Giving thanks always for all things unto God.
Ephesians V, 20.
On arriving at Mill Hill Barracks late, my escort sought out the Company Sergeant for instructions regarding myself and the parcel of military clothing that I was carrying. As we were crossing the bridge between the balconies of two blocks, we saw the Sergeant below us, supervising the clearing of a drain. My companion was reluctant to call out, so I hailed him, “Hullo Sergeant, how are you?” The Sergeant turned his head and without straightening up from his work and seeing me pale, thin and haggard said, “Hullo, you back again? What are you going to do now?” “Carry on, I suppose.” “But the war’s over now.” “That makes no difference to me.” The Sergeant straightened himself up and burst out in language more forcible than polite, “Then you’ve got more … pluck than I have.” After enquiring what was in the parcel, he directed my escort to get it locked up in the company stores and then again turned his attention to me, “You can go where you like now, as long as you’re back here by nine.”
I thanked the Sergeant and turned away, to do I knew not what. After such a length of time during which others had directed my every movement, I felt like a child who had suddenly been deprived of its nurse. But to get away from soldiers and their accoutrements, I left the barracks, yet without any idea where to go. I have no notion of what I did that evening, but I recollect that I slept in the company quarters that night. In the morning while dressing, the soldiers evinced great interest in my views on war and militarism, plying me with many questions. Later I heard one of them say to his companion, “He’s genuine right enough.” I felt satisfied that I had made some impression on them and wonder if any of my views stuck as a result of that conversation.
I had breakfast in the barracks mess room and I retain to this day a feeling of disgust at the crudeness of the appointments and the savagery of the diners. It was not merely bad manners, the men were like wild animals snatching and grabbing food, even from one another. A man had only to turn his head for a moment to find his food had changed ownership and another was rejoicing that he had won a bonus to his rations. I am quite prepared to accept the view that this sort of thing is done largely in a spirit of ragging, but even so, to my mind it is a sordid and uncouth mode of joking and as far as I am concerned, absolutely devoid of humour.
After breakfast, I was taken to the orderly room and there I encountered the three COs who had been discharged from Wandsworth Prison on the previous day, these having been allowed to spend the night at their own homes. Having reported in, we were given permission to depart whither we would, subject to reporting in again the next morning, but I have only faint recollections of that day. I remember traversing the footpath to Finchley in the company of Stephen Thorne and Fred Ballard and on the way I was compelled to come to a halt, intimating that the other two would have to leave me behind. I explained that my heart was going like a high-speed steam engine, whereupon Stephen Thorne seized my wrist and felt my pulse exclaiming, “My word, it is a bit speedy.” My companions refused to leave me behind, but moderated their pace, half carrying me along. I also remember that we proceeded to Finsbury Park where Stephen Thorne invited me to stay for tea, after obtaining his parents consent. An invitation I was glad to accept.
On the next day at the barracks, we were ordered to fetch our kits and as before we all refused. Hence we renewed our association with the guardroom. The regular facility this time, as the special guardroom for COs had been disestablished, now that the war was over. Matters followed their normal course in the sequence of daily visits to the orderly room to be remanded, the process of Summary of Evidence and eventually the court-martial date was fixed. At the first of the medical examinations, the doctor immediately certified me as unfit for court-martial and recommended I be sent to the military hospital. I was unhappy with this prospect and when I next saw the Adjutant, I asked if I could have a period of furlough, so as to regain my strength. He refused my request, saying that as I had been charged with a crime, I could on no account be released, until after I had been tried.
At this time, which was at the beginning of April 1919, the War Office ordered that no more COs were to be court-martialled. This put the Commanding Officer and the Adjutant at Mill Hill Barracks in a most puzzling quandary. Here they had five men in custody (one more had since arrived from Wandsworth) that had been charged, but could not be tried. A few days later, the situation was rendered even more insoluble, by instructions issued from the Home Office that COs were to be released from prison in small batches, commencing with those who had been imprisoned the longest. There seemed now absolutely no way in which the Mill Hill officers could get rid of us five.
For several days we were released daily on parole, having to report each morning at 10 a.m. at the orderly room, while the Adjutant sought in vain for a solution to this conundrum. I was in a very awkward position, as I was too far from home to return there and was without pocket money to buy food and accommodation. I was therefore reluctantly forced to accept the hospitality of the other COs and their relatives, which I was well aware they could ill afford. I distinctly remember being invited to the homes of Stephen Thorne, Earnest Smith (the latest addition to our number), Stephen Ward and Mr. Santie and in addition to meals, sleeping at the homes of Thomas Drayton and Runham-Brown, both of whom had been discharged from Wandsworth Prison. There may have been others who extended their kindness to me, but the details have slipped my memory.
At the beginning of this precarious existence, a message reached me one day that Miss Fox expected to see me at her home that afternoon. At her door, she received me herself and having taken my overcoat and cap, she opened a door off the hallway and said with a smile, “There’s a friend of yours waiting to see you here.” Wondering whom she could mean, I passed by Miss Fox as she held the door open and slowly advanced into the room. Here I was brought up with a sudden halt and burst out just one word, “Amy.” I stood rooted to the spot, gazing in delight, afraid to make the slightest movement lest I should break some magic spell and cause the vision to dissolve into nothingness before my eyes. Miss Fox paused for a moment to observe the effect of her strategy and then satisfied that she had with the consummate skill of an artist, staged a drama of the first magnitude, softly withdrew, closing the door noiselessly behind her. Then with a few rapid strides I crossed the room to take Amy’s hands. I had left her as a young man in the full vigour of health and energy and now I returned a broken, aged and grey haired old man. But the affection between us was undiminished and our reunion filled us with an intensity of joy that the pen cannot adequately declare. I perceived herein the truth of the promise of Jesus, “No man that hath left house, or brethren, or sisters, or father, or mother, or wife, or children, or lands for my sake and the gospel’s, but he shall receive A HUNDREDFOLD NOW in this time.” Our mutual society has for us now an infinitely greater charm than would have been the case, if we had not passed through this night of sorrow.
In the remembrance of that sacred meeting, I cannot but invoke the blessing of God on Miss Fox whose golden heart and kindly forethought for the welfare of others, made it possible.
At length the Adjutant decided to ease the unsatisfactory situation by asking us each to write our name and address on a telegram form and leaving with him a shilling to pay for its despatch. He then asked us to pledge our word of honour that we would return to the barracks immediately on receiving the telegram, which he would despatch when instructions from the War Office had been received, directing what was to be done with us.
I left the barracks and walked down the hill with the others to Mill Hill (Great Northern Railway) station. Here they left me, turning left to walk to Finchley, while I turned to the right having decided in consideration of my scanty funds to walk the short distance to Mill Hill (Midland Railway) station, instead of taking the Great Northern train to The Hale. However, I discovered that I would have to wait about one and a half hours for a train to Luton. Therefore to occupy the time and save expense, I decided on a country walk to Elstree to catch the same train there. I first proceeded directly west so as to strike the Watling Street at Edgware and then turned north. After my years of confinement behind prison walls, that country walk was an exquisite pleasure. How I filled my lungs with the fragrant air, listened to the birds and feasted my eyes on tree, flower and herb.
I reached Elstree station in good time and on joining the train, sank into the luxury of an upholstered seat, very tired, but contented. But when alighting at Luton, I realised that the walk of about four miles had been too much for my poor physical condition and my legs seemed to be almost paralysed. Only with the greatest effort and concentration of will, could I force one foot in front of the other and it took me over an hour to cover the half a mile from the station to my home.
When I reached the house, I entered slowly and wearily and entered the room where my mother sat. I had been told to expect a change in her, but nevertheless I was totally unprepared for the sight that met my eyes. She rose to meet me, but I observed that she shook with an agitated nervous jerky movement and that she tottered in her gait. She came forward a few steps, but then came to a stop clinging to the table for support. The shock was so great to me that in order to prevent myself from falling in a heap on the floor, I hastily sank into the nearest chair and with a cry of, “Mother!” I buried my face in my hands. My mother renewed her efforts to come to me and placing her trembling hand on my bowed head, she said, “Don’t cry my boy, you’re home now.”
I experienced some difficulty in returning to my normal mode of life. One of the things that troubled me greatly was a stiff collar, that absurdity of modern life. Observing me fidgeting in discomfort one day, my mother suddenly exclaimed, “Why don’t you take your collar off? I shan’t mind seeing you about the house without one.” Another difficulty was the necessity of changing habits from those contracted in captivity, to those more befitting comparative freedom. I was always awake and restless long before the household stirred and at times I dressed and stole out for long walks before the others were up. On one of these occasions, which was a Sunday, I covered over ten miles before breakfast. When on these walks and was satisfied that no one was in sight, the absence of restraint led me into extravagant expressions of delight. I sang, danced and cut the most extraordinary capers imaginable, due to an almost irresistible impulse to be out of doors. Surrounding walls gave me a repressive feeing which weighed down my mind and spirit, hence an exhilarating sense of freedom, when wandering abroad in these solitary early morning rambles.
Whose Image and Superscription?
The story of a First World War conscientious objector