A great war correspondent reports from the Great War
Richard Harding Davis is well regarded as a writer of fiction, but it is for his work and writings as a journalist—particularly when covering the battle front—that posterity has awarded him the accolade ‘the first famous American war correspondent.’ Davis’ first experience as a war correspondent was during the Spanish-American War and he later covered the Boer War in South Africa. The outbreak of the Great War saw him travelling to Europe and once there his pursuit of the story and vital information propelled him through many theatres of the conflict. The passage of time filters away those who have experienced momentous events until the few who are remembered are those who have left a written record. Each account is beyond value when their number is finite, but occasionally we are blessed not only with an invaluable account but also a fine author to convey it. By this time Davis had perfected his craft and these two books brought together by Leonaur for good value demonstrate that perfectly. They are augmented here with some of Davis’ letters sent during the Great War. This was to be Davis’ last campaign on returning home to New York he fell ill and died suddenly in 1916 aged just 52 years old. Available in softcover and hardback with dust jacket for collectors.
In northern France there are many buried towns and villages. They are buried in their own cellars. Arras is still uninterred. She is the corpse of a city that waits for burial, and day by day the German shells are trying to dig her grave. They were at it yesterday when we visited Arras, and this morning they will be hammering her again.<br>
Seven centuries before this war Arras was famous for her tapestries, so famous that in England a piece of tapestry was called an arras. Now she has given her name to a battle—to different battles—that began with the great bombardment of October a year ago, and each day since then have continued. On one single day, June 26, the Germans threw into the city shells in all sizes, from three to sixteen inches, and to the number of ten thousand. That was about one for each house.<br>
This bombardment drove 2,700 inhabitants into exile, of whom 1,200 have now returned. The army feeds them, and in response they have opened shops that the shells have not already opened, and supply the soldiers with tobacco, postcards, and from those gardens not hidden under bricks and cement, fruit and vegetables. In the deserted city these civilians form an inconspicuous element. You can walk for great distances and see none of them. When they do appear in the empty streets they are like ghosts. Every day the shells change one or two of them into real ghosts. But the others still stay on. With the dogs nosing among the fallen bricks, and the pigeons on the ruins of the cathedral, they know no other home.<br>
As we entered Arras the silence fell like a sudden change of temperature. It was actual and menacing. Every corner seemed to threaten an ambush. Our voices echoed so loudly that unconsciously we spoke in lower tones. The tap of the captain’s walking-stick resounded like the blow of a hammer. The emptiness and stillness was like that of a vast cemetery, and the grass that had grown through the paving-stones deadened the sound of our steps. This silence was broken only by the barking of the French seventy-fives, in parts of the city hidden to us, the boom of the German guns in answer, and from overhead by the aeroplanes. In the absolute stillness the whirl of their engines came to us with the steady vibrations of a loom.<br>
In the streets were shell holes that had been recently filled and covered over with bricks and fresh earth. It was like walking upon newly made graves. On either side of us were gaping cellars into which the houses had dumped themselves or, still balancing above them, were walls prettily papered, hung with engravings, paintings, mirrors, quite intact. These walls were roofless and defenceless against the rain and snow. Other houses were like those toy ones built for children, with the front open. They showed a bed with pillows, shelves supporting candles, books, a washstand with basin and pitcher, a piano, and a reading-lamp.<br>
In one house four stories had been torn away, leaving only the attic sheltered by the peaked roof. To that height no one could climb, and exposed to view were the collection of trunks and boxes familiar to all attics. As a warning against rough handling, one of these, a woman’s hat-box, had been marked “Fragile.” Secure and serene, it smiled down sixty feet upon the mass of iron and bricks it had survived.<br>
Of another house the roof only remained; from under it the rest of the building had been shot away. It was as though after a soldier had been blown to pieces, his helmet still hung suspended in mid-air.<br>
In other streets it was the front that was intact, but when our captain opened the street door we faced a cellar. Nothing beside remained. Or else we stepped upon creaky floors that sagged, through rooms swept by the iron brooms into vast dust heaps. From these protruded wounded furniture—the leg of a table, the broken arm of a chair, a headless statue.<br>
From the débris we picked the many little heirlooms, souvenirs, possessions that make a home. Photographs with written inscriptions, postcards bearing good wishes, ornaments for the centre-table, ornaments for the person, images of the church, all crushed, broken, and stained. Many shop-windows were still dressed invitingly as they were when the shell burst, but beyond the goods exposed for sale was only a deep hole.<br>
The pure deviltry of a shell no one can explain. Nor why it spares a looking-glass and wrecks a wall that has been standing since the twelfth century.<br>
In the cathedral the stone roof weighing hundreds of tons had fallen, and directly beneath where it had been hung an enormous glass chandelier untouched. A shell loves a shining mark. To what is most beautiful it is most cruel. The Hôtel de Ville, which was counted among the most presentable in the north of France, that once rose in seven arches in the style of the Renaissance, the shells marked for their own.<br>
And all the houses approaching it from the German side they destroyed. Not even those who once lived in them could say where they stood. There is left only a mess of bricks, tiles, and plaster. They suggest the homes of human beings as little as does a brickyard.