In an extract from his new book Fred’s War, Andrew Davidson captures the chaotic career of his medical officer grandfather Fred who worked in the 1st battalion, Cameronians during WWI. Here, the Cameronians find themselves digging the first trenches outside Ypres in October 1914, as the fighting settles into an uneasy stalemate.
The combination of rain and shelling turns surrounding fields into a quagmire. Fred Davidson hands his camera to an orderly and wades through the clods behind his aid post to pull out a spent casing. His pose is of a man making a memo to self – knee deep in mud, pipe clenched as always, hair matted from sweat, shell in two hands, flat northern France stretching off to grey horizon. This is how it was. I was there.
Some go no further. Lieutenant Hardinge, newly arrived, shakes Corporal Eady awake in his trench. No response. So he lights a match low only to see blood-matted hair. Sniped. Eady had died the previous evening, and slumped, presumed sleeping.
Brigade HQ insists on daytime patrols to probe the German strength and position. This is lieutenants’ work – one reason why their lifespan was shortened in trench warfare. Hill, Newman, and Rooke are sent out with a platoon each, crawling up to the German line. The top brass suspect the enemy is pulling back by day, leaving only snipers to harass the British line. If they are wrong, it could be a suicidal task for the patrols.
Hill expresses his misgivings to C Company’s Captain Ritchie, who agrees the insistence on a whole platoon jeopardises everyone. Four men would do, no need for 25. They devise a plan to put most of the men on the flank, to provide covering fire – so as not to disobey the order – while Hill and three others crawl forward.
Eventually 20 men prepare to slip out, removing all unit insignia, ditching their packs, donning balaclavas, stuffing 40 rounds apiece in their pockets. They crawl up a ditch towards the German line, finding a trip-wire of tins in front of an enemy listening post. Pelt the wire with clods of earth. Tin hit. Nothing happens, so in they go, sliding over the side into the empty listening post, then slowly, softly forward into the enemy trench. It too is empty.
Now they hear rifle fire to their left, so back out of the trench, squirm down the ditch, head home. On their way, they stumble across a wounded Cameronian lying concealed in a shell hole. He has hidden there since their first night. Hill sends word back for stretcher bearers, they crawl up the ditch, but now the Germans know, and are flooding the trench. Firing is continuous, rifle bullets sending up spouts of earth like exhalations of brown air. The bearers roll the wounded man onto a stretcher but cannot move, pinned down with the likelihood of a German patrol now coming after them.
So they must knee-shuffle, nose to the earth, stopping and starting, half-dragging, half pushing the stretcher, until they get back safely. Later Hill is summoned to Brigade HQ to report what he saw. The HQ, 400 yards behind the front, is in one of a clutch of devastated cottages strung along La Boutillerie road, and has had every door nailed shut, planks across the top half, bottom panel kicked in for access – so entry to each room can only be accomplished by crawling. It is designed to stop a rushed assault, but as Hill notes, it makes for an undignified way of entering.
Fred at work
Fred has a shallow dug-out for an aid post. He clears space to work on the man brought in, compound fracture left leg, bone protruding. He never trusts bones. He remembers those drawings of breaks in Thomson’s. Or was it Milroy’s? Fothergill’s? The yards of textbooks a doctor must work through. And all those ways to break a leg. Transverse, oblique, spiral, stellate, wedge, greenstick, impacted…
The soldier on the table is calm now, opiated, exhausted. The orderly has cut the trouser leg off, and Fred cleans the wound, thinking, remembering, always the words while he works.
It may be known that a bone is broken by the following signs: 1. Pain. 2. Loss of power. 3. Alteration in shape. 4. Unnatural mobility. 5. Crepitus – when handled there is generally a grating sensation. 6. Swelling of the limb is generally present. 7. The patient may have experienced a sensation of sudden snap or giving-way of the bone.
Well, he is not up to asking, just deal with it, mutters Fred.
A bone has its blood vessels just as any other portion of the body; it must not be looked on as a hard bloodless, structure, but as a portion of the living body which is itself alive.
He has so much now stored away that ransacking his brain is like running down library shelves, looking for the right volume. But for this work, for medicine, where whole encyclopaedias must be memorised, it helps. If he were a minister, it would be the Bible, and all those books of biblical studies that his father pored over. His father who wanted him in the church too – his brother Bertie wouldn’t, brother Jack ran to Canada, Fred ran to Fettes on his special scholarship… that was never a school to produce ministers, it didn’t even allow ministers to teach there.
In order to allow the process of repair to proceed naturally, it is necessary that the broken ends of the bones remain completely at rest. Nature attempts to ensure this by causing pain when the limb is moved, and to assist Nature, and secure immobility, the surgeon fixes the limb in splints…
Fred always worries when the word ‘Nature’ comes into textbooks. Whose Nature? The same Nature that makes countries send these men to fight? But if we don’t fight, what will the Germans take? And you can’t run an Empire without defending it.
He has cleaned the wound, bound it, not too tight, allow for swelling, and is now strapping on a spare chair leg, wrapped in cloth, tying it in place with old bootlaces – keeping odd bits of furniture, belts, laces, cloth is his new obsession. Saves finding a dirty old rifle for the splint, or a bayonet, or a scabbard, or cutting up perfectly good table.
Under wet-wool skies and autumn drizzle the pattern is set, the Germans attacking each day from their trenches 600 yards away, and the Cameronians pushing them back. C, A, and D companies are stretched across a mile, with B in support. The main road from Le Maisnil runs through the left of C company – beside it a small farm which forms a salient in the line, jutting out into German territory, tagged ‘Ritchie’s Farm’.
Ritchie himself is up all night, reassuring his men as they lie uneasily in the trenches, wary about German movement. In his diary, he writes of the toll he is taking.
I am dead tired and beginning to see things – trees suddenly leap into the air and giant men lean over me pointing huge phantom fingers at the enemy and I wake with a start in the act of falling down, terrified lest I have betrayed my trust and been to sleep – but I have only slept a fraction of a minute standing up and with my eyes open…
The Germans return at night in vigorous sorties. On 27 October small parties charge the trenches, shouting and bugling, then pull back. Later their rifles blaze away from their own trenches as if convinced a British counter-attack is in progress. Then they stop, make chicken noises and jeer. Ritchie asks Darling for more wire to reinforce his line the next day.
By 30 October the farm is under prolonged bombardment. For two nights, enemy patrols had scouted the area, probing the rolls of barbed wire that have been hastily pulled across no-man’s-land, trying to pinpoint Cameronian positions. Orders were given not to fire, so nothing is revealed. Lieutenant Money catches the daytime bombardment on camera, a snapped tree to the right, top half dangling, the farm itself already in flames.
As darkness falls the men brace themselves for the head-on infantry attack that inevitably follows. Nothing. Then after midnight they start to hear something, movement in the distance, men whispering orders, then the bleating of sheep. Ritchie is standing on the parapet of the trench in front of the farm, listening. Behind him, the men of C Company lay out extra clips for their rifles. Ritchie has been up and down the trench, encouraging them, telling them not to fire till given the order, pulling out his revolver and joking he will shoot anyone who fires before the whistle. The men stand nervously listening to the Germans getting closer, visible now, shadowy grey figures crouching behind a flock of sheep driven in front of them. They had all heard the stories of the Germans pushing village women before them at Quevy Le Petit. In the end, there, the British had to fire.
250 yards, 200 yards, 150 yards…
Finally Ritchie blows his whistle and a cacophony of rifle and machine gun fire erupts, the dark night suddenly ablaze with flashes, the smell of cordite rising, the bleating squeals of terrified sheep.
They can hear bugles blowing and shouted commands in German as the enemy attempts to rush the trenches. None get nearer than 20 yards away before dying in the onslaught.
The Germans pull back, regroup and attack again. Beaten off, they retreat and then come a third time. Again the Cameronians shoot every German before the trenches are reached. It is a small slaughter, with few British casualties. But they include Ritchie, who is shot near the groin, shattering a leg bone while kneeling on the parapet to see if the Germans will return. His men bundle him into a shelter while the fighting continues. Hill holds his hand while shouting orders. His injury is symptomatic of the Cameronians’ lack of equipment: no trench periscopes, no flares, no hand grenades, no trench mortars. Compared to the Germans, they are ill-prepared for this form of war.
Ritchie is stretchered back to Fred’s aid post. His trouser leg is cut off, wound cleaned. Fred works hard to keep his hands out of the injury, never to touch, never to infect, handle as little as possible. In an aid post, in the mud and blood, he hasn’t time constantly to carbolic his hands.
He trusts down the line into the clearing station. They will wash the wound, with hydrogen peroxide, or boric acid, or perchloride of mercury, depending on what’s to hand and who is on duty, not his bag. He writes M and T on Ritchie’s forehead in indelible pencil to show morphine and a tourniquet have been applied, then fills in the tally, then moves on to the next man. Ritchie will live.
He doesn’t. He is sent back to the main dressing station that night, then back further by train to hospital. He dies three weeks later from infected wounds, the medical price paid for the anaerobic organisms bred by the ripe fields in which the war is fought. This is not the dry, desert sand of South Africa. This is freshly fertilised Flanders. A bullet wound can kill you weeks after you thought you had survived.
The spoils of war
German casualties now litter the wire in front of the Cameronian trenches. Attempts to bring in the wounded by stretcher bearers are halted after they come under fire from the enemy trenches. Eventually those still alive are brought in at night, including a German medical officer, shot in the stomach, who has advanced with his men. Unlike British MOs he is armed with a revolver – in defiance of the Geneva Convention. Hill lays him on a fire step. The doctor uses sign language to show the bearers how he should be bandaged, then French to ask for a capsule of morphine from his medical pack. When Hill checks later, the doctor is dead, his morphine vial almost empty. He had made his own choice, and clearly decided his wound was not something he would survive.
Fred is in his aid post when a bearer gives him the present from Hill, a beautiful, cowhide case filled with dressings, drugs and instruments – the German MO’s kit. He tells Hill later he has never seen anything so compact, or so well equipped, and he uses it from then on. He adds it to the growing pile of mementos donated by grateful soldiers, or handed on by hoarders like Hill, an obsessive keeper and filer of what is left behind. One item, a tattered pennant from the Prussian Death’s Head regiment, Fred sends back to his father in St Cyrus for safe-keeping.
The Cameronians hold the line for another fortnight – there are simply not enough troops to relieve them. Britain’s regular army is being worn away, as it struggles to hold back the Germans at the first battle of Ypres.
Luckily for the men, the enemy does not realise how thinly the line is held here. A push straight through would have claimed the coast for the Germans, blocked off supplies of troops and ammunition, set in train a second push for Paris and a possible invasion of England too.
Instead, the enemy pounds the trenches with short-barrelled howitzers day after day, but desists from full-on attacks. The Cameronians know, for now, it is a one-sided battle.
Fred’s War is published by Short Books, price £25. It contains over 200 original photographs of the Cameronians in training and at war, taken by Fred Davidson, Robert Money, and others. The photograph by Money in this extract appears by permission of South Lanarkshire Council.