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I spend a great deal of my working life reading stories and histories from the First World War. It’s hardly a holiday for me to read a novel about the war for pleasure, with an inevitable sad ending, so I avoid them. Likewise, I avoid reading new histories of the war unless it’s for work. But I am a sucker for photographs, especially amateur, small-scale surreptitious photographs that show the war as it really was, with real people doing real things to keep alive and cheerful. Fred’s War: A Doctor in the Trenches by Andrew Davidson is constructed around a fascinating collection of such photographs, published here for the first time.
Fred Davidson was a doctor in Royal Army Medical Corps, serving with the 1st Cameronians (Scottish Rifles) from the beginning of the war until he was invalided out with his first serious wounds on 13 March 1915, having already won the Military Cross. He also had a fine collection of photographs taken by himself and fellow officers, recording the daily lives of themselves and their men, in the increasingly smashed-up surroundings of north-east France. Andrew Davidson has written a clever and persuasive reconstruction of Fred’s experience from his roots in St Cyrus, a Kincardineshire village in north-east Scotland, to joining the RAMC, and then evoking what it must have been like to witness the war inexorably getting bloodier, more exhausting and more deadly.
It’s a mystery to Davidson how these young officers with their new-fangled Kodak and Ansco cameras were allowed to take so many photographs, blatantly against army regulations, for so long. The likeliest explanation is that the battalion’s commander, Colonel Robertson, allowed their photography to continue as long as they were discreet. A good many of these images feature him, a good-looking older gentleman on and off a horse, in and out of a dugout, stoically enduring increasing discomforts with a benign expression of calm, mucking in where needed, and always in control. The photographs record the battalion’s mustering and departure from Maryhill Barracks in Glasgow, their wanderings up and down the French-Belgian border, set among the villages, fields, farmyards and trees they roosted under or in as they became part of the First Battle of the Marne. The evolution of the trench as a defence system is pretty clear from the photos, as is the men’s reduction in dressiness as washing became a luxury, and lost kit got replaced by whatever could be found.
The photographs in this book are really all about people, the men Fred doctored and ate with, and French farmers and priests they were billeted upon. As the chapters go on we grow fond of characters who reappear in Fred’s photos, particularly his fellow photographer Robert Money, who sold his photos to the Glasgow newspapers, and some of whose images are well-known standard war shots. But this getting fond of people is risky, even if they’re long dead, because the shock of their deaths is still sharp. I was grateful that Andrew Davidson wrote a lengthy epilogue with the stories of what had happened to all the men featured in the photos: a remarkable number died in their seventies or eighties, but many did not survive the war.
I thoroughly enjoyed this book, which would make a fine Christmas present for anyone with a passion for early photography, for personal stories of trench life, or with an interest in early military medicine. It’s also a rare example of a war memoir/biography that even the war-jaded and squeamish can enjoy without fear.
Andrew Davidson, Fred’s War: A Doctor in the Trenches (Short Books, 2013) £20.00 hardback, ISBN 978-1-78072-181-1.
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