Review: The Crimson Field TV Series

The cast of The Crimson Field
I first heard about The Crimson Field because a director working on some Outlander episodes* tweeted that it was his next project. The show sounded interesting, but when it aired in the U.S., I was so busy watching Poldark that I missed it. I finally got around to binge watching this show recently, and enjoyed it so much that I wanted to spread the word.

The Crimson Field takes place in a fictitious British field hospital on the French coast at the beginning of World War I. It was originally broadcast by the BBC in 2014, as part of its World War I centenary season, commemorating the war’s 100-year anniversary.

Casualties come to this hospital, from far and wide, to heal and be healed — from the ravages of the battlefield, the cruel conventions of civilization, the loss and longing that life throws everyone’s way. But this is no grand epic, it’s like a cultured British version of M.A.S.H. (though not nearly as funny). These gritty challenges are translated into heart-warming or -breaking personal stories about individuals I grew to care deeply about — or detest loudly.

So when you’re in the mood to watch some very brave women (and men! but mostly the women!) forge a path for themselves and future generations of women (and men!), I recommend checking out this show. It’s short enough (6 episodes) to get through quickly, over a stormy weekend, for example, and I highly recommend popcorn!

More spoiler-free (mostly) details about the characters and their stories after the jump...

* Richard Clark directed episodes 3 and 4 of The Crimson Field and episodes 9 and 10 of Outlander

The body count

As the first episode begins, three young British women from privileged backgrounds arrive together at the hospital as volunteer nursing aides. Their training is minimal and fairly genteel, and the overworked and understaffed “real” nurses resent not being sent “real” assistance. So these newbies must tread carefully, grow thick skins, and get in people’s faces to make a place for themselves.

Volunteer aides Rosa (Marianne Oldham), Kitty (Oona Chaplin),
and Flora (Alice St. Clair) are a bit awed at first

They are soon joined by another newcomer who is older, more experienced, and has a much different challenge ahead. More about her later...

These leading ladies are dumped under the supervision of the nurse matron (aka head witch nurse), a tough, no-nonsense administrator whose brusque exterior eventually lifts here and there enough to reveal a tantalizingly complex character. You know she can’t be as awful as she seems, because she cares deeply for her patients and is fiercely loyal to her commanding officer. She has been recently promoted to her position in this hospital, right over the head of her mentor, resulting in tension and mistrust between these two women and a powerful story line.

Are they as sinister as they look here?
Scary Sister Quayle (Kerry Fox) and scenery-chewing Matron Carter (Hermione Norris)

This hospital is where worlds collide. It’s where civilization meets the barbarism of war. And since women are working side-by-side with men, as equals whether men acknowledge that or not, it’s also where traditional, restrictive female lifestyles meet empowered, emancipated, and above all productive female roles outside the traditional choices of wife and mother.

All of these women are quite different from each other in many ways, but they’ve all been deeply scarred by the old ways. They come to this hospital to escape pain in their past. Some deny their forbidden desires. Others run from the consequences of acting on them. All are caught in the crossfires of history through no fault of their own. Each of them wants to spend her time helping others, rather than wallow in self-pity or be relegated to insignificance.

Rosa Berwick is the aging aristocratic failure daughter who can’t find a husband. She’s a bit of a judgmental nag, which is probably how her family always talked to her, and has been raised in such a repressive environment that she can’t even look at an unclothed man. This is a an impediment to doing her job, as you might imagine, and kind of makes me wonder if there’s more to her back story than simple lack of sex education.

Kitty Trevelyan found a husband, but he was abusive. She’s now ostracized by her family and publicly shamed as the guilty party. Kitty has walled herself off from her feelings to cope with her devastating losses, and she’s learning when to speak up for herself and when to STFU and listen. Kitty was one of my favorite characters, and much of the story was told through her POV.

Flora Marshall is a na├»ve, nosy chatterbox (her picture would have been next to the entry for TMI in the WWI urban dictionary, had there been one) who annoys the socks off everyone but eventually grows on you (probably). She’s timid, yet ballsy enough to have lied her way to a field hospital, so there must be more to her than meets the eye. She’s pretty clueless about life, which makes it hard to earn anyone’s respect, but she is spunky, persistent, and has a heart of gold....

The lively Sister Joan (Suranne Jones)
and her unseemly mode of independent travel
Joan Livesey is the fourth new arrival, who shows up late and in grand (scandalous!) style, driving her own motorcycle (!). The nurses are willing to overlook her unconventional personality because she’s a bona fide, qualified nurse. But she’s also unconventional in her nursing practices, more interested in patients over pecking order and processes. She also hides a fascinating secret that could be deadly if discovered, and there’s not much privacy in a small camp like this one. Joan’s story absolutely riveted me.

We see these new women integrate into hospital routines and get to know the doctors, nurses, and staff that keep the hospital running. Conditions are primitive, and the sheer volume of patients always threatens to overwhelm them all, physically and emotionally. We grow to understand how many of them have been shaped by circumstances into people we can relate to in many ways, despite our sometimes nasty first (and second and third) impressions. The controlling Matron Grace Carter is a gem of a character, as is her mentor-nemesis Margaret Quayle, though I didn’t always feel so charitably toward them. We see innumerable small acts of of valor and compassion, performed every day by a multitude of characters, despite the looming threat of destruction at their door, and that’s what really keeps the hospital running.

Head hospital honcho (Kevin Doyle)
doggedly protects his own despite personal tragedy
The Lieutenant-Colonel Brett, who’s in charge of the hospital, struggles to buffer those under his wing from the ruthless orders trickling down the command chain. (He’s played by Downton Abbey’s Mr. Moseley, in a far less obsequious role.) The fearsome Colonel Purbright storms in occasionally to enforce the ugliest decisions, sacrifice men’s lives for boots on the ground, and weigh the fate of nations over men.

IMHO the doctors, Captain Thomas Gillan (Richard Rankin) and his sidekick Captain Miles Hesketh-Thorne (Alex Wyndham), exude a lot of romantic potential, which is frustrated just enough, by pesky impediments like regulations forbidding hospital romances, to set up some slow-burn stories that I was quite in favor of following into future seasons. They lend some much needed levity to tense episodes, along with the cheeky Corporal Peter Foley (Jack Gordon), who’s not as forthcoming as he seems.

Wondering how this fits into the story?

The heart of the series

The Crimson Field is a coming-into-their-own story for the young volunteer aides. It’s also a story about women who have already carved out an unconventional place for themselves, and what it costs them. It is a testament to resilience and perseverance, to facing the personal fears that unite us as humans, even amidst the alien, impersonal landscape of war. Patients come and go, and through them we glimpse the far-reaching effects of the fighting, the wide range of deep, personal loss incurred even at this early stage. We see many small stories of heroism — of trauma and frailty and despair and resilience and loyalty and hope.

I really enjoyed this show and am sorry it wasn’t renewed for more seasons. All the stories and characters were poised on the brink of interesting future developments, so I am now forced to merely imagine what happens next.

The Crimson Field got me thinking (out loud, with naughty words) about social attitudes toward women in 1914, the restricted lifestyle choices in various social strata, and the public shaming of women who did not conform. These women struggled to fit into a male-dominated team, as did other characters who didn’t fit the mold, like the gay and developmentally challenged soldiers. This show highlights again and again the appalling lack of compassion for victims of PTSD — of any condition that didn’t exhibit visible exterior wounds — and the complete lack of psychological support for men struggling to come to terms with what they’d seen on the battle field. Family members struggled to cope with what, if anything, remained of their loved ones. But these painful stories were always balanced with enough personal triumph that each episode left me feeling uplifted. (Except for that last one, which left me hankering for season 2.)

I’m a fan of inserting Real-Life History and Interesting Facts into entertainment when possible, and this series missed some opportunities to do that. It did not spend any time on the medical innovations and techniques from the time. (Though to be honest, as a fan of Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series, I really didn’t need too much detail on the medical gore. I’ve already got my go-to source for that!) And it didn’t draw as deeply as it might have from the stories of real-life heroines who staffed and ran hospitals during the war. But it’s the television equivalent of a novel, not a documentary, and I learned a fair amount about a historical period I don’t choose to visit often. And what’s more, I enjoyed it, which is a big endorsement coming from me, because I really really really prefer catapults and swords and plague to bombs and machine guns.

Nurse Edith Cavell 1865-1915; Brussels Q70204 by Unknown.
This is photograph Q 70204 from the collections of the Imperial War Museums.
Licensed under Public Domain via Commons.

In particular, The Crimson Field brought to light the real-life story of Edith Cavell, a British nurse who was executed by the Germans in 1915 for helping Allied soldiers escape from Belgium. She appears in the photo above, seated in the center of a multinational group of student nurses she trained in Belgium. Nurse Cavell chose to help save all lives, regardless of their national allegiance, and famously said “patriotism is not enough.” This show ripped my heart out with the horror of being forced to choose between your duty to your country and the people and convictions you love most dearly.

I was hoping this guy would show up
in season 2! Oops, wrong war...
My only real complaint with The Crimson Field is that it needed more episodes, so that some missing background stories and a few more secrets could be revealed. I was excited about where many of the characters were heading, and the screenwriter had a clear vision of where everyone’s story would be by the end of the war, which makes me all the sadder to miss out on their journey.

But despite this shortcoming, these characters are going to stick with me for a very long time. The nurse matron and her nemesis were mature characters of great depth and nuance, and I would absolutely love to see how their relationship continues. I also have big plans in my head for all the nursing aides, especially Kitty and a certain someone. And for Joan ... that’s all I can say about her. If nothing else, cancellation makes it possible for me to envision the HEAs that all these wonderful women and men deserve instead of the cold, hard realities that might have been inflicted by war.

Have you seen The Crimson Field? Were you as sorry as I was to see it canceled? Who are you going to miss the most?


  1. I agree this series was too short! I really enjoyed it. I highly recommend Jacqueline Winspear's Maisie Dobbs series and her standalone WWI novel (The Care and Management of Lies) to learn more about the lives of English women during this time period. I also recommend Jennifer Robson's book "Somewhere in France". I had read all these before watching the series, which was ne f the reasons I was s interested in watching it.


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