UPPER EAST SIDE — Sir Arthur Conan Doyle is best known as the author of the "Sherlock Holmes" mysteries, but a century ago he was engaged in a very different project.
As a member of the Wellington House, a secret arm of the British Foreign Office, Doyle and 25 other well-known British writers were recruited to create propaganda on behalf of the Allied forces fighting in World War I.
Doyle’s work, along with pieces by Rudyard Kipling and H.G. Wells, is featured in a new literary exhibit at the New York Society Library in honor of the 100th anniversary of WWI.
“This was pre-electronics, pre-television. Not everyone even had a radio,” said Harriet Shapiro, the library’s exhibitions coordinator. “Writing was a way for the government to shape information. Every war does it, and the Great War was no exception.”
“From the Western Front and Beyond: The Writings of World War One,” which opens on Jan. 30, features memoirs, poetry and first-hand accounts of the war written by soldiers, nurses, priests and reporters working on the front lines.
The library acquired most of the books during the war, which inspired an unprecedented literary output. According to Shapiro, people who had never before written poetry or prose found themselves unable to express the horrors they witnessed any other way.
“The victims’ words tumbled out into the world as a result of the unthinkable reality that they were witnessing,” said Shapiro, who traveled last year to France to tour battlefields as part of her extensive research. “Open any of their memoirs, recite any of their poems or read their letters, and you are transported to the war.”
The collection includes early editions of works by Rupert Brooke, Isaac Rosenberg, Wilfred Owen, Robert Graves, and Siegfried Sassoon, poets who found their voices writing about the atrocities of the war.
In addition to almost 30 works of literature, the exhibit will feature drawings of French battlefields by English artist Muirhead Bone. Bone was also recruited by the Wellington House to create images that portrayed the valor and calm control of the Allied soldiers
The New York Society Library is the one of the oldest cultural institutions in the city and has a long history of bearing witness to war, according to head librarian Mark Bartlett. During the Revolutionary War, British soldiers stole books from the library to barter for booze and to use as musket fodder, Bartlett said. During the Civil War, members followed the war news in the reading room.
“World War One, however, was the first war in history to inspire such an unprecedented amount of writing,” he said in a statement. “We’re profoundly moved that we can display this collection 100 years later to commemorate the legacy that sprang from the trenches and bloodstained battlefields of the Great War.”