Bear ye one another’s burdens and so fulfil the law of Christ.
Galatians VI, 2.
A short time after my slight altercation with Mr. Butler on the exercise ring, I was again going out to exercise, when I met in a clash with Mr. Archer this time. Ronald Muirhead, who had also reached the conclusion that consistency required abstention from work, had preceded me out and just before reaching the concrete ring, something on the ground attracted his attention. He was a great student of natural phenomena and the observance of some small creature, suddenly caused him to forget his whereabouts completely. He stopped short and remained looking fixedly at the ground. The officer who was nearby, stepped up to Muirhead and without saying a word, gave him a violent push, the unexpectedness sending him staggering for some yards, almost falling over. The violence of the assault excited my indignation so forcibly, that I also forgot where I was and stepping out of the line, I confronted the officer with the stern command, “Now stop that, there’s no necessity to use violence.” A look of astonishment at the audacity of this came over the officer’s face and he ordered both of us back into the building. As we commenced to mount the steps, the Principal Warder who had heard the commotion met us, I addressed myself to him saying, “I want to see the Governor, that officer is exceeding his duty.” Mr. Ralph replied, “You’ll see the Governor all right, my lad.” And sure enough I did, almost immediately. First however I had to be examined by the doctor and I think that the fact that my weight was so much below the normal for my height by that time, considerably influenced the result of the interview. Had it not been for that circumstance, I would no doubt have received three days punishment Diet No. 1, but as things turned out, I was sentenced to three days close confinement. Muirhead however was sentenced to the severer sentence of starvation and to my great disgust, I was not allowed to say anything in my own defence.
During these three days, I never left my cell for a moment and during the daytime, the cell was cleared of everything except the water can and chamber pot. If I wished to sit down, the floor was the only accommodation. However I took the precaution of secreting the slate pencil about my person while the officer’s back was momentarily turned, for I thought I could probably write on the blue floor tiles. My conjecture proved correct, although the floor turned out to be a very indifferent slate. Yet I spent some of the time working out an assortment of mathematical problems, while lying full length on the floor.
Prisoners at exercise,
From the sketch by G E Gascoyne
I also surreptitiously kicked the sweeping brush, a contraption made out of rope ends woven together, behind the cell door, where the officer, when clearing out my cell, overlooked it. With an absolutely empty cell, I had a fine romp playing football with this brush. Once or twice it accidentally hit the door with a resounding thud, bringing Mr. Butler to see what all the noise was about. When he opened the door, I was feeling exhilarated by the complete abandonment to the exercise and greeted him with a beaming smile, which puzzled him exceedingly. But I did not forget to kick my football behind the door, as soon as I heard the key in the lock and as Mr. Butler looked round the empty cell in bewilderment, I chuckled inwardly at the thought of that hidden football.
“What are you kicking the door for?” “I’m not kicking the door, those knocks were accidental.” “Well, what are you doing?” “Oh, just keeping myself from getting down in the dumps.” “If you make any more noise, they’ll put you in a basement cell.” “I don’t mind what they do, no doubt I’ll find something to amuse me down there.” Mr. Butler looked quite puzzled and nonplussed when he left my cell. In the COs, the officers had met a class of prisoners that were completely outside their experience. It must have seemed to them that the more uncomfortable they made things for us, the more jubilant we appeared to be. However as I had no stool to stand on, I could not during those three days, indulge my habit of watching the soldiers at their drill.
As mentioned above, I had not been allowed to respond after the Governor had pronounced sentence. This was because Mr. Ralph caught me by the shoulders, spun me round and whisked me out of the office. Determined that I should be allowed my say, on the following day I therefore applied to see the Governor. The day passed without response, so I again applied the next day. Dinnertime came and I then knew that it was most unlikely I would see the Governor on that day either. But I was determined and after dinner I decided that an infallible way would be to get placed on report. I looked around my cell for ideas and my eye fell on the spy hole in the door. Resolutely seizing the dinner spoon, with one blow of the handle I knocked out the glass. When Mr. Butler came to collect the dinner tins, I repeated my request to see the Governor. “Yes, all right, tell me in the morning and I’ll put you down again.” “That’s no good, it doesn’t work. Look here, you can report me for this and then I know I shall see the Governor.” “You annoying fellow, I shall have to report that.” In spite of my determination, I felt quite sorry for Mr. Butler at that moment. It was plain that the prospect of reporting me considerably distressed him. He could not have delayed for a moment, for within a few minutes Mr. Ralph came stamping in, in high dudgeon, “What do you mean by all this?” “Well sir, I’ve an urgent matter I want to put before the Governor, he won’t respond to my applications, so how else do I get to see him?” “I see, you’re one of those who won’t fight on the battlefield, but you’ll fight fast enough in a prison cell.” “Yes, there’s been more liberty won in a prison cell than ever there was on a battlefield.” He departed and in no more than a few minutes, the Governor and the Chief Warder were in my cell. The Governor started the attack, “Well Blake, what’s all this about?” I was taken aback by being addressed by name instead of number and concluded therefore that they were in a conciliatory mood. In actual fact when a prisoner is on close confinement, the Governor and Chief Warder should visit each day, alternating with each other, to see that his physical condition is satisfactory. I proceeded to explain, “I wanted to enter a compliant about the officer’s conduct on the exercise ring the other morning. In my opinion he used violence that was neither necessary nor desirable. I’m sorry it was necessary to get reported, but it was the only way to make contact with you.” The Governor turned to the Chief Warder, “Who was it?” “Archer sir, on Tuesday morning.” “But I can’t go into that now, that’s over two days ago, don’t you think you had better let it drop.” But I had no mind to let them get away with it, “No sir, I don’t. I’ll see the visiting magistrate about it.” If I had dropped a bomb behind these two gentlemen, they could not have been more startled. This like Paul’s appeal to Caesar, was something they could not refuse and they clearly displayed an apprehension as to where this might lead. Seeing that the matter was thus clinched, there was no more to be said and they left, the Governor remarking, “Very well, I’ll enter the application.”
What contrary beings we mortals are. I had no sooner gained my objective, which I had pursued with such dogged pertinacity, than I was seized by a wish to abandon it. Accordingly, when the Chief Warder looked in the next day, evidently amending his attention to his duties, I asked him if it were possible to withdraw my application to see the visiting magistrate. I went on to say that I had been thinking the matter over and it was obvious that Mr. Archer was unwell at the time and no doubt from his point of view, Muirhead’s exploit was very exasperating. Mr. Walker brightened up perceptibly with relief and exclaimed with some eagerness, “I’m very glad you look at the matter in that way, I’ll see about cancelling the application at once.” And he bustled off in his manner of fussy importance, carrying with him an air of great relief.
I have ever since felt a great deal of satisfaction that I withdrew that application. Although my observation had told me that Mr. Archer was ill, I never suspected that his indisposition was of such a serious nature, as it turned out to be. In less than a fortnight, I was shocked to hear that he had died.
No action was taken against me in the matter of the spy hole glass and I gained the great advantage of being able to push aside the cover plate and see outside, an advantage that I retained for about two months.
Whose Image and Superscription?
The story of a First World War conscientious objector