Boulogne, France. 1915. The world has cracked apart in devastating war. Soldiers eat, sleep, and die in muddy trenches dug across Europe. Those who aren’t killed are often injured and taken away from the front line to recover. They are not even taken to a full hospital but to an open-air camp on the French seaside. More importantly, however, they are taken care of by a group of healers: the nurses and doctors, military and civilian, who dedicate every moment they can to getting these wounded men back on their feet.
The Crimson Field gives an inside look on the lives of the nurses caring for British soldiers. With only a few months training, the three main characters start out on the job naïve as they have obviously grown up with the finer things of life, but they quickly gain experience with injuries, blood, and death.These girls prove their strength parallel to the millions of men fighting on the front.This may be France in the middle of World War I, but the doctors and nurses have claimed this tiny spot of land as British, hence the china teacups.
One of the things I enjoy the most about The Crimson Field is how the show looks into the complex dark side of World War I. History (told by the victors) likes to keep the story of the war as clean for the winning side as possible. The war was seen as a fight of good against evil in the world. But what this show brings out is the personal psychological trauma that war brings to those involved. Mental illness was highly misunderstood at the time and often equated with cowardice or lack of manly loyalty. We see one soldier, Lance Corporal Prentiss, sent back to the front when he is obviously suffering a form of post-traumatic stress. This has devastating effects on his health and well-being, and he is only one example of the many who suffered hell.
Kitty Trevelyan (played by Oona Chaplin of Game of Thrones fame) at first has trouble with the standardized rules of the hospital, but soon she wins her way into the hearts of soldiers and doctors alike. As the show progresses, Kitty’s secret past is revealed bit by bit, leading the viewer more into her world of pain and regret.
Rosalie Berwick (Marianne Oldham) is a less likable character, but still relatable. It seems that she has never married and reached the age which her society defines as “old maid.” Her volunteer work is an escape from a kind of social prison, and she only “wish[es] she’d been braver sooner.” Unfortunately, her inexperienced past has grown a deep fear inside her, and fear can be mistaken as self-righteousness.
Flora Mashall (Alice St. Clair) is young-hearted and still innocent enough to be surprised by ugly side effects of battle and surgery. Though she at first seems like she will be the first sent home, she manages to show her innate strength when under stress. Soon after her arrival, Flora boasts about her skill with bandages, and the matron promptly sends her to boil, dry, and roll a hideous pile of bloody post-surgery cloths. She doesn’t complain though and gets to work.
Two other nurses who play important roles are Matron Grace Carter (Hermione Norris) and Sister Joan Livesey (Suranne Jones). Grace is head of the rest of the nurses, which means she makes the difficult decisions and bears the greatest burden for the sufferers who have come to the hospital. With her understanding and compassion, she is a good nurse, and with her resolve and strength, she is a great leader.
Sister Joan arrives shortly after the three volunteer nurses. She has more experience at nursing and is welcomed as a pair of expert hands. But she also has secrets in her past, and the war that rages close by haunts her in a way no one knows.
Of course, these are not the only important characters, as we have dashing doctors in Captain Thomas Gillan (Richard Rankin) and Captain Miles Hesketh-Thorne (Alex Wyndham), as well as an exemplary leader in Lieutenant Colonel Roland Brett (Kevin Doyle of Downton Abbey). But The Crimson Field is essentially about the women on the front, who may not have been fighting the battles but were winning the war by saving soldiers from death or comforting them in their last moments.
The Crimson Field is now available on DVD and Blu-ray from PBS Distribution. Thank you to PBS for providing me with a copy for the review!