Author Q & A - Andrew Davidson, The Invisible Cross

The MT veteran discovers a tin containing 650 forgotten letters from a First World War officer, painting a poignant picture of life in the trenches.

by Kate Bassett
Last Updated: 16 Sep 2016

How did you get hold of Colonel Graham Chaplin's letters?

I was approached by the family after Chaplin appeared as a character in Fred's War, the book I wrote about my grandfather's stint as a medical officer - and amateur photographer - during the First World War. I had posted a photo he had taken of 'Bull' Chaplin on Facebook, and Chaplin's great granddaughter spotted it.

Then the grandson got in touch to say they had 650 letters in a tin, written by Chaplin to his new wife over three years from the start of the war, and would I like to see them? I was bowled over by them - tiny, pencil-scrawled, intimate letters.

I really wanted to tell his story.

What makes this book different from other First World War biographies?

The Invisible Cross is not really a biography, it is a snapshot of a life lived over three years under intense pressure, told partly in my words and partly in the words of its leading character. His words are only telling a half-truth, as his letters are censored, and he must avoid details of battles and battalions.

The fun is knowing what he was leaving out: what he'd really done that day, what terrible fighting he had seen, and contrast that with the stories he tells his wife to reassure her.

Colonel Chaplin missed promotion for being too outspoken. What are the business lessons?

At Loos in 1915, Chaplin queries orders which would have sent his men to certain death. As a result, his promotion is blocked, and he is forced to continue as colonel for another two years. The most important lesson is this: if the system is dysfunctional, try and find a way to improve it, yet tread carefully - for there are always vested interests. Lobby for support, form networks, reform from below ... all of which Chaplin did, but it took time, and it almost killed him.

The Invisible Cross by Andrew Davidson is published by Heron Books (Quercus), £20.



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