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Happy to recommend a PBS/BBC mini-series that hasn’t got much attention: The Crimson Field

Set in an imaginary field hospital in France during WW I, close to the Western Front, it features 6 women central to its cast of characters.  The men, other than the wounded who are compelling by the empathy they stir, are in support roles or potential love interests –all failed to this point.  In fact, Kitty Trevelyan (Oona Chaplain –granddaughter of Charlie and Oona) tells one pursuer that she came “to work, not to get entangled.”

The_Crimson_FieldNot that there aren’t plenty of streaming sub-plots and the rubble of emotion swept along with them to keep it from being simply a wartime hospital documentary.  Just for starters we have psychosomatic injuries, Trench Fever then, PTSD now.  Doctors and nurses have different opinions as to how to treat it; doctors and command officers disagree over whether it exists at all, or is simply cowardice.  A ticket home for one man is pulled by the CO, reinstated by the Medical CO, then pulled again; he is sent back to the front to return completely crazed.  Another soldier is sent to a Courts Martial and sure execution for a badly injured hand, deemed to be ‘self mutilation.’ Faking syphilis (which might get a ticket home) with hot needle blisters and condensed milk is explained for those interested. Full nurses, called Sisters, and V.A.D. nurses, called Volunteers, push against each other over army discipline, lady-like behavior and menial labor.  The Matron and the Sister she was promoted over, are antagonistic, one of them tough and unyielding, one of them sweet and caring, one of them a liar.

Class differences cut between both men and women. Suspicions of homosexual rendezvous between soldiers and an accusation of “exotic tastes” to a senior nurse add modernity to the expected male-female attractions and repulsions.  Flight from troubles and shadowy pasts, an out of wedlock child, a love interest with the enemy set up mysteries — to be solved next episode.

In addition we have Irish-English tensions.  The Irish at home are close to full rebellion against the 500 year colonial domination by England.  Irish soldiers in the British army are called traitors and their families harassed by nationalists.  Proud to be in uniform and take the fight to the Germans they are torn, and chafe under perceived slights by the army brass.

Having been immersed in WW I literature for a year and recently reading Vera Brittain’s Testament to Youth (also a recent movie), her memoir about her experience as a V.A.D. in exactly the conditions of The Crimson Field, I am impressed with the accuracy of its detail. Not just the period cars, ambulances, horses, primitive tent wards and experimental medical procedures, but the friction between trained nurses and untrained volunteers is real.  Brittain, as a volunteer for three years, suffered under it. The Irish-English tension was very real. (For a good fictional account of this, see The Canal Bridge.]

There is that to be quibbled about and those who will do it (and here.).Sometimes the emotions are a little “soapy,” too much underlined with music or close ups, like TYPING IN ALL CAPS to emphasize a point that doesn’t need it. On the whole, however,  it is a very watchable and engaging series about the the forgotten women of that war — serving in hospitals, often at the front, confronted with more grief, blood, pain and death than any of the men forward in the trenches.

Too bad, the second year has been cancelled by BBC even before the first has completely aired.  Its gifted writer, Sara Phelps, has shown herself to be quite unhappy about it.

If you can’t find it, or record it, try the PBS website.  You can watch on a computer or connect the computer to your big screen TV to get the full experience.

For more summary information here is IMDB and here, Wikipedia.