When I first began researching the nurses of the First World War in 2004, I was vaguely aware of an increase in media attention. Now, ten years on, as my third book leaves the press, I find myself astonished by the level of interest in the subject. And, this time, much of the interest is focussed on the role of women, and, in particular, of nurses. The recent publication of several nurses’ diaries has increased the public’s fascination for the subject. A number of television programmes have already been aired. Most of these trace journeys of discovery by celebrity presenters, and are, therefore, somewhat quirky – if not rather random – in their content. The BBC’s project, The First World War at Home, has brought numerous stories to public attention. I have been involved in some of these – as I have, also, in local projects, such as the impressive recreation of the ‘Stamford Military Hospital’ at Dunham Massey Hall, Cheshire. Many local radio stories have brought to light the work of individuals whose extraordinary experiences and contributions would otherwise have remained hidden. One is the story of Clementina Addision, a British nurse, who served with the French Flag Nursing Corps – a unit of fully trained professionals who offered their services to French military field hospitals. Clementina cared for hundreds of wounded French ‘poilus’, and died of an unnamed infectious disease as a direct result of her work.
The BBC drama, The Crimson Field was just one of a number of television programmes designed to capture the interest of viewers. I was one of the historical advisers to the series, and discovered just how difficult it is to transform real, historical events into engaging drama. Providing ‘authentic background detail’, while, at the same time, creating atmosphere and constructing characters who are both credible and interesting is fraught with difficulty for producers and directors. Since its release this spring, The Crimson Field has become quite controversial. Many people appear to have loved it; others complained vociferously about its lack of authentic detail.
I often give talks about the nurses of the First World War, and often people come up to me to ask about The Crimson Field. Surprisingly often, their one objection is to the fact that the hospital and the nurses were ‘just too clean’. This makes me smile. In these days of contract-cleaners and hospital-acquired infection we have forgotten the meticulous attention to detail the nurses of the past gave to the cleanliness of their wards. The depiction of cleanliness in the drama was, in fact one of its authentic details.
In a centenary year, it can be difficult to distinguish between myths and realities. The important thing, for me, is to realise what it is we are commemorating: the significance of the contributions and the enormity of the sacrifices made by our ancestors.
You can buy Veiled Warriors: Allied Nurses of the First World War on hive by clicking here.