Left: Xmas Day soldier with mistletoe and dog, Bois Grenier 1914, Copyright Andrew Davidson, Right: Lt. Rooke with shell embedded in tree, Bac Saint-Maur, November 1914, Copyright South Lanarkshire Council
Fred Davidson was a doctor and amateur photographer who accompanied the 1stCameronians, part of the British Expeditionary Force, to France in August 1914 at the start of World War One. These photographs, shot by Davidson and fellow officers in the first eight months of the war, are drawn from his albums. They form a rare account of the early fighting, when cameras were banned and picture takers struggled with the reality of what they were witnessing and what they might show.
The Cameronians, a Scottish regiment drawn from Glasgow and surrounding areas, had a long history of taking photographs, stretching back almost to the invention of the camera. Davidson’s early photographs with the regiment show officers studying albums before the war starts. By that stage, the development of smaller, folding ‘Vest Pocket’ cameras by American manufacturers such as Kodak and Ansco had further popularised photography, and many solders were keen to document their involvement in what they thought would be a short war.
The British Army, however, was worried about the consequences of photographs falling into enemy hands and initially discouraged and then banned the carrying of cameras at the front. The 1stCameronians were the only battalion in the British Expeditionary Force to flout the ban regularly and photograph what they saw around them in the initial stages of the war.
Davidson, a prize-winning student from Edinburgh University’s famous medical school, had enrolled in the Royal Army Medical Corps in 1912 and been sent to the battalion as medical officer shortly before the outbreak of war. A keen photographer, he joined other camera enthusiasts in the regiment – including Lieutenant Robert Money whose pictures became widely circulated – in documenting their daily struggles.
The photographs taken in France and Belgium from August 1914 onwards initially appear snapshots of a group of friends in extraordinary times, as the British Expeditionary Force is first pushed back by the German Army, then attempts to outflank it in a drive to the coast. Once the front settles into prolonged trench warfare, the photographs become increasingly journalistic, as the Cameronians seek to show an audience back home the difficult conditions in which they are fighting.
Demand from newspapers, including cash rewards for best amateur shots, also encourage the Cameronians to sell their photographs, leading the Army to reiterate its ban on the carrying of cameras at the front – which the regiment ignores. Eventually, by mid-1915, the ban is rigorously enforced, all cameras removed, and official press photographers sent in to provide a censored, visual account for newspapers who have found the war an essential sales tool.
Davidson, 25, became one of the first doctors to win the Military Cross in World War One. He was later wounded, treating a soldier in No Man’s Land, in March 1915, and shipped back to hospital in Folkestone, where he took photographs of the nurse who would later become his wife. He returned to France to work in a dressing station near Bethune, before commanding the 74th Field Ambulance, but he never took photographs of the conflict again. After the war he left the Army to run a GP practice in Camberley, Surrey, but he kept three albums of photographs, documenting his time with the 1stCameronians. The same albums were held by many officers in the battalion, survivors who shared their photographs after the conflict and memorialised their first year of war, and the friends they had lost.
The photographs have been chosen by writer Andrew Davidson, whose book Fred’s War tells the story of his grandfather and the albums. He will be giving a talk about the Cameronian images on 14 June, 2pm. The display will provide a counterpoint to Der Krieg, a suite of etchings made by Otto Dix after the war in Gallery 2.