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Around The World With Swash And Buckle
Newspaperman, novelist, playwright, adventurer, Richard Harding Davis was a legend in his own lifetime.
August 1967 | Volume 18, Issue 5
All through the night, like the tumult of a river when it races between the cliffs of a canyon, in my sleep I could hear the steady roar of a passing army. And when early in the morning I went to the window the chain of steel was still unbroken. As a correspondent I have seen all the great armies and the military processions at the coronations, in Russia, England, and Spain, and our own inaugural parades down Pennsylvania Avenue, but those armies and processions were made up of men. This was a machine, endless, tireless, with the delicate organization of a watch and the brute power of a steamroller. And for three clays and three nights through Brussels it roared and rumbled, a cataract of molten lead. The infantry marched singing, with their ironshod boots beating out the time. In each regiment there were two thousand men and at the same instant, in perfect unison, two thousand iron brogans struck the granite street. It was like the blows from giant pile-drivers. The Uhlans followed, the hoofs of their magnificent horses ringing like thousands of steel hammers breaking stones in a road; and after them the giant siege-guns rumbling, growling, the mitrailleuse with drag-chains clanking, the field-pieces with creaking axles, complaining brakes, the grinding of the steel-rimmed wheels against the stones echoing and re-echoing from the housefront. When at night for an instant the machine halted, the silence awoke you, as at sea you wake when the screw stops. …
For three weeks the men had been on the march and there was not a single straggler, not a strap out of place, not a pennant missing. Along the route, without for a minute halting the machine, the post-office carts fell out of the column, and as the men marched, mounted postmen collected postcards and delivered letters. Also, as they marched, the cooks prepared soup, coffee, and tea, walking beside their stoves on wheels, tending the fires, distributing the smoking food. …
It is, perhaps, the most efficient organization of modern times; and its purpose only is death.
Exceeding the limits of his German credentials in order to follow this sinister marvel out of Brussels, he was stopped and accused of spying. After a night of argument with a Prussian colonel intent on having him shot, Davis finally spoke to a more sympathetic Bavarian general, and he wriggled free, badly shaken.
Convinced that America would be drawn into the conflict, and equally convinced that we were unready, he hurried back to help organize the propaganda of preparedness. When a volunteer brigade of wealthy New Yorkers organized at Plattsburg, he joined them for a rugged four-week training course and taxed his aging heart with still-youthful enthusiasm. He began to suffer angina symptoms, but wrote them off to indigestion. When the Wheeler Syndicate again asked him to represent its newspapers, he returned to the front, first to France, then to Greece, where the battered British and French divisions were being rolled back out of Serbia. During the bitter winter of 1915 he covered the Balkan Campaign from Salonika, dressing formally for dinner promptly at six each evening, and each morning taking icy baths in his portable tub with a fine regard for ritual and a foolish disdain for a heart already weakened.
After a final tour of the western front he came home to Crossroads Farm, to Bessie and his year-old daughter, Hope. In three months he was dead of a heart attack. The war that killed his era had killed Davis.
Sixteen years later the ingénue of a popular novel would walk into Delmonico’s and fall in love with Richard Harding Davis. The irascible H. L. Mencken would concede that he was “the hero of our dreams.” A Sinclair Lewis character would imagine himself a “Richard Harding Davis hero in sunhelmet and whipcord breeks.” But Tarkington would write the best epitaph:
“Youth called to youth.… [The young] got many things from him, but above all they live with a happier bravery because of him. Reading the man beneath the print, they found their prophet and gladly perceived that a prophet… may be a gallant young gentleman. This one called merrily to them in his manly voice; and they followed him. He bade them see that pain is negligible, that fear is a joke, and that the world is poignantly interesting, joyously lovable.”