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Professor Walker's shield
Professor Walker's shield

How Sir Arthur Conan Doyle helped save WW1 soldiers

A new exhibition is coming to Sheffield’s Local Studies and Archives Library which tells the tale of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and his campaign to save the lives of British soldiers fighting in the First World War.

Sir Conan Doyle is famous as the creator of the fictional detective Sherlock Holmes. But he’s less well known for his campaign to reduce casualties during the First World War, when he used his fame to help those “fighting for the freedom of the world”.

The exhibition, funded by a grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund, tells the story of that campaign and Doyle’s call for troops to be protected with armour. It draws on the writer’s personal papers held at the Royal Armouries in Leeds and records of steel makers held by Sheffield City Archives.

It was Sir Robert Hadfield of Hadfields Limited, Sheffield, who suggested using toughened manganese steel for the Tommies’ new helmet because, although it would dent when hit by bullets or shrapnel, it would not shatter. The same steel was later used in body armour.

Conan Doyle’s campaign started when, appalled by the 65,000 British casualties at the second battle of Ypres in 1915, he wrote a letter printed in The Times (27 July 1915) stating that helmets and armour would reduce the number of wounds caused by shrapnel, rifle and machine gun fire. This was the start of a campaign which lasted throughout the war, attracting the attention of the war time government.

His letters also led to a response from manufacturing firms making armour for private purchase by British officers who boasted that they used only the finest Sheffield steel. Many sent Conan Doyle samples of their armour which he tested in his garden at Crowborough with his own service rifle.

Dayfield Body Shield 1Philip Abbott, Archivist at the Royal Armouries, said. “Conan Doyle’s concern over the heavy casualties being suffered on the Western Front was prompted by his humanitarian nature. His ideas on helmets, body armour and shields were a thoughtful response to the impact on soldiers brought about by trench warfare.

“Today most people remember the writer for his fictional work but this was a cause he pursued with great energy and passion throughout the war through the newspapers and lobbying directly with the government of the time.”

At the exhibition people will be able to see some of the letters sent to Conan Doyle, a replica of the one of the body armours made for soldiers in Sheffield, as well as photographs telling the story of the famous author’s campaign to save the lives of British troops.

Councillor May Lea, Cabinet Member for Culture, Parks and Leisure at Sheffield Council, said: “We’re delighted this exhibition is coming to Sheffield.

“Sir Conan Doyle was a fascinating man for many reasons and his work to bring body armour and helmets to soldiers on the Front undoubtedly saved lives.

“The exhibition is particularly interesting due to the Sheffield connection.

“Our historical events in the libraries are always well attended and we hope people enjoy this new exhibition.”

Free talk by Philip Abbott, Archivist at the Royal Armouries

The exhibition includes a free talk at Sheffield’s Local Studies and Archives Library on Wednesday 11 October at 1.30pm by Philip Abbott, Archivist at the Royal Armouries.  Booking your place for the talk is advised at www.sheffieldlibraries.eventbrite.co.uk

New exhibition

Sheffield’s Local Studies and Archives Library,Thursday 13 September – Christmas 2017