Don’t forget the hospital orderlies of World War I, on or off the screen

Peter Foley, The Crimson Field’s hospital orderly. BBC/Nick Briggs

With the centenary commemorations continuing, all things World War I have been filling our screens, pages and radio waves. The latest of these was the BBC’s The Crimson Field, a drama set in a field hospital in France, which recently concluded.

Overall, the series has received a mixed reception. It was criticised, for example, for imposing 21st-century ideas and emotions on to the characters. But despite all this what the series has done is introduce viewers to World War I hospitals as spaces where men and women undertook a range of roles – going beyond simply soldiers, doctors and nurses.

I’m a historian researching the roles and experiences of these less well-known servicemen, which gave me a somewhat unique angle from which to watch the show. So I was both intrigued and frustrated by the character of Peter Foley, the hospital orderly. He is a symbolic figure, a single character standing in for the 40-odd private soldiers who worked in such capacities in each field ambulance, out of a total of 195 men. Other roles in the field ambulance included bearers, quartermasters and their assistants and seven officers.

So Foley is a significant figure in the programme. He demonstrates the variety of jobs that medical orderlies carried out in field ambulances and hospitals. These included transporting patients around the unit, preparing patients for and assisting with surgery, dispensing drugs and guarding and treating men in isolation units. Orderlies also collected food and firewood, recorded the names and units of men as they arrived at the hospital and ran unit baths. This last job involved the organisation of washing, delousing and reissuing uniforms to large bodies of men.

Jobs such as these, and the men who performed them, were key to the smooth running of British medical establishments throughout the war. The labour of such men was highly physical and without much status, either medical or military.

So I despaired when Foley was revealed to be gay. This was a clear example of 21st-century concern being inappropriately inserted into a historical context.

While the masculinity of medical orderlies might be (and often was) impugned, particularly in the early years of the war, it was never in terms of their suspect or criminal sexuality. Instead, it was almost always in the frame of age and physical health. Like the men who volunteered for the Volunteer Training Corps on the home front, the medical orderly was portrayed mockingly in popular media as unfit or too old for front line service.

Homosexuality was an accusation more commonly (although still not very often) levelled at men who failed to enlist or were diagnosed with shell shock. Here it was seen as another symptom of an inherent physical and moral insufficiency which signified male degeneracy and madness.

Medical orderlies were very aware of how they were viewed by the public. One, Ward Muir, who was too old for combatant service and based in Britain at the 3rd London General hospital, pointed this out in an article “About ‘Slackers in Khaki’”. He wrote:

No small proportion of our unit was composed of over-age recruits who, instead of informing the world at large that they wished they were younger … did not rest until they had found an opening.

This defensiveness can also been seen in the tendency of orderlies overseas to volunteer for stretcher-bearing duties. They did so in usually in quieter periods when dressing stations were less busy but men injured by snipers or artillery still required transport. And part of the reason they did so was to demonstrate to themselves and others their ability to behave in an appropriately heroic fashion under fire. Stretcher bearers did gain a particularly heroic reputation. This was mainly for facing fire unarmed. After all, the Royal Army Medical Corps was a non-combatant unit and members could not carry arms.

The vast majority of orderlies I have met in my research took pride in the work they did, seeing it as a service both to their country and to their fellow men. So although Peter Foley is not entirely representative, in giving these all-too-often forgotten men a face and voice, The Crimson Field has achieved a small act of historical memory.