War? No One Really Knows What it Really is Until He Attempts to Travel Abroad

Richard Harding Davis

San Francisco Examiner/January 16, 1916

Fussing and Fuming for Passports; Losing Money Every Time You Exchange Good Red Gold for Money; That’s What War Does, When You Want to Go Anywhere



At home we talk glibly of a world war. But beyond speculating in munitions and as to how many Americans will be killed by the next submarine, and how many letters the President will write about it, we hardly appreciate that this actually is a war of the world, that not only in Europe, but that all over the globe, every ship of state, even though it may be trying to steer a straight course, is being violently rocked by it. Even the individual, as he moves from country to country, is rocked by it, not violently, but continuously. It is in loss of time and money he feels it most. And as he travels he learns, as he cannot learn from a map, how far-reaching are the ramifications of this war, in how many different ways it affects everyone. He soon comes to accept whatever happens as directly due to the war. Even the deck steward tells him he cannot play shuffleboard because, owing to the war, there is no chalk.


In times of peace to get to Saloniki from Paris did not require more than six days, but now, owing to the war, in making the distance we wasted fifteen. That is not counting the time in Paris required by the police to issue the passport, without which no one can leave France. At the Prefecture of Police I found a line of people—French, Italians, Americans, English—in columns of four and winding through gloomy halls, down dark stairways and out into the street. I took one look at the line and fled to Mr. Thackara, our consul general, and, thanks to him, was not more than an hour in obtaining my laisser passer. The police assured me I might consider myself fortunate, as the time they usually spent in preparing a passport is two days. It was still necessary to obtain a visa from the Italian consulate permitting me to enter Italy, from the Greek consulate to enter Greece, and, as my American passport said nothing of Serbia, from Mr. Thackara two more visas, one to get out of France and another to invade Serbia. Thanks to the war, in obtaining all these autographs two more days were wasted. In peace times one had only to go to Cook’s and buy a ticket. In those days there was no more delay than in reserving a seat for the theatre.

War followed us south. The windows of the wagon-lit were plastered with warnings to be careful, to talk to no strangers, that the enemy was listening. War had invaded even Aix-les-Baines, most lovely of summer pleasure grounds. As we passed it was wrapped in snow, the Cat’s Tooth that towers between Aixe and Chambery and that lifts into the sky a great cross two hundred feet in height, was all white, the pine trees around the lake were white, the streets were white, the Casino des Fleurs, .the Cercle, the hotels. And above each of them, where once was only good music, good wines, beautiful flowers and baccarat now droop innumerable Red Cross flags. Against the snow covered hills they were like little splashes of blood.

War followed us into Italy. But from the war as one finds it in England and France it differed. Perhaps we were too far west, but except for the field uniforms of green and the new scabbards of gun metal and at Turin four aeroplanes in the air at the same time you saw no wounded. Again, perhaps it was because we were too far south and west, and that the fighting in the Tyrol is concentrated. But Bordeaux is farther from the battle line of France than is Naples from the Italian front, and the multitudes of wounded in Bordeaux, the multitudes of women in black in Bordeaux, make one of the most appalling, most significant pictures of this war. In two days in Naples I did not see one wounded man. But I saw many Germans and German signs, and no one had scratched Mumm off the wine card. A country that is one of the allies and yet is not at war with Germany cannot claim to take this war very seriously. She even leaves herself open to suspicion.


In Naples the foreigners accuse Italy of running with the hare and the hounds. They asked what is her object in keeping on friendly terms with the bitterest enemy of the allies. Is there an understanding that after the war she and Germany will together carve slices off of Austria? Whatever her ulterior object may be, her present war spirit does not impress the visitor. It is not the spirit of France and England. One man said to me, “Why can’t you keep the Italian-Americans in America? Over there they might earn money and send millions of it to Italy. When they come here to fight not only that money stops, but we have to feed and pay them.”

It did not sound very grateful. Nor as though Italy was seriously at war. You do not find France and England, or Germany, grudging the man who returns to fight for his country, his rations and pay. And Italy pays her soldiers 5 cents a day. Many of the reservists and volunteers from America who answered the call to arms are bitterly disappointed. They expected to be led at once to the firing line. Instead, after six months, they are still in camp. The families some brought with them are in great need. They are not used to living on 5 cents a day. An Italian told me the heaviest drain upon the war relief funds came from the families of these Italian-Americans, stranded in their own country. He also told me his chief duty was to meet them on their arrival.

“But haven’t they money when they arrive from America?” I asked.

“That’s it,” he said, naively. “I’m at the wharf to keep their countrymen from robbing them of it.”

At present in Europe you cannot take gold out of any country that is at war. As a result gold is less valuable than paper, and when I exchanged my double eagles for paper I lost. But I did not really lose, for as I had turned in the gold In France I received a beautiful certificate, “suitable for framing,” which testifies that unselfishly and patriotically, as a true son of France, instead of hoarding my gold, I surrendered it to the republic.

And would I accept and perpetuate that erroneous and undeserved tribute by framing it? I would.


On the advice of the wisest young banker in France I changed, again at a loss, the French paper into Bank of England notes But when I arrived in Saloniki I found that with the Greeks English banknotes were about as popular as English troops, and that had I changed my American gold into American notes, as was my plan, I would have been passing rich. That is what comes of associating with bankers.

At the Italian frontier a French gentleman had come to the door of the compartment, raised his hat to the inmates and asked if we had any gold. Forewarned, we had not, and taking our word for it, he again raised his hat and, disappeared. But, on leaving Naples, it was not like that. In these piping times of war your baggage is examined when you depart as well as when you arrive. You get it coming and going.

But the Greek steamer was to weigh anchor at noon, and at noon all the port officials were a dejeuner, so, sooner than wait a week for another boat, the passengers went on board and carried their bags with them. It was unpardonable. It was an affront the port officials could not brook. They had been disregarded. Their dignity had been flouted. What was worse, they had not been tipped. Into the dining saloon of the Greek steamer, where we were at lunch, they burst like Barbary pirates. They shrieked, they yelled. Nobody knew who they were, or what they wanted. Nor did they enlighten us. They only beat upon the tables, clanked their swords and spoiled our lunch. Why we were abused, or of what we were accused, we could not determine. We vaguely recognized our names, and stood up, and while they continued to beat upon the tables a Greek steward explained they wanted our gold. I showed them my banknotes, and was allowed to return to my garlic and veal. But the English cigarette kin, who each week sends some millions of cigarettes to the Tommies in the trenches, proposed to make a test case of it.


“I have on me,” he whispered, “four English sovereigns. I am not taking them out of Italy, because until they crossed the border in my pocket they were not in Italy, and as I am leaving Italy one might say they have never been in Italy. It’s as though they were in bond. I am a British subject, and this is not Italian, but British gold. I shall refuse to surrender my four sovereigns. I will make it a test case.”

The untipped port officials were still jangling their swords, so I advised the cigarette king to turn in his gold. Even a Greek steamer is better than an Italian jail.

“I will make of it a test case,” he repeated.

“Let George do it,” I urged.

At that moment, in the presence of all the passengers, they were searching the person of another British subject and an ally. He was one of Lady Paget’s unit. He was in uniform, and as they ran itching fingers over his body he turned crimson, and the rest of us, pretending not to witness his humiliation, ate ravenously of goat’s cheese.

The cigarette king, breathing defiance, repeated, “I will make of it a test ease.”

“Better let George do it,” I urged.

And when his name was called, a name that is as well known from Kavalla to Smyrna in tobacco fields, sweetmeat shops, palaces and mosques as at the Ritz and the Gaiety, the cigarette king wisely accepted for his four sovereigns Italian lires.

At their rate of exchange, too.

Later, off Capri, he asked, “When you advised me to let George make a test case of it, to which of our fellow passengers did you refer?”