On June 16, 1915, Frederick Palmer, the sole American correspondent accredited to the British Expeditionary Forces, wrote of a long apprenticeship begun at the Battle of the Somme on July 1, 1916, and of how it had affected him.
“I knew the men,” he wrote. “I had seen them–lawyers, merchants, callow boys just out of college–drilling on Salisbury Plain or at Aldershot in outing caps and derby hats, learning to be officers. I had lived with them for months, so the Battle of the Somme was to me not merely a ghastly pageant of man-destruction.”
No other journalist covered so many different armies for so long or wrote with such eloquence and perception as Frederick Palmer, the subject of Nathan A. Haverstock’s outstanding biography, Fifty Years at the Front (Brassey’s, McLean, Va., 1996, $27.95). President Theodore Roosevelt called Palmer “our best war correspondent,” and critic Alexander Woolcott once declared, “I am tempted to say of Frederick Palmer that here is a gentleman who knows how to hold his hand.” Palmer was the first war correspondent to be awarded the U.S. Army’s Distinguished Service Medal.
Haverstock, an affiliate scholar at Oberlin College, Ohio, and a former Saturday Evening Post staffer, has written a thoroughly engrossing and compelling study of Palmer and his turbulent times. As Haverstock relates in detail, Palmer went in harm’s way all over the world. He covered the long-forgotten Greco-Turkish War of 1897 with Stephen Crane; the Spanish-American War with Richard Harding Davis in 1898; the Boxer Rebellion of 1900; and the Russo-Japanese War in 1904-05.
When America entered World War I on April 6, 1917, Palmer turned down a high salary for the modest pay of a major in charge of the thankless business of press censorship for his friend, General John J. Pershing. He wrote a book about the 1918 Meuse-Argonne campaign, Our Greatest Battle, which is still regarded as a classic today.
In May and June 1940, when Palmer was in his late 60s, he was at Dunkirk shortly before the British Expeditionary Force was evacuated, and while in his 70s he went to the Pacific theater. His last assignment was covering the atomic tests off Bikini Atoll in July 1946.
Palmer, as Haverstock explains, had a special gift for placing his readers at the scene and keeping himself out of it. As one critic observed, “He is a war correspondent because he likes it, and because he knows the game as few men living have mastered it.”
While Palmer recognized his job as “an occupation legendary in its romance and daring,” Haverstock concludes that there was never any hint of the glorification of war in his writings. Few correspondents have demonstrated a stronger passion for putting an end to war once and for all.