[FULL DISCLOSURE: I received my copy of this book free from the author and/or publisher. I was not paid for this review and the opinion expressed is purely my own]
Andrew Davidson’s A Doctor in The Great War: Unseen Photographs of Life in the Trenches is part photographic memoir and part unit history. It catalogs the life of his grandfather, Frederick Davidson, as a Royal Army Medical Corps doctor with the 1st Battalion of the regiment of Cameronians (Scottish Rifles) as the battalion medical officer. What makes the book special is that it contains over 250 pictures taken by the author’s grandfather and other officers of the battalion both before and during the war up tot April, 1915. This is special because at the time taking pictures of British troops at the front was a court-martial offense in the British Army.
The book itself consists of 288 pages of text and photos separated into 16 thematic chapters with a note on sources at the end and most interestingly, a then and now section showing what some of the locations pictured in the book look like in the present.
The 1st Cameronians (Scottish Rifles), was part of the original BEF (the Old Contemptibles) and deployed to France in August, 1914 taking part in the Battle of Mons & le Cateau, the retreat to the Marne, and then the follow up race to the sea that culminated in 1st Ypres in October, 1914, the battles of Messines, Armentières, and Neuve Chapelle in March, 1915. Fred Davidson was with the battalion throughout until he was wounded in the hip and hand on March 13th, 1915 while trying to rescue some wounded men in no-man’s land.
The book tells the story of the battalion during this 8 month period. It chronicles the exhausting marches and countermarches during the maneuver portion of the campaign from August-October, 1914 and the time spent in and out of the trenches by the battalion from then until Fred’s wounding and evacuation. Many other officers and men of the battalion are introduced as they appear in the pictures that are liberally spaced throughout the book.
What I found most interesting was the way that trench life is painted as both unbearably boring and exciting at the same time. My own limited experience of combat bears this out. Of great import is the way in which the total exhaustion that trench warfare causes is shown on the faces of the men in the photographs. It is extremely tiring both physically and mentally to live under horrid conditions and in constant danger for days and weeks at a time and that is reflected in the photos.
Also refreshing is that this is not a work that expounds on grad strategy or the direction of the war. It is a work that reflects the snail’s eye view of the officers and men of one battalion seen through the prism of the battalion medical officer. There are other books with a similar approach but what sets this book apart are the photos that make the story come alive in ways that mere words cannot as they illustrate the hardships of life at the front but they also show men making the best of a bad situation and trying to both do their duty and keep their spirits up at the same time.
This is an excellent book. Even if I thought I was poorly written, which I emphatically do not, this book would be worth reading for the extremely rare photos of life in the BEF in 1914. I highly recommend this book to anyone interested in World War I, but particularly to those who want to see what it was like to be an “Old Contemptible” in 1914-1915.