The story of the First World War has been retold on screen time and again. But while it’s vital to commemorate the men who lost their lives fighting for their country, and impossible to forget the horrors they suffered on the battle fields, it wasn’t just a man’s world.
There were women on the front line too.
Not fighting in the trenches, but working in the hospitals to help care for the injured men. And their work, volunteering to help the war effort, changed history by creating careers for women – something that would only be furthered once the war was over.
“It was a time of huge social change for women,” says Hermione Norris, 47, who stars in The Crimson Field, a new BBC drama about these original career women.
“Of course, working class women had always worked their t*ts off, but for middle and upper class women, as these volunteers were, they were doing jobs that men – and women probably – didn’t think they were capable of.
“As an actor, or a woman full stop, that is a huge privilege to be a part of.”
Her co-star, Suranne Jones, agrees. “I always try to do jobs that have some kind of conscience about them and that are important, so it was great that this came up,” says the 35-year-old who plays Sister Joan Livesey.
“Joan is not only politically forward-thinking and socially forward-thinking, she sees herself as an equal. She rides a motorcycle, she’s had her hair chopped off, she’s quite modern. She’s a suffragist.”
Believing it’s wonderful that there are young women in the Voluntary Aid Detachment (VAD), “Joan feels they should have more work, more chores and be more hands on”, adds the actress. “That clashes with the rules and regulations, so she causes a bit of a stir,” says Jones, who previously starred in Coronation Street for six years until 2004.
The first episode of the series, written by Sarah Phelps, who adapted Great Expectations for the BBC in 2011, sees a new batch of VADs arrive at the camp in northern France, in June 1915.
Joan’s arrival in trousers and a trench coat proves a jaw-dropping moment for Sergeant Reggie Soper, played by Jeremy Swift.
“I remember him saying to me, ‘You look great in that, quite sexy actually’,” recalls Jones, laughing. “But as a character, back then he would have been horrified that this woman turned up in a gentleman’s coat on a bike.”
Already firmly installed on camp are Matron Grace Carter, played by Cold Feet star Norris, Sister Margaret Quayle (Kerry Fox), and Lt Col Roland Brett, played by Downton Abbey star Kevin Doyle.
Though set in France, The Crimson Field was actually filmed on location in the fields of Wiltshire. An incredible amount of effort went into getting every detail of the set, costumes and make-up effects as accurate as possible.
“We started in summer so we had wasps everywhere, then we went into fields of mud and rain and wind, so our dresses were covered in mud – we went through all that and the set got better and better looking!” says Jones.
But the conditions were nothing compared to what the nurses and VADs endured back in 1915.
“The couple of books that I read, the chilblains and the tiredness; we have to put into perspective that we’re a bunch of actors making a drama,” adds the Scott & Bailey actress.
Norris hopes viewers will feel the drama is a poignant and fitting commemoration to the work undertaken by both the men and women during this period.
“It was, from my point of view, an act of remembrance every day,” she confides.
“At the going down of the sun and in the morning, we will remember them...” the actress adds, reciting the Ode Of Remembrance. “And we really did feel that there.
“And I hope for people watching on a Sunday night, it’s a small act of remembrance.”