The Knighting of Arthur Conan Doyle

The Hound of the Baskervilles and The War in South Africa: Its Causes and Conduct were both written in the early 1900’s. The first is one of the most well known Sherlock Holmes stories. The second, while virtually unknown today, is the reason that Arthur Conan Doyle was knighted.

The Boer War, also known as the South African War, broke out in 1899. The governments of the South African Republic and the Orange Free State banded together against Great Britain. The issue of contention was control of the area’s mining and farming resources.

The Boers, European settlers of mainly Dutch ancestry, had superior equipment and tactics. The British had enormously superior numbers. The difference in manpower was so great that Great Britain expected the war to be a short and relatively easy one. They were wrong. The war lasted from 1899 to 1902 and many lives were lost.

During and after the war the Boers accused the British of war crimes. The British were accused of participating in rape, torture and the establishment of concentration camps.

There was no official response from the British government against these charges. However Conan Doyle was so concerned that he took it upon himself to defend the actions of his countrymen. He stated, “In view of the persistent slanders to which our politicians and our soldiers have been equally exposed, it becomes a duty which we owe to our national honour to lay the facts before the world.”

Conan Doyle certainly was familiar with the subject of the Boer War. In 1900 he traveled to South Africa to serve as a doctor in a medical unit treating British troops. After his return he researched and wrote The Great Boer War.

Mafeking, 1899 - During the Boer War

Mafeking, 1899

In the 1902 publication entitled, The War in South Africa: Its Causes and Conduct, Conan Doyle responded to all of the charges leveled against the British. For example, he declared that the “concentration camps” were really refugee camps that the government of Great Britain was duty bound to create.  Housing was needed for the women and children displaced during the war. He admitted that the mortality rate in the camps was high. However he pointed out that this was because of disease rather than bad treatment. Many British troops died from the same cause and so Conan Doyle reasoned that the civilians in the camps were being treated at least as well as Great Britain treated its own troops.

While Conan Doyle called his work a “pamphlet” it was actually around sixty thousand words in length. Amazingly, he completed the work in only eight days.

The work was a success. It was widely read and public opinion about Great Britain’s conduct in the Boer Was softened.  As a result of this contribution to his country’s welfare Conan Doyle was notified that King Edward VII wanted to make him a knight bachelor.

Conan Doyle seriously considered refusing the offer. He did not see why he should receive such recognition for merely doing his duty. His mother, who loved family history and heraldry, was horrified to learn that her son might refuse knighthood. She wrote him and argued that he should accept the honor.

In the end Conan Doyle did decide to accept. On October 24, 1902 Arthur Conan Doyle, because of his services to the Crown, became Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

Learn More

The War in South Africa The War in South Africa: Its Causes and Conduct by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle is available for purchase at Amzon.com.  You may be able to get a Kindle version for free.