Conan Doyle’s Premonitions of War

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Prophecies and Premonitions of the First World War

A month before Britain declared war on Germany, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle published an astonishingly accurate description of how the war would develop in a new and previously unimagined way.

Author Envisages Unrestricted Submarine Warfare

‘Singularly prophetic.’

The short story ‘Danger! Being the Log of Captain John Sirius’ was published in The Strand Magazine in July 1914, outlining the threat posed by unrestricted submarine warfare. A panel of naval experts had been invited to contribute their opinions and most of them laughed at the idea, but, as Doyle later wrote, it turned out to be ‘singularly prophetic’.

Conan Doyle’s belief in spiritualism is well known, but few are aware that he had several psychic experiences of his own, especially ones that were directly related to the war.

‘I have an occasional power of premonition.’

‘Danger!’ was not only prophetic in a metaphorical sense, according to Conan Doyle, ‘I have an occasional power of premonition, psychic rather than intellectual, which exercises itself beyond my control, and which when it really comes is never mistaken.’ With this rare gift he said that he ‘saw as clearly as possible what the course of a naval war between England and Germany would be’. His vision was of a small submarine fleet starving Britain into submission by sinking food-supply ships; as it happened, this is exactly what Germany tried to do.

Conan Doyle’s Family in Wartime

Conan Doyle’s family would be deeply affected by the war. Sir Arthur was initially pre-occupied with setting up his Civilian Volunteers while Lady Conan Doyle ran a home for Belgian refugees. Mary, Conan Doyle’s daughter, went to work in the Vickers munitions factory and Kingsley, Conan Doyle’s eldest son, enlisted in the Royal Army Medical Corps.

Also serving during the war were Conan Doyle’s brother Innes, his two brothers-in-law – Malcolm Leckie and Leslie Oldham – and two nephews – Oscar Hornung and Alec Forbes – as well as his private secretary Alfred Herbert ‘Woodie’ Wood, the man often believed to be the model for Dr Watson.

A Member of the Society for Psychical Research

Remembered chiefly as the creator of arch-sleuth Sherlock Holmes, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was also a member of the Society for Psychical Research, an organisation for the scientific study of what we now call the paranormal established in 1882. Conan Doyle had joined in 1893 and had even investigated a haunted house with other members in 1894.

Conan Doyle had been a supporter of spiritualism for many years, but it was the effect of his experiences during the war that made him come out publicly about his belief.

Conan Doyle Dreams of the Battle of Piave

As well as spiritualism, Conan Doyle was involved in a number of supernatural adventures, including investigating a poltergeist on the homefront. One of his personally most significant experiences was his dream-premonition of a great battle at Piave in Italy where the Italians won a decisive victory against the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1918.

Of course, all this was nothing to what was to come. As Conan Doyle travelled the country preaching the spiritualist message, his brother and eldest son were in the thick of the fighting and what became of them only served to reinforce his faith.

Conan Doyle may have seen the beginning of the war, but it was the end that would, tragically, surprise him.

Pictured (left): Sir Arthur Conan Doyle by Walter Bennington (1914). British photographer Walter Benington was a member of the Linked Ring and, as well as exhibiting in the National Portrait Gallery, worked as a freelance photographer for Elliott & Fry in Baker Street, London.

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