Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Monday, April 24, 2017

It's Elementary: Conan Doyle on the Coming Danger of U-boats

Conan Doyle at Work

The most accurate prewar prognosticator of the threat presented to England by German U-boats was none other than Arthur Conan Doyle.  After visiting Germany in 1911, Conan Doyle began to study German war literature. He saw that the submarine and the airplane were going to be important factors in the next war. He was particularly concerned about the threat of submarines blockading food shipments to Britain. 

Convinced that this was a vital precaution, Conan Doyle eventually took his idea to the public in the form of a story, "Danger! Being the Log of Captain John Sirius" that originally appeared in the July 1914 edition of The Strand Magazine. The story dealt with a conflict between Britain and a fictional country called Norland.  In the story, Norland is able to bring Britain to its knees by the use of a small submarine fleet. Its opening passage was an eye-opener:

“It is an amazing thing that the English, who have the reputation of being a practical nation, never saw the danger to why they were exposed. For many years they had been spending nearly a hundred millions a year upon their army and their fleet…Yet when the day of trial came, all this imposing force was of no use whatever, and might as well have not existed.”  
— Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, “Danger!” (The Strand Magazine, July 1914)

Doyle’s proposals, given voice in the imagined Times leader, included: reformation of agriculture and trade policies to provide “sufficient food to at least keep life in her [Britain’s] population;” construction of “two double-lined railways under the Channel” to facilitate movement of goods and, presumably, armies; and “the building of large fleets of merchant submarines for the carriage of food.” Clearly, Doyle’s major concern was with having enough food to feed the nation during hostile times.

Sadly, Conan Doyle's warnings were ignored, at least by the British. German officials were later quoted as saying that the idea of the submarine blockade came to them after hearing Conan Doyle's warnings against such an event. How much of that statement was truth and how much was propaganda designed to cause conflict within Britain is not known.

From: and Continuum, Newsletter of the University of Minnesota Libraries


  1. Excellent post! "Railways under the channel...." Who would have thought?

  2. Many of our more patriotic types, especially those who voted for Brexit, are highly suspicious of the Channel Tunnel, thinking that it allows in too many foreigners and could be used to invade us in the future. Interesting therefore that over 100 years ago, Conan Doyle saw it as our salvation in times of crisis.

  3. Just because it is a tunnel, does not preclude IT from being blown up. Then repair during a European war would have been impossible. But self sufficiency and supply subs were more reasonable for the time. But German WWI subs proved to be limited in number and capabilities for the task then.