Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in the Great War

Doyle was of course too old to serve in the Great War: he was 55. But in his autobiography Memories and Adventures (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1924) he showed that he was perfectly willing to play an active part. He was living at Crowborough in Sussex at the time, which is close to Royal Tunbridge Wells.

He writes in Chapter 27:

On August 4, when war seemed assured, I had a note from Mr Goldsmith, a plumber in the village: “There is a feeling in Crowborough, that something should be done.” This made me laugh at first, but presently I thought more seriously of it. After all, Crowborough was one of a thousand villages, and we might be planning and acting for all. Therefore I had notices rapidly printed. I distributed them and put them at road corners, and the same evening (August 4) we held a village meeting, and started the Volunteers, that grew to about 200000. […] We named ourselves the Civilian Reserve. […]. For the time being I took command… I had notified the War Office what we had done and asked for official sanction… I received requests for our rules and methods from 1,200 towns and villages… For about a fortnight all went well. We drilled every day, though we had no weapons. At the end of that time there came a peremptory order from the War Office: “All unauthorized bodies to be at once disbanded.” […] The company was on parade. I read out the telegram and then said : “Right turn! Dismiss!” With this laconic order the Civilian Reserve dissolved forever.”

But the War Office rethought its attitude towards the kind of citizen activity that Doyle describes.

We, the Crowborough body, now became the Crowborough Company of the Sixth Royal Sussex Volunteer Regiment. That we were the first company in the country was shown by the “Volunteer Gazette” when a prize was awarded for this distinction. Under its new shape Captain St Quintin, who had been a soldier, became our leader, and Mr Gresson and Mr Drice, both of them famous cricketers, our lieutenants. Goldsmith was one of the sergeants, and I remained a full private for four years of war, and an extra half-year before we were demobilized. […] Our drill and discipline were excellent, and when we received our rifles and bayonets we soon learned to use them, nor were our marching powers contemptible when one remembers that many of the men were in the fifties or even in the sixties. It was quite usual for us to march from Crowborough to Frant, with our rifles and equipment, to drill for a long houe in a heavy marshy field, and then to march back, singing all the way. It would be a good 14 miles, apart from the drill.” […] The spirit was excellent, and I am sure that if we had had our chance we should have done well in action. But it was hard to know how to get the chance save in case of invasion. … No doubt our presence enabled the Government to strip the country of regular troops far more than they would have dared otherwise to do. […] 

I found the life of a private soldier a delightful one. To be led and not to lead was most restful, and so long as one’s thoughts were bounded by the polishing of one’s buttons and buckles, or the cleansing of one’s rifle, one was quietly happy. […]

I remember a new adjutant arriving and reviewing us. When he got opposite to me in his inspection, his eyes were caught by my South African medal. “You have seen service, my man,” said he. “Yes sir,” I answered. He was a cocky little fellow who might well have been my son so far as age went. When he had passed down the line, he said to our C.O., St. Quintin. “Who is that big fellow on the right of the rear rank?” “That’s Sherlock Holmes,” said C.O. “Good Lord!” said the adjutant. “I hope he does not mind ‘My manning’ him!” “He just loves it,” said St. Quintin, which showed that he knew me…

The government had other ideas as to what writers could do for the war. On 2 September 1914, Doyle and more than twenty other writers (including J.M. Barrie, Thomas Hardy, and H.G. Wells) were invited to Wellington House, the headquarters of the new Propaganda Bureau, in Buckingham Gate. There was another meeting a fortnight later. An immediate consequence was that Doyle wrote a penny pamphlet justifying the war: To Arms!

I am not clear whether this also was a consequence of the Wellington House meeting, but Doyle did spend a good part of the Great War writing its history. Doyle’s The British Campaign in France and Flanders was in six volumes, with the first volume being published as early as 1914. (The page references below come from the second edition, published by Hodder and Stoughton in 1916.) He had a clear concept of the importance of Empire and of Britain’s strategic position: “Of every five loaves in the country four come to us from abroad, and our position in meat is no better… We have little to fear from a raid, nothing from invasion, everythnig from interference with our commerce” (41). But his researches on earlier British history, for his historical novels, enabled him to put the war in some kind of perspective. “The bulk of the British Expeditionary Force passed over to France under cover of darkness on the nights of August 12 and 13, 1914… It is doubtful if so large a host has ever been moved by water in so short a time in all the annals of history” (50).

Doyle was proud of his achievement as an historian, and to a large extent regarded it as his war effort, even if it did not have the impact which he hoped for:

 “I had no help but only hindrance from the War Office… Of course, I was bowdlerized and blue-pencilled by censors, but still the fact remains that a dozen great battle-lines were first charted by me. … For the moment war literature is out of fashion, and my war history, which reflects all the passion and pain of those hard days, has never come into its own. I would reckon it the greatest and most undeserved literary disappointment of my life if I did not know that the end is not yet and that it may mirror those great times to those who are to come.”

When not involved in research, which he did as systematically as he could (using his contacts in high places as frequently as he could), he carried on in his role as a private, and his family all became involved in the war too.

“Everyone found themselves doing strange things. I was not only a private in the Volunteers, but I was a signaller and I was for a time number one of a machine gun. My wife started a home for Belgian refugees in Crowborough. My son was a soldier, first, last, and all the time. My daughter Mary gave herself up altogether to public work, making shells at Vickers’ and afterwards serving in a canteen.”

At times Private Doyle was making a real contribution to the war: guarding German POWs, for instance. Once he encountered from prisoners from Wurtemburg (i.e. Württemberg).

“I asked the Wurtemburgers how long they had been prisoners. They said, “Fourteen months.” “Then,” said I, “you were taken by the Canadians at Ypres upon such and such a date.” They were considerably astonished, since I was simply a second-line Tommy from their point of view. Of course, I had the details of the war very clearly in my mind, and I knew that our one big haul of Wurtemburgers had been on that occasion. To this day they must wonder how I knew.”

Later on, as described in chapter 28 of his Memoirs, he was called on to play a rather more exalted role than that of a volunteer private. Lord Newton called him to the Foreign Office in 1916, and asked him if he would write about the Italian army. Doyle said he could not do this, as he had no experience even of the British front. Newton offered to let him visit the front, and asked him what uniform he could wear. “I am a private in the Volunteers.” “I think you would be shot at sight by both armies.”

“I am a deputy lieutenant of Surrey,” said I. “I have the right to wear a uniform when with troops.” … “I went straight off to my tailor, who rigged me up in a wondrous khaki garb which was something between that of a Colonel and a Brigadier, with silver roses instead of stars or crowns on the shoulder straps. As I had the right to wear several medals, including the South African, the general effect was all right, but I always felt a mighty impostor. […] Quite a number of officers of the three nations made inquiry about my silver roses. A deputy-lieutenant may not be much in England, but when translated into French—my French, anyhow—it has an awe-inspiring effect, and I was looked on by them as an inscrutable but very big person with a uniform all of his own.”

When he had his weird uniform made, he also had matching uniforms made for his two sons, aged five and seven: there is a delightful photograph of the three of them in Martin Booth’s biography of Doyle.

Doyle met various senior officers behind the lines in both France and Italy on his tour, which he undertook in May and June 1916. On one day’s visit he commented:

“The crowning impression which I carried away from that wonderful day was the enormous imperturbable confidence of the Army and its extraordinary efficiency in organization, administration, material, and personnel. […] Everywhere and on every face one read the same spirit of cheerful bravery. Even the half-mad cranks whose absurd consciences prevented them from warring the way to the devil seemed to me to be turning into men under the prevailing influence. I saw a batch of them, neurotic and largely bespectacled, but working with a will by the roadside.” 

He met up with both his brother (at that point Assistant Adjutant-General of the 24th Division) and his son.

“As we swung into the broad main street of a village—Mailly, I think, was the name—there was a tall young officer standing with his back turned. He swung round at the noise of the car, and it was my boy Kingsley with his usual jolly grin upon his weather-stained features. […] We had an hour’s talk in a field, for there was nowhere else to go. He was hard and well and told me that all was nearly ready for a big push at the very part of the line where his battalion, the 1st Hampshires, was stationed. This was the first intimation of the great Somme battle, on the first day of which every officer of the Hampshires without exception was killed or wounded. I learned afterwards that before the battle for ten nights running Kingsley crept out to the German wire and stuck up crosses where he found the wire uncut, which were brown towards the enemy and white towards the British, as a guide to the gunners. He lay on his face sometimes with the machine gunners firing just above him. For this service Colonel Palk thanked him warmly and said that he should certainly have a decoration, but Palk and both majors were killed and no recommendations went forward. Two shrapnel bullets in the neck were all Kingsley got out of the battle, and two months on his back in a hospital. However, he was not a medal hunter and I never heard him complain, nor would he wear his wound badges until he was compelled.”

Kingsley Doyle was sent back to England in the first week of July 1916; he spent several months recovering, being posted to the 3rd Reserve Battalion on 22 October, and not sent back to France until 28 January 1917.

Doyle explains that he had recommended the idea of wound badges to the War Office, so that people could recognise the sacrifices that troops had made, even if they were not being recommended for medals for conspicuous valour.

Doyle met a number of French generals. On of them was General Humbert, who

“once to my horror fixed me with his hard little eyes and demanded: “Sherlock Holmes, est-ce qu’il est un soldat dans l’armée anglaise?” The whole table waited in an awful hush. “Mais, mon general,” I stammered, “il est trop vieux pour service.” There was general laughter, and I felt that I had scrambled out of an awkward place.”

When Doyle got home, he wrote his last Holmes story, in which the aged Holmes unmasked a German spy. “His Last Bow” was published in The Strand in September 1917.

Doyle made one more visit to the Western Front, in September 1918, at the invitation of the Australian High Command. He addressed Australian soldiers at the front, and on 29 September he watched the 3rd British Army Corps, in which his brother Innes was Lieutenant-Colonel John Francis Innes Hay Doyle, DSO, CMG, team up with the American 27th and 30th divisions to attack the Hindenburg line. He returned to England at the beginning of October.

Doyle’s brother-in-law Malcolm Leckie had been killed early in the war; Doyle had organised seances in late 1914 trying to contact him. But Doyle’s greatest personal losses came towards the end of 1918. Doyle’s son Kingsley had been wounded at the Battle of the Somme, returned to France in January 1917, resigned his commission 25 January 1918 (returning to medical school in London), but succumbed to the pan-European influenza epidemic, dying on 28 October 1918. Doyle’s brother Innes died of the same thing four months later, on 19 February 1919, in Belgium, having by then attained the rank of Brigadier General. It is not surprising that Doyle’s activities in 1919 consist largely of lecturing on “Death and the Hereafter” and various aspects of spiritualism, in Scotland and throughout England.

I have largely relied on Doyle’s autobiography for the above; but Brian W. Pugh, A Chronology of the Life of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, May 22nd 1839 to July 7th 1930 (revised and expanded edition) (London: MX Publishing, 2012) has been very useful.


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