Old Soldier’s Story - Richard Harding Davis Tries Soldiering
A novelist and journalist of considerable ability, Richard Harding Davis (1864-1916), arguably the prototypical war correspondent, was the greatest American newspaperman of his times. By 1915 he had covered the Cuban Insurrection against Spain, the Graeco-Turkish War of 1897, the Spanish-American War, the South African War (from both sides), the Russo-Japanese War, and miscellaneous minor bloodlettings as well, occasionally getting into the action himself, as he always carried a revolver along with his pad and pencil.
In Europe in August of 1914, Davis managed to spend some time with the French, the Belgians, and the Germans. Present when the Germans marched into Brussels, Davis’ accurate reporting on their atrocities – including the destruction of the Belgian city of Louvain – led to his arrest as a spy. Shortly released, Davis was expelled from the territory they controlled by the Germans, to return home.
In the summer of 1915 Davis, although already over 50, joined the Plattsburg Movement, a private military training program that had sprung up spontaneously as a result of an increasing sense among many Americans that the nation had to prepare lest it be dragged into the world war.
Although he had seen much war Davis had never actually soldiered himself, and he found basic training considerably different from merely tagging along with the armies and hobnobbing with the generals.
In a letter to his brother, he wrote,
PLATTSBURG, N. Y. |
Dear Old Man,
This is a very real thing, and strenuous. I know now why God invented Sunday. The first two days were mighty hard, and I had to work extra to catch up. I don't know a darned thing, and after watching soldiers for years, find that I have picked up nothing that they have to learn. The only things I have learned don't count here, as they might under marching conditions. My riding I find is quite good, and so is my rifle shooting. As you could always beat me at that you can see the conditions are not high. But being used to the army saddle helps me a lot. I have a steeple chaser on one side and a M. F. H. on the other, and they can't keep in the saddle, and hate it with bitter oaths. The camp commander told me that was a curious development; that the best gentlemen jockeys and polo players on account of the saddle, were sore, in every sense. Yesterday I rose at 5:30, assembled for breakfast at six, took down tent to ventilate it, when a cloud meanly appeared, and I had to put it up again. Then in heavy marching order we drilled two hours as skirmishers, running and hurling ourselves at the earth, like falling on the ball, and I always seemed to fall where the cinder path crossed the parade ground. We got back in time to clean ourselves for dinner at noon. And then practiced firing at targets. At two we were drilled as cavalry in extended order. We galloped to a point, advanced on foot, were driven back by an
imaginary enemy, and remounted. We galloped as a squadron, and the sight was really remarkable when you think the men had been together only four days. But the horses had been doing it for years. All I had to do to mine was to keep on. He knew what was wanted as well as did the Captain. After that we put on our packs and paraded at retreat to the band. Then had supper and listened to a lecture. I ache in every bone, muscle, and joint. But the riding has not bothered me. It is only hurling the damned rifle at myself. At nine I am sound asleep. It certainly is a great experience, and, all the men are helping each other and the spirit is splendid. The most curious meetings come off and all kinds of men are at it from college kids to several who are great grand fathers. Russell Colt turned up and was very funny over his experiences. He said he saluted everybody and one man he thought was a general and stood at attention to salute was a Pullman car conductor. The food is all you want, and very good. I've had nothing to drink, but sarsaparilla, but with the thirst we get it is the best drink I know. I have asked to have no letters forwarded and if I don't write I hope you will understand as during the day there is not a minute you are your own boss and at night I am too stiff and sleepy to write.
All love to you.
A few days later Davis wrote to his wife and infant daughter,
It is now seven-thirty, and I have had twelve busy hours. They made me pass an examination as though for Sing Sing, then a man gave me a gun that at first weighed eight pounds and then twenty. He made me do all sorts of things with it, such as sentries used to do to me. Then I was given the gun to keep, and packs, beds, blankets, and I made myself at home in a tent; then I was moved to another tent with five other men. Then I got a horse and they galloped us up and down a field for two hours. I lost ten pounds. Then we were marched around to a band. I had a sergeant on either side of me, so I did not go wrong, often.
Then, aching in every bone and with my head filled with orders and commands, I got into the lake and escaped. You can believe I enjoyed that bath. It certainly is a fine thing, and I am glad I enrolled (for every one has been as nice as could be), but I miss you and Hope terribly. It seems years since I saw you. I am going to my cot quick. It is now eight o'clock, and I feel like I had been beaten in a stone crusher. Kiss Hope's foot for me.
Davis never did see formal military service. Returning to France in 1916 to continue reporting on the war, he died of natural causes.