Behind the scenes of new First World War drama The Crimson Field

They are the unsung heroes of the Great War, responsible for nursing back to health men who fought on the frontline. Now, ahead of the First World War centenary, volunteer nurses take centre stage in a new drama for BBC One.

Set in a tented field hospital on the coast of France, The Crimson Field follows a team of doctors, nurses and women volunteers working together to heal the bodies and souls of men wounded in the trenches.

Starring Oona Chaplin, Marianne Oldham and Suranne Jones, the six-episode series – the first of which airs on Sunday – reveals one of the untold stories of the First World War.

Cast of The Crimson Field - BBC/Todd Anthony

History Extra went behind the scenes with Sarah Phelps, who wrote the series, to find out more.

Q: What inspired you to write The Crimson Field?

A: I had the idea a year-and-a-half ago, when I was thinking about the centenary. I had also just read The Roses of No Man’s Land by Lyn Macdonald – a wonderful book given to me by Anne Pivcevic and Sarah Barton of BBC Drama.

I feel ashamed to admit it now, but although I have always been interested in the First World War – and was very aware of the unprecedented number of casualties – I had never made that mental leap to thinking about the women who had nursed those injured men.

We see glimpses of them [the nurses] in programmes such as Downton Abbey, but I had never properly thought about them.

But reading The Roses of No Man’s Land set off a ‘bomb’ in my mind, and I became obsessed with reading about nurses and the history of surgery, and how nursing changed during the First World War.

Q: What can viewers expect from the series? What is the tone of The Crimson Field?

A: It’s about heartbreak, and humour. People were afraid, but at the same time would enjoy a joke.

I wanted to show that on the front there was compassion, love, honour, and unbelievable acts of selfless courage. The situation brought out the worst in humanity, but also the best.

The Crimson Field is also about romance. Relationships were forbidden, but you had men and women together in difficult situations, and things happened. The series is about what it was like to have a conflicted heart.

Q: How historically accurate is The Crimson Field?

A: I have made up the story, but the characters definitely come from the world I have been reading about and researching. We also had advisors on hand during every stage of writing and filming, to make sure all details were historically accurate.

The Crimson Field is about the war, but it’s also about how Britain and the rest of the world was changing.

The real subject matter of the series is the people who lived during that period of history. They were people living in extraordinary times – an apocalyptic time.

But it was the birth of a new era. For example, in the early days [of the war] there was no understanding of shell shock. People believed the condition was about exposure to the shell, and not a mental breakdown.

The experience of suffering varied across the social classes. The upper classes were ‘allowed’ to suffer, and entitled to sympathy, but the rank and file soldier had to do what he was told, and therefore had no ‘right’ to break down. That was terrifying to me.

But by 1917 there was a huge leap in understanding.

And at the beginning of the war there was little that could be done about infected wounds. Limbs often had to be amputated. But by 1917 they had worked out ways to store blood, and they were starting to rebuild faces.

Medicine advanced years and years in a very short space of time.

I wanted people [watching The Crimson Field] to think about the world the characters come from. When you went to war, you didn’t leave that world behind. People were still who they were, and they brought their baggage with them.

Q: How did you go about your research?

A: Primarily by visiting the Imperial War Museums. But I did not want the story to be dominated by research.

I drew on stories from my own family; things I had forgotten I knew. Really odd, personal details ‘furnished’ a lot of what I wrote about.

And, of course, there was so much that was part of my imagination.

I wanted to make sure that different aspects of life at the front were captured. Everyone has family stories about the war. When holding auditions, an actress came in and produced from her pocket an old battered Bible, which had a bullet hole in the middle. She told us her great-grandfather had it in his left pocket, over his heart, when he was shot at: it saved his life.

And there we were, all those years later, his great-granddaughter auditioning for the role of a volunteer nurse – the type of woman who would have nursed him.

Those sorts of moments put your head in a spin. There’s a real magic in telling those stories.

You really think you ‘know’ the First World War, but there is so much you don’t.

Q: You’ve mentioned the role of women in the war, and of course they play a big part in The Crimson Field. Can you tell us more?

A: Women stepped into the roles that were there because men weren’t around. But when the war was over, they did not have equality. They did not have universal suffrage.

And a lot of promises were made to men about the life they would have when they returned home. But many starved, and had to beg. Peace was almost harder than the war, for some.

But what really changed was what women thought about themselves. During those four years the world transformed, and so did they.

The Crimson Field airs on BBC One on Sunday 6 April at 9pm. To find out more, click here. And tell us what you thought of the first episode via our Twitter and Facebook feeds.

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