The War’s Afoot: Arthur Conan Doyle’s Military Innovations in World War I

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As Sherlock Holmes would have put it, when one has eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth. Holmes used the aphorism to solve crimes, but for his creator Arthur Conan Doyle, the surly attitudes of Germans in attendance at the 1911 International Road Competition in 1911 convinced him that the automobile competition was an indicator of the choleric temperament which was driving the Germans toward war.  However improbably it seemed, the competition, which had been organized by Prince Henry of Prussia, struck the British author as a warning of what was to come. Conan Doyle began to pay more attention to what war would look like in a new century and he was quick to realize that two new vehicles, the airplane and the submarine, were going to alter the course of the conflict. How would a submarine blockade affect the ability of food to enter Great Britain?

Arthur Conan Doyle

Arthur Conan Doyle

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Conan Doyle thought the solution was to build a tunnel between England and France so that the British would maintain contact with the European continent if war erupted. As a writer, his method of bringing up this idea was to do so in a story, Danger! Being the Log of Captain John Sirius which was published just a month before World War I broke out. The fictional account of war in which a make-believe nation called Norland used its submarines to overpower Britain had no effect on the British military’s preparation for war, but the Germans claimed that they capitalized on Conan Doyle’s idea and intended to put it into effect.

The British did not always ignore Conan Doyle.  The author was troubled by the casualties of the war, particularly the loss of 1400 sailors who drowned when three British cruisers sank in the early months of World War I. His suggestion that sailors ought to be given an inflatable rubber belt so that, if the ships went down, the loss of life could be reduced was deemed to have merit. Of course, Conan Doyle didn’t go to the military authorities first; in addition to the letter he sent to the War Office, he also wrote to the British press promoting the idea so that his suggestion would not vanish in military bureaucracy. Whether impressed by his innovative idea or coerced by media publicity, the government began to provide inflatable rubber collars, which would later evolve into what we know as lifejackets, for the navy.

Lifejacket, ca. 1900. Canvas and floatable cork. Norwegian Maritime Museum. Oslo. Norway.

Lifejacket, ca. 1900. Canvas and floatable cork. Norwegian Maritime Museum. Oslo. Norway.

Conan Doyle once again took his case to the press when he proposed that soldiers on the front lines ought to be given body armor. Like many others, the author was horrified by the number of casualties on the Western Front and after the Second Battle of Ypres, with over 65,000 British casualties, he wrote to the Times to suggest that war tactics needed to change, or soldiers needed to be provided with body armor. He sent the responses he received after his letter was published to the War Office, and was told that infantrymen who had to carry bulletproof armor in addition to their equipment, would be burdensome. The Ministry of Munitions estimated that the extra weight would be 300 pounds, which made the suggestion impractical.

Royal Armouries. Dayfield Body Shield, Heavy Model, 1916.

Credit: Royal Armouries. Dayfield Body Shield, Heavy Model, 1916.

Photo Of Adrian Malcolm Conan Doyle Holding A Knight's Helmet.

Photo Of Adrian Malcolm Conan Doyle Holding A Knight’s Helmet.

But death close to home stirred Conan Doyle to revisit his suggestion. The deaths of a brother-in-law and a nephew, following by the wounding of his son who fought in the Somme, drove Conan Doyle to his pen again. He noted that the number of head wounds had already been diminished following the addition of the steel helmet to military garb. He suggested that if assault troops carried shields, they would be safer when attacking positions that were heavily defended. Prime Minister David Lloyd George received a letter from Conan Doyle and the Secretary of War responded that he welcomed his ideas. Several months later, the Prime Minster himself answered to explain that he would discuss the suggestion with General Haig when he met with him in France, but the extra weight it would place upon soldiers remained a concern. In the spring of 1917, Conan Doyle was invited to breakfast with Prime Minister Lloyd George to discuss the body armor idea. Two months later, he was invited to attend a secret meeting to discuss the development of the body armor to protect the soldiers. When he visited the Western Front in 1918, it was not to see the addition of body armor on the troops. What he did see was an attack led by British tanks, resembling, Conan Doyle wrote, “Boadicea’s chariots.”

The patriotic Conan Doyle did more than write letters to support the war effort. At the age of fifty-five, he had tried to sign up to serve in the military and was disappointed when his offer was declined. The War Office built upon his idea of creating civilian volunteer units and Private Conan Doyle, declining the command of his unit, served in the Crowborough Company of the Sixth Royal Sussex Volunteer Regiment. Sherlock Holmes might not have been so humble, but Conan Doyle believed that his decision proved to others that when it came to defending their country, all British were equal.

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About Author

A child’s imagination is nourished by stories. For me, that love of stories as a child quickly combined with a love of history as fairy tales gave way to Nathan Hale, Elizabeth I, Constantine and so many other human landmarks of the past. Growing up in historically rich southwestern Pennsylvania inspired a passion for the tales of this country and the world beyond its borders, as I discovered that history’s cast of characters has never failed to mesmerize. The pursuit of a degree in journalism and employment as a library director merged my interests in writing and research, but always, the story remains paramount. As a writer, my goal is to fill the written word with images so that the reader is a participant in the page. If that connection takes place, then I feel that the writing has been successful.

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