It wasn’t just because my friend and colleague, Neil, was an extra in ‘The Crimson Field’ that I watched this latest offering from the BBC last night.
It was already on my radar because the series is about nurses in military hospitals during World War One and women don’t often get talked about when it comes to the conflict. It was great to see their roles — which were considered behind the scenes at the time — put into the spotlight for this brand new show, with Hermione Norris, Oona Chaplin (granddaughter of Charlie Chaplin), oh, and my mate Neil…
Women played a crucial role
Women provided vital support as nurses — both at home in military hospitals at home and abroad. Many witnessed first-hand the devastating results of the action at the Front and suddenly their daily, domesticated routine was one riddled with danger, death, disease and horrific scenes of war wounded.
The women came from various social classes: some having barely washed a dish in their lives and others with a bit more domestic experience (previous clerks or kitchen maids) — but all must have been out of their comfort zones. The nurses known as VADs (Voluntary Aid Detachment) were groups of women sent to support soldiers in the middle of the chaos and the horrors of the Western Front — with often little or no training or equipment.
The Army Nursing Service (ANS), Queen Alexandra’s Imperial Military Nursing Service, First Aid Nursing Yeomanry (FANY) and Territorial Force Nursing Service were all formed before the start of the First World War. However, it wasn’t until halfway through the war that the military formed women’s auxiliary services, including the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps (WAAC), to replace men in non-combatant roles, chiefly operating as cooks and domestic workers, clerks and drivers.
The First Aid Nursing Yeomanry (FANY) helped form a vital link between front-line fighting and the base hospitals. In 1909, a scheme for the organisation of voluntary aid issued by the war office led to the formation of Red Cross Voluntary Aid Detachments. Eventually, nursing VADs also served in military hospitals abroad, where, as casualties mounted, a few were allowed to assist in casualty clearing stations.
The nurses were also susceptible to injury and illness and apparently contracting a serious illness on the field was quite common amongst the VADs, the writer and creator of The Crimson Field, Sarah Phelps told the BBC:
"Infection was absolutely rife, you read a lot about nurses getting infections because there were no rubber gloves, so you're dealing with wounds with bare hands, sometimes having to pour bleach on your hands to sterilise them - bleach over cracked bleeding hands, absolute agony," she said.
"They also suffered from what we now know to be post traumatic stress disorder. And there are lots of stories of nurses just collapsing from exhaustion, from having gone on and on without stopping, because they were there to do a job and they didn't want to stop doing it."
The female role: albeit a supportive one rather than an aggressive one was still a very important one — and I’m glad that this show represented that.
As for Neil, I never managed to actually catch him in it, but, he promises me he’ll be on next week’s show in a prefabricated steel Nissen Hut apparently…I’d watch it again regardless.
The next Crimson Field is on 9pm next Sunday.
Discover more with Forces War Records…
What did your female ancestors do in the war?
Take a look at our range of women’s service records from both the world wars which include: records of the Women's Army Auxiliary Corps/Queen Mary's Army Auxiliary Corps and can give such details as: enlistment form, statement of services, identification certificate, health questionnaire, references, form of application, clothing history sheet, and casualty form, as well as other correspondence.
There are no complete series of records covering service for nurses who have served in military hospitals but details of campaign medals awarded up to c1920 are available. So too are the records for Queen Alexandra’s Imperial Military Nursing Service 1903-26, and for members of the Territorial Nursing Service during the First World War, as are various other records depending on type of service and dates.
The Women’s Royal Navy Service officer’s and rating’s records from formation in 1917 to 1919 are available. You can also search Women’s Royal Air Force discharge certificates for the First World War. These show service number, name, rank, trade, date and place of enlistment and discharge.