War yields all kinds of hidden stories. When we think of the First World War, we think predominantly of men, of soldiers in the trenches, and their great sacrifice and suffering. Yet mere miles from that front line were the field hospitals where the injured found sanctuary in the care of military doctors and nurses.
As the sheer scale of the ongoing casualties engulfed the available professionals, volunteer nurses were drafted in – young women from the middle and upper classes, unaccustomed to hardship and discipline, or indeed testing experiences of any kind. The story of these women, catapulted from their Edwardian drawing rooms into scenes as alien as they were horrifying, is the basis for the BBC’s new six-part ensemble drama The Crimson Field.
Oona Chaplin stars as one of these VADs (Voluntary Aid Detachments) – or “very adorable darlings”, as one military surgeon greets them in the drama. The story begins in 1915 with the VADs’ arrival as the first volunteer nurses at the fictional field hospital 25A, near Etaples on the northern French coast. There the existing nursing staff, coping with unprecedented battlefield casualties, are led by Hermione Norris’s narrow-eyed matron, and Kerry Fox, her complex deputy. They are later joined by another sister, Suranne Jones, to whom there is more than meets the eye.
“You feel you know a lot about the First World War, the injuries and casualties and terrible deaths, but I’d never thought about the women who did the nursing,” says Sarah Phelps, creator and writer of The Crimson Field. Responsible for such disparate scripts as the BBC’s gothic adaptation of Great Expectations and many EastEnders episodes (including the return and death of Dirty Den), Phelps’s passion for her subject is evident.
She immersed herself in letters and diaries from the period, including Lyn MacDonald’s seminal history of wartime nurses, The Roses of No Man’s Land. As she outlines the extraordinary change engendered by the war, she can hardly speak fast enough. The scale of her research paints a canvas fascinating in its detail, so much of it distilled into her scripts.
“When the war began it was thought it would all be over in five minutes and could be dealt with quite easily by military personnel,” she says. “But by 1915 those resources were completely overwhelmed and field hospitals were springing up to meet the horrible demand.
“Well-to-do women volunteered in their droves as VADs, many seeing a chance to do something, to be engaged. Their lives before then were a very narrow focus of preparation to be wives and mothers. Many probably thought that they would simply be soothing a few brows. They would have had some training in hospital, but sometimes this was run by well-meaning ladies with anatomical text books. So seeing injured men from the front line would have been hugely shocking, as would the level of intimate care – many VADs would never have seen a naked male body before. Yet they found the tenacity to step up as required. What’s more, reading the young women’s diaries you get a sense they felt almost guilty for being so exhilarated by working.”
Despite its French setting, The Crimson Field was actually shot almost entirely at the Charlton Park estate in Wiltshire, home to the Earl of Suffolk. It was chosen because its distinctive tall pines were reminiscent of the signature landscape just south of Boulogne.
Over the early summer last year, prior to shooting between August and November, its windswept acres were transformed into a vast set the size of three football fields. The set encompassed not only the tents and wooden huts of the sprawling field hospital itself but also such details as a pasture planted with wheat authentic to the period, and an ever-expanding area that served as the hospital’s cemetery.
Every dying man at a field hospital would have had a nurse with him to the end, and it was her responsibility to write to the family, always stating – whether it was true or not – that the loved one died peacefully and without pain. The dead were always honoured, buried with due ceremony in the field hospital cemetery.
While it is of course statistically likely that the great majority of viewers have forebears who fought in the First World War, Hermione Norris can recall from early childhood her own family’s direct link to the conflict.
“My father’s father fought in the First World War, and lost brothers to it,” says Norris, 47. “When I was perhaps four, he took a fall one day. He sat on the floor in my grandmother’s flat calling out to the boys in the trenches, and asking me to come and hold his hand.
“He was 20 years older than my grandmother. He used to have to go to the hospital every year to have the shrapnel in his leg tended to – it used to rise to the surface. I don’t think he spoke about the war – they didn’t – but if he became confused, it would come out that way.
“Around 15 years ago I became very interested in the First World War – not for a role, just for myself. I went to the Somme, and also read [Sebastian Faulks’s] Birdsong and Pat Barker’s Regeneration Trilogy. I found the psychology fascinating – those men experiencing that degree of suffering and then coming back into civilian life. The Somme was extraordinarily powerful. It gives you some comprehension of how insane it was, how near the trenches were to one another, and the level of loss of life. It’s important our children learn about it. My son Wilf is nine, and I would like to take him there.
“The human sacrifice made by my grandfather’s generation in the name of duty was extraordinary. It is important to acknowledge and remember it. The fact that my grandparents were of that generation means that to me the First World War feels not long ago.”
Suranne Jones, though younger than Norris at 35, nonetheless echoes the same thought. (She and “funny, beautiful, graceful” Norris became firm friends during shooting, with Norris describing her as “lovely... I’m not obliged to say that about people I work with, you just keep your mouth shut – but Suranne’s wonderful.”)
“The more you know about a subject, the more you realise that a hundred years is not long ago, and how relevant it still is,” says Jones. “You need a nudge sometimes to remind you of that. Before this, my knowledge of the Great War was limited to what I remembered from school. A lot of young people will know almost nothing of this time, and few of us know much about the field hospitals.
“I had so little idea of the sacrifice of women. Many of the injured men had post-traumatic stress, about which almost nothing was understood. They were calling for their mothers. The role of the nurse – putting them back together physically and mentally, or being with them until their last moment and then writing a letter home was hugely emotionally demanding. They gave such care and love and support when they were tired, understaffed, and very cold in winter. Now our lives are all about consumerism, choice, ease of everything. We don't know we're born."
The production also provides a reminder that some things do not change. One scene features 200 soldiers arriving en masse from the front line, many with limbs torn off. Some of the supporting performers for that scene and others were cast with the help of the Defence Medical Rehabilitation Unit at Headley Court in Surrey – men who are amputees as a result of very recent conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq.
“So many men in the field hospital looked that way that it must have become normal,” muses Jones. “So many suffered those injuries, it became ordinary to see them on the street at home afterwards.”
Given that the cast of The Crimson Field is female-led, it makes sense that the series highlights the shifting attitudes to women in the period approaching 1918, when British women gained the vote (although this applied only to some women over 30 – it would be another decade before women achieved equal voting rights to men).
However, the series also reflects other extraordinary strands of received wisdom accurate to the period, regarding class and rank. For example, at a time when the term "shell shock" has yet to be coined, only men of officer class were thought intellectually capable of experiencing war-related mental trauma, on the basis that they held command and were leaders; soldiers from the ranks suffering the identical ordeal were often believed merely to lack moral fibre.
Hence field hospital 25A in The Crimson Field is a metaphorical frontier not only between the battlefield and the home front, but also between the old rules, hierarchies and class distinctions, and new ways of thinking.
Of course, it is a drama series, intended as entertainment; it is character-led, with intriguing individuals carrying facts from their past (and present) that will have contemporary echoes for many viewers. Sarah Phelps says she particularly wanted to write about “women at work and the tensions between them”.
Inescapably, many of those involved with the series felt a unique sense of responsibility. “For me, every day on the set felt like a small act of remembrance,” says Norris. “I don’t think it’s crass to attach an extra sense of responsibility to it because of the subject matter.
“Playing an MI5 agent [Ros Myers] in Spooks, I knew there was a bit of silliness in it, running around and saving the world. But with this, more than anything I’ve ever worked on, I felt a sense of conscience that the experiences of the men and women of that generation should be honoured respectfully in what we were doing.”
Again Jones concurs. “There’s a serious heart to this series,” she says. “Being an actor can be an extraordinary education, and that’s a great gift if you use it the right way. I’m so thankful to have a job I not only enjoy but which constantly improves and changes my life through roles such as this.”
If the viewing figures are good The Crimson Field is likely to return for further series, following the characters as the war progresses and as attitudes change during this key historic point.
“At the same time as this war is happening, the whole world is standing on the brink of the most extraordinary upheaval in terms of revolution,” says Phelps. “There are grassroots movements beginning that will see the end of Empire. You’ve already had the 1905 revolution in Russia, and Gandhi is beginning his protests in India. I really believe the 20th century was started in this dark crucible.”
The Crimson Field starts on Sunday at 9:00pm on BBC1.