THE GUARDROOM AGAIN
Thou wilt keep him in perfect peace, whose mind is stayed on thee.
Isaiah XXVI, 3.
Early in May 1917, I believe the date was Saturday 5th, when the cells were unlocked at 6.30 a.m., Simons, Brownutt and myself were astonished to receive the order to pack our kits, ready to proceed to the reception department. We were all baffled as to what this could mean. We could not believe that we were to be discharged, as it was not fully five months since we entered Wandsworth. Even allowing for full remission on account of good conduct, we had not completely served a six-month sentence. In consequence we rejected the conclusion that our sentences had been commuted, yet it turned out that this was indeed the case.
At the reception department we were told to undress and the military clothes in which we arrived were given to us. Strangely although we were directed to use the little cubicles, the doors were not locked, so this additional mystery caused us to make all sorts of wild guesses, as to what was in store for us.
When we were led into the entrance gateway, we found Sergeant Steel of Mill Hill Barracks waiting. But when we were outside the great gates, another astonishment awaited us; there was no escort in attendance. The sergeant led us away in the direction of the station and overcoming our bewilderment, we addressed a few polite enquires regarding his welfare. Finding him quite affable and friendly, I ventured to ask where was his escort, to which he replied, “Ain’t got none, I told ‘em I didn’t want no escort, I know you chaps.” “Then we shall be able to dust you over and bolt.” “Don’t mind if you do.”
By what route I cannot recall, but we eventually found ourselves at King’s Cross and when we were actually inside the G.N.R. station, Simons suddenly remembered that he would need some writing materials and postage stamps and mentioned his wants to Sergeant Steel. The latter remarked that he needed some items in that line himself and would go with him, directing the other two of us to await their return at the place where we were. Brownutt and I watched them go, then interested ourselves in the busy happenings of the great London terminus. We ourselves were the subject of some wondering interest by those coming and going, in that our military clothing was without regimental badges and all those trappings, which render the soldier on parade smart and decorative. After some minutes, Simons returned by himself looking rather bewildered and announcing that he had lost the sergeant. But after a few more minutes we beheld our guardian strolling towards us without a care in the world. Seeing us, saying, “Oh, here you are. Got everything you want? Right, well let’s find our train now.”
What was the meaning of all this indifference towards our retention? Was a temptation placed in our way, seeing if we would fall into a trap, such that the authorities would have real and rational grounds for action against us and dispel the appearance of persecution? I don’t know, but throughout the whole business we experienced so many attempts to trap and ensnare us, that we became suspicious of all things. However, the fact remains that we refused to take advantage of that which the circumstances permitted.
Having arrived at the barracks we were taken to the orderly room to report and there was another surprise. A special guardroom had been instituted for COs, probably because the original was no longer large enough. There is also the possibility that there was concern that COs were propagating ideas among the soldiers, which was recognised as highly undesirable.
The special CO guardroom was a room on the ground floor of the company quarters, converted by fitting iron bars on the windows. It was much lighter and more airy than the regular guardroom, having six large sash windows, three on each side, as opposed to the one of the latter place, which also, did not open. On the North side we had a good view of many of the barrack’s buildings, but this held little interest for us. To the South we had a splendid view over fields, which was much more to our liking, except when it was marred by the activities of recruits practicing murder. This involved charging and stabbing sacks of straw with fixed bayonets, the sacks being suspended in rows from long poles. The sight was positively sickening, particularly so when in the imagination one saw human bodies substituted for the sacks and also in the imagination, heard the maddened shouts of the frenzied attackers and the cries and shrieks of agony of the injured and dying.
I have heard it stated that before such a bayonet charge is undertaken, the troops are served with intoxicants and there is good reason to suppose that this is so. I cannot imagine than any decent man in his sober senses could engage in such an attack and there are many decent men forced into the army by one means or another. And to think that there were many who considered this was necessary work for the followers of Christ!!!
There were two other COs in this new guardroom when we arrived. Of these, Stephen Ward was a Methodist local preacher from Cornwall and had just been returned from Wormwood Scrubs after concluding his first sentence. The other was a young Christadelphian whose name I have forgotten. He had just reached military age and had subsequently been called up. I had many interesting conversations with both, but while I found the latter’s views interesting, I was very unhappy with his method of presenting it. It was only my interest in the Christadelphian Church that prevented me turning away from him in disgust.
This young Christadelphian suddenly vanished, having been rescued from the army by his brethren, who arranged for him to take up work of national importance and hence to enter into an alliance with the ‘kings of the earth’.
We found that unlike our experiences the previous December, there was little or no restriction on communication with those outside. Visitors always had access and letters passed in and out without let or hindrance. We occupied our time in discussion and sometimes at play. Ward and Simons argued long and hard on things connected with the Christian faith.
A small travellers’ chess set was CO communal property, passed on from one to another, with which we had many interesting battles of strategy. There were also packs of playing cards, but some, of whom I was one, resisted all persuasive efforts to participate in the use of these. On one occasion we played cricket using a rag ball and one of the bed supporting trestles as a bat. It was my misfortune while at the wicket to demolish our only lamp, an incandescent gas one, by a masterly stroke from the bat. The lamp being carried away in its entirety. As we were into the long summer days, we were not unduly incommoded during the few days until it was replaced. To report the damage, I knocked at the locked door, which was opened by the Sergeant of the Guard, a dandified specimen who had not seen the hard usage of war service and was bitterly hostile to us. I directed his attention to where the lamp was conspicuous by its absence and offered to make good the damage. My attitude was so unlike the proceedings of ordinary soldiers, who use their utmost endeavours to evade such responsibility to the property of others, that the sergeant expressed his contempt by the words, “Don’t you come near me, or I might catch your conscience.” He further informed me of the extent to which my funds would be reduced by this liability and if my memory serves me correctly, it amounted to nine-pence.
Altogether we spent a really enjoyable fortnight in the guardroom and felt some considerable regret when the time came to return to prison and terminate our pleasant social intercourse.
Whose Image and Superscription?
The story of a First World War conscientious objector