Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, called and examined

From The Arthur Conan Doyle Encyclopedia

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, called and examined is an interview of Arthur Conan Doyle conducted on 24 march 1903 and published in Minutes of Evidence taken before the Royal Commission on the War in South Africa (vol. II) by Wyman & Sons in 1903.

Arthur Conan Doyle was questioned at St. Stephen's House (Westminster) on his views about the Langman's field hospital in Bloemfontein where he was working as a doctor between february and may 1900 and about the war in South Africa.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, called and examined

Minutes of Evidence taken before the Royal Commission on the War in South Africa (vol. II) (1903, p. 472)
Minutes of Evidence taken before the Royal Commission on the War in South Africa (vol. II) (1903, p. 473)
Minutes of Evidence taken before the Royal Commission on the War in South Africa (vol. II) (1903, p. 474)
Minutes of Evidence taken before the Royal Commission on the War in South Africa (vol. II) (1903)

20561. (Chairman.) When did you go out to South Africa?

I went out in February of 1900.

20562. What part of the war then did you see?

I came to Bloemfontein just at the time of its early occupation, within a fortnight of the entrance of the British troops, and I was there for about three and a-half months, during the enteric epidemic. I then went on to Pretoria; I went part of the way with Lord Roberts' army, and saw one or two operations, and I afterwards Went back to Bloemfontein, and then went up to Pretoria, and was there a very short time. I came back to England in August, 1900.

20566. You have been good enough to give us a précis of the evidence you wish to give, and in the first place you wish to speak as to the medical side?

I think that is the only side perhaps that I am really qualified to speak on, because I was personally engaged in it.

20564. Of course, we had to take into account that there had been a Royal Commission inquiring into the special medical case on the spot, but we have had some medical evidence, and we shall be very glad to hear what you have to say. As you say, you were at Bloemfontein at the time of the epidemic?

Yes, right through from the very beginning of that epidemic.

20565. What would you like to say about that?

I thought that the medical service was somewhat unjustly blamed for not having everything ready for so abnormal a thing — a thing which has never occurred before, and probably will never occur again. I think it was impossible to keep any service always ready to cope with such an emergency as that; it would be a waste during all the time when the emergency did not come, and it might only occur once in a century. I thought no blame was due to anybody; everybody did their best to meet the very exceptional circumstances. I think the epidemic was due to the fact that the Boers had cut the water supply; when an attempt was made to drive the Boers away five weeks later they went without fighting at all, and it is a very great question whether they would not have gone at once, immediately, after Sanna's Post. Of course, it is a question on which a civilian hardly ventures to offer an opinion, but still, I think there are facts and grounds for thinking they would; and with 50,000 men in Bloemfontein, it was a very great misfortune that we did not recapture the water supply. We were thrown back on the old wells in the town, and there is no doubt that those 8,000 or 9,000 cases of enteric which occurred in Bloemfontein were entirely due to drinking the water of the old wells. If we had recaptured the waterworks there would not have been an enteric epidemic.

20566. Do you think the epidemic did not begin before that?

I do not think so; there was no evidence of it as far as I could see or hear.

20567. It was not due to the exhaustion in consequence of the march?

I do not think that exhaustion in itself would ever produce a specific disease like typhoid; I think that exhaustion, and then drinking bad water on the top of exhaustion would be very likely to do so.

20568. It would cause it to be a very severe epidemic?

I question whether there would be an epidemic from mere exhaustion. I was very much struck with the wonderfully good work that the private hospitals did, and how impossible it would have been to meet the situation without them.

20569. Was that with regard to the Bloemfontein epidemic or generally?

That is the only thing I am qualified to speak about really, because that was the only medical work I did during that three and a-half months in Bloemfontein.

20570. You were working yourself?

I was the head physician of the Langman Hospital, which was one of the private hospitals, and I was working myself.

20571. (Sir Frederick Darley.) Had you many men in your hospital?

We had about 150 cases all the time; we were only supposed to take 100. We had 100 beds, but the pressure was so extreme that we took 50 per cent. more than we were supposed to take.

20572. (Chairman) Do you think that that service was not sufficiently acknowledged?

I think that the gentlemen who fitted out the hospitals have been ignored unduly. I think they did a great patriotic action; they spent a lot of money, they did the service really an incalculable good, and I think there would have been a terrible scandal and disaster if it had not been for the presence of those hospitals, and the gentleman who fitted out his particular hospital, Mr. Langman, has never had one word of official thanks of any kind what ever, except in the field, where the General on inspecting the hospital complimented him on its efficiency. I meant he had received no acknowledgment from the home authorities; he has not only had no reward, but no thanks of any sort.

20573. (Lord Strathcona and Mount Royal.) It has not been officially recognised?

Not in any way, and I think when we need men to do a patriotic action in the future it will take the keen edge off them a little that they have been ignored in the past.

20574. (Sir Frederick Darley.) Was Mr. Langman there?

He went out for a month at the end to see his hospital actually working, but his only son was in administrative charge of it. The only son, I may say, got some decoration given him, but that he deserved for his own efforts, quite apart from the fact that his father had fitted out the hospital. At the end of nine months the whole thing was given as a going concern to the Government without the Government being charged a penny. Mr. Langman kept it up for nine months, and at the end of that time he gave the tents and drugs and every thing, so that some thanks were due to him.

20575. (Chairman.) It was taken over by the Government?

Yes, just the plant, not the personnel.

20576. (Sir Frederick Darley.) Was it a surgical hospital as well as a field hospital?

We supposed we would get more surgical than medical cases, but when we came to Bloemfontein we found there were nothing but medical cases. Later, I believe they got a large number of surgical cases when they went to Pretoria.

20577. (Chairman) The medical service itself was short-handed ?

It was very short-handed, and I think that could hardly be helped with such a demand as there was.

20578. (Lord Strathcona and Mount Royal.) Do you consider that the arrangements and methods of the Medical Board were quite up to the requirements of the moment?

I do not think they always were so. I think that the different hospitals varied very much according to the administrative capacity of the man who was in charge, and I think some were exceedingly efficient and I think some were not.

20579. With regard to the supplies sent out and the medicines, were they not very much antiquated and obsolete in many cases?

I think after the first pressure it was all right — all the drugs and everything needed were there; but during the first two months there was such a great pressure on the railway that I think many things were wanting which should have been there. Everything was wanting, in fact; all the conveniences, such as bedpans and things you really could not do without, you had to vamp up.

20580. They had not given sufficient regard to the concentration of medicines; that is, to medicines in the concentrated form of capsules, and so on?

I never heard of their running short of actual drug; I heard of them running short of all sorts of accessories, such as bedpans and so on, but I never heard of drugs being actually short.

20581. (Chairman.) That was only for the time when the railway was being opened up?

Exactly; the railway was running at the time, and had been for two or three weeks, and the pressure upon it was extreme.

20582. The single line had to bring up all the supplies also?


20583. You do not attribute any blame on that account?

No, I think not; I think they did very well.

20584. There were civil surgeons sent out by the Government. Were you satisfied with those you saw?

No. I thought they were a very mixed lot indeed; they were sent out singly, and not as a hospital. The men in the hospitals were excellent, but as to the single surgeons who were sent out, each just to do any duty allotted to him with the troops, I believe many of them were men of drunken habits, and not of good character, and on the other hand, some of them were splendid. I think the Government should have taken more pains to test their men.

20585. (Sir George Taubman-Goldie.) I suppose it is rather difficult to take out a number of competent surgeons all having their own civil employment to give them a living?

Yes, but I should imagine that if the thing was organised in time of peace it would not be difficult, if a roll was kept with a number of names upon it.

20586. I know from experience the difficulty of getting even three or four really good men at a time?

I am sure it would be difficult if no preparation before hand was made.

20587. (Sir John Jackson.) It is the case that in the medical profession in the lower grades you find an unusually large proportion of unsatisfactory men?

That is what I mean.

20588. (Chairman) Do you think there might be a register?

Yes, and some inquiry into a man's character before his name was put on the register.

20589. Do you think men would register themselves?

I think that if they understood that in time of war those men would get the preference, and that the pay would be good they would.

20590. (Sir Frederick Darley.) I suppose you are aware that there is now an Advisory Board composed of some of the first men in the profession?

Quite so; I should think that would quite meet the case.

20591. (Lord Strathcona and Mount Royal.) As many able surgeons and doctors could have been procured from the colonies, say Canada, do you not think that under the particular circumstances of the moment it might have been well to have disregarded the rule that none were to be received into the Army except those who had actually passed examinations in the United Kingdom?

Yes, it never struck me, but certainly it would have been very wise to have done so. I did not know they made that rule.

20592. There was a hard and fast rule that they must have passed examinations in the United Kingdom, and those, at any rate, from Canada must do so before they could be admitted into the regular Army?

Well, it is very extraordinary. I never knew that before.

20593. They are endeavouring to alter that now, but such was the case, although many would have been glad to have taken employment.

20594. (Chairman.) On the military side you wish to speak to the spirit of the troops you saw in the hospital ?

Yes, their bearing was splendid. I never saw a case of malingering or anything of the kind during the whole time I was there, and I was particularly struck by the spirit of the Volunteers, which I thought was higher even than that of the Regulars. They seemed really keen to get back to their work, to get fit, and get back to the front.

20595. Do you mean the Yeomanry,

The Yeomanry and the Colonial troops, the Canadians and Australians, were all equally good, and I think all South African Irregulars, too.

20596. (Sir George Taubman-Goldie.) Even taking the Regulars, you would not say, considering that one always hears they are drawn from a lower class of the population, there was any bad spirit among them?

No bad spirit, but I thought the others were more educated men, and knew more what the fight was about.

20597. They had more intelligence?

Yes,quite so.

20598. (Chairman) And the conclusion you came to was. that being able to get up good Volunteer troops a large standing army was not necessary?

I thought there was a strong argument for that from the excellent stamp of men we were able to produce so rapidly.

20599. (Sir George Taubman-Goldie.) Were these trained men?

The Yeomen seemed to pick it up. It was soon very difficult to tell which was the Regular and which was not. They all looked very fine soldierly fellows, and very keen at their job.

20600. (Sir John Jackson.) Did you find the men of the Regulars of as good physique as the Volunteers?

The physique of the Regulars was pretty good, because they ‘had been well weeded out before that; the regiments were full of Reserve men, and I was much struck with their physique, they were splendid fellows.

20601. Speaking generally, a large number of the Regulars would be recruited from a class which perhaps does not always feed very well?

That is so, but on the other hand they had left all the weaklings behind, and they had called in their Reserves, so that the regiments were very fine regiments.

20602. (Chairman.)But in this you are speaking more of the spirit of the man than of his performance in the field?


20603. You did not see so much of his performance in the field?

No; I saw two or three actions, but none of them were of great importance.

20604. You would not be prepared to say that the Volunteer troops. good as they may have been in spirit, could do the work that the Regular trained Army could do?

No, I think as a civilian, I could not commit my self to that statement; but my general impression was that they did very well.

20605. And, on the other hand, you want to have the best possible men in the standing Army?

Exactly ; it seems to me that if a man has got to be conveyed so far it is very bad economy to convey anything but a first-class man.

20606. You would rather have half the numbers?

Half the numbers, and double as good, certainly. The good men and the bad men each consume the same amount of food, and cost the same for arming and clothing, and it is very false economy to take anything but a good one.

20607. Even if he went at twice the pay?

That is so.

20608. And you would insist on good shooting?

I think that a man should be turned out of the Army if he is not a first-class shot; I think that should be absolutely requisite, and everything else is subordinate to that. That is the conclusion I formed not from what I saw exactly, but I wrote a little account of the war, and I examined into a very large number of documents concerning it, and that was the conclusion I came to.

20609. Have you come to the conclusion that the shooting was distinctly inferior to the Boer shooting?

Not on all occasions; I think there was some evidence that there were occasions when it was better, but I should think that taking the average rate through the war it must have been inferior.

20610. If you reduced the numbers of the standing Army in that way, you would have to have on extension of the Auxiliary Forces?

Yes, a large extension.

20611. (Sir George Taubman-Goldie.) Or you might have universal training when they were young?

If you could possibly get it, but I do not see any Government going to the country with that cry.

20612. Did they not say the same about the Education Bill of 30 years ago?

Quite so.

20613. (Sir Frederick Darley.) After all, our rank and file did good work?

Most excellent work.

20614. Even at their present rate of pay, and with their present field of recruiting?

Yes, but I should think their shooting was very mixed ; they had a certain number of good marksmen amongst them, but a large number of men were practically useless as shots.

20615. That is a question of training?

20616. (Chairman.) Is there any other point you would like to speak to?

I do not think there is any thing that occurs to me.

20617. (Lord Strathcona and Mount Royal.) We have had it in evidence that the instruments used by the Army Medical Officers were very far inferior to those of the civil surgeons out there; that they were antiquated, and not such as were recognised as proper at the present day for surgical operations?

I could not speak on the point; our own were the very best procurable, but what the others had I do not know.

20618. We have it in evidence, also, that the sanitary arrangements of some of the hospitals were very bad?

There, again, that would be talking about other hospitals, and I do not know. We were so hard worked in our own hospital that if we did get out for an hour the last thing we thought of was to go and look at any other hospital, and all we wanted was to get a little fresh air. I was confined very closely to my own hospital for those three months.

20619. Had you an opportunity of forming an opinion of the services of the female nurses?

I think those nurses who got up to the front (I know nothing about those at Cape Town) were simply admirable, and I do not know what we should have done without them.

20620. They did excellent service?

Admirable, and we had such confidence in them that when we had a really serious case, and the drugs had to be given at a certain hour of the night, we did not ask the orderlies, although they were good men; we knew the nurses were infallible, that they would never sleep, and were bound to do their duty. The orderlies sometimes made a mistake, but the nurses never, and we had the utmost confidence in them. They were splendid, self-sacrificing women. Only three of them were in our hospital, and I believe two of them are dead. There is one other small point I should like to mention, and that is that it was very strongly borne in upon me over that epidemic that any breach of sanitary law ought to be made a military offence ; the soldier never recognises anything except a military offence. You may argue with him, and give him advice, and he will not do it; but if they had made the drinking of foul water (and I have seen the soldiers drink from the puddles by the wayside) a military offence, they would not have done it. No efforts were made to cut the thing off at the fountain-head, so as to prevent the men getting enteric; when they did get it, every effort was made to cure them, but no effort was made to stop them getting it, and as far as I know, right through the war there was no military order against drinking foul water, and no precautions of that sort were taken. We wanted preventive medicine very badly, I think, all through the campaign.

20621. (Chairman.) Precautions were taken in certain cases; we had at least one witness who told us that precautions were taken in his regiment ?

I think it depended very much on the Colonel; I think if he liked it was done, but there was no general order, I am convinced, as to boiling water.

20622. (Sir George Taubman-Goldie.) Do you not think it would be a simple thing to have interesting lectures given at the different recreation rooms at barracks, showing the microbes and impurities in water ?

I do not know that familiarity might not breed contempt.

20623. In addition to the men, some of the younger officers know nothing about the danger of microbes?

No; but I am quite sure that if the soldier was told he would be punished if he drank that water, he would take a direct interest in microbes then.

20624. We have had it on the highest authority that it was impossible to keep him from drinking it?

I think a military offence he will never commit.

20625. (Sir John Jackson.) Do you think it would be an advantage if in time of peace you had something in the shape of a retaining fee for medical men in consideration of which in time of war you should have a call on their services?

I think a mere registry, with promise of employment under a high scale of wage, would do it without the retaining fee, and I think that money might be saved.

20626. But a man gets on in his profession, and while he may be quite eager to go to war this year, five years hence he is in a good practice, and he does not feel inclined to go?

He need not bind himself to go, but he would put his name down, and he would have the refusal, and I think so many men would do that that you would find you would have enough for your purpose.

20627. Competent men?

You would have an opportunity of examining into their antecedents and character a little if they put their names down on a registry.

20628. But do you not think you would stand a chance of getting better men if under such an arrangement as I have suggested the Government could call upon men who in many cases would have had experience and had got on in their profession?

I think that would be the ideal way, but the country seems to be put great expense over many things, and it is a question if it could be afforded.

20629. (Chairman.) Is there anything more you would like to add?

I do not think so.