Irregular Observations: Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and the outbreak of war

Conan Doyle in his local defence volunteersAs War was declared in 1914, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was keen to play his part.  He volunteered for service, writing,

“Though I am 55 years old, I am very strong and hardy, and can make my voice audible at great distances which is useful at drill.”

He felt that if he volunteered at his age, others would be encouraged to do so.
The Army turned him down.

Meanwhile, he realised that Sussex, where he lived, would be on the frontline in the event of an invasion.  Approached by a number of concerned locals, he called a meeting on 4 August to discuss setting up of a local defence force.  Before long, drawing on his experience in creating civilian rifle clubs after the Boer War, he was drilling volunteers and having them dig trenches on common outside the house.  He wrote to The Times on 6 August encouraging the setting up of similar local forces.  The letter was published on 8 August:

8 August 1914
Our Latent Forces

SIR, – The future is dark and we do not know that we will not need our last ounce of strength before we are through. We can afford to neglect nothing.

Will you allow me to point out how a reserve force can be formed which will be numerically large and which if it does nothing else can relieve more mobile and trained troops for the fighting line? In a word, the suggestion is to form civilian companies of the National Reserve. There are tens and hundreds of thousands of men in this country from 35 to 55 who are often harder and fitter than their juniors, but for whom no place is found in our scheme of defence. Many of them are good shots, they are longing to help in any possible way, and they would fall into line instantly if they could only see how to do it. They would speedily become capable of guarding railways or buildings, helping to garrison fortresses or performing many other military duties.

If I may quote the example of this little town, we held our first meeting to discuss this on Tuesday, by Wednesday night we had enrolled 120 men, and to-day we start drill and practice at the butts. Many of the men are fine shots and all are exceedingly anxious to be serviceable. It is not possible for them to take on long engagements or to live out in permanent camps, but they could do much useful work and in case of a raid they would do anything.  They would form our “Landsturm.” But at present there is no organisation into which such men can be fitted. Local effort would rapidly form the various companies, but some method of common action has to be devised.

The obvious danger of such organisation is lest it should divert men from the Territorials or any other more useful branch of the Service. But to recognise the danger is to avoid it. The Reserve company would not go the length of refusing to enlist young men who cannot or will not become Territorials, but it has the constant end before it of encouraging them to go further and preparing them so that if they do join the more active Services they are already partly instructed. I am convinced that if they are properly run these civilian National Reserve companies would be not only of value in themselves but would be a stepping-stone for the younger men to take them into the fighting line.

The official organisations have so much upon them for the moment that the work can only be done by independent local effort.  But when the men are there, as in the case of the existing National Reserve, they will command attention and find some means of arming themselves. We have our own record of organisation, and I should be happy to send copies of our method to anyone who may desire to form other centres.

Yours faithfully,

Windlesham, Crowborough, Sussex, Aug. 6

He heard from some 1,200 towns and villages keen to follow his lead.  The War Office did not want a lot of locally run groups like this and stopped further development a couple of weeks later.  Not to be put off, Conan Doyle worked with a committee chaired by Lord Desborough and by the end of 1914 a new government-sanctioned volunteer force had been set up.  The Central Association of Volunteer Training Corps, with its head offices at Judges’ Quadrangle, Royal Courts of Justice, was formed for directing and organizing the large number of Home Guard corps which had been springing up throughout the country.

Crowborough Volunteers

You can learn more about Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s work during the First World War in the Sherlock Holmes Collection.

Irregular Observations is an occasional series of musings from the Sherlock Holmes Collection in Westminster Libraries.  The Collection started life in 1951 and is now one of the most comprehensive in the world. If you enjoy Sherlock Holmes and want to learn more, have a look at our website or get in touch.


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