Conan Doyle’s war

Conan Doyle’s War
an edited selection of “The British campaign in France and Flanders”
by Arthur Conan Doyle
one of the series “Great writers on the Great War”
published by Amberley Publishing, 2014
ISBN 978 1 4456 4201 7
cover price – £7.99
Paperback, 160pp. Illustrated.
reviewed by Chris Baker

This book is an abridged version of Volume 1 of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s “The British campaign in France and Flanders”, which was published in 1916. It covers the actions of the British Expeditionary Force from the first clash at Mons, up to the end of the First Battle of Ypres and the final flickering of failed small-scale British offensives in December 1914. Its original publication was of course while the war was still in progress and many of the participants of the events were still alive. The author was by that time in his mid-50s and very well known from his Sherlock Holmes detective fiction.

As we might expect, the writing is excellent: fluid, compelling and easy to digest. What is perhaps more surprising is that, presumably without access to official records, the author produced a passable history that in terms of factual accuracy passes the test of time very well. Conan Doyle mentions in a preface that he drew upon “first hand sources” but is not specific in telling us what they were. He also read Hamilton’s “The first seven divisions” and Coleman’s “Mons to Ypres”, both of which are well presented, solid works on the BEF in the first months of the war.

The author was of course writing while the enemy remained to be defeated, and before the BEF’s casualty lists rocketed and war increasingly became one of a test of industrial might. We might have expected an element of individual heroism, patriotism and call to duty to run throughout the work, but this is not the case: it is remarkably balanced, with German feats and heroism also acknowledged and with no trace of a gung-ho tone.

This is a handy little paperback edition. For anyone new to the subject, “Conan Doyle’s war” would make a good, reliable, one-sitting introduction. Original hardbacks can be found on the used market should the reader wish to see an unedited edition, and Hamilton’s and Coleman’s works are also generally easy to find.