Arthur Conan Doyle in World War I

sherlock holmes parodies

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We’re going to do something a little different for the next couple of weeks. Instead of running parodies and pastiches, I want to reprint brief essays about Arthur Conan Doyle and World War I from “Sherlock Holmes Great War Parodies and Pastiches II: 1915-1919.”

As readers of the 223B Casebook Series know, each year begins with a summary of Arthur Conan Doyle’s life during that year. They’re a little more detailed than a Wikipedia entry, but shorter than an actual biography. I tried to strike a balance between getting in the highlights, and also the anecdotes that help to shape our understanding of the man.

This week, you’ll get two essays from 1915 and 1916. Next week, it’ll be 1917 and 1918, followed by 1919 and a parody from that year after that. This will cover his support for the British Army during World War I, the deaths of family members, and his public conversion to Spiritualism that will define his course for the rest of his life.

Sherlock Holmes Great War Parodies and Pastiches II: 1914-1919” is available at all fine online book and ebook sellers, plus New York City’s Mysterious Bookshop. Want to read more parodies and pastiches? The complete list can be found here.


With his characteristic gusto, Conan Doyle threw himself into supporting Britain in World War I. Rejected from serving as a soldier at age 55, he continued drilling with a volunteer unit, going on route marches and even pulling a shift guarding German prisoners of war. As he did with the Boer War, he began a history of the conflict, soliciting letters from the generals and collecting information from the newspapers. He turned his notes into a lecture, and by March, his “Great Battles of the War” tour was taking him from Scotland to London.

conan doyle great war

A newspaper in Ogden, Utah, announced publication of “The Valley of Fear” on its front page. Click to embiggen.

In May, he received a grim confirmation of his prediction that German submarines would attack ships to starve Britain into surrendering. Without warning, the Lusitania was torpedoed off the coast of Ireland. Of the 1,962 passengers and crew, 1,191 died, including 128 Americans. Propaganda branded the Germans as barbarians, and the U.S. considered entering the war. Conan Doyle was criticized when reporters inside Germany quoted military sources claiming they got the idea from him. He wrote a letter defending himself, “The Strand” backed him up, and the “stupid business,” as he termed it blew over.

In June, “The Valley of Fear” was published in book form. As in “A Study in Scarlet,” Conan Doyle chose to tell two stories, one a murder solved by Sherlock Holmes, and then the events leading up to it that took place in Pennsylvania decades before. The Valley of Fear disappointed some fans who wanted a novel about Holmes, not half of a two-novella package.

Meanwhile, the war brought more tragedy to the family: in July the only son of sister Mary Doyle and E.W. Hornung was shot in the head and killed. Also killed in battle was Maj. Leslie Oldham, his other sister’s husband, and Alex Forbes, the son of his wife’s sister. Conan Doyle grieved and soldiered on, writing Mary that her son “died a hero’s death” and working Oldham’s name into his history. He could take fearful comfort that his younger brother Innes and his son Kingsley were still alive. As for his mother, the redoubtable Ma’am, the death of her first grandchild was a hard blow to suffer at 78. It would not be the last.

Publications: Holmes in “The Strand”: “The Valley of Fear” (Sept. 1914-May 1915). Holmes: “The Valley of Fear” (June).

conan doyle valley of fear

First U.S. edition Valley of Fear cover, left, and the Hard Case Crime edition.


This was a momentous year in Conan Doyle’s life, full of hard work, moral campaigns, and the launch of a crusade that would alter his public reputation.

Conan Doyle's advocacy of body armor for British troops was considered newsworthy in America. Click to embiggen.

Conan Doyle’s advocacy of body armor for British troops was considered newsworthy in America. Click to embiggen.

In April, the first installment of “The British Campaign in France and Flanders” was published in “The Strand.” To write his history, he drew on a wealth of documentation, including correspondence with nearly fifty generals. Apart from assimilating all this information quickly, the only problem he had were with the censors, who seemed determined to sabotage him. Their interference had gotten so bad the previous year that he considered abandoning the project. He understood that attention to the war must come first, but it was discouraging, and he was relieved when editor Greenhough Smith told him the opening chapters had been cleared for publication. As for another Holmes story it was impossible, he wrote Smith, “I can’t attune my mind to fiction, I’ve tried but I can’t.”

In the meantime, Italian officials asked Conan Doyle to visit their front. He jumped at the chance to gather first-hand information, expanded their request to include the French lines, and wrestled with the Foreign Office’s request that he appear in uniform. Remembering his appointment as Deputy-Lieutenant of Surrey, he designed a suitable outfit that created “an awe-inspiring effect” when he visited the lines.

In France, he slogged through trenches and ate and drank tea with the troops. He saw that French soldiers were given badges when they were wounded, and passed the idea along to the War Office. Soon, British soldiers began sporting wound stripes. As in the Boer War, he came face to face with the aftermath of battle: mutilated horses, a wounded man with blood spouting from the stump of an arm, and a body “drenched crimson from head to foot, with two great glazed eyes looking upwards through a mask of blood.”

He spent several days with Innes, who introduced him to his fellow officers and took him to see Ypres, the Belgian town where the British Expeditionary Force saw much of the fighting. After leaving Innes, Conan Doyle was given a surprise by Sir Douglas Haig. Arriving by car at a French village, he saw “a tall young officer standing with his back turned. He swung round at the noise of the car, and it was my boy Kingsley with his usual jolly grin upon his weather-stained features. The long arm of GHQ had stretched out and plucked him out of a trench, and there he was.”

The meeting lasted an hour, long enough for Kingsley to describe the next big offensive. He was cheerful and light-hearted as usual. Within weeks after their meeting, Kingsley would spend ten nights preparing for the offensive by sneaking out to the German lines and marking where the barbed wire was uncut. By the beginning of July, Conan Doyle heard that his son had been wounded in the neck by shrapnel. He would spend the next several months recuperating in England.

Meanwhile, he found a new crusade in the treasonous activities of an old acquaintance. In April, a German U-boat landed Sir Roger Casement on the western coast of Ireland. For the last year, he had been in Germany plotting to free India and Ireland from British rule. He tried to raise a battalion from Irish prisoners of war, but they remained disappointingly loyal. His latest scheme involved getting the Germans to supply arms to Irish nationalists planning an uprising over Easter. But as the time approached he realized the support was not enough, and he had returned to urge his revolutionary brethren to cancel the revolt. Shortly after landing, a chance encounter with a policeman resulted in his capture.

His death sentence for treason sparked opposition among those who didn’t want another martyr for the Irish cause. Among them were Conan Doyle, who had worked with him when, as Counsel in the Belgian Congo, Casement tried to open the world’s eyes to the atrocities committed in the name of imperialism. To Conan Doyle, turning away from Britain in its time of national peril meant Casement was insane, and he rallied support on his behalf.

To the government, this was serious. It was one thing for a Socialist crank like George Bernard Shaw to oppose the government; Conan Doyle was loyal to King and country. The government fought back by secretly revealing Casement’s diaries to his supporters in which he recounted his homosexual affairs. His supporters faded, leaving Conan Doyle to stand alone, convinced that his homosexuality was further proof of his friend’s madness.

The campaign failed. Casement marched to his hanging, said one observer, “with the dignity of a prince,” and contemptuous of Conan Doyle’s attempt to cast him as a madman. Ireland had another martyr.

The year was also marked by Conan Doyle’s concern for his family’s well-being. As his mother approached her 80th year, she was happy but growing frail, and he prayed for a “swift and painless” end. As his son recovered from his wounds and prepared to return to the front, he expressed the belief that he was “destined for something if he lives.” But in a rare moment of reflection, he admitted that he knew nothing of his son’s inner life: “He lives behind a very tight mask and all his real interests and thoughts are concealed from me.”

In the meantime, he continued to work on his war history, interrupted only by more lectures. He was asked to consider standing for parliament for Edinburgh and St. Andrews Universities. He was willing, despite his distaste for campaigning, but was relieved when circumstances changed and he could decline graciously.

Besides, he had a greater mission in mind, one as noble and true as that which animated “Sir Nigel.” In November, “Light” magazine published “A New Revelation,” in which he proclaimed his conviction, after three decades of study and investigation, that the afterlife existed and its inhabitants are communicating with us. “We should now be at the close of the stage of investigation,” he wrote, “and beginning the period of religious construction.” His future course was set.

Publications: “A Visit to Three Fronts” (Aug.); “The British Campaign in France and Flanders, Vol. 1” (Nov.); “A New Revelation” (Nov.).