Conan Doyle led campaign to issue Somme troops with body armour

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SIR Arthur Conan Doyle led a campaign to provide British troops at the Somme with body armour, a new exhibition reveals.

Doyle is best known as the creator of the world’s most famous sleuth Sherlock Holmes.

But an exhibition launched today in Leeds will celebrate a lesser-known aspect of the Edinburgh-born author’s life.

Appalled by the men dying in their droves in WWI Doyle launched a campaign to provide them with armour which could protect them from shrapnel and grenades.

He also suggested providing soldiers with metal shields – an idea that would go on to become the tank.

As the war began troops were not even equipped with metal helmets – resulting in huge casualties from machine guns and devastating artillery fire.

Doyle around 1904
Doyle around 1904

Outraged by the 65,000 British casualties at the second battle of Ypres in 1915, Doyle wrote an open letter calling for the introduction of helmets and armour.

Philip Abbott is the archivist at the Royal Armouries – which is hosting the display of letters and photographs.

He said: “Conan Doyle’s concern over the heavy casualties being suffered on the Western Front was prompted by his humanitarian nature and his ideas on helmets, body armour and shields were a thoughtful response to the impact on soldiers brought about by trench warfare.”

Many officials dismissed his arguments for the protective measures – but Doyle had samples of the equipment sent to his home, where he tested them with his own service rifle.

He also had the backing of David Lloyd George – then minister of munitions – who pushed for further research to be carried out.

Mr Abbott said there was a “clear link” between Doyle’s open letters and “Lloyd George in 1915 sending out memos saying, ‘I want a report on armour, I want a report on shields.’”

By September 1916 50,000 pieces of body armour had arrived on the Western Front.

They consisted of steel plates in a canvas bag that protected the wearer from shrapnel, but was not quite bullet proof.

It was generally only used by raiding parties and sentries – but there is anecdotal evidence that armour like this saved dozens of lives in the trenches.

One account recalls how an officer wearing the armour dived on a grenade thrown into their trench, surviving the explosion and saving the lives of everyone around him.

The exhibition consists of photographs and letters about Doyle’s campaign.

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