Book review: Fred’s War by Andrew Davidson

As next year’s Great War centenary approaches, the first salvos are being fired in what will be a legion of new books on the war that was supposed to end wars.

Monday, 11th November 2013, 9:00 am
Freds War by Andrew Davidson
Freds War by Andrew Davidson

Leading the charge is what promises to be one of the best. Fred’s War is the extraordinary, moving story of Fred Davidson, a dedicated young army doctor who dodged orders and bullets to record the mud, blood and horrors of warfare on his £3 Buster Brown box camera.

As the Great War raged on the Western front, Fred was not only trying to save men’s lives… he was also taking hundreds of illicit photographs showing the grim realities of trench life, a raw, daily humdrum that was punctuated by terrifying bursts of lethal action.

Because of the danger of pictures falling into enemy hands, it was forbidden to carry cameras on the frontline but 25-year-old Scotsman Fred, brightest of six sons of a small-town Kincardineshire minister and one of the first doctors to win the Military Cross, became part of a small team of 1st Cameronian officers willing to break War Office rules.

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And now Andrew Davidson, the grandson who was born two days before Fred died, has pieced together the story behind the pictures which have passed through his family for three generations.

Using an inspired and original concept, he blends 250 original photographs with a crisp, contemporary narrative to give us a new and amazingly intimate perspective on the danger, hardships and playful camaraderie of a dismal, deadly battlefront.

The 1st Cameronians, better known as the Scottish Rifles, achieved notoriety for selling the First World War’s earliest frontline photographs and Fred’s hitherto unseen snaps are gathered together here for the first time alongside those taken by his charming and roguish friend Lieutenant Robert Money whose camera took some of the most iconic images of the war.

They were aided in no small part by Colonel Philip Rynd Robertson, their commanding officer who was far warmer than his severe façade suggested and whose obvious love of being photographed made him prepared to turn a blind eye.

From the parade ground at Glasgow’s Maryhill to the brothels of Armentières and the killing fields of Neuve Chapelle, the book portrays life among a loyal band of brothers, the same men who later proudly dubbed themselves ‘Old Contemptibles.’

The 1st Cameronians, part of the British Expeditionary Force and amongst the first wave to land in France in 1914, was made up of regulars, men drawn from the Lanarkshire coal mines and Glasgow slums. They were a tough, hard-drinking, foul-swearing bunch led by a core of long-serving officers.

Fred, who had never before set foot abroad, was the ‘medic in a band of old sweats’ and left home with his camera wedged neatly among his surgical equipment. Much of his military medicine training had focused on bayonet and bullet wounds but already he had a sense of the damage that would be wreaked by new weaponry like machine guns and howitzers.

A poignant photograph shows Fred, cutting a dash with his cap and riding boots and sporting a newly-grown moustache, along with his new comrades, a group of fresh-faced young officers who giggle, grin and slump before the camera. Some of them would never go home.

Those first, few tentative weeks in northern France are brought to life in a series of pictures which include the arrival in Le Havre where horses were winched from deck to dock, the exhausting march to the Belgian border and the first clashes with the German army which came perilously close to outflanking the British.

When there was no action, Fred’s war, like those around him, was an endless round of routine tasks to prevent the boredom that ‘is four-fifths of an artilleryman’s day.’

His photographs show snapshots of the men at work and play… the morning parade, the afternoon fatigues, censoring the men’s letters which ‘never tell the truth,’ the night times spent supplying the trenches and enjoying the little things that count like the mail, the baths, the treats, the football matches and the ‘baccy.’

Fred, who married Marie Jacques, daughter of a Preston laundry business millionaire in 1916, stopped taking photographs in the middle of 1915 when he was a fast-rising officer with growing responsibilities.

Wounded in the hand and thigh and awarded the Military Cross for bravery in action, Fred finished the war as a Lieutenant Colonel and left the regular army to take up general practice in Camberley in 1919.

He served his country again with the RAMC in Egypt, Italy and as Assistant Director of Medical Services in London during the Second World War and died in 1959.

Like many Great War veterans, he rarely talked of his experiences on the Western Front but his photographs speak volumes and like those of his brother in arms, Robert Money, would seem to say ‘These are my friends… these are the men I will remember.’

If you only buy one book about the war, make it this one…

(Short Books, hardback, £25)