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.
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.
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.
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.