Take unto you the whole armour of God, that ye may be able to withstand in the evil day.
Eph VI, 13.
My recollection is a little uncertain regarding the sequence of events while I was confined within the guardroom. The incidents themselves stand out with sharp clarity, but my memory is hazy regarding the proportions of the intervening periods. The length of time from commitment, to removal, amounted to fifteen days, during which time fresh arrivals, both soldiers and COs, were continually coming in, until we COs mustered a goodly company. It was during this time that I gained from the non-Christian COs a clearer understanding of Socialism. Such knowledge as I then possessed had been gathered from various sources that had distorted Socialism through hatred and fear. Although I do not even now look for any real good from political activities, yet I was greatly surprised to find how closely this particular political faith is related in its ethics to Christianity. Yet without Christ it must inevitably fail to attain the objective of its ideal.
When the COs in the guardroom numbered six or seven, Runham-Brown and Ronald Muirhead organised what they designated, The Mill Hill Guardroom Branch of the N.C.F. (No Conscription Fellowship). Being essentially an individualist, I declined membership. To my protests they replied that I was a member by default and my name was included in the list which they sent to headquarters. I well remember that on one occasion, the Branch gathered together in deliberation to consider what should be their attitude towards the Home Office Scheme, the first rumoured particulars of which were just beginning to reach us. I listened to their debate with much interest, knowing full well what I intended to do in reference to the scheme. Due to my reserved and reticent character and my persistence in regarding myself as an outsider, I was minded to hear all and say nothing. They were unanimous in the opinion that a system of industrial conscription was involved, but seemed unable to arrive at a conclusion that satisfied their sense of rational behaviour. It was suggested that the scheme constituted a means for smashing the Trade Unions. One who was a member of the Salvation Army said it would serve the Trade Unions right for not having made it impossible for the country to enter the war. Runham-Brown quietly pointed out that this attitude was hardly Christian. Then Muirhead suggested we consider the attitude to conditional exemption, based on remaining in one’s own employment. They floundered round this question for some time without arriving at anything definite, when Muirhead settled his attention on me and demanded, “Blake, your work is as much work of national importance as any, would you accept exemption conditional on remaining in your job?” Thus directly challenged, I replied unhesitatingly with an emphatic, “No.” “Then tell us why.” I answered, “To accept ANY condition of exemption from military service is to me equivalent to entering into a bargain with the Government that, provided I am not required to do the killing, they can carry on with the war and kill as long and as hard as they like. I am not prepared to make such a bargain.” Tom Drayton exclaimed, “That was beautifully and clearly put.” Muirhead, who was acting as secretary, glanced round the group and seeing that perplexity had cleared from all the faces, closed his minute book with a snap saying, “That brings us to a decision at once, we can’t take the Home Office Scheme, it must be absolute exemption or nothing.” Thus it came about that these few contained the pioneers who blazed the trail for the absolutists and were the first to rudely shake the government’s complacency in their belief that they had solved the question of the CO. I believe that I was myself the very first one to make the refusal to sign the Home Office agreement.
The first official event that interrupted the monotony of life in the guardroom was a medical examination, for classification in the army. A soldier of the guard, who escorted me throughout, took me to that part of the barracks occupied by the medical board. I was confronted by a scene that shocked my decency. A score or so of men were awaiting examination in a state of complete undress and as it was a chilly day, this state rendered them into a shivering group, whose discomfort was reflected in their look of misery. In various parts of the large room, men in this same condition were undergoing different stages of the examination by the doctor assigned to each section. My escort first questioned me with regard to my attitude towards the medical examination. Upon my assurance that I had no objection, he requested that I undress, making it expressly clear that it was not an order, but the asking of a favour to spare him the distasteful task of forcibly undressing me.
Having complied with the request I was seated upon the scales, the cold metal having a shocking effect and my weight recorded. Then after a few minutes of waiting amongst the aforementioned shivering group, I was taken to the officer whose particular duty was sight testing. Why this particular examination could not have been carried out before undressing is a mystery to me, was it another expression of the coarseness of the military mind? The test was crude to the extreme degree. At a distance of about eight yards was the usual chart of progressively diminishing type and one eye at a time, the subject was required to read all he could. In my case I was first directed to remove my spectacles and being extremely short sighted, my reply for each eye was that I could see nothing. The chart actually appearing to me as a misty white sheet. My sense of humour took over when I gathered from his reaction that he thought I was (in the army expression) ‘swinging the lead on him’. However he said nothing, but wrote on my papers, which my escort held, the word ‘Specialist’.
After a few more minutes of shivering inactivity, I was taken to a private of the R.A.M.C. who measured and recorded my chest circumference and expansion. The next stage was at the table of an officer who subjected my heart and lungs to an examination with a stethoscope. From him I was passed to two more officers who carefully examined my body and joints for anything in the nature of deformity or rheumatism. One of these drew the attention of his colleague to the unusual width of my pelvis, which suggested that I was probably a swift runner. Finally an officer scrutinised me for signs of rupture, piles and like weaknesses.
This being completed I was permitted to dress and I was removed to another block of the barracks buildings, to undergo further examination by the sight specialist. This individual, whether or not by nature a soldier, was a gentleman whom it was a special pleasure to meet, amid such uncouth and barbaric surroundings and who treated me in all respects as one gentleman would another. Instead of removing my glasses without so much as a ‘by your leave’ as so many in his position would have done (especially towards a prisoner) he requested permission to examine them. I watched with interest and strained sight, while he tested them with an optometer, the results of which must have demonstrated to him the accuracy of my former answers. He then enquired as to how well I could see with them, to which I replied, “Very well indeed.” He seemed pleased with this answer and continued, “Will you put them on and tell me what you can read on the chart over yonder?” My sight corrected by my glasses is above the normal and I was able to read even the very smallest type. The officer was delighted, rubbed his hands with satisfaction exclaiming, “Ah, that’s excellent.” The officer dismissed me with the words, “Thank you, I will not need to trouble you any further.”
The scene of action now changed to yet another block of buildings, which served the purpose of a recruiting office. At the first table to which I was taken I was informed that I was classified as Class A, fit for active service abroad. Being conducted to another table, I was told that I was drafted to the Royal West Surrey Regiment and asked to sign an acceptance paper. On examining this I found it to be a receipt for army pay and accordingly promptly refused to sign. Hearing someone say, “All right, I’ll have this,” I turned in time to observe one of the soldiers in the act of putting something in his pocket. I do not doubt that my signature was forged and the money passed into another’s possession.
The clerks next asked if I intended to refuse to put on the uniform. I gave them to understand that I regarded it as part of the army pay and of course I would refuse it. From similar cases, they knew, as I knew, that such refusal would ensure me to a considerable amount of rough usage. It was a striking demonstration of the brutality of the common soldier’s mind that they received my answer with marked evidence of pleasurable anticipation in the infliction of suffering upon a fellow human being. With a great outburst of laughter they told me I was in for a rough ride. I informed them that I would do my best to stick it out.
Another incident that came to mind during this period, although not associated with my personal history, is not out of place in the narrative. It concerned a bugler boy whose name appeared on the army pay roll as Boy Halifax and who’s Christian name was John. This boy was undergoing a sentence of a few days detention in the guard room for some petty offence and took considerable interest in the discussions and views of the COs. On one occasion he related a most funny story, which I here repeat: -
A sergeant whose job it was to drill the awkward squad was one day occupied with the exercising of a particularly awkward awkward squad (this term is applied to the company formed from individuals of low mental ability who do not so readily respond to drilling as does the average man). The sergeant had been running his company up and down and round and round for some time, without making much progress and was getting thoroughly exasperated with their stupidity, when an officer appeared crossing the barrack square. The sergeant called his company to attention and saluted the officer who acknowledged and remarked, “All right sergeant, carry on.” After watching for a short time he turned to the sergeant and said in a quiet thoughtful manner, “Don’t shape up very well do they sergeant?” This was the last straw to the incensed and harassed sergeant and he burst out with great indignation, “No sir, look at 'em, ain’t they a lot? I’ve learnt 'em all I know and NOW they don’t know nothing!”
The climax of this story was received by us with uproarious merriment causing the bugler-boy to be much pleased and flattered by the reception his contribution to our entertainment had received.
Whose Image and Superscription?
The story of a First World War conscientious objector