Nov 082013

On the Eve of Armistice Day and in the year before the 100th anniversary of that war to end all wars, Duncan Harley reviews Andrew Davidson’s new book which details the story of Fred Davidson, Andrew’s granddad, who against orders, took a camera to war.

fred's war cover duncan harleyAs one raised on titles such as Memoirs of an Infantry Officer, Goodbye To All That and All Quiet On The Western Front, I was excited at the prospect of viewing the First World War through the lens of a serving soldier, albeit a Medical Officer enlisted in the Cameronians.
The promise of a journal-type narrative enriched with over 250 original photographs seemed promising indeed.

Sassoon, Graves and Remarque had covered the genre almost a century ago in traditional narrative style. Indeed Philip Toynbee once described Robert Graves’s Goodbye To All That as ‘One of the best of the First World War autobiographies’.

Sassoon, of course, paints a hauntingly- beautiful picture of his experiences in the trenches.

The narrator, George Sherston, is wounded as a bullet passes through a lung when he rashly sticks his head over the parapet during the Battle of Arras in 1917. George is sent home to convalesce, and in another rash moment, arranges to have lunch with the editor of the Unconservative Weekly. The reader is left to wonder, what could possibly go wrong?

As for Remarque, day-time television channels still show the 1930’s film adaptation of his classic novel to this day. Born on 22 June 1898, he was conscripted into the German army at 18 and spent just six weeks in the trenches before being wounded by shrapnel. He was repatriated to an army hospital in Germany where he spent the rest of the war.

His classic narrative remains in print and a film for TV re-make was made in 1979, starring Waltons actor Richard (John Boy) Thomas as Paul Baumer and Ernest Borgnine as Katczinsky; it remains an unsurpassed classic.

Fred’s War has an unromantic title, probably deliberate given the rather earthy nature of the subject matter. Written by Andrew Davidson and lavishly illustrated with Fred Davidson’s actual war photographs, the narrative traces the young Fred’s path to France and his eventual return to Britain after being wounded.

The brave Fred is a newly qualified doctor from St Cyrus. His war turns out to be a great adventure. A Cameronian and later an Old Contemptible, he took pictures of his surroundings using a camera smuggled to France in a medical bag.

The narrative is full of descriptive elements many of which may be based on conjecture or on fellow officers’ journal entries of the time. On Christmas Eve the following exchange seemingly takes place,

‘Tommy, Tommy why do you not come across?’

‘Cause we don’t trust you, and you hae bin four months shooting at us’

‘Hoch der Kaiser’

‘Fuck the Kaiser’

‘Gott strafe England.’

Fred’s life in the trenches is described in some detail despite the author revealing,

He never talked about the wars he fought in and the friends he lost. But he did pass down the items that now sit in front of me: three photographic albums and a set of binoculars monogrammed FCD. He also left a framed collection of medals – now replaced by replicas, the originals having been lost to the family.”

Through the diaries and memoirs of Fred’s fellow officers we learn that, following Royal Army Medical Corp training, Fred is sent to join the Glasgow-based Cameronians (Scottish Rifles) at Maryhill Barracks. He quickly equips himself with an imported Buster Brown folding camera to augment his medical kit and begins taking portraits of fellow officers posed in the doorways and streets of Maryhill.

The images do indeed tell the story of a man despatched to war complete with a bellows camera

War breaks out after the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand in Sarajevo by the Black Hand, and in August 1914 the battalion is stationed beside the Conde-Mons Canal with orders to hold the position against the German advance at all costs.

This is actually a relief to many of Fred’s fellow soldiers who had feared being sent to Ireland to suppress the Irish unrest and defeat the Ulster Volunteers.

There follows a predictable description of the grim reality of static trench warfare, complete with blood, suffering and lice. Constant shelling, freezing conditions and trenchfoot abound. Mud, excreta and rats feasting on corpses are all around.

In terms of photographic content, this is a really interesting book. The images do indeed tell the story of a man despatched to war complete with a bellows camera. The monotone shots provide the reader with a unique insight into the day-to-day reality of what it was like to be there on the battlefield in the early part of that European war almost one hundred years ago.

The description of officers shopping for shirts and underwear defines the book well.

“Most of their kit has gone missing, cast off in the frantic retreat. Outside the railway station, they see a captured German Hussar officer marched under guard, tracked by a hostile French crowd, baying like dogs. Still no-one knows what will happen next.”

The title page proclaims: Fred’s War – A Doctor in the Trenches, an apt summary perhaps. This is after all a description of static warfare at ground zero.

In terms of historical perspective, it is perhaps a dull book. In terms of revisionist history, it says little which is new. The narrative promises much but delivers little except anecdotal diary-based material.

The strength of this book is in its images. Most have been unpublished until now and many show the same scenes then and now, a nice visual touch, allowing the reader to understand the changes in landscapes and townscapes since The Great War.

If you are a fan of the images of war, then this may be for you. If more serious history is your forte, then check out your local library in the next few months to see what else is on offer.

Andrew Davidson
Fred’s War
Short Books £25 (hardback)

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Apr 062012

At the next meeting of Aberdeen CND on Monday 10th April, Jonathan Russell, Chair of Aberdeen CND and also a member of Campaign Against the Arms Trade, will be leading a discussion on the Arms Trade. The meeting will take place at 7.30pm on the Top Floor of the Belmont Cinema, Belmont Street, Aberdeen.

The arms trade is a deadly, corrupt business. It supports conflicts and human rights abusing regimes while squandering valuable resources which could be used to deal with the many social and environmental challenges we face here on Planet Earth. It does this with the full support of governments around the world, in particular the five permanent members of the United Nations  Security Council: the United States, Russia, France, China and the United Kingdom.

These are the very countries which are meant to be our global custodians, but are in fact the very countries which are feeding global insecurity and conflict.

While very few countries sell large volumes of weaponry, the buyers are spread across the world. Other than to the five permanent UN Security Council members, the largest buyers are in the Middle East and South East Asia. The arms themselves range from fighter aircraft, helicopters and warships with guided missiles, radar and electronic warfare systems, tanks, armoured vehicles, machine guns and rifles.

The common misconception is that it is the illegal trade that is damaging, while the legal trade is tightly controlled and acceptable. However, the vast majority of arms sold around the world including those to human rights abusing governments or into areas of conflict are legal and are supported by governments. In 2007 the value of legal arms around the world amounted to 60 billion dollars. The illegal market is estimated at 5 billion dollars:  many illegal weapons end up as legal weapons.

The arms trade exists to provide weapons to those who can pay for them. What the buyers do with the arms, what political approval the sales signify, and how money could be better spent appears irrelevant to the arms companies and our governments. The UK Government’s 2010 Human Rights Annual Report identified 26 countries of concern. In that year the UK approved arms licences to 16 of these.

There’s a sense that in the past we were embarrassed about supporting defence exports. There’s no such embarrassment in this Government.

David Cameron was in the Middle East on a high-profile mission to sell arms when the democracy movement started in the Middle East. Selling arms to a country in conflict whether internal or external makes the conflict more deadly and longer lasting.
If there is tension between countries or within a country, then arms purchases are likely to increase this tension and make actual conflict more likely.

Even when conflict has ended, arms, particularly small arms, may remain in large numbers (as in Libya at present), fuelling further conflicts and/or criminal activity.

Every year the UK Government authorises the sale of arms to well over 100 countries. This is hardly surprising given that it is Government policy to vigorously support arms exports. Peter Luff, Minister of Defence Exports in the present UK Government, has stated that:

“There’s a sense that in the past we were embarrassed about supporting defence exports. There’s no such embarrassment in this Government.”

Arms companies and Government are inseparable when it comes to selling arms. The Government’s UK Trade and Investment (UKTI) department is a vital element of UK’s arms dealing. In 2008 the Government opened the Defence and Security Organisation which promotes weaponry on behalf of arms companies. There are 158 civil servants in the Defence and Security Organisation while other non-arms sectors have137 staff. This is despite arms accounting for less than 1.5 Percent of UK exports.

• Arms export jobs as a percentage of total employment:  0.2%
• Arms as a percentage of exports:  1.5 %
• UK Government Research Expenditure Spent on Arms:  27%
• UK trade and investment staff committed to selling arms:  54%

Research carried out for Campaign Against the Arms Trade (CAAT) by the Stockholm International Peace Institute assesses the level of subsidy by Government to the arms trade in the UK to be around £700 million a year.  In 2010 the UK Government issued 10,850 arms export licences, refused 230, and revoked 14.

Half of the refusals related to proliferation of Weapons of Mass Destruction, with a maximum of 76 being revoked on the grounds that they contributed to internal repression, internal conflict or regional instability. Foreign office embassies also promote the arms sales, as do the Ministry of Defence armed services. Arms fairs are common in the UK and around the world.  The governments of host countries provides support for their arms firms.

Arms sales from the UK seem to vary from year to year:

• 2007    9651 million   (particularly high because of sales of Typhoon aircraft to Saudi Arabia)
• 2008    4367 million
• 2009    7261 million also high as included Typhoon support services to Saudi Arabia)
• 2010    5819 million

Of the 16 countries identified by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute as locations of major conflict in 2009, the UK sold arms to 12.

Columnist Will Self –  “War, the arms trade and the abuse of language”

BAE arms are the UK’s main arms company and has military customers in over 100 countries. BAE’s focus over the past few years has been on increasing sales to the US, specifically targeting equipment for conflicts in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya, and supplying Euro fighters and other arms to Saudi Arabia. BAE routinely supplies countries which the UK Foreign Office considers as having ‘the most serious wide-ranging human rights concerns’.

The casualties of conflict are now overwhelmingly civilian, increasing from 50% of war related deaths in the first half of the twentieth century to 90% near the end of the century.

The arms trade affects development both through the money wasted on arms purchased and through the conflicts fuelled by arms.

A study in 2007 by Oxfam of the economic cost of armed conflict to Africa estimated that Africa  loses around 18 billion dollars a year due to wars and that armed conflict shrinks an African nations economy by 15%.

As well as the direct effects of military spending, medical costs and the destruction of infrastructure, there are indirect costs on the  economy and employment suffers ( this does not take into account the countless human misery caused by loss of life and sustained injuries effecting families and friends as well as the individuals concerned).

The study estimated that the cost  of conflicts in Africa since 1990 was equivalent to the aid provided to them by major donors.

Even when conflict is not taking place money diverted to arms is a drain on government resources and takes away from vital spending on health education and infrastructure. The massive 1998 South African arms deals for aircraft, helicopters, warships and submarines cost the country over £8billion. Yet most of the population live in shanty towns and other poor housing and South Africans with HIV/AIDS were told that the country could not afford ant-retroviral medication.

Despite desperate poverty and its recent appalling history of armed struggle, the UK government is actively promoting arms struggle to Angola. The UK government not only approved arms exports to Angola it actively organised an “industry day’’ when HMS Liverpool docked in Angola waters and hosted Angolan political and military officials.

The arms trade causes countless misery in our world; it is a poor use of limited resources which should be used to make this world a better place. We need to question the thinking in the world that believes you only get what you want by force. The five members of the Security Council should start taking on their responsibilities and use conflict resolution rather than warfare to sort the many conflicts that take place both between and within countries.

Apr 152011

Voice’s Dave Watt poses the question – “When We Talk About ‘Culling’ Deer, What Do We Actually Mean?”

What this means is that a bullet and a deer’s body are going to meet at somewhere in between 600 and 3000 feet a second.  (These are the figures for a hand gun and an assault rifle respectively).

So what does this mean for the unfortunate deer?

I obviously don’t have input from deer that have been shot previously but as I’m a) ex-army, b) have studied the subject of warfare quite a bit and c) have spoken to several doctors about it, I have a fair idea of the horrors  which occur when a body and a bullet meet at a couple of thousand feet a second.

Richard Holmes in his book ‘The Firing Line’ points out that almost all wounds become painful when the initial shock wears off and some are utterly agonising from the start. “Wounded men scream, either because of the pain itself, or in sheer panic and terror”. Lt. Edwin Campion of Royal Warwicks described the noise coming from the darkness at Passchaendale:

“On all sides  came the groans and wails of the wounded men: faint, long, sobbing moans of agony and despairing shrieks.”

Michael Herr’s description of a wounded man shot and entangled in barbed wire is equally moving:

“We heard then what sounded at first like a little girl crying”, he reported,

“a subdued delicate wailing , and as we listened it became louder and more intense, taking on pain as it grew until it became a full , piercing shriek.”

The people I’m describing here undergoing these agonies are not freaks of nature, they are people like you and me. Hit by a bullet as they were, you and I and poor old Bambi up in Tullos would cry, writhe and shriek in undignified pain just as they did.  Luckily for you and me this scenario’s pretty unlikely but I’m not so sure about Bambi.

Sounds fun, doesn’t it? I bet old Bambi and his pals can hardly wait.

As a medical friend of mine pointed out, the dreadful thing about mammals is our sensitivity to pain and the equally dreadful fact that the organisms of dying mammals cling on to life with a ghastly pertinacity.

Additionally, unlike all that nonsense that Hollywood has been spouting over the years, the agony from a wound is in almost exact proportion to the severity of the wound.

Another grisly little aside to that is that unmarried men dying in the extremes of major wound agonies tend to cry on their mothers and married men on their wives. Isn’t that a lovely little statistic to take away and keep in some dark little corner of your mind? Perhaps as Bambi lies twitching in agony on the ground with his bowels loosened (yes, that happens too) he might cough out , with the spray of arterial blood, a choked cry for his ma or the cute little doe he’s been mating with. Who knows?

Even in the unlikely event that the poor old Bambi is fortunate enough to be hit with a head shot (which, despite Hollywood, are frequently not immediately fatal either) this is still hardly an enjoyable experience as Charles Carrington at the Somme had the disconcerting experience of speaking to a corporal as the man was hit by a rifle bullet:

“He was alive and then he was dying or dead, and there was nothing human left about him. He fell with a neat round hole in his forehead and the back of his head blown out.”

While Pte Le Brun of the Canadian Army referred to a comrade being killed beside him,

“His blood and brains, pieces of skull and lumps of burning hair spattered over the front of my greatcoat and gasmask”.

Sounds fun, doesn’t it? I bet old Bambi and his pals can hardly wait.

Finally, General Sir John Hackett writing an article on World War II films for the Sunday Times pointed out the inaccuracy of the depiction of casualties in  Hollywood films where:

“If men are shot ….they fall down like children in a game, to lie motionless. The most harrowing thing in real battles is that  usually don’t lie still; only the lucky ones die outright.”