First World War Red Cross nurse lights a cigarette for a patient

Many characters in The Crimson Field spend time waiting anxiously for the post. Letters during the First World War were often the only means of communicating with friends and family. But what happened if you were injured and couldn’t write?

Red Cross volunteer May Bradford knew better than most how important a letter could be. She was the official letter writer at the hospital which inspired the BBC’s The Crimson Field – No.26 General Hospital in Etaples, France. Throughout the war she wrote over 25,000 letters.She wrote letters to the families of injured servicemen, explaining their medical condition and the treatment they were receiving. She usually had more information about each individual than the War Office. Many families relied on Red Cross letters for up-to-date news about their sons, fathers and brothers.

Love letters

Cartoon of a Red Cross nurse writing a love letter for a First World War casualty

Love letters were no laughing matter…

May also wrote letters on behalf of the hospital patients, many of whom were too ill to write. She wrote everything from love letters and notes to mothers to Christmas cards. The men called her ‘Tommy’s little mother’.

May recalled: “The men were often anxious to show their gratitude for the letters written […] A man presented me with one acid drop, hot and damp, which he had kept carefully for me under his back. It gave him great pleasure to see me eat it!”

May’s letters sometimes caused concern to their recipients. May said: “My age was a great source of comfort to the anxious relatives at home. A mother wrote to the Matron: ‘Please let me know who May Bradford is, my son is very susceptible.’

“When writing love letters I was frequently asked to say that I was not young, knowing that this would give much comfort to the interested parties!”

Letters for mother

She was so kind to one patient, tucking him in and making his tea, that when he became ill with pneumonia he thought May “was his own dear mother, and died thinking she was by his side.”

Many patients dictated letters to their mothers back in ‘Blighty’. VAD nurse Florence Edgerton wrote to her own mother about a patient who had fractured his leg. When it became infected, Florence wrote a letter for him.

“It was pathetic indeed to see how he begged me not to let his mother know how ill he was. A great big fine fellow, who stood the pain without a murmur, cried when he thought of his mother.”

Writing in the dark

For many Red Cross VADs, (apart from Oona Chaplin’s Kitty in The Crimson Field!) letters from home were a source of delight. Writing replies, however, was hard work.

It was usually either boiling hot or freezing cold in their poorly lit tents and huts. Many women struggled with chilblains and swollen fingers.

VAD Helen Beale wrote apologetically to her sister: “By the light of two hurricane lamps (each with one candle in it), one hung up and the other stood on a trunk, I indite this letter to you, so please don’t mind if you can’t read it!”

The VADs wrote scribbled notes and postcards in the precious moments they had between meal times and duties. Days off were often spent catching up on correspondence. A painting of a Red Cross nurse writing a letter for an injured patient during First World War

As Helen explained: “I always seem to be getting one behind in the way of sending you letters. The thing is… unless I am very strong minded with myself at night and get quickly ready for bed and don’t read, all my spare time for writing has vanished!”

Well-travelled words

Some letters travelled many miles as they were read and passed on. Helen Beale’s sister wrote and enclosed a letter from a friend. Helen read it and sent it straight back to her sister with the note: “You really might have been bold enough to break the seal and read it before you sent it on to me you know!”