Civilian Riflemen (27 december 1900)
To the Editor of The Westminster Gazette.
Sir, — Your Military Correspondent has a most unfortunate habit of criticising other people's views without having taken the preliminary trouble to ascertain what they are. Some weeks ago he attributed a scheme to me which was the exact opposite of that which I had advocated. I pointed out his error at the time in your columns. Instead of learning some modesty by this absurdly absent-minded proceeding, he now writes a very energetic diatribe against the Civilian Rifleman movement without in the least understanding what it is that he is attacking.
The object of the movement, as has been pointed out again and again, is not to supplant the regular soldier but to supplement him. The more regular soldiers we can have the safer we shall be, but as it is evident that in order to get the best and most intelligent material we must pay them more highly, there comes a limit to what the country can afford. The Navy must remain our most important service, and therefore the funds for the Army must be kept within certain limits.
It is not a very wild idea, then, to imagine that since the present war has shown that brave men with rifles which they know how to use are very formidable when acting on the defensive, such a force might be enrolled to help in the defence of this country. The idea may seem very preposterous to the Military Correspondent of the Westminster Gazette, but that merely shows that instead of being, as we had hoped, a reformer, he is himself the victim of prejudice and routine. Can he or any other sane man seriously say that the country would not be stronger if it had a half-a-million more men trained to the use of arms within its borders. If he believes that no man can fight save one who has been drilled in a barrack yard, then I say that he has missed the lesson which we have spent so much in blood and money to learn. It is good for the country to have these men, and it is good for the men to learn that they owe a duty to the country. They are there to be had, and, in spite of your correspondent and of all other obstructionists, a very few years will, I believe, show that the movement has come to stay.
In the most absurd passage your correspondent asks why the men should wear a broad-brimmed hat, and why a badge. They must wear a hat of some sort, and why should they not wear one which will enable them to recognise each other, and which is adapted to screen their eyes from the sun. As to the badge, the men, of course, belong to different corps and clubs. How can one be told from another save by a badge? It is a waste of time to answer such questions, and yet they are the difficulties which appeal to a military expert.
It was Lord Salisbury who first appealed for the formation of Civilian Rifle Clubs, and it was Lord Dundonald, with the lessons of the war fresh in his mind, who said last week that Britain would be safe from invasion if she had riflemen to line her hedgerows, which are as formidable as the kopjes of South Africa. The advice of the Premier and the opinion of the practical soldier may be set against the criticisms of the gentleman who is so puzzled about hat-badges, and who cannot understand why, if a man may be a serviceable soldier (as the Boers are) up to sixty, there should be any age limit at all.
I have stood all day to-day marking for our own corps of civilian riflemen. Gentlemen, shopboys, cabmen; carters, and peasants were all shooting side by side. The prize, at a range which was equivalent to six hundred yards, was taken by 83 out of a possible 90, and 82, 81 and 80 were the next. Fifty men spent their bank holiday at my butts, and the scene was like a village competition in Switzerland. Conceive the stupidity which would refuse such military material as that, when all that it will ever ask from the country is a rifle and a bandolier! — Yours faithfully,
A. CONAN DOYLE
Undershaw, Hindhead, Haslemere