Upon the outbreak of World War One the famous author and creator of Sherlock Holmes, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, tried to enlist in the military stating, ‘I am 55 but I am very strong and hardy, and can make my voice audible at great distances, which is useful at drill.’
His offer was politely turned down but Sir Arthur - who lived in Crowborough - went on to contribute to the war effort in many different ways. In fact, he was active in the defence of his country several years before hostilities even commenced.
In 1911 he participated in an automobile event organised by Prince Henry of Prussia. Known as the Prince Henry Tour, the contest matched British and German marques on a route from Hamburg to London. Each of the 90 cars involved carried a military observer from the opposite team. Conan Doyle detected a very hostile attitude in many of the Germans he met.
Alarmed by what he’d witnessed, Conan Doyle began to study German war literature and from this he deduced that the submarine and airplane were going to be key weapon platforms in the next war. He became very concerned about the threat of submarines blockading food shipments to Britain.
Conan Doyle backed a proposal for a tunnel under the English Channel linking England to the Continent. He reasoned that a tunnel would ensure that Britain couldn’t be isolated from the rest of Europe in wartime and would provide increased tourism revenues in peacetime.
His plea for urgent action went unheeded, at least by the British. Seizing on a propaganda opportunity the Germans later claimed that the idea of a submarine blockade came to them only after reading Conan Doyle’s warnings!
After being turned down for military service, the writer sought to organise civilian volunteers into defence units. They were the Dad’s Army of the Great War.
Conan Doyle’s unit eventually became the Crowborough Company of the Sixth Royal Sussex Volunteer Regiment. He turned down an offer to command the force and insisted instead on joining as a humble private. This was his way of demonstrating that everyone was equal when it came to defending the motherland.
In the first few weeks of the war three British cruisers were lost. The 1,400 men aboard the ships were lost as well. An appalled Conan Doyle wrote to the War Office and the press urging that each sailor be given an ‘inflatable rubber belt’ to assist sailors should their vessels be sunk. His campaign met with success and inflatable rubber collars, the forerunner of today’s lifejackets, were issued to the Royal Navy.
Conan Doyle went on to champion the installation of lifeboats on warships and urged that body armour be issued to frontline soldiers.
His campaigning wasn’t always popular with the authorities. But one important supporter happened to be the First Sea Lord of the Admiralty. His name was Winston Churchill.