Civilian Riflemen (5 january 1901)
Sir, — I observe that your Correspondent says that his allusions to the civilian rifleman movement were made in chaff. That is all very well, but the matter is from our point of view a serious one, and we would rather have serious criticism than chaff from military experts.
In his last article, however, he has stated his case against the movement, and so has your correspondent "Imperial Defence," so we have something more solid than chaff to discuss. The fallacy into which both these critics fall is to take it for granted that civilian riflemen must always under all circumstances remain civilian riflemen. The object of the movement, as I see it, is to cover the country with clubs which will teach the average Briton to shoot, and to shoot well. When he has learned this lesson he becomes valuable material which is at the disposal of the country. He has learned the chief lesson of soldiering, and the one most difficult to acquire. In time of war he will crowd in to strengthen the Regular, the Militia, and the Volunteer battalions. A residue would be left, no doubt, in every part of the country who would be prepared to act as irregulars, but the great majority would join the recognised forces.
The critics may ask why they should not join these forces now. The answer is that they don't, and that we must take facts as they are. Some are kept out by their hours of work, some by their distance from a centre, some by their dislike to uniform or drill. But you can get them to shoot, if facilities are provided, and when once they have learned to shoot they will then in time of national danger, when public spirit runs high, take their places in the ranks, not as raw recruits but as expert marksmen. Your Correspondent says that we have already plenty of men to line our hedgerows. So we have in time of peace, but suppose that we were fighting Russia desperately in the North of India; would we then have plenty of men to meet an invasion from France? We should, if we could replenish our ranks from a huge reserve of trained riflemen, but not otherwise. This is the way and the only way, short of conscription, by which we can get such a reserve.
The first thing that we have to do is to get the riflemen. To discuss transport and all the other questions raised by your correspondents is premature. Having got, as we will get, a large number of civilians who can shoot, the military authorities can then decide how best to employ them in time of need. My own idea has always been that they would for the most part go to strengthen the recognised forces, so that they would need no separate organisation of their own.
Your Correspondent suggests a large number of other reforms, most of which are no doubt very excellent ones, but the most important of all, as it seems to me, is to broaden the base upon which our military system rests by taking more of the population into it. That want of interest in military things and subsequent want of public spirit which your Correspondent remarks upon and deplores is due to the fact that we alone among the nations of Europe have continued to set a certain class aside for the purpose of war, instead of all sharing in the common duty. The average citizen has been made to feel that it is no business of his. Such a movement as this of civilian riflemen will spread to the small country villages and will quicken the patriotism and the manhood of the nation, as it does now in Norway and in Switzerland.
As to the help which the War Office can give to such a movement, the less it is fettered by officialism the better. Every parish is capable of organising its own butts, and I find that the men will pay readily for their ammunition. In the present stage it needs no help, but the Chancellor of the Exchequer might very well remove the tax upon private rifles unless they are used for Toning purposes. As the law stands at present, the rifleman who is so keen that he buys his own rifle is at once fined ten shillings by his grateful country. After a time, when the movement has shown that it has vitality, the authorities might then serve out rifles and bandoliers of honour to those who have attained a high standard of efficiency. But that is in the future.
Your Correspondent asks me to divert my attention from this movement and turn it to cyclist corps and to the finding of officers for Volunteer regiments. No doubt there is plenty of room for work in both these directions, and patriotic workers will be found. But the adoption of the wise advice of the Prime Minister seems to me to be infinitely more important than these smaller details. For this reason, because I believe that it is a vital thing for the country to accustom more of its citizens to the use of arms, I prefer to put any surplus energy I have in to furthering such a movement as far as my limitations will permit. — Yours faithfully,
A. CONAN DOYLE.
Undershaw, Hindhead, Haslemere.