Suranne Jones, Hermione Norris and Oona Chaplin from The Crimson FieldAre you watching the BBC’s new Sunday-night drama The Crimson Field? It follows three Red Cross nurses learning to cope with life at a field hospital during World War One. We’ll be following the series with diaries, letters and photos from real Red Cross nurses. This week we’re looking at rats, rules and hairy legs…

When Red Cross volunteers Flora, Rosalie and Kitty report for duty at the beginning of the series, it’s clear that not everyone is happy to see them.

Volunteers versus nurses
When it was announced in 1915 that volunteers would help at military hospitals, the Matron-in-Chief of the military nursing service was horrified. She believed that volunteers would cause havoc in her wards.

Her nurses were licensed professionals who had spent years training. Our volunteers, on the other hand, had only received a few months’ first aid and hygiene lessons.

Hermione Norris, who plays matron Grace Carter in The Crimson Field, said: “I think a lot of the nurses felt, in amongst such carnage, that unskilled help would be… a hindrance… but obviously as the war went on they really needed all the help that they could get.”

Taking the blame
Volunteer nurses were called Voluntary Aid Detachments – or VADs for short. Life must have been tough for these enthusiastic young women, who knew when they were not wanted.

One VAD from Cambridge said the volunteers “worked hard under trained nurses, some of whom resented it and showed it in all sorts of ways, by not showing us how to do things and then letting us take the blame for mistakes”.

“I love camping!”
In The Crimson Field, sweet but naive Flora is optimistic about living in a tent. But life for VAD nurses was far from a camping holiday. The winters were freezing, the summers were scorching – and let’s not forget the rats…

In her memoirs, VAD Kathleen Theodora Rhodes writes: “When I was sleeping in a tiny bell tent in hot weather, I was awakened by a huge rat running across my bare arms then down my full length and leaping from the foot of my bed. Until then I’d no idea that rats had such cold feet – they were icy!

“(In) the tents where the patients were nursed… rats swarmed under the floorboards. When I was sitting writing the night report, rats were literally rummaging around in circles across the tops of the lockers and beds.”

Sleep was a challenge: “Have you ever slept in a canvas bed with no mattress and tried to keep the blanket on? It’s an art which has to be learnt after many sleepless nights,” recalled another VAD.

Boy Scouts and hairy legs
Alice St Clair’s Flora declares proudly that she is an expert in bandaging, having practiced on the Boy Scouts. Surprisingly, this was true of all VADs.

An article in our archives reports that volunteers in Southwold, Suffolk had to complete first aid tests “on the common, where the ‘wounded’, 30 in number, were lying about, labelled, to show their ‘wounds’. They consisted of some of the Boys’ Brigade, school boys and a few men.”

Imagine the shock these VADs must have had when they reached the field hospitals. Boy Scouts were replaced by grown men, screaming in pain and covered in blood and lice.

Many of the volunteers had never seen a man’s hairy leg before, let alone treated one with gangrene.

The stench of gangrene
VAD Kathleen Theodora Rhodes paints a vivid picture in her memoirs: “Convoys of severely wounded men (came) in almost nightly. Naturally we were simply horror-stricken at the appalling mutilations, and the terrible smells of sepsis and gangrene were hard to endure.”

The hot summers in France made the smells of gangrene much worse.

Often VADs had to hold limbs steady during amputations. One woman recalled: “I worked in an operating theatre once and saw a leg being amputated with not a drop of blood spilt. The only horrid part was when the leg bone was sawn off and went ‘plomp’ into the bucket.”

Matron rules
All VADs had to agree to be ‘absolutely’ under the control of the hospital matron and Hermione Norris’ matron demands discipline from the start. She might seem harsh with her fresh new recruits but our journal from 1915 suggests that this behaviour was typical.

It argues that matron must be tough because “if things go wrong, she cannot put the blame on her subordinates; if she did, she would be told that it is her place to control them.

“Implicit obedience is necessary (in VADs). A mistake may involve a loss of life.”

You’re fired!
Sometimes volunteer nurses, like Oona Chaplin’s Kitty, found the rules of hospital life challenging. Those who were sent back home had to report to headquarters. They were allowed three trials at different hospitals after which they were either dismissed or advised to resign.

So how will Flora, Rosalie and Kitty get on? Will they learn to cope with rats and body parts? Will the matron ever accept them? We shall have to wait and see. But if our volunteers’ letters and diaries are anything to go by, these VADs will take everything in their stride.

Stay tuned as we bring you photos, real-life love stories and more hair-raising tales from field hospitals abroad to accompany The Crimson Field.

Find out more about the Red Cross’ work during World War One.