Arthur Conan Doyle- Historian
The man remembered for Sherlock Holmes was not only a novelist, but a contemporary historian as well.
Searching for a good history of WWI in the Widener Library, I stumbled across his 5-volume his of the war. I decided to see whether his writing ability carried over to this new field.
One might expect that a man famous as a novelist would deliver a gripping narrative full of beautiful prose, but one lacking in historical accuracy and a thorough understanding of the political situation and military tactics.
One would, however, be wrong on all counts.
Conan Doyle wrote 1914 like a traditional historian. His prose mostly consists of precise descriptions of military actions- X unit attacked Y place on D date for R reason, and sustained ABC casualties. But he demonstrates a thorough knowledge of tactics, strategy and politics.
1914 was written and published in 1916, while the war still raged. Conan Doyle admits that his narrative is handicapped by a lack of information about the enemy and the allies. For this reason, his focus is on the British Expeditionary Force.
For a book written during an ongoing war, it is surprisingly fair. The author continually praises the courage of the German forces. He admits that “Germany was grievously handicapped at sea, and that she deserves the more credit for whatever she accomplished.” The book is not exactly wartime propoganda. His criticisms of Germany are restricted to the same sort impartial people made in hindsight- that invading a small, neutral country, sinking civilian ships, and wearing enemy uniforms are not good things to do. When he does editorialize, however, his words are passionate:
“The German representative at Brussels was perjuring his soul”
“The long-meditated crime had been done, and, with loud appeals to God, Germany began her fateful campaignby deliberate perjury and arrogant disdain for treaties. God accepted the appeal, and swiftly showed how the weakest State with absolute right upon its side may bring to naught all the crafty plottings of the strong.”
The author, like so many others, struggled to understand why the war started, and especially what could have brought English and Germans to fight each other.
“Up to the year 1896 there was a great deal of sympathy and of respect in Great Britain for the German Empire. It was felt that of all Continental Powers she was the one which was most nearly allied to Britain in blood, religion and character.”
He expressed continued consternation that two branches of the German race should be warring against one another, that the Saxons who went upriver should, after only 1500 years, be so different from those who went across the sea. He notes how English regiments would find on the corpses of their Hanoverian enemies insignia matching their own, from campaigns when they had served together.
He lays the blame for the English-German estrangement on the Kaiser, the construction of a massive German navy- and on the most dangerous people of all, fellow writers.
“a number of writers, of whom Nietzsche and Treitschke are the best known, had inoculated the German spirit with a most mischievous philosophy, which grew the more rapidly as it was dropped into the favourable soil of Prussian militarism. Nietzsche’s doctrines were a mere general defence of might as against right, and of violent brutality against everything which we associate with Christianity and Civilization….. The typical brute whom he exalted was blond, but a brute of any other tint would presumably suffice. It was different in the case of Treitschke….. he taught the rising generation of Germans that their special task was to have a reckoning with England and to destroy the British Empire, which for some reason he imagined to be degenerate and corrupt.”
Writing often exerts a power of the minds of men. With such power comes the potential for great danger. Why is it that the German writers of the nineteenth century, Nietzsche, Trietschke, and Marx, could sow so much sorrow in the twentieth? Will books of such power, for good or evil, ever again be written?
Moving back to more definite matters. As he wrote this book in 1916, Arthur Conan Doyle could still speak unashamedly of war in terms of honor and chivalry. He constantly praises self-sacrificing courage on the part of the troops. He refers hundreds of times to “gallant” officers, even as the absurdly high casualty rate meant that most references were to their deaths. Modern war, with its accurate rifles and its machine guns, did not permit many people to survive long enough for a real narrative to coalesce around them. But the author tries his best to see purpose and courage and avoid the words like “pointless”, “futile”, and “stupid”, to which men would soon turn. He could still speak of
“the days when the high gods of virility would smile as they looked down upon the chosen children of Odin, the English and the Germans, locked in the joy of battle.”