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22 May 1859, Edinburgh M.D., Kt, KStJ, D.L., LL.D., Sportsman, Writer, Poet, Politician, Justicer, Spiritualist Crowborough, 7 July 1930

At the Front. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Impressions

From The Arthur Conan Doyle Encyclopedia

At the Front. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Impressions is an article of a journalist of The Sydney Morning Herald (Australia) published on 23 november 1920.

At the Front. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Impressions

The Sydney Morning Herald (23 november 1920)


Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Lady Doyle were greeted yesterday by one of the largest crowds seen at a Millions Club luncheon, when they were the guests of the club at Sargent's, Market-street.

Sir Arthur, in responding to the toast of his health, said he thought that Sir Arthur Rickard, in proposing his health, was only doing an act of family reparation, to make up for the fact that his son did his best to have his head shot off in the course of the war; for it was he, Captain Rickard, of the Artillery, who was his guide on the occasion of the breaking of the Hindenburg line. Though he had various impressions of that wonderful scene at the front, his dominant feeling was that no man had the right to be sitting as a spectator in the stalls if he could be an actor on the stage. (Applause.) But his own presence there was justified by the fact that he was writing a history of the war, and it was essential that he should see what be could of the fighting.

There were in the extraordinary general panorama of the battlefront on that visit one or two points which had struck him. He had received the impression that they had got into the centre of a cyclone, because of the absolute stillness, and the invisibility of everyone. They were in front of the artillery, and had not caught up to the infantry, and were in the middle of a vast plain, with not a human being to be seen; one abandoned tank was all that met the eye, and all around them was the muttering of the guns. One knew I that the history of the human race was being fought out on that area, and it was very dramatic. In this vast scene, so large that in it human existence lost its significance, there were one or two human touches which he would always remember.

"When the shelling became somewhat hot, and we began to walk backwards-not, I hope, with indecent haste," continued Sir Arthur, "we met an Australian soldier walking along in full battle panoply, helmet and all. He asked us, this solitary figure, where his battalion was. Apparently he had been in hospital. We told him we could not tell him; and he then walked on towards this unhealthy slope up which we had come. I, or one of the others, said to him, 'Wait a bit! Why go down there? You'll get news - don't go down!' The simple and heroic remark which he made was 'My cobbers are down there!' (Loud applause.) I watched him afterwards, looking back as he descended, and saw the lonely figure picking his way among the shell-bursts to where his cobbers were. I cannot imagine anything more characteristic of the individuality of the Australian, and also that good-comradeship which made him so fine a soldier, than the action of that man." (Applause.)

Sir Arthur humorously related another incident, which lie also described as typical. At a dressing-station, a kind of sand-pit, there were a few Australians doing various things. One of them had four watches dangling at the end of their chains, and was walking about trying to sell them. He was a great tall fellow covered with freckles, one of his knees sticking out of his trousers, and there he was, with these watches. "It is not for me to say that he did not bring the watches from Sydney," Sir Arthur remarked, amid laughter. "He may have done so, thinking that he would be able to do a deal; but close by I saw a little group of newly-caught German prisoners who were taking a very intense personal interest in what was going on." (Laughter.)

It was not only in Sydney that he bad expressed his admiration for the Australian soldier. In the history he had written, he had said what he had to say. When the Australian soldier first went to England, he quite naturally gave a false impression. His unconventionality greatly shocked the dear old sergeant-majors and martinets of the British army. (Laughter). As an example of the opinion they thus formed, he quoted an incident of his own volunteering experiences, when he heard one day the exclamation, "Here's a pretty Australian trick!" uttered by the sergeant-major, "a terrible man, with a voice like a bull." This was followed by a torrent of invective. The explanation was that one of the privates, a country yokel, had, when passing an officer, kept his cigarette in his mouth. He had swallowed the cigarette by the time the sergeant-major had finished his invective.

"This was the first time," commented Sir Arthur, "that I recognised that the sergeant majors resented Australian ways. They thought the Australians took liberties; but they afterwards found out that they not only took liberties, but took Mont St. Quentins, and all sorts of other things. (Loud applause.) And after that, they took them to their hearts." He thought that we had hardly yet obtained the true perspective of the course of events of the war, and he doubted whether our children would be able to focus it. One thing, however, was very certain - that again and again it was the British army which stood between William the Kaiser and the domination of the world. (Loud applause.) There were many military exploits which commanded attention; but nothing, he thought, could ever equal the stand made by the old British army at the first battle of Ypres. (Applause.) Without trenches, without shelter, with every disadvantage, they stood up, outnumbered by five or six to one, and held the Germans back from the coast line; and that great battle, lasting from month to month, was, he thought, the most terrible achievement in the whole world. So terrible was it that an obelisk might be built eight or ten miles to the east of Ypres on which might be inscribed, "Here lies the old British army!" (Applause.) When they thought that 85 or 90 per cent, of some divisions were lost, and that 92 per cent, of officers in the 7th Division were killed, they must agree that Leonidas and his Spartans never held the pass better than the old army held the pass to Ypres. (Loud applause.)

He instanced, amid renewed applause, two supreme achievements on the part of the Australians, when they stood between world-diaster and the Germans - one on March 26, 1918, when they stood in front of Amiens after Gough's defeat, and another three weeks later, when the 1st Australian Division, disembarking at Hazebrouck found that the 4th Brigade of guards had been literally annihilated. Nothing but the Australian stood between the Germans and our central railway post, and undoubtedly, if it had been taken, the whole northern line would have crumbled. It was terrible to think of what might have occurred how intolerable our lives, how broken our pride - if that vainglorious, conceited braggart the Kaiser had triumphed. There was a ship in Sydney Harbour, it had been stated the other day, which was to have taken him round the world after his triumph - an 8000 - ton ship! Why, it would not have taken his swollen head a ship of that size! (Laughter and applause.)

Sir Arthur Rickard presided, and among others present were Lady Rickard, Sir Henry Braddon, M.L.C, and Lady Braddon, Sir Albert Gould, Sir Thomas Henley, M.L.A., and Lady Henley, Mr. G. F. Earp, M.L.C., Mr. G. H. Varley, M.L.C., Dr. Arthur, M.L.A., and Mr. T. J. Ley, M.L.A.