Clearing up in the town of Soissons after bombing, September 1914 (photo by Fred Davidson)

PHOTOGRAPHY IN THE TRENCHES

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

Advert in The Times, July 1914
Advert in The Times, July 1914

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 to the first year of the First World War.

Fred Davidson (right)
Fred Davidson (right)

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.

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 usually billeted with Lieutenant Robert Money, the battalion’s machine gun officer, a roguish extrovert who had twice failed his Sandhurst entrance exam and was 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.

Extracted from an article by Andrew Davidson. The full article and more of the photographs are on Engineers at War: from Home Front to Battlefront.

Archives, Institution of Mechanical Engineering

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