Last Sunday I visited All Saints Churchyard in the small village of Minstead in the New Forest, where you can see the grave of Arthur Conan Doyle.
In 'Of All Faiths & None' there is a single reference to Arthur Conan Doyle.
"Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, perhaps the greatest Edwardian, was said by his friend
Mr E.W. Oaten to possess all the characteristics of an English gentleman.
These characteristics were defined as courage, optimism, loyalty, sympathy,
magnanimity, love of truth and devotion to God. Being a friend, he omitted from
the list ‘arrogance’ and ‘folly’. God, however, does not overlook such details and, therefore, while to be healthy and an English gentleman in 1914 was perhaps the greatest privilege bestowed by God, it should not be forgotten that God has a black sense of humour – why otherwise would he have created Death?"
The extract comes from Chapter 19 of the novel and re-introduces the reader to the Kit Drewe, a young English gentleman who is returning from Austria. In the same chapter the history of assassination of Franz Ferdinand is told. It is the very beginning of the Great War.
The description of Conan Doyle by E.W. Oaten is taken from Julian Barnes' book 'Arthur and George' at p.484. It is a perfect description of what it meant to be an English gentleman, both in the Edwardian period and afterwards. Even in the 1960s, as I grew up, these were virtues to which we were told to aspire. However, I have added 'arrogance' and 'folly' to the list because an English gentleman also had a misconceived belief his own superiority to the rest of the world.
In my researches about World War I it became apparent to me that many English gentlemen enlisted without questioning the rights and wrongs of the war. They did so because they had an unfaltering belief in their country. In the first few weeks after war was declared there were thousands of men who enlisted. Many of these came from the playing fields of English public schools, such as Eton. They continued enlisting throughout the course of the war as soon as they were old enough. In the entrance to Eton college there is a plaque in memory to the fallen. 1,157 boys who had gone to school at Eton died in the Great War. Statistically, it appears that if you had gone to Eton, you had about a 20% chance of dying in the Great War.
E.W. Oaten said that a 'devotion to God' is said to be one of the key attributes of an English gentleman. In the Great War the Church of England supported the war against Germany and the realities of the war were downplayed and the fallen soldiers were portrayed as martyrs. The Church of England called it a Holy War of 'right' against 'might'. The battlefields and the war cemeteries of Flanders and France are full of people of all faiths and none. When one walks across them one can only wonder whether there would have been fewer markers if those that guided their faith had told the truth.