The hundredth anniversary is bringing forward a fair amount of memorial for the first world war. Ranging from idiot politicians saying we should celebrate how clever the Brits were in fighting a just war against fascism 25 years early to more sober reflection on both sides of the ‘was it worth it’ divide there has also been an increase in ‘new’ documentary footage – in particular the photographs taken by the soldiers themselves have come to a kind of prominence.
BBC Four ran a Hidden Histories telling the story in a general way of the men who carried cameras (often officers as even new ‘budget’ cameras and film were not cheap) and now at the De La Warr Pavilion in Bexhill is a small, but revealing, selection of images taken by Dr Fred Davidson (some of whose photos were in that documentary I believe).
Davidson had been in the Royal Medical Corps since 1912 so he didn’t sign up in a flush of patriotism in 1914. He did his photographing in the period before the army cracked down properly on cameras and illicit photography. The selection on display covers many aspects of the war: posing for the camera, digging in in anticipation of an attack, the aftermath of a bombing and recovering after being injured. The final shot is poignant in a good way: that lovely looking nurse is the future Mrs Davidson. Their grandson is the author who has collated the images for a book and this exhibition.
My younger son was with me as I looked over the photos. He was a bit quiet and one photo in particular troubled him: a French town street with its windows blown out and buildings left in ruins. “Why did they do that?” he asked. A hard question to answer in a way that a five year old will appreciate and obviously the other photos provide no help – but they do show that whether or not one comes down to believing the war could ever be worth the cost these were real men with real lives. It may be wearisome to hear it again but it’s important that these up-close and personal records keep their place in the mind’s eye whenever we hear politicians far from any front line talking about how we should celebrate, or remember, our war dead.