Conan Doyle on the War

From The Arthur Conan Doyle Encyclopedia

Sir Conan Doyle Gives Reply To Edison On Future is an article written by Arthur Conan Doyle published in the The Sun (Baltimore) on 27 july 1930.


The Late Sir Arthur Conan Doyle Final's Look on the War (The Sun)

Often in the course of the war I thought to myself, "It will take me the rest of my life to understand all the ramifications of this enormous thing." The thought was prophetic, for since then I have never ceased to read all that I could concerning it and yet I never come to the end, or near to the end, of the material. It was the biggest thing that ever happened in the history of the world, and we may well marvel lint it should have happened in our own time and that each of us who lived through those years had some sort of part to play in that gigantic drama.

The world has not quite got the focus of it all yet, and a generation or two will have passed before the whole wonderful picture can he seen in its true proportion. There are certain days, notably from September 4 to 9, 1914, when the whole fate of Europe hung delicately in the balance, and when each hour was of enormous and even vital importance. A book might, and probably will be, written about those days data when at the last instant, by a miracle, Paris was saved and a collapse of the Allies averted.


In Gunner Lintier'n posthumous journal we rend how, lying under his gun by the side of the road leading northwest from Paris, he saw that never-ending string of motor cabs, with six men in each, flitting past him ghostlike in the darkness of the night, the improvised transport by which stout-hearted Gallieni rushed his men against Von Kluck's flank. It was surely one of the most dramatic moments in history.

But the events which led up to the war as interesting as the war itself. It is surely a simpleton who believes that the assassination of the Grand Duke was a necessary prelude. It was a useful excuse, but if it had never occurred another would have been found. If anyone doubts it let him read Bernhardi's book published years before the war, in which he, speaking for the predominant military party, declared that Germany was only waiting for her chance.

In the meantime, he said, we may pretend to the seriously the peace advances of other nations. The real determining factor was, of course, the completion of the enlargement of the Kiel Canal. It was completed in June and war followed within six weeks. It would have followed, I believe, if the Grand Duke had been dead or alive.


It could hardly be called a conspiracy upon the part of Germany. It was too obvious for such a name. Nor was there anything shameful in it, save only for the breach of the Belgian guaranty. When a nation is virile and strong it has a right to improve its position. The disciplined, self-sacrificing, hardy nation reaps the reward of those virtues as against a soft, degenerate, luxurious neighbor. That has been the whole course of history. It is all very well for us who hold so many places in the sun to cry out for pence. Others who sit in the shadow are not so satisfied with the status quo.

There was no reason why Germany should not make a bid for empire. The shame lies with the huge hypocrisy by which she endeavored to cast the blame upon the victims whom she so nearly devoured — and certainly would have devoured had Britain stood aloof. There is no great credit on our coming in, since we should obviously have been the next on the list, but if we lad not come in it is perfectly certain that Germany should have won the war and would now be the mistress of Europe. It is equally certain that she would then have devoted her huge accession of wealth to building up a fleet with which to break down our resistance.


Even as it was, their fleet was a greater menace than in usually realized. The High Sea Fleet was more formidable to us than the Spanish Armada, and Von Tirpitz was undoubtedly the most dangerous man we have met since the days of Napoleon. Had his fleet come out at once, as he desired, it is by no means certain how the battle would have gone.

The German ships bad great advantages which ours lacked. They were built for that particular job and so honeycombed with watertight cells as to be practically unsinkable. Their officers, crews and equipment were as good as our met. Their gunnery was probably better, for their range-finders were more effective.

Their construction was safer, and they had guarded against that back-flash from the turret which was so fatal to the Queen Mary and other cruisers at Jutland. Their shells are said to have had more penetrative power than our own, and Krupp's steel armor was almost impenetrable.


Our numerical superiority, especially when our two best cruisers had been sent after Von Spee, was not so great as to make our position sure. Then, again, we had everything to lose in case of defeat, while Germany could still carry on its before. If we had sunk their whole fleet it is probable that they would have weakened our own fleet to an extent which would have made the subsequent blockade and pinning down of their smaller cruisers a much more difficult operation.

Altogether it was a very formidable danger which we escaped — for which we have to thank the direct interference of the Kaiser, who bottled up his fleet as successfully as any blockship could have done.


It is, of course, common knowledge that the U-boats nearly brought us to our knees in the late spring of 1917. I have no doubt that, like the border hero, we should still have found some way to fight upon our stumps; but the real danger lay not in the starvation at home, but in the munitions for the army. It is an amazing thing that in the present arguments about the Channel tunnel it is never mentioned that it is an insurance against the recurrence of such a danger. It all depends, of course, upon who our antagonist may be, but with France neutral or friendly we could get all that Europe or the East could send through the tunnel with very much less danger than before. I think £25,000,000 is a very cheap capital sum as an insurance against the recurrence of such a crisis. The want of the tunnel nearly destroyed at once, and the era of wars is, I fear, far from being over.

I can speak with some little weight upon this subject, for I have before me a column from our leading paper dated two years before the war, which gives a full report of a meeting at the Cannon Street Hotel at which I made a speech picturing the effect which submarines would have upon our food supply in time of war. Next day there was a leader in the same paper making game of my forecast. But it came to pass all the same. There is nothing to prevent its doing so again — except the tunnel.


A thing which impresses one as he reads the prelude to the war is the howling mess which the experts made of everything. All Germans seem to us to have been afflicted with madness at that time, save only the well-balanced Lichnowsky and possibly Dernburg, whose counsel, had they been followed, would have saved their country. But the maddest of all seem to have been the experts. There was one, Von Holstein, a spider who sat in the very middle of the web for sixteen years, hardly known, seldom seen, and yet controlling everyone by the tremendous knowledge which was exposed to inspire him. He had two fixed points in all his scheming. The first was that Russia and England could never agree. The second that France and England could never work together. Both axioms, of course, proved to be false, and this expert of experts made every possible miscalculation.

But the military experts were even worse than the political. It was Von Schlieffen who planned the famous invasion of Belgium. It was thought to be the last word in strategy, confirmed by authority after authority. Its obvious effect was to bring both Belgium and Britain into the war, and to shake the maim position of Germany to its foundations. Had the German Army simply crossed the French border and reduced the fortresses with their great guns, one trembles to think what would have happened. It is unlikely that we would have intervened until it was too late to save the situation — and even then the intervention would have been half-hearted.


Apart from that huge initial blunder neither the German nor the French staffs had learned the lessons of the South African War. I can remember the Prussian attache riding about among our troops with what Tommy described to me a spatch-cock on his helmet, but his reports must have been ignored by the home authorities. Soldiers who had seen service there have described, as General Seely has done in his fine book. "Adventure, how they saw the tactics of the German maneuvers and observed how masses of men were marched to certain death by officers who obviously did not realize for an instant the effect of rifle or machine gun fire.

"If they do it in war they will be shot to pieces," said Seely at the time, "but after enduring fearful losses they will in time learn to do better." That was exactly what happened. At Mons the effect of the British rifle fire was a perfect revelation to the Germans. A single company, of the West Kent Regiment caused an immense slaughter of three battalions of the crack Bradenburg Grenadiers and drove them back in confusion. All through 1914 the British rifle dominated the battlefield in 1915 the realities of Aldershot began to drive out the dreams at the Tanpelhof and we did not find our foemen such an easy mark.


Still lees did the French experts learn the lesson of our African war. Had they realized the three-to-one advantage which the defense has over the attack they would surely not have made that mad advance at the beginning which cost them so dear. Had they waited in defensive position they would have bled the Germans while instead of being depleted themselves. When one remembers that the French had no heavy guns with their troops and that they still wore red and blue uniforms, one wonders what their staff could have been thinking of. Their splendid field gun was the one thing which saved them from complete disaster — that and the spirit of their men.

As to our own defects, I have always felt that the neglect of the Channel tunnel was one of them. Yet it must be admitted that it could hardly have been ready for the war had it been undertaken at the time when it was being urged. For the rest, in spite of all the criticisms, I doubt if we could have done better on any other lines. Sir John French remarked to me: "There is no use trying to escape the wire and machine guns by attacking on the Austrian side. Long before we got there the same wire and machine guns would be waiting to receive us."


It is all very well to ask why we should attack in France and why not simply wait, but if we had not done so it is probable that the Germans would hove taken root and organized all the territory behind their lines, holding it indefinitely. The Dardanelles was a gamble, but it was within an ace of succeeding and its success might have shortened the war by a year or more.

On the whole, we have little to regret, for it be impossible — unless you could try it both ways — to say that any change would certainly have been for the better. So, too, in all that led to the war. It is pleasing to notice that in Ludwig's excellent analysis of "July, 1914," he finds nothing of which he can complain in our diplomacy. He admits that the German white book was a bundle of omissions and falsehoods while our own blue book is passed as correct.


I remember that before the war there were severe prophetic books describing what might occur. My friend Le Queux wrote one, I believe, and there were others in German. But nothing that the wildest imagination could produce equaled the actual facts.

Who, for example, would have dared to invent such things as these: That a column of fanatical Moors in the Libyan Desert would be shattered by a charge of fox hunters and farmers' sons from Dorsetshire? Or that Turkish refugees should be herded down St. Paul's Damascus road and into the town by Australian stockmen, Indian horsemen and yeomen of the shires?

Or that Le Quesnoy, a walled town in France, would be attacked with a simple scaling ladder by a battalion of New Zealanders? Or that a transport would be sunk with 6,000 troops and a brigade of artillery on board without its being known that any were saved? Or that British man-o'-war would be sunk by the British themselves, losing nearly one hundred men in the process?


Or that when a crack division carried a certain obstacle the first man over would be an Eskimo? Or that an Edinburgh hatter would play a prominent part in winning that fixed left flank which was essential for success in the greatest one-day battle of the war? That men of New York, Carolina and Tennessee should fight under a British troops, in the crowning achievement which broke the Hindenburg line?

These, taken at random, are a few of the wonders of the World War, I trust that a second will not come before we have understood the first.