Published online by Cambridge University Press: 24 April 2021
‘There’s an east wind coming, Watson.’
‘I think not, Holmes. It is very warm.’
‘Good old Watson! You are the one fixed point in a changing age. There’s an east wind coming all the same, such a wind as never blew on England yet. It will be cold and bitter, Watson, and a good many of us may wither before its blast. But it’s God’s own wind none the less, and a cleaner, better, stronger land will lie in the sunshine when the storm has cleared.’ (Last Bow, 172)
Holmes’s words to Watson at the end of ‘His Last Bow’ (1917) express an idea of warfare that sits uneasily with our contemporary perception of the First World War. Today we are accustomed to associate that war with the horrors of the Western Front: the battles of the Somme (1916) and Passchendaele (1917) loom large in our cultural memory as paradigms of unnecessary bloodshed and strategic incompetence. But this was not how Conan Doyle saw it – and he saw the Western Front at first hand, while both his brother, Brigadier-General Innes ‘Duff’ Doyle, and his son Kingsley were in the thick of the action. At the invitation of the War Office, Doyle toured the British, Italian and French Fronts in 1916, and the Australian Front in 1918, using his authority as Deputy Lieutenant of Surrey to don an improvised khaki uniform ‘which was something between that of a Colonel and Brigadier, with silver roses instead of stars or crowns upon the shoulder-states’. These experiences informed his massive history of the conflict, serialised in the Strand Magazine and published in volume form as The British Campaign in France and Flanders (1916–20), and on which he was hard at work at the same time as writing ‘His Last Bow’. Doyle was especially proud of his unfolding history, claiming that his unique access to British generals ensured that he was ‘the first to describe in print the full battle-lines’. Indeed, he was disappointed that it did not have more impact on reviewers:
I was really the only public source of supply of accurate and detailed information. I can only suppose that they could not believe it to be true . . . my war history, which reflects all the passion and pain of those hard days, has never come into its own.