If I tell you, ye will not believe: and if I also ask you, ye will not answer me, nor let me go.
Luke XX11, 67-68.
We were not allowed to enjoy this comparative freedom for long. On Sunday morning, December 10th 1916, soon after our breakfast, the door of the common room was unlocked and thrown open by the Sergeant of the Guard. I was called into the outer room, where I found awaiting me a corporal and a private who was to act as a witness of the proceedings. The corporal greeted me in quite a friendly manner and then disclosed the reason for his visit by saying, “I’m going to ask you to come to the Quartermaster’s Stores to fetch your kit. Will you come?”
It will be remembered that when I asked the appeal tribunal, for leave to appeal to the Central Tribunal, I gave as one of the reasons why I could not join the R.A.M.C. that I could not agree to do unnecessary work on Sunday, this being a direct result of my upbringing as a strict Sabbatarian and here I was confronted with this very thing. Accordingly I answered the corporal, “Not on Sunday.” This was not the reply he wanted however, so he further asked me, “But would you come tomorrow, if I asked you?” “Certainly not.” This did not fully satisfy him either and he continued, “Don’t say certainly not, say I refuse.” This particular request touched my sense of humour and for a second or two I rapidly cogitated whether I should treat it as an army order and refuse to say ‘I refuse’, but I recognised that the corporal was seeking to quickly conclude a job, which he found distasteful, and therefore I replied, “Oh! All right, I refuse.”
I was sent back and the other four called out one by one and invited to fetch their kits (the manner in which it was put could hardly be termed an order), each being requested, in the case of a refusal, to reply ‘I refuse’. When the comedy was over, we enjoyed some minutes of hilarity over the extraordinary proceeding.
The following morning we received our charge sheets. The one relating to me is reproduced here and a comparison of its prosaic wording with the foregoing account of what actually happened will no doubt be considered highly diverting.
On Wednesday the 13th, I was taken before the Adjutant for Summary of Evidence. The evidence of the two witnesses having been summarised and noted down, the Adjutant asked me if I wished to make any comment. I replied that I did not and asked him if he desired to have the names of my witnesses. I had intended to name my wife and my father, for that would have entitled them to consult with me. But my object was defeated, for the Adjutant immediately went into a towering rage and swore at me both volubly and vehemently. “What the … do you want any witnesses for? The court won’t listen to the … humbugs,” he bellowed amongst other things and snapped out an order to the guard, accompanied by some more forcible but impolite expressions, which were quite unfit for recording here, to take me back quickly to the guardroom.
On the 15th, when we were taken for the daily diversion to the orderly room to be remanded. Simons, Brownutt and myself were informed that we were to be court-martialled at 11 a.m. the following day. Why Runham-Brown and Tinkler were not arraigned before the same court is a matter for conjecture. My own opinion is that the army officers held the erroneous belief that these latter two, were the pillars upon which we three supposedly weaker individuals leaned and if we were separated and thus robbed of their moral support, we might collapse and submit to military authority. I am rather confirmed in this opinion by the fact that immediately our trials were over, we were segregated from the others and each confined in a separate cell. I spent most of the time walking up and down, just four paces each way, in a vain endeavour to keep from getting excessively cold. Two other COs, who were recent arrivals, and therefore first timers, were also tried before the same court.
With the difficulty we had in getting out any letters, as previously mentioned, this short notice of the trial did not give us opportunity to convey the intelligence to our friends in time for them to attend the court and therefore there were no members of the public to watch the proceedings. The practical effect was that the trials were held ‘in camera’. Very probably this was the planned objective.
Of the actual trial, my memory is a blank. I think my mind was too occupied with physical pain and discomfort. Indeed it has not retained one single mental picture. I do not even remember the room in which it was held, nor anything of the officers who constituted the court. I have however preserved a copy of my court-martial statement, which ran as follows: -
To the Officers of the Court-Martial.
When I appeared before the court on a previous occasion, I produced conclusive arguments, to which I have not yet received any answer, other than an unjust imprisonment, to prove that I am not a soldier. To go over the same ground again would therefore be futile, and I will confine myself to an explanation of my refusal to accept Alternative Service.
It is true that a so-called ‘door of escape’ from military service has been opened to me, but my objection goes further than mere military service. It is an objection to war, and war service. In other words, I am NOT willing (as so often accused by the tribunals) that others should fight for me. I do not believe in fighting by methods of violence, which by its very nature can never attain to the end at which it aims.
The question of acceptance, or non-acceptance, of the Home Office Scheme presents to me a choice between the two following alternatives: -
Do I object only to myself participating in war? or,
Do I object to the nation being at war?
If I can answer only the former in the affirmative, it seems to me that I am merely out to save my own skin, therefore the State has reason to expect that I should undertake some special kind of work in order to assist it in its war undertaking. But if the latter requires an affirmative answer, then it must readily be seen that to accept any sort of conditional exemption from military service would be to imply assent to the government policy, i.e. to enter into a bargain with the government, that providing I am not required to kill, it may kill without check. The offer of such a bargain I regard with loathing and contempt.
Moreover I now recognise that I committed a gross error in applying to the tribunals. An earthly tribunal is not the place to judge of conscientious conviction, as has been shown again and again. Yet as the conscience clause was in the Act, it then seemed to me that it was but fair to that Act to give it the opportunity of vindicating itself. However having failed to obtain justice in the constitutional manner, I was prepared to accept the constitutional persecution, but having once submitted to an unjust and unmerited imprisonment, I deny that the State has any right to punish me because I can not comply with a demand to undertake a course of action, which I sincerely believe to be wrong and unchristian.
In conclusion, the fall of tyrants, whether individuals or nations, is but a matter of time and God will see to it, that if England persists in this policy of persecution, the prophecy shall be fulfilled in her, ‘that whosoever shall fall on this Stone shall be broken, but upon whomsoever it shall fall it will grind him to powder’.
Signed H Blake.
On the morning after the trial, the Orderly Officer who was responsible for overseeing our welfare was making his unusual round of inspection, when the Sergeant of the Guard opened my cell door. I was wearing the army cap, but instead of saluting in the regulation military manner, I lifted it as a mark of courtesy towards him, a gesture which must have appeared exceedingly curious to him. He observed that I was wrapped up in a thick woollen muffler (the property of Runham-Brown) and asked what was the matter with me. Upon telling him that I was suffering from neuralgia, he addressed himself to me, “A little punishment for you for not doing your duty, eh?” I was rather taken aback by this crude conception of the workings of providence, which this remark appeared to indicate and answered, “Ah, sir! You mean my duty as it appears to you.”
Our sentences were promulgated on the following Wednesday December 20th and of this ceremony in contradistinction to the trial, I have distinct and clear-cut recollections. The scene was not as before on the barracks square, but on the wide avenue, which runs beside the companies’ quarters. The ground floor of each block of buildings consists of two large rooms, each serving as sleeping quarters by a company of the regiment. They are separated by a corridor that runs from front to back between the rooms. The upper storey is the company stores and is surrounded by an iron balcony, which runs all round the building. This is reached by an outside iron staircase. Access from the balcony of one block to that of the next is possible by means of a bridge, which spans the intervening space, a distance of six or seven yards.
We five prisoners were placed centrally under this balcony, while young recruits, two deep, lined the opposite side of the avenue. Simons always wore a beard, which was unusual at that time. Some bidder for cheap popularity, by showing his loyal patriotism in a display of contempt for COs, commenced to emit a series of baa, baa, sounds (no doubt intended to be in imitation of a goat, but which sounded more like a timid sheep). This cry was taken up by a number of others, of the type who are brave, when they discover that another has carried through a breach of discipline with impunity. In the interests of discipline, the sergeant of Military Police should have checked this unseemly conduct, but that individual made no attempt to do so. Simons however was equal to the occasion and turning towards the sergeant, he said with withering contempt, and in a clear voice which could be heard distinctly by the recruits, “Is this driven herd, men or sheep?” The sergeant immediately woke up to a recognition that it was undesirable that such thought provoking ideas such as this, should be started in the minds of men, who’s ideas should be only those that are supplied to them ready made by the army. Consequently he smartly ordered the recruits to preserve silence, whereas previously he had been quite unconcerned about the ragging of his prisoners.
In a short time the Adjutant arrived with his papers. The two recently arrived COs learnt that they were condemned to undergo one hundred and twelve days imprisonment with hard labour. Their cases disposed of, it was then blazoned abroad as a warning to the young recruits, that we other three hardened criminals had accommodation reserved for us in His Britannic Majesty’s gaol for two years.
Two years is the maximum sentence for hard labour, as it considered by the authorities that the constitution of the average man is incapable of withstanding a longer period, without suffering either mental or physical breakdown, or both.
I heard this proclamation of a long sentence with far greater indifference than I had heard the previous one of six months. I could have laughed long and heartily at the idea of the helpless baffled spite which certainly seemed to be the prime motive behind it, whereas formerly I had heard the promulgation of my sentence of six months with some trepidation. The dreaded element of the unknown was now removed from my mind and I knew to a large extent what was in store for me. I have since thought that it was another gigantic blunder on the part of the militarists, to have included new-comers, with old hands at a promulgation of sentence, because the fortitude and indifference with which we heard our sentence pronounced, must surely have reassured and heartened the former very considerably. While they had been alone they might quite conceivably have quailed at the prospect before them.
In retrospect, one other incident connected with this second court-martial comes to my mind. When the three of us who were court-martialled on the same day, were taken for our interview with the doctor for one of the three medical examinations required, we had as our escort, Sergeant Steel, an old soldier who was quite friendly in his attitude towards us. While we were under his charge, among the other things he said to us, “I won’t go on like this if I were you chaps. It ain’t no affair o’ mine and you know yer own business best, but look at Brown! Why, it’s made an old man of him, afore he’s a young ‘un.”
Whose Image and Superscription?
The story of a First World War conscientious objector