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Photography in the Trenches

Andrew Davidson's grandfather, Fred, took into the trenches with him a foldable camera.

The small, portable, foldable camera was one of the great advances in technology that followed the Edwardian era. For young men obsessed with the latest ‘gadgets’ in an age of invention – motorbikes, cars, planes - it became an affordable must-have, with its ability to take snapshots quickly on small rolls of film. By the second decade of the 20th century, chemists had swiftly developed a trade in developing the prints, and American multinational manufacturers such as Kodak had started advertising their wares heavily in British newspapers.

Hence it is no surprise that when the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) set sail for war in the summer of 1914 quite a few of its soldiers packed a camera, despite official discouragement. The War Office, worried about what might be photographed and how it could be used, let it be known that cameras should not be carried on active service. Enforcement was left to individual battalion commanders.

So when Lieutenant Fred Davidson, a 25 year old Scot seconded to the 1st battalion Cameronians (Cams) as their medical officer, put his kit bag together, he threw in his camera. So too did at least one other lieutenant in the battalion. They had already established that the Cams’ commanding officer Colonel Philip Robertson, a gaunt, chain smoking Englishman, rather enjoyed being photographed. They had snapped away during training manoeuvres on the Atholl estate earlier that year. The Cams – professional soldiers, part of a renowned regiment drawn from Lanarkshire, south of Glasgow – had a history of compiling photographic albums of their battalions, stretching back into the 19th century. Using the latest folding, pocket cameras, they went on to provide one of the most extraordinary pictorial commentaries on the first year of the First World War.

The fact that the Cams, part of a 50,000-strong force sent to France at the start of the war, were the only ones to take photographs repeatedly has long puzzled historians. It is likely that individuals in other battalions were more discreet in their use. The Cams, however, wrote themselves into history after the war by gathering all their photographs into memento books, offered to surviving members of the regiment. Many of the albums are now in museums. Two of them were handed down to me by my uncle and were the subject of Fred's War, the book I published in 2013.  Fred Davidson, short, wiry and renowned at school for his feats of memory – an ability that won him a prestigious scholarship to Edinburgh’s Fettes boarding school – was my grandfather.

Kodak advert, The Times 7th July 1914

Advert in The Times, July 1914

The photographs collected by the Cams start on the ship that carried them to France on 14 August 1914 and continue for nine or so months into 1915. They cover the retreat from Mons, the Cams’ defence of La Boutillerie near Ypres, the trenches built outside Armentieres and the slow settling of the war into a bloody, muddy, attritional stalemate. My grandfather was usually billeted with Lieutenant Robert Money, the battalion’s machine gun officer, a roguish extrovert who had twice failed his Sandhurst entrance exam and who also packed his camera. Money set the tone by photographing the landing of troops in Le Havre. He went on to become one of the most famous photographers of the early days of the war.

Davidson and Money beside the bunker they shared, behind the Houplines trenches outside Armentieres, December 1914

Davidson and Money beside the bunker they shared, behind the Houplines trenches outside Armentieres, December 1914

Together, in those first weeks in France, they took pictures of billets, of route marches, of friends in doorways or on train platforms. Then when the war got serious, and the German Army drove back the BEF in a frightening, desperate retreat from the Belgian border almost to the gates of Paris, they took photographs of men under fire, or lying in fields exhausted, or scanning the horizon for the oncoming enemy. Then, after the British and French armies raced to flank the Germans at the Channel coast, they took pictures of the trenches that were dug, and the strange on-off life that ensued: five days on the firing step, five days off in billets behind the lines. All of these photographs were sent back to Glasgow to be developed, returned to the front as prints and circulated around the battalion.

"capable of the highest grade of work."

The quality of the photographs is testament to the ingenuity of the folding cameras developed by manufacturers such as Kodak and Ansco. The Kodak VPC (Vest Pocket Camera) measured 4.5” by 3” across, and one inch deep. It cost 50 shillings and came with ball bearing shutter, meniscus achromatic lens, four shutter speeds, and was, as its catalogue promised, "capable of the highest grade of work". Kodak sold over a million of them, making them one of the most popular pieces of consumer technology in the early 20th century.
Kodak front 1913
Kodak unfolded 1913

Kodak VPC

Users had to be careful, however. Letters which survive in the Cameronian Archive show one officer advising that the prints taken by Davidson, Money and others – the cameras were shared around - should only be sent back under plain cover, an indication that not everyone in the Army was happy with the Cams’ photographic hobby. But the regiment, stuffed full of recalcitrant Glaswegians, ran to its own rules. My grandfather, a minister’s son from Montrose, had only joined the Royal Army Medical Corps because it provided a better salary for a newly-trained doctor than Britain’s pre-NHS hospital system. But he clearly enjoyed the licence it gave, as a doctor could roam freely beyond the trenches in a way regimental officers could not, and my grandfather liked to take pictures as he walked.

The 300 plus photographs he and Money took are fascinating as much for what they don’t depict as what they do. They were clearly taken initially as proof of involvement, evidence that as individuals they were taking part in an event that had claimed the world’s attention. Then, as the war worsened, the pictures become acts of memorial, testament to the conditions they all shared, remembering and celebrating friends that may soon be lost. They are also acts of wilful self-determination, on a battlefield where most felt powerless to decide anything.

There are, noticeably, very few photographs of actual fighting – because men were rather busy then – and hardly any pictures of dead bodies, or wounded soldiers. That is not what they wanted to remember. By contrast there are countless shots of muddy fields, flooded trenches, shell-blown trees, gimcrack shelters, odd equipment and frozen soldiers standing around steaming kettles in appalling, snowy conditions.

Fred Davidson, with red cross armband, on retreat from Mons, August 1914 (photo by Robert Money)

There are also relaxed portraits of smiling officers, posed on horses, draped on guns, leaning on trench walls, grouped seated and standing, or just smoking cigarettes in desolate villages with blown-apart churches. Occasionally, the pictures show blank-faced refugees loading carts, astonished at the war’s savagery, but news reportage was not the focus of the Cams’ interest. They wanted to remember their mates.

It couldn’t last. There was a half-hearted official attempt to ban all cameras at the front during that first Christmas of 1914. The Cams seem to have ignored that, just as many were ignoring the ban on keeping diaries, but gradually the British Army’s stipulation was enforced with rigour – understandably, when you think of the information that could be gleaned by the enemy from photographs of equipment, armaments and positions.

My grandfather, one of the first doctors to win the Military Cross in the war, was eventually wounded in March 1915 and shipped back to hospital in Britain. He never returned to the regiment - he was promoted up to run a field ambulance and rarely took photographs in the front line again. The Cams also reined back, after Robert Money was transferred to their 2nd battalion, which had suffered severe losses in the Battle of Neuve Chapelle, also in March 1915. Shortly after that, the British Army, unnerved by newspapers offering substantial cash prizes for the best amateur war photographs, agreed to allow official photographers at the front to quell the demand.

Before he left the Cams, my grandfather took one photograph which became a favourite. It shows an older officer, Major Graham ‘Bull’ Chaplin, washing and dressing in a muddy trench outside Armentieres. Forty-one year old Bull – so-called because of his stubborn determination - was an experienced fighter, having served in the Afghan wars of 1897. He went on to lead the battalion after Robertson was promoted away. He became the longest-serving frontline infantry officer of the war, a much-loved leader whose promotion was held back after he queried staff officers’ orders at the Battle of Loos, and consequently saved the lives of hundreds of his men.

The picture of Chaplin, staring implacably back at my grandfather that cold winter morning, was published in Fred's War. A month after publication, I got an email out of the blue from Chaplin’s grandson, saying how thrilled he was to see the photograph. He added that the family had kept the 650 letters written by their grandfather almost daily to his wife over the course of the war and would I be interested in reading them? They told another extraordinary story, and formed the basis of my next book, The Invisible Cross, published earlier this year.

The Cameronian regiment went on to provide 27 battalions to the First World War, losing 7,000 men, and fighting with distinction at Loos, the Somme, Ypres, Passchendaele and Cambrai. In the Second World War they fought in India, Burma and the Middle East. The regiment was disbanded in 1968, after it declined to be amalgamated with another Lowland regiment. The Cams were, it seems, independent to the end.

By Andrew Davidson

Fred's War: A Doctor in the Trenches

The Invisible Cross: One frontline officer, three years in the trenches, a remarkable untold story

The Cameronian Regimental Archive is held by South Lanarkshire County Council at the Low Parks Museum in Hamilton. It is open to the public.

Major Graham Chaplin dressing in trenches outside Armentieres, 1915 (photo by Fred Davidson)

Major Graham Chaplin dressing in trenches outside Armentieres, 1915
(photo by Fred Davidson)

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