When War Called, Davis Answered

The first modern war correspondent, Richard Harding Davis covered the first modern wars

There was much excitement when the Scot, bearing the American war correspondent Richard Harding Davis, docked on February 22, 1900, at Durban, South Africa. Davis was the best-known war correspondent of his time, and he was there to cover the war then being fought between Britain and the Boer South Africans. Less than two years before, he had been sent by the New York Herald to cover the Spanish-American War in Cuba, after which the United States found itself a rising imperial power. Although his novels were best-sellers, and at one time three of his plays were running simultaneously on Broadway, today Davis is almost a forgotten figure. But he is worth remembering both for the exuberance of his personality as well as for his war reporting, for both were deeply admired by his peers.

He was born in 1864 to a newspaperman father and a novelist mother. After brief sojourns at several colleges, he became a newspaper reporter. When the Spanish-American War broke out in 1898, although Theodore Roosevelt was Assistant Secretary of the Navy, Richard Harding Davis may have been more famous; in any case, the two were made for each other. More than any other war correspondent, Davis put Roosevelt and his colorful "Rough Riders" regiment of volunteers on the front page. Roosevelt, for his part, told the Associated Press that no officer in his regiment had shown more courage than correspondent Davis.

When World War I began in 1914, Davis hastened to Brussels. With his usual luck, the German Army, marching through Belgium, chose to pass within a short distance of his hotel, and in one of the classics of war reportage, he described their advance. After a number of other adventures and near escapes, his days in the front line drew to a close. Back home to see his family, he died of a heart attack on April 11, 1916, at the age of 51.

He left behind a young wife and daughter, and a reputation for a life as honorable and as vivid as his reporting. "He was as good an American as ever lived," wrote Theodore Roosevelt.

"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 the passing army.... This was a machine, endless, tireless, with the delicate organization of a watch and the brute power of a steam-roller. And for three days and three nights through Brussels it roared and rumbled, a cataract of molten lead. The infantry marched singing, with their iron-shod 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 [cavalry] followed, ...and after them the giant siege-guns rumbling, growling, the mitrailleuse with drag-chains clanking, the field pieces with creaking axles ...echoing and re-echoing from the house-front.... For three days and three nights the column of gray, with fifty thousand bayonets and fifty thousand lances, with gray transport wagons, gray ammunition-carts, gray ambulances, gray cannon, like a river of steel cut Brussels in two."

- Richard Harding Davis

Exerpted from The Reporter Who Would Be King: A Biography of Richard Harding Davis by Arthur Lubow, Charles Scribner's Sons (New York), 1992

Get the latest History stories in your inbox?

Click to visit our Privacy Statement.