Born: c. 1888
Died: 16 August 1917
Studied at the RCA: c. October 1909–1911/1912, ARCA Diploma 1913
No student file has yet been found for David. Census records reveal that his father, also David Buchan, was a Scottish-born sculptor and scenic painter living with his family in Burnley, Lancashire, at the turn of the century, while differing birthplaces noted for David (the younger) and his siblings suggest that the family may have not settled in one place for long. David had been winning local prizes for his art before the family moved to the outskirts of London, and by 1911 he was a scholarship student at the College, with the census showing he was living in Hornsey with his mother, two sisters and several of his six brothers.
David had recently married Isobel, daughter of a soldier, and was an art master at Northampton Art School when his first son was born little more than two weeks after war was declared. A year later with another baby boy only a couple of months old, he volunteered for the Royal Army Medical Corps. Even though enlistment at the time was primarily aimed at single men, he may have felt it was his duty, or was simply keen to join, having been a volunteer with the 7th Battalion (Territorial Force) of the Middlesex Regiment in the previous few years. By the end of October 1915 he was serving as a private in T (Territorial) Company, the 134th Field Ambulance. In February 1916 he was promoted to sergeant as the unit left for France.
Field Ambulances were medical units, not vehicles. They were the first to receive ill and wounded soldiers in what was known as the chain of evacuation. The RAMC, while not carrying arms or ammunition, were nonetheless often in danger, coming under enemy fire – accidental or otherwise. They were also equally susceptible to the diseases that afflicted soldiers arriving from dirty, cramped and damp conditions. And it was illness that caused David’s evacuation to England in August 1916 during the Battle of the Somme. He was suffering from what was first noted as myalgia, then as influenza, while the eventual diagnosis was trench fever – a debilitating illness first formally described during the war.
David seems to have recovered by November, embarking in December for Basruh (Basra) in Mesopotamia, ready to join the 39th Field Ambulance. But having arrived in March, he went on to have several spells in hospital, with at least one stay put down to sand-fly fever – although he could have been suffering a relapse of trench fever: it was later realised this could happen several months, or even years, after it was first contracted. By June, in temperatures that made continuing military action unlikely, he was described as a ‘mental patient’ and invalided to India. Looking back over a century, it is still impossible not to be saddened by such a description, and wonder what treatment he would have received, knowing that the intention of military medicine was to return patients to active service as soon as possible.
A couple of months later, on the last leg of the return voyage of a hospital ship to England via Cape Town, David is recorded as a ‘Suicide at sea’ – he had jumped overboard.
Somewhat surprisingly, it was only after the war that the link was made between trench fever and body lice, those detested close companions of the destitute, homeless and soldiers in the field.
David is commemorated on Basra’s War Memorial in Iraq.