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War history: BBC’s The Crimson Field is helping raise awareness of the bravery shown by British nurses during First World War

10:19 22 April 2014

The cast of the BBC Sunday night drama The Crimson Field, which presents one of the Great Wars untold stories.

The cast of the BBC Sunday night drama The Crimson Field, which presents one of the Great Wars untold stories.

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Mike Peters, Galloway’s resident military historian and chairman of the International Guild of Battlefield Guides, takes a topical look at the true story of one of the many female nurses who served on the Western Front.

Nellie Spindler was the only woman killed in action and buried in the Ypres Salient.Nellie Spindler was the only woman killed in action and buried in the Ypres Salient.

The Sunday night BBC First World War medical drama The Crimson Field has certainly stirred up emotions among TV viewers, as well as some contrasting reviews on its content and historical accuracy… or inaccuracies, depending on your viewpoint. The mixed reactions are similar to those generated by the Jeremy Paxman documentary series. My own view is that both series were deliberately pitched at the mainstream television audience and, regardless of criticism, both programmes have succeeded in raising awareness and are in many cases stimulating new interest.

As there is an upsurge in interest in nurses during the First World War, I thought EADT readers would like to hear the true story of a British nurse on the Western Front. Her name is Staff Sergeant Nellie Spindler and Galloway tours often stop off to visit her grave in the Commonwealth War Graves Commission cemetery at Lijssenthoek, Belgium.

Nellie has the unfortunate distinction of being the only woman killed in action and buried in the Ypres Salient. I have to point out that she was, however, not the only female nurse killed during the First World War. Close to 200 British nurses were killed by artillery fire, air raids, drowned at sea or died from fatal disease contracted from their patients. This figure does not include nurses from the dominions and the commonwealth, who also suffered casualties.

Nellie Spindler was born in Wakefield in 1891, the daughter of George and Elizabeth Spindler. Her father was a police inspector with the local constabulary.

A 1915 map shows the network of medical facilities behind the frontline. Nellie Spindler was at 44 CCS, behind Ypres in Brandhoek, close to the Poperhinghe road.A 1915 map shows the network of medical facilities behind the frontline. Nellie Spindler was at 44 CCS, behind Ypres in Brandhoek, close to the Poperhinghe road.

Nellie was a staff nurse with the Queen Alexandra’s Imperial Military Nursing Service and was working at No 44 Casualty Clearing Station at Brandhoek during the summer of 1917. When she arrived, the station was preparing for the huge British offensive now known as the Third Battle of Ypres.

The 44th CCS specialised in the treatment of abdominal wounds. This type had to be identified and treated quickly. Consequently, in order to reduce casualties’ time in transit from the point of wounding to medical aid, the decision had been taken to move 44 CCS to the Brandhoek crossroads. This placed it much closer to the frontline than normal for such a large medical facility and its many female staff.

During the early weeks of the offensive the CCS was inundated with severely wounded men, and Nellie and her colleagues coped well. The senior nurse was full of praise for Nellie’s work and her personal conduct. However, the area was closely packed with troops and the CCS was located close to a road, a railway and an ammunition dump. This made the Brandhoek area a tempting target for German artillery.

On August 21 a salvo of shells intended for the ammunition dump fell short and landed in the CCS. Nellie Spindler was critically injured; the senior nurse rushed to her aid but she could do little to help. In minutes Nellie lost consciousness. Twenty minutes later, Nellie Spindler was dead. She was 26.

The shells wounded four other nurses, and Sister M Wood received the Military Medal for her gallant conduct that day.

The 44th CCS was almost immediately moved to Remy Siding (now Lijssenthoek) where Nellie was buried with military honours the next day. Nellie is the only woman buried in the CWGC cemetery; she rests among the graves of over 10,000 men – many of whom were treated by Nellie and her brave colleagues.

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