Review of “The invisible cross”
by Andrew Davidson
published by Quercus Editions in 2016
my paper back copy published in 2017
ISBN 978 0 85705 427 2
369 pages plus foreword, afterword, end notes. A few small illustrations. No index.
I had never heard of this book before my wife brought home a slightly battered copy from an Oxfam bookshop. (It’s the way she keeps me quiet …). To be honest, I didn’t promote it to the top of my reading list as I have seen rather too many personal diaries, memoirs and biographies published during the recent centenary and frankly many have not been worth the effort. But my goodness this is refreshing and I believe that it is a significant addition to the historiography of the war.
The book centres on a collection of letters sent home by Graham Chaplin, an officer of the 1st Battalion, the Cameronians, mainly to his wife in the period August 1914 to September 1917. The originals are said to have come to 140,000 words. Chaplin wrote to his wife almost daily, and whenever he could not he often send a field postcard. It is such a pity that her obviously as frequent letters have not survived for we inevitably get a rather one sided conversation, but even so it is easy to follow.
The significance of the correspondence is that is provides an insight into the life of a senior regimental officer and how he was thinking. Chaplin was a bluff, no-nonsense regular pre-war officer who had spent much time in India. He went to France in command of his battalion’s “A” Company but for most of the period covered he was its commanding officer and on occasion a stand-in for his Brigadier-General. The 1st Cameronians were in the same brigade as the 2nd Royal Welsh Fusiliers, another unit that spawned one of the classics of the war in Dunn’s “The war the infantry knew”.
Despite censorship, Chaplin’s letters reveal much. He is increasingly weary, often physically unwell (in particular, he has trouble with his eyes) and evidently under great and continual strain. He looks forward and frets about going home on leave (during one period of which he fathers his second child), and when he returns he is depressed about doing so. He loses a great many of his fellow officers and the weight of strain and responsibility is most evident. Chaplin leads his unit through the early battles, Loos, the Somme and the Hindenburg Line. His remarks upon many others by name, and for anyone with an interest in his battalion or the brigade this is gold dust.
The author Andrew Davidson has produced a fine work. Not only has he selected and carefully edited the flow of letters, he has managed to weave a decent historical context narrative around them. This includes a number of transcripts from the battalion war diary. The narrative is accurate although does lean a little towards the “futility-lions-led-by-donkeys” school of thought, although particularly around the battalion’s horrific experiences at High Wood on the Somme in 1916 he can perhaps be forgiven for that.
A theme that develops in the letters concerns why Chaplin remained as a Lieutenant-Colonel as long as he did. Other, younger and less experienced men pass him by. The point is made that he was probably the longest-serving officer in his position, certainly in a front-line battalion. It is curious, for he appears to be capable and competent and he gets along well with the various brigadiers and divisional commanders under whom he works. His battalion when in action usually does well, although there is one incident in which it causes other units to fall back in some disarray. It is not until late in 1917 that Chaplin finally gets a brigade and at that point the correspondence ceases. The book hints that he was held back by something he had done or said in relation to the deployment of his battalion at Loos. This could be a good subject for deeper research.
A very good and interesting read.