Thursday 15 May 2014

After the Crimson Field

7 General Hospital, Malassises, Imperial War Museum

     According to the Economist there have been more than 25,000 books and scholarly articles written about the United Kingdom's part in  the Great War since 1918. I can't vouch for the figure, but it seems perfectly plausible to me. Most relate to the soldiers' story, to strategy and tactics, to organisation and administration and every detail of life in various armies during the conflict. If you need to know how a soldier enlisted, what he was paid, how he was transported, fed, equipped; how he washed and relaxed and 'went over the top' there's plenty of choice on where to find the answer, in official records, books, film, TV and increasingly on the web. If official accounts become a bit dry they can be supplemented by thousands of surviving first-hand accounts and memoirs. There must currently be hundreds of historians and researchers of the Great War who would have no difficulty at all in instantly giving chapter and verse on all aspects of a soldiers' life.

     This is far from the situation in relation to any area of women's service. A relatively tiny number of books have been published on nursing during the Great War and the majority of those are personal accounts in which the facts cannot always be verified or substantiated. In recent years female academics have tried to close the gap a little but however well-researched, the results are often unappealing to the general public and inaccessible due to the high cover prices set for the academic market. These books also appear to turn their back entirely on giving the same grass-roots information about the fine detail of nurses' service which can be so easily found in similar books relating men within a military setting. The result is that to the question 'Can you recommend a good book about nurses' the answer will invariably settle first around Lyn Macdonald's 'Roses of No Man's Land,' Vera Brittain's 'Testament of Youth' and occasionally something else that probably doesn't even relate to a British nurse's experience of war. It seems almost impossible to find the answer to same questions of organisation and administration relating to women's service that are so clearly defined for men.

     The fine detail of military nurses' service during the Great War is largely lost - it's a yawning gap waiting to be filled. In some respects you could fill it with anything and few people would be any the wiser. There would be few opponents to a statement that nurses earned £20 a year, or £50 a year or £200 a year because it's information that's hidden and difficult to find. There would be few opponents to comments that Great War nurses could marry, or maybe couldn't marry, or if they could marry they had to leave - or perhaps they were allowed to stay? And did VADs actually spend their time outside washing bandages or collecting sticks in the woods? Who is there who knows? So when the BBC decided to commission 'The Crimson Field' they had a gap to fill and unfortunately it was a gap that to the viewing public was an 'unknown.' They had the freedom to fill it with whatever they felt was suitable regardless of whether it was historically correct. And by 'historically correct' I don't mean the tiny things like fine details of uniform and kit, but the basic knowledge of what life was like for nurses and doctors and how hospitals worked in France at that time. What's missing from the programme is any deeper understanding of the nurses and hospitals - their foundations are missing and experience and integrity have been removed.

     To those who say 'it's only drama' I'd reply that it's historical drama and has been heralded by the BBC as an important part of their Great War Centenary programming. Because of that it has a duty to be as historically accurate as possible. To those who say that it's no different to believing that 'Holby City' is an accurate portrayal or that crime drama fails to reflect modern policing, I insist that there is an enormous difference. Hospital life and police procedure today are part of our current knowledge. If we watch modern hospital drama we have experience to judge it by, either our own or that of our friends and family. We can dismiss what is unbelievable because we have the personal knowledge of what it's really like. In 'The Crimson Field' the BBC have produced a programme that has filled an existing gap in history that is outside people's experience and they have filled that gap with stories that could not and would not have happened.

     Because of the high regard in which the BBC is held, the programme has made itself historically correct and has set a model for the future. It has given a representation of nurses, doctors and hospitals that will now be followed, honoured and repeated for decades. Mention of the programme is already being used to give credence to many serious centenary projects and books in order to boost visitors or sales regardless of whether it has any relevance or validity.  In my opinion it has set the serious research of nursing in the Great War back to a point where there may be no hope of ever resurrecting it - why bother in the future when it can be wiped out at a stroke and with such ease?