Compulsory National Service (23 august 1915)

From The Arthur Conan Doyle Encyclopedia

Compulsory National Service is a letter written by Arthur Conan Doyle published in The Daily Chronicle on 23 august 1915.

Compulsory National Service

Is Compromise Impossible?

Sir A. Conan Doyle's View

Sir, — I have always been an opponent of compulsion in military service, and everything which has happened in this war has strengthened my convictions; but at the same time I feel that there is some room for compromise between the two parties who now divide the nation. Each must in reason make some concession to the other. The most determined advocate for compulsion must admit that it is a very serious and deplorable thing that the nation, now more united than it has ever been in the whole course of history, should be divided, and the hands of the small disloyal faction should be strengthened. On the other hand, the convinced anti-compulsionist is bound to acknowledge that there are some monstrous anomalies in the present system, and that on the face of it it is not right that a man of 40 with a family should be fighting in Flanders while youngsters of 23 are riding motor-bicycles (I have only to raise my eyes to see them) up and down the Eastbourne Parade. If these two concessions be made by either party, there would seem to be some room for a compromise, which like all compromises would offend the stalwarts on both sides, but might preserve the national unity.

One of the chief objections to national service at the present moment is, as it seems to me, that the addition to our forces would be a very small one as compared to the risk and hubbub which would follow. What are the classes from which we should gather these new men? It would be madness to touch any man who is engaged upon productive work. Already our trade is greatly disorganised by the number of men withdrawn. All trade is inter-dependent, and a shortage in one direction holds up in most unexpected ways other branches. The machine already creaks and strains. Yet upon this productive trade the finance of the country, which is as vital to the Allies as to ourselves, is resting. To withdraw a man from his work on the chance that he may six months hence be useful as a soldier when he is certainly of the greatest use to the country at the present instant would be unthinkable. Thus all the great trades, not only those directly concerned with war, such as miners, engineers, metal workers, railway men, transport workers, cloth and leather workers, and shipbuilders, but also those which produce articles which we can export, or which prevent corresponding indispensable articles from being imported, are already serving their country in the most efficient way. To recruit them would be to weaken our power.

But when this huge mass of labour has been taken out of our calculations, how much remains? Is there really so much that it is worth while to turn the country upside down in order to get it? There are the distributors of wealth and the agricultural population. Among the former we should include all the shopmen and clerks. In the case of the shopmen it is difficult to understand how any able-bodied man can in these days find himself behind a counter without having an irresistible impulse to vault over it and plunge into the great adventure. His work could certainly be done by women. The same applies to men-waiters and men-servants generally, but in a less degree to clerks, for very often they are an essential part of the business to which they belong, with special knowledge, so that the money-earning power of the firm, and therefore of the country, depends upon them. In the case of the farmers' sons and agricultural labourers generally, now that the production of foodstuffs is recognised as a most essential factor in the problem, it is a question how many of them could be withdrawn without weakening our position. There remain the students, the schoolmasters, the members of the learned or artistic professions, the police, the men in municipal employ, and finally a small but highly objectionable body who from laziness or want of spirit are real shirkers.

These are the men from whom we must draw, and save in the case of the actual shirkers one cannot draw wholesale and indiscriminately. The population is already somewhat depleted. Is it worth while to split the nation from top to bottom in order to bring all these people into the net, when it is doubtful whether it would be wise to use a considerable portion of them when you have got them? Could some process of selection not be devised which would be founded upon a democratic basis and would treat individual cases in a way which would be more drastic than anything we have at present, while it would be less offensive to the working classes than a general law of compulsion? We are all agreed that there are men — many men — about who ought to go. Can we not make them go without any great national schism? I venture to suggest a method by which it could be done.

In every parish or group of parishes a Recruiting Committee should be chosen out of some popularly elected body, such as the parish or district council. The names of men who should go to the front should be submitted to this body — every patriotic citizen would be ready to furnish them, and the committee should have legal powers of compelling the presence of the individual before them. He should be asked why he has not done his apparent duty. Should he say that his employer has prevented him the employer should in turn be summoned. If it be found that there is no valid reason why the man should not go, the chairman would then address him in this fashion: "We have no legal power to send you to the front. We are, however, strongly of opinion that you are not doing your duty, and we therefore give you ten days in which to settle your affairs and to enlist. If, at the end of that time, we have not proof that you have done so we shall be compelled to print your name in the blacklist of those who have failed their country during the crisis. The list will hang outside the parish church and outside the public buildings of this parish." A similar speech would be made to the employer who held back his men, and his business would certainly not be improved by the appearance of his name in such a list. I am of opinion that in the case both of master and of man such a proceeding would have the desired effect.

No doubt such a solution would be called "worrying the individual" and "putting undue pressure upon individuals" by those who wish the pressure to be equally distributed. But is it not perfectly just that the individual should be worried and have pressure put on him so long as he is the right man to press? If he clears himself before his parish tribunal there is an end of the matter. If he does not, then he should either do his duty or stand disgraced. The old Anglo-Saxons had a custom of proclaiming a man "niddering" or worthless when he shirked his public duties. What I suggest would really be a reversion to an old and reasonable law.

The advantages of such a scheme are that it would entail a minimum of legislation. Statutory powers to enforce attendance by the local committee and a protection against libel actions — that is all. What are the objections? It may be argued that the man would still refuse to serve. If he did so I cannot imagine that a man so callous on a point of honour would ever make a good soldier.

I must apologise, sir, for the length of this letter, but I feel that the question is an exceedingly important and dangerous one. If it were unwisely handled it might have the most serious effects. The issue is confused by appeals to us on the ground of economy, but these seem to me to have little relevancy since the large force already enlisted have their contract, which we cannot break, so that any lower scale of pay could only apply to the new recruits. The best we can hope is that some ground of compromise — either this or a better one — may be found between the two parties, so that we may get the best fighting strength out of our people, and make sure that every man is doing his duty without those methods of compulsion which have always been foreign to our system, and which might provoke a most dangerous spirit in the country.

Aug. 21, 1915.