The Crimson Field and Bovril Alley

Captain Macauley, R. A. M. C., in Bovril Alley. © IWM (Q 14734)

There is a very good historical drama showing currently on PBS, called The Crimson Field. It takes place at a field hospital in France during World War I. The military personnel in the series are part of England’s Royal Army Medical Corps (RAMC). The show deals with a variety of interesting issues from that time and place, including “shell shock” (what we’d call PTSD today), the changing role of women in society, loyalty, and the potentially devastating affects of war on everyday people. Two prominent characters are a pair of RAMC captains who are surgeons striving to keep up with the never ending supply of wounded and dying soldiers.

My husband’s great grandfather was an Irish Catholic named Maurice John Macauley. He was born in Belfast in 1878, to a family that owned a linen manufacturing business called Hugh Macauley and Sons. Instead of taking a job in the family’s firm as his three brothers did, he earned a medical degree from the Royal University of Ireland. He then moved to England and participated in World War I as a captain in the Royal Army Medical Corps. A simple google of his name and “RAMC” delivered up an archive photo of Captain Macauley pictured in a trench with a sign saying “Bovril Alley”. The nickname Bovril Alley was based on a beef bouillon product often fed to British troops during World War I. It referred to a communications trench in the area of Bully-Grenay near the current northern French town of Bully-les-Mines. The photo was taken in August of 1916.

A 1919 issue of the London Gazette lists Maurice John as a captain in the RAMC who relinquished his commission “on account of ill-health and wounds”. My husband was always told that Maurice had a glass eye. In a family photo of him taken just after the war, he is still wearing his RAMC captain’s uniform. His face is turned slightly to one side, in an apparent effort to shield his damaged eye from the camera. Not shown are any psychological scars he may have brought home with him from his experiences in a World War I field hospital. He lived until 1965 as a well-loved and respected small town doctor in England.


  1. The Crimson Field, the story of World War One’s front line medics, 2015. Description of the series and characters.
  2. Imperial War Museums, Crook AH (surgeon) Collection, © IWM (Q 14734); object description: “Captain Macauley, R. A. M. C., in Bovril Alley, an old communication trench, very deep, camouflaged by flowers, etc., Built by the French, it ran from Bully-Grenay to the Angres Sector. 2nd R.N. Field Ambulance, R.N. Division, August 1916.”
  3. BBC News Magazine, “WW1: How firms cashed in on the war”, 2014. Discusses how British companies used patriotism, guilt and anti-German sentiment in their advertising to market products during World War I, including Bovril.
  4. Supplement to the London Gazette, 15 July 1919. Lists officers relinquishing their commissions, including Maurice J. Macauley, M.B.

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