BACK TO THE GUARDROOM
It is better, if the will of God be so, that ye suffer for well doing, than for evil doing.
1 Peter III, 17.
On the morning of December 8th 1916, immediately our cell doors were unlocked at half past six, we were directed to pack our kits and fall in line, in readiness to proceed to the reception department. Packing our kits consisted of putting the two sheets and our books, including Bible and Prayer Book, in the pillowcase and carrying our letters etc in our hands. In the reception department, a cleaner took our pillowcases and the officer locked us into small cubicles measuring about four by three feet, with nothing but a board opposite the door, to serve as a seat. We were told to undress and then the doors were unlocked one at a time, with the instruction to throw all clothing outside. After checking the completeness of our undress, the officer gave us our own clothes and the doors were locked again. In my own case the military uniform in which I had been forcibly dressed was supplied.
Breakfast consisted of the usual bread and plain porridge and we then entered on what seemed like several hours of tedious waiting, until the military escort arrived from Mill Hill Barracks. During this wait, as to be expected, there was some conversation between us and the officer thought it incumbent upon him to demand silence from time to time, a demand we paid little heed to however. At length the cubicle doors were unlocked and we were taken to the offices at the entrance gate, where our personnel property was restored. Having each been arranged alongside an armed private soldier, the great outer gates were swung open and the sergeant in charge of the escort party gave the order to quick march.
We journeyed to Euston via Willesden and then marched to King’s Cross station where we again entrained for Mill Hill, changing at Finsbury Park and Finchley. Arriving at the barracks we were taken to the orderly room for interview with the Commanding Officer, an interview that turned out to be highly diverting for us, if not for the officer. The Colonel’s words of greeting were, “Well, all you beauties back again?” Then he pointed to Runham-Brown who was at the head of the line and enquired, “Are you still going to be a traitor?” “I’m not a traitor, but …” “You ARE a traitor, are you going to obey military orders now?” “No sir.” Next he pointed to me as I was standing next to Runham-Brown, and continued, “Are you a traitor?” “I’m what you CALL a traitor.” “You ARE a traitor, are you going to obey military orders?” “Not military orders sir.” Then he continued along the line. “And you?” “No sir.” “And you?” “ No sir.” This brought him to the last man, Ralph Tinkler, whom it appeared he knew personally and remarked in quite a dejected tone, “I know you won’t.” All this would have been very amusing if there had not been an air of tragedy about it. It was quite obvious that the poor old Colonel took it very much to heart and one could not help feeling a certain amount of sympathy for him. He finally directed the sergeant to take us all to the guardroom.
On the next day I wrote to my wife and the feelings of ecstasy on being released from the repressive conditions, poured out. I wrote about a bucket of tea, white bread, margarine and jam. And in the morning, bacon and tomatoes. We were back to a land of milk and honey. But I also confirmed my determination to fight to a finish, having left prison feeling a better man, with a deeper, stronger, spiritual faith.
We were under greater constraint with respect to communicating between ourselves, than the previous August. Also we were refused visitors. The officers seemed to be particularly incensed at our inflexible stubbornness and we were driven to all sorts of subterfuges in order to get a few letters out. On one occasion we assisted a soldier prisoner to escape so that he might post a batch of letters for us. The authorities also retained all incoming letters and sent them to the prison by the hand of the escort sergeant. Under these circumstances they were retained by the prison reception department with our property and were not received by us until discharge, many months later. My own wife came all the way from Luton, but was turned away. I was unaware of this, until months later she mentioned it in a letter.
It was clear they were desperately anxious to rush us back to prison and meanwhile they made things as unpleasant as it lay in their power. Nevertheless after our experience of prison life, we felt comparatively free while in the guardroom.
It will be remembered that I had been stripped of my own clothing, which was sent back to Luton during the summer. Therefore I now had no underclothing and the khaki trousers were unlined and none too thick. As a result of the bitterly cold weather that winter, plus the guardroom heating being out of order, at least so we were told, I caught a severe chill and suffered excruciating agony from violent neuralgia. This compelled me to report sick and I was taken to the barracks hospital. The doctor was a humane gentleman by nature and a soldier by persuasion. He was kind and sympathetic as far my physical condition was concerned and quickly relieved my pain, but he mildly upbraided me on my objection to military service. “You needn’t be like this you know,” he said. If you would only obey orders, you would be in circumstances where you could keep fit better.” “That is where I am afraid I can’t agree with you, sir,” I replied. “I have no choice in the matter.” He concluded the conversation by saying, “Ah well, I suppose we will never see eye to eye.”
It appears from a letter that I wrote to my wife about this time, that a question, which exercised my thoughts for many months, now began to agitate my mind. This was whether or not I ought to refuse to carry out the hard labour part of my sentences. Now that I had some practical experience of the penal system, I was concerned that it could not be reconciled with the ethics of Jesus. I had observed that practically all the work in prison, other than that connected with the upkeep of the institution itself, was for the benefit of the army and navy and hence was war service. Was I failing to be consistent by not refusing such work?
New COs were constantly arriving in the guardroom and among these was one who arrived at a time when the Sergeant of the Guard was in a bad temper. The name of this man was Littlejohn and as he was pushed through the doorway, the sergeant exclaimed in irritation, “We’ll tame you. You know we can tame lions in the army.” We were wondering what had annoyed the sergeant and whether or not Littlejohn was the cause of his ruffled temper, when the latter calmly responded with such coolness that it almost amounted to indifference, “Yes I know, but you can’t make lambs fierce.” The wit of this rejoinder so impressed the irate sergeant, that his temper immediately vanished and he gave a hearty laugh, which was echoed by us and also his subordinates, who were no doubt relieved to see his good humour restored. Thus we had a practical demonstration of the truth of Solomon’s proverb that ‘a soft answer turneth away wrath’.
Rough sketch by H Blake of the Guard Room,
Mill Hill Barracks.
We did not spend the whole of our time in idleness, but were from time to time turned out into the exercise yard to make fireballs for the guardroom fire. These commodities were about equal in size to a cricket ball and were composed of clay and very small coal. As much coal being worked into the clay as the latter would take up. The finished balls were mixed with the coal in the grate and ensured a slow burning fire. The process of making them outside in the cold was not pleasant, but at any rate it constituted a break in the monotony of our confinement.
Our morning ablutions were carried out with buckets of cold water in the open exercise yard, sometimes with snow on the ground and with us stripped to the waist. One of our number, Watson, who was quite bald, created great merriment among us by plunging his head right into the bucket, an exploit which as far as I was concerned, made cold shivers run down the back. It is almost needless to say that none of the others emulated his example.
Whose Image and Superscription?
The story of a First World War conscientious objector