Sherlock And The Soldiers Three…
The Old Man, the family black sheep, left high school and a comfortable home, to bum about the country during the Great Depression. On the other hand, my mother dutifully completed her secondary education at Abraham Lincoln High School in Brooklyn, New York. Bustling about from class to class it is conceivable that she may have bumped into contemporary Lincoln alumni a young future cinema and television actor John Forsyth or a teenager who became playwright Arthur Miller-perhaps more famous for his wife Marilyn Monroe than Death of a Salesman.
Despite their differing secondary educations reading was always a high priority for them in the home they created for my brother, my sister, and me. One of my fondest childhood memories is of a narrow bookshelf that fit neatly into an alcove next to my father’s favorite chair in our living room. It contained several matched sets of literary classics, one bound in leather and the other a more traditional hardbound collection.
One leathern bound volume was a collection of Rudyard Kipling poems and stories which spent many an hour with me, flashlight in hand, concealed under the bedcovers, reading well past my elementary school bedtime. The hardbound anthology of Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories received the same attention.
To the detriment of my grades pleasure reading and rifle shooting occupied much of my time during high school. And, oddly enough, those two British authors had an interesting relationship to both of my distracting pastimes.
Kipling and Doyle were mutual admirers and casual friends, Doyle having been a house guest of Kipling. Early in 1900 at the start of the Boer War they both headed to Field Marshal Lord Frederick Sleigh Roberts’s headquarters in Bloemfontein, South Africa. Kipling spent six weeks working on the staff of The Bloemfontein Friend, a military newspaper. The two missed each other as Kipling left a day before Doyle, a physician, arrived to work at the Langman Hospital.
The British public was aghast at the poor standard of marksmanship of the army compared to that of the Boers. It was much like the evaluation of the US Army’s poor marksmanship following the Civil War which prompted George Wood Wingate and William Conant Church to found the National Rifle Association of America.
Kipling and Doyle returned home from South Africa just as British Prime Minister Lord Salisbury took steps to bolster Tommy Atkins’ skill, or lack thereof, with the rifle. Salisbury called for the formation of civilian rifle clubs and within a year ninety-two were formed, among them Kipling`s club at Rottingdean and Doyle`s Undershaw Rifle Club. Because the two men had differing philosophies on marksmanship training Rottingdean was a full 1,000 yards, reflecting Kipling’s support of military style shooting training. Doyle more pragmatic, and perhaps more land poor, built Undershaw out to only 100 yards and dedicated it to training with the miniature rifle, what we call today smallbore.
Putting their pens where their mouths were, both men featured marksmanship in their writings. In the Sherlock Holmes adventure, The Musgrave Ritual Dr. John Watson observed that his flat-mate,”in one of his queer humours, would sit in an arm-chair with his hair-trigger and a hundred Boxer cartridges, and proceed to adorn the opposite wall with a patriotic V. R. done in bullet-pocks”. Watson dryly comments that he had always held that pistol practice should be distinctly an open-air pastime and felt strongly that neither the atmosphere nor the appearance of the room was improved by it. Who are we to disagree?
Kipling’s vignette about an adventure of his Privates Three relates that,
Ortheris suddenly rose to his knees, his rifle at his shoulder, and peered at the valley in the clear afternoon light. His chin cuddled the stock, and there was a twitching of the muscles of the right cheek as he sighted; Private Stanley Ortheris was engaged on his business. A speck of white crawled up the watercourse.
‘See that beggar? Got ’im.’
Seven hundred yards away, and a full two hundred down the hillside, the deserter of the Aurangabadis pitched forward, rolled down a red rock, and lay very still, with his face in a clump of blue gentians, while a big raven flapped out of the pine wood to make investigation.
‘That’s a clean shot, little man,’ said Mulvaney.
Learoyd thoughtfully watched the smoke clear away.
Ortheris did not reply. He was staring across the valley, with the smile of the artist who looks on the completed work.
As you can see, I have a relationship, of sorts, with Kipling and Doyle, and Kipling and Doyle had a relationship with Lord Roberts, but my entanglement with literature and marksmanship does not end there. For, when Noted British rifleman Colonel Thomas Sutton donated The Field Marshall Earl Roberts Trophy, in 1964, for international shoulder to shoulder smallbore prone competition between the United states and Great Britain, he formed yet another link among us.
The Roberts Trophy recognizes Lord Roberts contribution to the shooting sports and the match in his honor is contested at eight year intervals. We are joined because I have had the honor and privilege to be twice part of the United States Roberts Team.