Sherlock Holmes Off to the War

From The Arthur Conan Doyle Encyclopedia

Sherlock Holmes Off to the War is an article published in The Sphere on 10 february 1900.


The Sphere (10 february 1900, p. 84)

To those who know him there is nothing surprising in the fact that Conan Doyle should have been one of the first of "the gentlemen of England" (who are not "all fox-hunting") to put himself and his hunter at the disposal of the military authorities. But the actual facts bristle with coincidence. In that very Times which published the Government's intimation that it desired to raise a mounted infantry force, to wit, the Imperial Yeomanry, there also appeared a modest little letter independently suggesting the self-stone scheme. That letter was signed A. Conan Doyle. And it forestalled by a day or two, in language all but identical, though a thought more diffident, Mr. Winston Spencer Churchill's much-quoted question about the fox-hunters. The older man, however, had said the same thing before. In presiding over a cricketers' smoking concert, in the very first fortnight of the war, when we were all so pathetically sanguine as to its immediate results, Dr. Doyle made a speech which slid him credit at the nine, but which does him double credit now. Note this from a newspaper report:—

They might talk about calling out the Reserves. They had not, as a matter of fact, touched the Reserves. The manhood of this country was the Reserve Force of this country (cheers). They and he were the reserves of this country; it was the sporting men, the boating men, the open air men, the football men, the men who rode and shot, the cricketers of this country, who were the reserves, and when they were called upon someone would know it (laughter and cheers). If ever England got into a hole they could depend upon it that it would be her sporting men who would pull her out of it.

Well, the sporting men are going to have a try; but the prophetic sportsman, who could speak like that in October, and see his words came true before Christmas, is not to be one of them. He was one of the first to volunteer. Yet the authorities in Pall Mall, for the sake of a few years on the wrong side of the line, have thought fit to dispense with the services of an obviously good man. Conan Doyle is only forty, after all, though readers of "Micah Clarke," a dozen years ago, may well think him much more. They have not seen him riding straight to hounds, or keeping down the runs on a plumb wicket; they may not know that he has only (as yet) played twice at Lords; that on the first occasion he scored a not-out century, and on the next took seven Cambridge wickets for some sixty runs, when the best bowler in either 'Varsity eleven could hardly capture one. With his long head and his good eye, and a heart as stout as his arm, he seemed, indeed, just the dangerous man who is wanted at the front; and to the front he is going, like the tenacious Briton that he is. Denied the glory of carrying arms, Dr. Doyle has fallen back upon the kindlier weapons of his first profession — to the relief (be it owned) of his numerous friends and innumerable admirers. He is to accompany Mr. Langman's field-hospital as surgeon; and the wounded Tommy who falls into his strong yet tender hands, and under the sunny influence of one of the cheeriest and most sympathetic of mortals, will have an enviable convalescence. But, indeed, in one capacity or another, Conan Doyle was bound to go to the wars, when there were any. It will be remembered that he did his best to smell powder in the Soudan in 1896. He cannot help it. He has a fine thirst for adventure; he is saturated with public spirit; and the rest is in the blood.

When I first met him, Conan Doyle was engaged upon that characteristic little romance of war, "The Great Shadow"; and I well remember his telling me how he was looking forward to trying his hand upon a description of Waterloo for the climax of the tale. His evident mastery of the battle was no less striking than the enthusiasm (then new to me) with which lie assails every task. "I had five kinsmen on the field," he explained, "and three of them stayed there." It was very like Doyle not to add that one of the other two was the distinguished Sir Denis Pack, who commanded a brigade of Picton's division, being wounded in the battle. As that gallant officer handled his men upon the field, so the novelist has handled his on paper — with equal mastery and brilliance. He has always been at his best in a deed of derring-do; but the Waterloo chapters in "The Great Shadow" could only have been written by a man with his veins full of fighting blood.

It is always interesting to strike the trail of heredity in a public man. In this case it is peculiarly well marked. Curiously enough, however, it is, so to speak, the distaff which has transmitted the sword, the Doyles of the two last generations, at least, having shown a marked belief in the pre-eminence of the pen, or rattier of the pencil, as compared with the less mighty weapon. The budding novelist may well have grown a little tired of seeing his 'kinship with the justly celebrated "Dicky Doyle" advanced as a primary claim upon the indulgence of the public. But latterly the boot has been upon the living leg. As a matter of fact, Richard Doyle was his uncle, and a son of John Doyle, better known as "H.B.," the delicate if sedate caricaturist of the early part of the century. "H.B.," though born in Dublin in 1797, came to London early, and in 1829 he began his famous series of drawings ; so that from that date, seventy odd years ago, the family of Doyle, from father to son, have been working constantly for the enjoyment of their fellow-countrymen. In the course of his long life, "H.B.," who died in 1868, made no fewer than 917 sketches, which were collected by Prince Metternich, and are now in the British Museum. They are probably the most dignified caricatures in existence. His latest critic has said that his caricatures "led English satire into a path of reticence and good breeding which it had never trod before." "H.B.'s" second son was the famous "Dicky" Doyle, who carried on the family history to 1883. Four years later bis nephew, Dr. Conan Doyle; gave us his first book. But "Dicky" Doyle by no means exhausted the family genius, for "H.B." had other sons, and all were artists of a somewhat similar genre. Least known of them, perhaps, was the novelist's father, Charles Altamont Doyle, whose work very singularly resembles that of Richard. It has, however, a weirdly imaginative note of its own, a stronger if a wilder note than any of the other brothers possessed; as witness at least one work of genius in his son's study at Hindhead.

Though he now takes his fences with the best, the victim of this article is one of the few fearless riders who have mastered their art — well, late in youth. It is not so many years since he was taking his first lessons in a Knightsbridge riding-school, and with no immediate object that ore could see. Once more his own explanation explains the man. "There will be a European war one of these days, and when there is I want to be in it, if only as a correspondent." It is not a European war, and Conan Doyle is not going as a correspondent. He thought of that three months ago. But it seemed mere self-indulgence; there were so many war correspondents. Then the thing grew nasty. There was no holding him any more.

Conan Doyle is going to the wars neither for effect nor for the fun of the thing; to go at all, he is making such sacrifices as can be appreciated only by the one other writer whose serial value equals his own. He may write nothing for the next year. It is doubtful whether his heart was ever in the profession which he abandoned for that of letters; ipso facto it is certain that his heart of hearts was not. Yet he is going out as a doctor, to do as much as one man can do, to put in practice that lusty patriotism which he has preached in all his books, and to cheer up Tommy if he can ! A modest mission if you will, but a right noble one, and one for which it would be hard indeed to find a better man. His cheery voice, his healthy humour, his hearty hand — but I still not offend my friend beyond forgiveness. I will but wish him — and, if I may, in the name of the million who are going to read THE SPHERE — God-speed, and a safe return !