed by the more glamorous Land Girls of a later generation.