Whether it be right in the sight of God to hearken unto you more than unto God, judge ye.
Acts IV, 19.
On the Friday preceding the court-martial, I was taken before the Adjutant for Summary of Evidence. At this proceeding, the witnesses for the prosecution are required to give their evidence, which the Adjutant writes down, at the same time instructing the witnesses as to the correct way of stating their case. In my case the Sergeant was the chief witness and he commenced with a smart salute, addressing the officer thus, “Sir, at Mill Hill on the 30th of August, I was on duty at the guardroom and ordered Private Blake to put on his uniform. He replied ‘I refuse’ and did not obey the order.” To me this wasn’t strictly accurate, so when asked by the Adjutant if I wished to comment, I answered that I did not say ‘I refuse’. The Sergeant realising he had forgotten the actual wording, was at a loss to know what to say. This impasse considerably annoyed the Adjutant, who irritably suggested that I was quibbling over words and asked me if I had or had not refused to obey the order. I replied that I certainly had refused, but in not such an impolite manner. The Adjutant circumvented the awkward situation by altering his manuscript to ‘He replied I refuse, or words to that effect and did not obey the order.’ It was in this manner that this wording almost universally applied to the court-martial of COs, came into being and was a standing joke among us.
Following the Sergeant, the other witness rehearsed his evidence and also commenced with a smart salute, “Sir, at Mill Hill on the 30th of August I was present at the guardroom and heard Sergeant Fullman order Private Blake to put on his uniform. He refused and did not obey the order.” The following morning the charge sheet was delivered to me and I awaited with mixed feelings the advent of the court-martial on September 5th. In due course the day dawned and after the last of the three medicals, we were escorted under armed guard to the scene of the trial. This was in a two-story building, the court sitting in the upper room, while the prisoners with their guard, the witnesses and the officers involved waited on the ground floor. The Sergeant of the Military Police was extremely solicitous to reassure us that we need not be unduly terrified about what was in store for us.
The proceedings opened with the swearing in of the three officers who composed the court. All the prisoners then entered en-bloc with their armed escorts and stood facing the officers. Each prisoner was then asked if he had any objection to any of the officers as a judge of his case. Ralph Tinkler created some little consternation by answering, “Yes, I object to the lot of you.” On being asked the nature of his objection he explained that as a civilian, he was not subject to the jurisdiction of a military court. Of course the objection was over-ruled. The prisoners and escorts then left the court, the former to re-enter one by one as their cases came up for consideration.
Each prisoner was then introduced before the court between two soldiers carrying side arms, i.e. bayonets. The whole proceeding was recorded longhand by the officer occupying the chair, in effect a re-enactment of the Summary of Evidence proceeding, with the addition that the prisoner was required to plead.
There was a goodly gathering of pacifists (mainly Quakers) to watch the proceedings and Runham-Brown who was first on the list, made great play with a selection of witnesses whom he brought forward, thus occupying considerable time of the court.
After the prosecution witness has concluded his evidence, the prisoner has the opportunity to question him. In my case the first witness was the corporal who had escorted me from the police cell at Luton and who gave evidence as to my identity. However he made the error of stating that he had brought me from Stoke Newington, so I asked him if he were sure I was the man he had brought. The Chairman confirmed that this was a very necessary question and the corporal realising his error, hastily and nervously corrected his statement. After the trial, the Adjutant in a towering rage upbraided the unfortunate corporal in a very animated style. With regard to the other witnesses, I declined the right of questioning and the Chairman finally asked me if I wished to make a statement. I handed in a written statement, which was read aloud before the court by the Chairman: -
To the Officers of the Court-Martial.
In defence of my action I contend that I am not a soldier for the following reasons: -
1. I deny the legitimacy of the Military Service Acts because,
a. They have been formulated by a government, which is in power without obtaining the consent of the electorate, which is therefore unconstitutional.
b. No body of persons has any right to override the higher laws of God, the principle in question being ‘liberty of conscience’. I.e. the right of the individual to interpret for himself what is right. My chief reason for not complying with military orders lies in such individual liberty.
2. In answering the ten questions submitted by the Central Tribunal, I showed that objection to combatant service and objection to non-combatant service were to me the same. The tribunal admitted that I had proved a genuine conscientious objection, but did not give me exemption to the latter. This was a miscarriage of justice, for if I had proved objection to one, I had at the same time proved objection to the other. Therefore even granted that the Acts were constitutional (which I deny), I have every right to absolute exemption and should not have been placed under military orders.
This statement was added to the Chairman’s records. I was then asked if I wished to call any witnesses. Having none to call, the hearing of my case came to an abrupt termination. When all the trials were over, we were escorted back to the guardroom.
Hitherto we had been supplied with nothing more than blankets to roll up in and bare boards on which to sleep, but having been court-martialled we were permitted to sleep on a straw mattress. How much we appreciated this slight comfort to our bones, which were rendered sore and aching from the previous nights of hard usage.
While awaiting the court’s decision, I received a letter from my wife, which considerably distressed me. It was clear to me that some person had undermined her affection for and her faith in me. In my distress I immediately despatched a letter to my mother asking what had been said. In her reply my mother said that Amy had received a letter from someone (she mentioned no name) who had influenced her mind against me. I concluded at the time that this someone was one of her own relatives, but years later after the war, while I was collecting the various documents together that I needed to write this narrative, I came across the letter concerned. I was astounded at the signature, for the person was none other than a prominent member of the Wesleyan Church. That a professing follower of Christ should tamper with the sacred relations between husband and wife is all the more damnable. This wrong has been the most difficult to forgive of all the wrongs meted out to me during my wartime experiences.
I destroyed the letter I received from my wife, rather than carry it with me into prison where it would have been open to the scrutiny of officials, but here follow some of the venomous extracts from the immediate cause of it: -
If your husband will remain obstinate.
I am amazed at the forbearance of the authorities with the COs. I think they have done their best to offer them congenial occupation.
I think selfishness is at the bottom of it all, for they do not seem to realise that they are making their wives, parents and friends very anxious about them.
Is there any allowance for COs wives? I should think not.
If Mr Blake had taken the position offered him, he would have had the position of sergeant and you would have had a good allowance.
In my reply to my wife, I admit that my confidence has been shaken, but say that even though I am fearful for the future I have to do what I think is right. I ask for forgiveness for deserting her, but assure her I believe I have acted from the highest motives. I explain that we must break the fetters of this Act for the sake of our future children, who otherwise will be broken on the wheel of militarism, yet I realise her’s is the harder part to play.
Had I received her letter a few days earlier, I am appalled at the prospect of what might have been, had I caved in. But the circumstances were over-ruled by a benevolent Providence that protected me until it was too late to effect a change of course.
The final stage of the court-martial was reached on Monday September 11th, when Promulgation of Sentence was carried out. For this purpose we were marched out onto the parade ground where a large number of young recruits were drawn up, so as to form the three sides of a large hollow square. We ourselves with our armed escort were placed in the middle of the forth side. It was immediately apparent that the purpose was to inspire the recruits with fear and trembling by the ‘awful’ consequences that were to fall on the recalcitrant, this is how the army maintains its discipline.
Presently the Adjutant arrived with the papers disclosing our fate. Taking up a position in front of us, but facing inside the square, he signalled to the Military Police sergeant to command attention. He then read out the papers in a loud voice: -
Proceedings of a court-martial held at Mill Hill on the 5th of September 1916, Colonel … Chairman, Captain … Beds Regiment, Captain ... Middlesex Regiment, officers of the Court.
No G/33372 Private Harold Blake (here the army cap was snatched from my head from behind and I was pushed a pace forward by the police sergeant) attached Depot Middlesex Regiment, accused of disobeying a lawful command etc.
Tried and found guilty by the Court.
Confirmed and recorded this 8th day of September 1916 at Headquarters Middlesex Regiment, Hounslow.
The sentence: - He shall be imprisoned with hard labour for six calendar months.
I was then pulled back into line, the cap jammed back onto my head.
The tale of terrible misdemeanour was repeated in each individual case and we were returned to the guardroom and locked in separate cells, to await removal to prison.
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The story of a First World War conscientious objector