Fred's War by Andrew Davidson

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Fred's War by Andrew Davidson

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Category: History
Rating: 3.5/5
Reviewer: Margaret Young
Reviewed by Margaret Young
Summary: A priceless treasure trove of photographs following the same group of men, but a very dry and academic text, much of which will already be very familiar to any reader with an interest in the history of this period.
Buy? Maybe Borrow? Yes
Pages: 320 Date: October 2013
Publisher: Short Books Ltd
ISBN: 978-1780721811

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Fred's War is the story of the 1st Cameronians actions in the 1st world war from 1914 -1915. The pictures themselves tell their own story. They show the happy young and carefree faces become gaunt, lined and battle-worn as the war progresses, although there is still laughter at times. The simple warmth of a roaring fire brings such obvious pleasure, that in a way the joy itself is heart-breaking. Photos like this make one wonder however they ever coined the name The Great War. This looks anything but great. It shows the desolation of ploughed fields which should have been planted to provide nourishment, instead yielding only a harvest of death and despair. It shows men wading in water nearly to their knees or scurrying like animals in the muck. The pictures show the true horror of trench warfare in a way words can not, but thankfully they show only the lulls between battles. There are no scenes of horror as men are blown to bits. I think the men of this time had too much respect to photograph comrades in the throes of death, or in agony with wounds. This is not the horror of the battlefield or the immediate aftermath, but instead of mind-numbing cold, hunger and filth - of living conditions so bleak death itself might not seem such a bad option. But it isn't all doom and gloom. There are happier scenes as Fred is an officer and billeted comfortably at times. There is also the delight of a death narrowly missed and simple scenes of camaraderie.

For all that I found these pictures fascinating, I had a very difficult time completing this book. Had I not committed myself to reviewing it, I most certainly never would have finished it. The difficulty with this book stems from the fact that the author did not ever have the chance to know his grandfather, whom this book is written about. There was no journal to accompany the photos, nor letters. He did not even have any families stories to go by, as apparently Fred never discussed the war after his return. The author had the photos, but very little else from which to form a story. Instead he was forced to rely on the military records of the regiment's activities, books on military medicine such as Fighting Fit medicine and war in the 20th century and more general books on the conflict. The author's attention to detail is, to the best of my knowledge, scrupulous. I can not find any historical inaccuracies whatsoever, and I doubt that any will be found. This is very well written from an academic point of view.

My problem with the book stems in part from the fact that I have already read a number of general books on the subject. The description of filth and lice and other such living conditions are all common knowledge. Much of the book is pure speculation, using other published resources to fill in the blanks, such as the musing of Fred on the signs of a broken bone while he attends a patient, the doctor repeating instructions on cutting the clothing rather than pulling it off of a wounded limb to himself as he works etc... This book is quite informative, especially if you have a personal interest in the Cameronians, but it lacks the personal touch, no matter how valiantly the author has struggled to insert it. I found this had more in common with reading a text book than reading a biography. It was educational, but not at all entertaining. I also found the use of foul language at one point unnecessary and out of place.

Despite this, I am glad to have this book, and very glad that it has been published. I can only applaud the author for his dedication to the memory of a Grandfather he never knew - and his efforts to ensure these historical resources were preserved. To have so many photos showing the same faces as time passes is invaluable. It is shame the book ends in 1915, with the last of the available photographs, but even so this is a small part of history captured forever in black in white. If have a strong interest in wartime photography, this book is a must have. Likewise if you happen to have a family connection to this particular regiment. I would also recommend this if you choose a book more for illustrations than for text. But if you are looking for a personal first-hand account of life in the trenches, I'm afraid this isn't quite it. I grew up on war stories, as I have always loved hearing veterans tell their own personal experiences. I was hoping for something like this, with a bit of the magic of storytelling woven in. But while this doesn't quite suit my tastes, it might be much more suitable for someone seeking a more academic read.

For more about this period, have a look at:

The Beauty and the Sorrow: An intimate history of the first world war by Peter Englund

The Reluctant Tommy: An Extraordinary Memoir of the First World War by Ronald Skirth and Duncan Barrett

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