Part One, Conan Doyle’s letters to The Times
Written by Philip Abbott, Archives and Records Manager at the Royal Armouries.
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle is best known as the creator of the great detective Sherlock Holmes, although he received his knighthood not for his contribution to English literature, but for defending Britain’s conduct of the Boer War (1899-1902). When the First World War broke out he was one of a number of famous authors who were secretly recruited by the War Propaganda Bureau to write in support of the Government’s view of the war, and to promote Britain’s interests at home and abroad. However, Conan Doyle also used his fame to campaign on behalf of British soldiers who were “fighting for the freedom of the world”.
In the first half of 1915 the British Army suffered 65,250 casualties during the Second Battle of Ypres (22 April – 25 May), and a further 27,809 in the Second Battle of Artois (9 May – 18 June). Conan Doyle wrote to The Times suggesting that either the generals change their tactics, or the troops be supplied with helmets and armour to reduce the number of casualties. He reminded readers of the Australian outlaw, Ned Kelly, who had used homemade armour to resist arrest, and the numerous instances where a bullet had become lodged in a watch, cigarette case or bible carried in a breast pocket, and so had saved a man’s life. He also proposed that on those occasions where troops were asked to attack a heavily defended positions, large shields made of armour plate and mounted on wheels could be used, linked together in a manner similar to a Roman testudo, to provide a large body of troops with complete protection from enemy fire.
Conan Doyle’s received a number of responses to his letter, and after making a summary of the ideas he had received, he forwarded them to the War Office. He eventually received a reply from Ernest Moir, (see below) Comptroller of the Munitions Inventions Department (MID) at the new Ministry of Munitions. Moir explained some of the difficulties of producing bullet proof armour, and the additional burden that infantrymen would have to carry on top of their existing weapons and equipment. However, he was not entirely unsympathetic to Conan Doyle’s concerns, and asked his views on the usefulness of light shrapnel proof armour, which was then “under consideration”. Conan Doyle was evidently willing to engage in an exchange of ideas, but the next letter he received from the MID this time from Colonel Henry Goold Adams was less than cordial. Goold Adams calculated that the weight of armour required to protect a man completely would be 300 pounds, and concluded rather brusquely, “it is obvious that such a weight would be prohibitive”.
A lesser man might have been persuaded to drop the matter, but Conan Doyle’s concern was not entirely impersonal. His wife’s brother, Captain Malcolm Leckie, Royal Army Medical Corps, had died of wounds during the retreat from Mons in 1914; his nephew, Lieutenant Oscar Hornburg, Essex Regiment, was killed on 6 July 1915 when the trench he was sheltering in was struck by a shell, and his brother-in-law, L.W.S. Oldham, Royal Engineers, was shot by a sniper a few days later.
When his son, Kingsley, was seriously wounded twice in the neck by shrapnel, on the first day of the Battle of the Somme, he wrote again to The Times and The Observer reviving his ideas. This letter, seen below, was published one hundred years ago today on the 28th July 1916. Conan Doyle pointed out that the adoption of the steel helmet had already significantly reduced instances of head wounds from shrapnel, and maintained that armour, either in the form of a large heavy plate covering the body from the neck to the thigh, or a smaller plate covering just the heart, would have a similar impact in minimising casualties from rifle and machine gun fire. He further developed his ideas about infantry attacking heavily defended positions, and argued that the assault troops should be equipped with either armour or shields, and armed with grenades and automatic pistols, which they would use to suppress the enemy’s fire; the follow-up wave being armed with rifles to capture the trench.
Conan Doyle also wrote personally to David Lloyd George and at the end of July he received a brief letter from the Secretary of State for War, assuring him that, “I am at the moment paying special attention to the subject of Shields”, and adding, “If you have any ideas on this subject I shall be very grateful if you will let me have them, and you may depend upon it that they shall receive careful consideration”.
At the beginning of September he received a lengthier response from Lloyd George (see below) informing him that serious efforts were being made to develop armour and assuring Conan Doyle that he would not lose sight of the matter, promising to discuss it with Sir Douglas Haig when he visited France in the next few days. Lloyd George noted that, “strange to say, our great difficulty is to get the soldiers at the Front to take [body armour] into use”, and had to admit that the production of bullet proof armour remained difficult, “without throwing an impossible weight on the soldier”.
Conan Doyle had one further opportunity to press his case when he was invited to have breakfast with Lloyd George, now Prime Minister, in April 1917. It was an informal affair, and while the premier poured out the tea, he helped himself to bacon and eggs, and then dished up the same for Lloyd George. They discussed a number of subjects, including the use of armour, and as he was leaving Downing Street, Conan Doyle sat down in one of the hall chairs, much to the surprise of the butler, and wrote out a few notes on the subject, which he asked to be delivered to the Prime Minister. It was his last contribution to the campaign he had begun two years previously.
His concern over the heavy casualties being suffered on the Western Front were prompted by Conan Doyle’s humanitarian nature and personal loss, and his ideas on body armour and shields were a thoughtful response to the unusual circumstances brought about by trench warfare. However, the nature of warfare had already begun to change with the appearance of the first tanks on the battlefield at Flers-Courcelette on 15 September 1916. His interest was not forgotten, and in June 1917 he was invited to a secret meeting with Sir Albert Stern, who briefed him on their development. The following year, during a visit to the Front, he witnessed an attack by the Australian and Canadian Divisions, “with the tanks leading the British line, as Boadicea’s chariots did of old.”