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.
An article that some followers on Twitter posted a link to today, <a href="http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/world-history/the-gathering-storm-a-look-back-on-middleclass-europes-last-carefree-christmas-before-the-onset-of-world-war-one-9020184.html” target=”_blank”>in the Independent, described Christmas a century ago saying it was “Europe’s last carefree Christmas before the onset of World War One.” It is easy to look back on the Edwardian period as some sort of golden era, a view especially prominent with recent television programmes like Downton Abbey. The reality is poverty was still rife more than a decade after the death of the Old Queen and while the Middle and Upper classes were profiting, many others were not.
But it was, of course, the last ‘normal’ Christmas families in Britain, and indeed across Europe, would experience for many years to come. The author Henry Williamson called it the ‘Last Winter of the Old World’, a world in which he had grown from boy to man, and would soon take him in khaki to the front line of Flanders. A year later his Christmas would be on the battlefield; in No Man’s Land at Ploegsteert, face to face with the enemy during the so-called Christmas Truce.
So to mark this important passage in the story of the Great War Centenary, and thinking of old Henry a hundred years ago, the final image for this year is not one of war, but of peace: a winter’s scene in 1913 on Hilly Fields, the open parkland near Henry Williamson’s own home in Eastern Road, Ladywell, South-East London. The Middle Classes of London are out in force, and alongside them no doubt the boys from some of what Williamson called ‘the rougher streets’ who attended the school on the hill, which is still there and still a school; now Prendergast-Hilly Fields College. The school has its own war memorial to the old boys who fell, some of whom may well be on this image; but whoever the young men seen here in 1913 are, a year later, like Williamson, they would be off to war and an unknown future; days like these would appear as if part of a different, unconnected past.
Ninety-nine years ago today the British government declared war on Germany and for Britain the Great War began. A year from today the Centenary of the Great War starts with a joint reconciliation service of remembrance at Mons with British and German heads of state present.
Many of those with a long-held interest in the Great War view the upcoming Centenary with some trepidation. There is a fear the war will be trivialised into convenient media soundbites, a concern there will be too much focus on the dead of the war and not enough on those who survived, and among many academics disgust that achievements on the battlefield which lead to victory will be forgotten.
All of these are legitimate concerns but it is clear the Centenary is also a time to educate and share knowledge. That is why I set up Great War Photos some eighteen months ago; a platform like a blog is an easy and accessible way for me to share the thousands of largely unseen images I’ve collected to be seen by a wider audience; and all it costs is some time and a few dollars for a web address. That such a project is of interest to others is clear; the site has so far been seen by more than 200,000 unique visitors from all over the world. People have requested to use images for private research, community projects and publications; all of which has been granted as it is precisely what I had hoped for when I set the site up.
I mention all this not to blow my own trumpet but to demonstrate how easy it is to take an active part in the Centenary. Blogs are free; adding images, artwork and sound or video files is easy. Many of those with years of collecting or researching WW1 have some sort of story to tell and surely the Centenary is the time to do that? Others have family stories to add, or names on a local memorial which once researched can be shared with others. All you need is the will and the ability to type.
The Centenary should be a time for collaboration and co-operation, as well as a time to publish books, enhance profiles and churn our programmes. Let us hope more and more take on that challenge.
So what has Great War Photos got planned for 2014? In the lead-up to the Centenary I plan to publish a number of images showing places on what would become the Western Front, showing how they looked on the eve of war; sleepy villages and flourishing communities. From August 2014 onwards I aim to focus on images connected with 1914: the fighting overseas as well as events on the home front.
I am trying to think positively about the Great War Centenary and I hope others will do so as well; it is an important period that should not be wasted by anyone with an interest in the subject.
The Musée de la Grande Guerre opened in the French town of Meaux – in the heart of the 1914 Marne battlefields – in late 2011. While this is its second year and has had good visitor numbers, I do not think it has quite reached the radar of English speaking visitors as yet and I myself have only just had a chance to pay the museum a visit.
I must confess that I did approach the visit with some trepidation; modern museums can often have themes which at times seem remote from the core subjects of the Great War and occasionally go for audio-visual over objects. In the case of this superb museum my fears were unfounded as it proved to be one of the best museums I have visited in a long time and now is in my top five WW1 museums in the world!
The visit at the Musée de la Grande Guerre starts with a short film taking you back to the origins of the Great War and the Franco-Prussian War. You then proceed into the pre-war galleries which emerge into a display of soldiers marching to war in 1914 and the main hall. This hall is packed with a Marne Taxi, pigeon loft, WW1 aircraft a FT17 tank, artillery and two large trench displays. Off of it are other rooms which follows themes or the timeframe of the war, equally packed with fascinating objects, imagery and artwork. Two and a half hours here just flew by and it is one of those great museum where I know I shall return each time and see something I missed previously.
The trench displays were particularly effective; a trench ends on a wall where the movement and activity in the trench is cleverly blended with archive film from WW1 – see below.
The museum has a well stocked bookshop at the end, good, clean toilets, safe and plentiful parking, and a nice little cafe which does drinks and light snacks. You cannot take bags inside but there are lockers to leave them in. It has good disabled access for a French museum and the staff are all very friendly.
I cannot recommend the Musée de la Grande Guerre enough and combined with a visit to some Marne battlefield sites close by, this makes the Marne an exciting battlefield to visit.
The Armistice came into effect at 11.00am on 11th November 1918 and effectively brought the fighting on the Western Front to a close. In more than four years of war Britain and the Empire had lost more than 750,000 dead in France and Flanders, with many times that wounded and sick. Just after 11am across the old battlefields British units gathered to commemorate the end of the conflict for them; all did it in different ways and some went to great lengths to record the event with a photograph. Here a group of men from the Ordnance Base Depot of the Army Ordnance Corps (AOC) were photographed together on that fateful day.
Others marked the day in a more robust way. Below a veteran of the King’s Own Scottish Borderers remembers 11th November 1918 near Courtrai in Belgium; the interview is taken from a recording made in 1982.
On this special day, his words still resonate.
In the years that followed 1940 most of mainland Europe was occupying by German forces. Many of the German soldiers forming part of this occupying force stayed for years. On the battlefields of the old Western Front, German serviceman whose fathers had no doubt been veterans of the Great War often toured sites and with a pocket camera recorded their journeys in the same pilgrims past and present did.
This photograph was taken by a German soldier in 1943 and shows Caterpillar Valley Cemetery near Longueval on the Somme. Many wonder what the cemeteries looked like during the occupation and it is clear from this image that this was a site being well maintained; many Imperial War Graves Commission gardeners had stayed behind in 1940 and were still doing their pre-war work. In some cases local French people were carrying on with the task. The Germans appear to have let the work continue.
This cemetery took on another importance in 1944 when it became the selected rendezvous point for any air crew shot down in the Amiens Prison Raid in 1944.
Today was an exciting day for anyone with an interest in the Great War as the Prime Minister, David Cameron, announced the plans for the National Commemoration of the centenary period between 2014 and 2018. Unsurprisingly key dates like the outbreak of war, the First Day on the Somme and the Armistice, but plans were also outlined to remember Gallipoli, Jutland and Passchendaele, too. Cameron, who I thought spoke with some passion about the war, made it clear that the plans were a work in progress and actively sought input from interested parties to help shape what the period would become, and that is to be welcomed. The budget of £50 million sounds huge, but £35 million of that is for the revamp of the Imperial War Museum. Yet money will be made available for educating the next generation – funding for school visits to the battlefields was promised – and National Lottery funding would be allocated for local projects and heritage initiatives, which could potentially help save many crumbling memorials.
The Great War was an event that defined this nation and its population, and that of the Commonwealth. That the government is taking a serious and seemingly mature approach to commemorating the centenary of it is to be welcomed by all. No commemoration can ever hope to cover everything, but the funding of local projects should help ensure that some of the lesser known aspects of the conflict are brought into sharp focus.
Great War Photos is doing its bit for the centenary, too. Not only will the posting of previously unseen WW1 images continue here but I’m pleased that the Great War Photos archive will be used as part of a major centenary initiative and no doubt the site will post more about that in the future.
Thirty years ago when I first visited the Western Front, the battlefields were empty and forgotten; the hundreds of veterans I interviewed as a young history student earnestly thought that when they all faded away their war would slip into obscurity and never be remembered. These new plans ensure that 1914-18 will not slip from our conciousness and that the voices of that conflict will still be as vivid and important a hundred years later.