Crimson Fields – an intro to the medical services of WW1

The Crimson Fields, for readers who don’t know, is a BBC docu-drama on nurses during the First World War. From what I have read and heard about it, the setting is a British front-line hospital on the Western Front. This is not surprising though, given that that’s where most British blood was spilt during the war. What attracted me to it as a concept, is that it provides an insight into a previously hidden aspect of World War 1 and an opportunity to introduce some other related hidden aspects of the war.

From the Front, wounded and ill soldiers would be transported to hospitals and recovery stations away from the fighting to destinations in Europe for those who would not take long to recover or back to the UK for those needing more specialist or long-term treatment. This required a transport system including hospital trains and ships.

Once back in England, soldiers would pass through port hospitals such as those at Dover and Southampton. The book Spike Island by Philip Hoare gives a wonderful insight into the military hospital at Netley and the early days of military nursing as it evolved after the Crimea. From the ports, the men would be transported to receiving hospitals generally in the main cities such as London and Manchester. They would be allocated to hospitals, where possible, best suited for their ailment. Initial thoughts of sending men closer to home disappeared due to the huge numbers requiring to be transported. On 7 July 1917 (1916?) there was a special rush on trains as 6,174 sick and wounded were transported in 24 hours.

From the receiving hospitals, men were then sent to convalescent hospitals, often country houses which had been converted, and in one case, the local church. St John’s Presbyterian Church in Northwood, Middlesex gave up their sanctuary a year after it had been built thereby enabling a total of 100 soldiers to be nursed on the premises. Researching this Voluntary Aid Detachment (VAD) hospital has brought to light many other facets of war-time life: not all those who were called nurses were necessarily nurses – there were amongst others cooks and cleaners, messengers, drivers, entertainers, therapists, equipment packers working in the supply depots and many others. Often people did more than one thing such as the male VAD units which transported patients and then carried out bed baths in the evening and helped with the night-time nursing. The issue of logistics and keeping Britain moving was a mammoth task and one which still needs to be explored. (@NorthwoodArts)

Moving further afield to Africa, the hospitals and medical services there had quite a different challenge.

Comparatively speaking, battles were few and far between when compared with the Western Front. The challenge was being able to service a mobile front where there was little or no existing infrastructure, no defined battle field and an environment as tough, if not worse, than the opposing forces. There are records of men having to walk for 9 hours or so to access medical treatment or lying for days unattended. Comparisons have been drawn with the German forces which seemed to have a doctor in each contingent, or at least they did until the last months of the war.

Nature proved the biggest enemy to all the forces. The admission records to the Wynberg Military Hospital in Cape Town kept at the SANDF archive in Pretoria, highlights that the major ailments requiring treatment were Malaria and Blackwater fever. These are also regular features in the Medical War Diaries @UKNatArchives.

A perusal of the Medical War Diaries at The National Archives in London for East Africa again, sheds light on the extent of medical support available to the men. The information in the diaries is variable, depending on the person recording, but as a collection they provide a fascinating insight to another side of war. In addition to the men, there were women serving in both the British and German hospitals. And when transporting men back to Europe became difficult and leave was cancelled, special arrangements were made for convalescent homes to be set up in the Kenyan highlands. The Bundesarchiv gives some insight into what a field hospital looked like.

As with the Western Front, there is a great need for more work to be done on the medical aspects of all the African campaigns of the First World War, and for those interested in what is available, there is the Official History of the medical services, Francis Brett Young’s memoir Marching on Tanga and William Boyd’s fictional An ice-cream war to start. One wonders if Boyd based his story on the account of a British soldier nursed in a German hospital for 9 months as recorded in Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck’s My reminiscences of East Africa (pp45-6).







One thought on “Crimson Fields – an intro to the medical services of WW1

  1. Pingback: Women in WW1 | Anne Samson - Historian

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