We Will Not Cease
We arrived at Folkestone late at night and waited hour after hour in the streets, in the cold drizzling rain. While we waited the officer in charge of the draft came over to me and said it would relieve his mind very much if I would give my word to do nothing rash on the trip across to France. I assured him I would do nothing violent to myself or anyone else, and that, as far as I was concerned, he had nothing to worry about. He thanked me and seemed greatly relieved.
At last a corporal came along and said: ‘We've found a place.’
We were marched into an old building, foul-smelling and dirty. Each man cleared a space enough for himself and we sat on the floor with our backs against the wall. One man said: ‘What a rotten show!’
Another said: ‘It's worse outside.’
We had marched away from Sling to a lively tune on the bagpipes, but now everyone seemed depressed and gloomy and hardly a word was spoken. After a while we got a drink of tea, which helped matters considerably by putting warmth into us, and, very soon afterwards, most of us were dozing uncomfortably against the walls.
With the first streak of daylight we went aboard. Surrounded by our convoy we moved out into the Channel. On our right was a large paddle-steamer crowded with Chinese. Some of our men shouted abuse across to them and the Chinese retaliated page 97 with equally lurid language, more than holding their end up, with the result that there was a laugh from our side. We made our way across between the minesweepers, a boatload of silent men, overhung with an atmosphere of gloom and tension.
The coast of France rose before us in the winter sunlight, for the day had become bright and clear. After a very brief stay at Boulogne, which afterwards I was to know better, we proceded in motor trucks to Etaples, reaching it about midday. I wandered about the camp, getting my bearings. Two German aeroplanes were circling, like silvery fish, high above in the blue sky, out of range of the anti-aircraft guns. White puffs of smoke showed where the shells were exploding harmlessly far below them. A little dog had appeared from somewhere and was inviting me to have a game with him, when I heard my name called, and looking round, I saw Patton and Harland. two of the Waitemata deportees. They took me to a hut where I got some food, and I gave them an outline of my experiences since I had left them at Capetown. They were able to give me information about some of the fourteen. Three, my brother being one of them, had been court-martialled and sent to a military prison in France. Briggs had been separated from the others, and they had heard that, as he continued to refuse orders, he would probably be shot. They themselves had taken on ambulance work. Patton told me he had been sent to a compound and put on No. I Field Punishment, and had been struck by a guard.
I was brought before Colonel Simpson. He asked me the usual questions, and I explained my attitude and gave my reasons for refusing to serve. He told me that some of the objectors from New Zealand had been sent to a military prison.
‘There's a Baxter among them; your brother, is he?’
‘Yes, my brother.’
He said he would not like to have me sent to a military prison.
‘Those places are run by the lowest type of men in the army, and I know the brutal methods they use. They'd probably kill you.’
He showed me a letter which he said he had received from page 98 one of the men in prison, offering to come out and do ambulance work.
‘Of course we know what that means,’ he said. ‘It's the treatment they've had in prison. I told them to write to me if they had any communication to make. I'm going down there in a week or two, and I expect to find them all of the same mind.’
Such bitterness and anger surged up in me that I had difficulty in controlling myself. He would not like to have me sent there! And these others, mere boys, thought likely to be more amenable because of their youth, delivered over to ruthless brutality, had he no feeling for them? No, only satisfaction when he thought the methods had been successful. I afterwards heard from my brother Sandy just what those methods were. On arrival at the prison, having refused to work, he was sentenced to three days in irons in the punishment cells on bread and water. At the end of the day the irons were removed, but his arms, powerless after twelve hours behind his back in figure-eight handcuffs, were entirely useless. One of the warders came into the cell, and, his jaws slavering and the saliva dribbling over his chin, gave him a frightful gruelling, taking care, however, never to give him a blow that would knock him completely out. He was told, and he knew it was the truth and no idle threat, that he would get it again and again, on and on, without end until he gave in. He told me, too, of an Australian soldier who came into the prison while he was there, a splendid physical specimen, full of pluck and of a manly spirit of independence. He told the other men when he first came in that nothing on earth would make him give in to the bullying and brutality prevalent in the prison. They wondered what would happen. He vanished into the punishment cells. After some time had gone by they used to hear his screams. At the end of a fortnight, he came out, his magnificent physique gone, his nerve gone, a cringing, abject creature, eager to jump at the slightest word from the guards, who used to amuse themselves demonstrating the lengths to which he would go in the completeness of his subjection.
One of the New Zealand generals is reported to have said page 99 that they did not intend to shoot objectors as that would make martyrs of them. When a man is dead he can suffer no more in this life. But when he is delivered into the hands of men who will use any means to break him into subjection, his life, whether he stands out or whether he does not, can be made unendurable. There were many such prisons in France. The men sent to them were not criminals but the military machine required these places for the maintenance of army discipline.
‘It is not our intention to shoot you,’ Simpson went on, ‘but of course, if you are sent up to the Front and refuse service there, it's hard to say what will happen to you. Conditions are different up there.’
He showed me a long list of New Zealanders who had been sentenced to death, and in quite a number of cases the note was added: ‘Sentence duly carried out.’ He said he was not going to require anything of me at present, but would send me up with a draft to Abeele. He would be following in a few days. I was to explain when I got up there that nothing was to be done with me until he arrived.
We went up to Abeele by train. The soldiers on the way up were friendly to me as always. At Hazebrouck we saw, close to the railway, three enormous shell craters, the first we had seen in France. They were still a novelty, but we were soon to make closer acquaintance with them, where men were glad to crawl into them for shelter, and to see nothing else for miles.
On arrival at Abeele, I was handed over to the military police. The sergeant who took charge of me was a man of Belgian extraction, of gigantic build and most rugged countenance. As soon as I entered the guardroom he seized me in his giant grip and, turning my face to the light, roared: ‘You refuse to fight? They'll waste no time over you here. If you don't toe the mark you'll be bloody well shot.’
After some consultation he took me over to a hut filled with men. He led me in and. by way of introduction, shouted: ‘Here's another like these chaps we've been shooting here of late. A bloody C.O.!’
He left me and as his footsteps died away along the duckwalk, a hum of curses directed at the military police ran about page 100 the hut. In five minutes I had plenty of friends and not a man said a word against me.
Next morning I did not go on parade and was sent back to the guardroom. I told the police what Colonel Simpson had said. They consulted an officer, who said I could go back to the hut and wait until the Colonel arrived.
Headquarters were in an old Belgian farm homestead and part of the building was still being used for the farm operations. I was under no restraint, so I went all round the place, taking stock of everything. I went into the sheds where girls were attending to cows, up into the lofts where men were dressing hops, and out into the field where men were turning over the rich brown earth with their one-horse ploughs. I asked a great many questions, and although most of these people (not having much English) were uncommunicative, I found some who were ready to talk, and even in the space of one day I gained a great deal of information as to their way of living, their outlook on life, and what they thought about the war.
After a few days the Colonel came up and I was brought before him. He asked me again for a statement of my views and I put them as clearly and briefly as I could.
‘Do you express these sentiments in the hut?’ he asked.
‘Yes, when I am asked I give a free account of my experiences and my views.’
‘And how do the troops take it?’
‘The troops show me nothing but friendliness.’
‘They are only carrying out the order I gave them, but it's not in the interests of discipline to let you remain in the hut.’
Turning to the police, he said: ‘Take him to your quarters and see that he has a chance to shave and blacken his boots and clean himself up, and if he wants to go to Church on Sunday, let him go. He can go out for a walk if he likes, but he must not go into the hut.’
It was not very long before the police were as friendly as the men in the hut had been, all except Booth, the provostsergeant, who was always cold and aloof. One of the police would say: ‘Sergeant, can I take Baxter out for a walk?’page 101
‘Do what you like with him. It's nothing to do with me,’ would be the reply.
Some of the police were so friendly that I almost doubted their sincerity, it seemed so remarkable, but there was really no question of it. When I met some of them up at the lines afterwards they were as friendly as ever. Of course, I don't say these were the regular military police. They did not like the job.
One day the officer, who walked through at inspection time, looked in my face with such a friendly smile that I couldn't help returning it. Then he became very gay, and holding me by the hand and calling me Mr Baxter, declared that he was prepared to do anything on earth for me. Was I quite sure I was all right in every way? If there was anything I wanted all I needed to do was to say the word and he would do it for me. When I thanked him, he became more affectionate still and began to try to embrace me. But those who were with him thought it was time to interfere and led him away, still trying to talk to me.
I was provided with a beautiful new web equipment, which I refused to accept. It was left hanging in one of the rooms at the police quarters. The young Belgian giant said to me: ‘Look, if you don't want that web gear, how about giving it to me? My own is old and shabby and this is a stunning rig-out. What about an exchange?’
I said it was nothing to me if they filled the guardroom with military equipment. He could take the lot as far as I was concerned. He thanked me effusively and seemed to regard it as unheard of generosity on my part. After that, he too, was very friendly to me.
I had several interviews with Simpson and various attempts were made to induce me to take on something. I was taken down one day to a parade held for the conferring of decorations. I don't know from whose brain the idea emanated, but it was evidently thought that the sight of all these men receiving honours from the hands of the High Command might stimulate my ambition and cause me to accept service in the army in the hope of like rewards. The military policeman in page 102 charge of me asked me what I thought of it all. I. said I was not much impressed.
‘Would a cup of coffee impress you more?’
‘It certainly would.’
‘Then come along and I'll shout you one.’
Another time a sergeant took me along to an enclosed yard where a little scratching of the ground had taken place and suggested that I should plant and cultivate cabbages in it for the troops. I knew that the whole thing was absurd and was only being used as a means of working me into taking service in the army. The place was not suitable for any kind of cultivation. My refusal, however, greatly angered the sergeant. He had had two brothers killed, he said, and here was I, refusing even to assist by growing vegetables.
‘You're nothing but a rotter,’ he said, ‘and I've no time for you at all.’
I said I was sorry, but I hoped he might some day understand what I was fighting for.
At one of our interviews Simpson asked me if I had religious views. I said I did not belong to any organized Church, but that it seemed to me that the teaching of Christ was entirely against war or taking any part in it. But even if that had not been so I would still consider I was right in taking my present attitude. He said he did not suppose that anyone could say what would have been Christ's attitude in war. But anyway this war was a man's war, that was how he looked on it.
Finally he said: ‘If you won't do anything my hand will be forced and I shall have to punish you. For your own sake. Baxter, for my sake, for everyone's sake, for Heaven's sake, do something.’
I was formally given an order which I refused, and was again brought before him. He sentenced me to twenty-eight days No. 1 Field Punishment, together with the usual stoppage of pay, which did not concern me as I had never had any pay.
‘If you take my advice,’ he said, ‘you'll obey orders now. The place I am sending you to is Hell.’ He also told me to write to him at once if I had any communication to make.page 103
I was examined by the doctor as to my fitness to undergo the punishment.
‘I don't believe you are fit,’ he said, ‘but I am going to pass you as fit. You're such a damned fool you deserve all you get.’
An escort of military police took me down to the punishment compound at Oudredoum, two or three miles away. The compound was on flat ground, about a quarter of a mile from a railway siding. It consisted of an enclosure about half an acre in extent, surrounded by a barbed wire fence, containing a large dug-out used for the quarters of the camp, N.C.O.s and the cookshop, two tents in which the men slept and two or three wooden cells against the fence.
I was handed over to the sergeant who was preparing to take the men out on their job of filling in shell-holes. He gave me an order which I refused. The sergeant-major in charge, on my refusal being reported to him, said: ‘Leave him here and I'll see to him later when I have more time.’
Afterwards he called me into his dugout and had a long conversation with me. He said he did not like putting men on No. 1 Field and was not doing it at present to the other men, but his orders were that if I refused to obey I was to be tied up. I told him I had never obeyed orders in the army, but had simply gone wherever they chose to take me. I would never take anything on, I said. We talked for hours. He showed interest in, and sympathy with, my views and the account I gave of my experiences, and was ready to argue in a friendly way, without trying to force or entrap me into admissions. He said, finally, that he would think the matter over and see me next day.
The following morning the sergeant asked me if I would go out with the working party. When I replied I would not, he pressed me no further. The sergeant-major in charge had another talk with me. He had thought things over, he said, and was not going to punish me. I could go outside the compound and do what I liked. He would only ask me not to go further than the railway station.
I walked about the place within the prescribed quarter-of-a-mile radius. Sometimes I went to the siding and watched the page 104 loading and unloading of trucks. I saw practically nothing of the other men. They were out at work all day, and at night I slept in a hut attached to the cells, the tents being already full. The food was about the same as what the troops got in the lines.
This state of things had lasted a few days when an officer arrived at the compound and interviewed me. Finding that I was not being punished, he was exceedingly angry. I was not justifying my existence, he said, and ‘should not be permitted to live.’
I replied that I understood from a military point of view his saying that I was not justifying my existence, but that it was going rather far to say, on that account, that I should not be permitted to live. This made him still more angry.
‘I'll have you shifted at once to a place where you will be adequately punished,’ he said. ‘I'll see to it that there will be no more of this sort of thing.’
A police escort arrived from Abeele and took me to another compound, not far from Dickebusch, known as ‘Mud Farm’. The sergeant-major from the Oudredoum compound accompanied us, walking with me while the escort walked behind. He was gloomy and abstracted and hardly uttered a word for the greater part of the journey. We came to a little estaminet at the roadside, and he shouted me a cup of coffee. At last he burst out as we approached the compound: ‘This has been a hard business for me, having to bring you to a place like this. I believe it's a damned hard show at any time, and if you refuse orders here, well … You do intend to?’
‘Yes, I do intend to fight out to the last.’
He took my hand. ‘Look, Baxter, you are in for something here. I believe what you say. I know you intend to stick it, and I hope you are able to. Nothing would give me greater pleasure than to hear that this crowd had failed to break you. Goodbye and good luck.’
He turned back here, as we were close to the compound, and left it to the escort to hand me over.
The officers' quarters stood on one side of the road by which we approached. On the other side of the road was the page 105 compound proper, nearly twice the size of the one at Oudredoum. At the left as one entered the gate was a building containing stores, cells and guards' quarters. In front of the building were the tents where the men slept. To the right, from the gate, was the cook-house and at the end of it, the latrines. Right at the other end of the compound stood the tents for the German prisoners who were run in in batches to spend one night there on their way to the base. The whole enclosure was about an acre in extent, but enough barbed wire was used in making it secure to fence a fair-sized farm. A double row of barbed-wire entanglements surrounded the whole enclosure. A further row ran round the two tents in front of the guard huts, and, inside that again, each tent had its own encirclement of wire. A lieutenant of the Imperial Army and a New Zealand sergeant were in charge of the compound. Coming along the duckwalk from the gate I observed a long row of stout, high poles to the right. These poles were used for the infliction of No. 1 Field Punishment.
Handed over to the sergeant in charge, I was searched and stripped of everything except the clothes I stood up in and my two blankets. No prisoner was allowed to have a knife or razor or any sharp instrument of any kind.
‘The other men are out at work,’ said the sergeant, ‘but I can give you a job helping in the cook-house in the meantime.’
‘I don't obey any military orders,’ I said. ‘It's for refusing to obey orders that I've been sent here.’
‘Then you'll have a rough spin. You'll get No. 1 when the other men are at work and on pack drill. Better think it over.’
‘There's no need for me to think it over. I'm not taking on anything.’
‘Right-oh,’ he said. ‘Come along. I've got my orders.’ He took me over to the poles, which were willow stumps, six to eight inches in diameter and twice the height of a man, and placed me against one of them. It was inclined forward out of perpendicular. Almost always afterwards he picked the same one for me. I stood with my back to it and he tied me to it by the ankles, knees and wrists. He was an expert at the job, and he knew how to pull and strain at the ropes till they cut page 106 into the flesh and completely stopped the circulation. When I was taken off my hands were always black with congested blood. My hands were taken round behind the pole, tied together and pulled well up it, straining and cramping the muscles and forcing them into an unnatural position. Most knots will slacken a little after a time. His never did. The slope of the post brought me into a hanging position, causing a large part of my weight to come on my arms, and I could get no proper grip with my feet on the ground, as it was worn away round the pole and my toes were consequently much lower than my heels. I was strained so tightly up against the post that I was unable to move body or limbs a fraction of an inch. Earlier in the war, men undergoing this form of punishment were tied with their arms outstretched. Hence the name of crucifixion. Later, they were more often tied to a single upright, probably to avoid the likeness to a cross. But the name stuck.
A few minutes after the sergeant had left me, I began to think of the length of my sentence and it rose up before me like a mountain. The pain grew steadily worse until by the end of half-an-hour it seemed absolutely unendurable. Between my set teeth I said: ‘Oh God, this is too much. I can't bear it.’ But I could not allow myself the relief of groaning as I did not want to give the guards the satisfaction of hearing me. The mental effect was almost as frightful as the physical. I felt I was going mad. That I should be stuck up on a pole suffering this frightful torture, a human scarecrow for men to stare at and wonder at, seemed part of some impossible nightmare that could not continue. At the very worst strength came to me and I knew I would not surrender. The battle was won, and though the suffering increased rather than decreased as the days wore on, I never had to fight it again.
The poles were in full view of passers-by in the road. By turning my head a little—the only movement I could make—I could see them as they came from one direction towards the gate. Then they passed out of my line of vision. Peasants came in by carts and on foot, people from the small towns round about, Belgians, I suppose. The civilian population, one and all, went past with averted heads, never looking in my page 107 direction, as long, at least, as I could see them. But the men in uniform, whether on foot or not, always looked. Cars went by, full of officers staring with all their eyes, often slowing down and almost stopping behind me, to get, I suppose, a better view. It is difficult to know what conclusion to draw from these two contrasting modes of behaviour. I hated the staring and much preferred the civilian attitude. But, as it afterwards proved, one at least of those who looked, looked to some purpose.
Towards the end of the afternoon, in the small corner which was visible to me of the enclosure on the other side of the road, heads began to appear and disappear with great rapidity and much blowing of whistles and roars of ‘Double, double!’ resounded from the same quarter. After some time the sergeant came over and released me. I set out to walk to the tent without waiting, as I afterwards learned to, for the slow and painful return of the circulation to my numbed limbs, and immediately fell. I struggled on again, somehow and, stumbling and falling, managed to make my way to the tent. By the time the other men came in, I had pulled myself together, determined to show no sign, if possible, of what I was suffering. They were exhausted from pack drill. Doubling round a yard, with eighty-pound packs on their backs, was very hard on men after a day's work on starvation rations. They were in no gentle mood and cursed the N.C.O.s, the whole military outfit, the war, the world and its rulers. There were several Clydeside workers amongst them. One whom they called Jock, was the chief and the lawgiver in the tent. Next to him came Scotty, also a Clydesider, a much younger man. The two were devoted to each other, but Jock snubbed Scotty continually, while Scotty grumbled and criticized him.
Jock looked hard at me and asked: ‘What's been your trouble? Overstaying leave, I suppose?’
‘I'm here,’ I said, ‘for refusing all orders in the army. I have done so consistently for the last twelve months. I have never taken on anything and have no intention of doing so.’
‘On what grounds?’ he asked.
‘On the grounds that war is a bad thing and will destroy page 108 the human race. I believe that if enough people in each country stood straight out against war, the Governments would pause and be compelled to settle their disputes by other means. I also believe that the peoples of all nations are naturally peaceful until they are stirred up by the war propaganda of the governing classes. When the workers of all countries win their economic freedom, Governments won't be able to set them on to murdering their fellows.’
‘Are you a Socialist?’
‘Too right I am.’ There was such a rush to shake my hand that we all went down in a heap.
‘Well,’ said Jock, ‘I'm proud to shake your hand, but I can't say I welcome you to this dog's den of a place.’
Soon afterwards tea was brought in by Jock, who was mess orderly for the tent. Tea consisted of a small slice of bread per man, with a scraping of margarine or some kind of fat on it—and a cup of tea. Breakfast was the same. Dinner was a small portion of bully beef and pounded-up biscuit with hot water poured over it, the biscuit still retaining its rock-like consistency even after the pounding up and the hot water. On this diet the men had to do a hard day's work with often pack drill at the end of it and every two or three days two hours of No. 1 Field in the afternoon. I got the same food as the other prisoners. It was little enough and did not suffice to keep up one's strength under punishment. The whole time we were, all of us, almost mad with hunger. The German prisoners got porridge. Thin, watery stuff as it was, how thankful we would have been for it! The system at that compound was designed to break the spirit of the strongest: and for anyone refusing orders as I did, the punishment was intensified in proportion.
Every evening we were searched and the tent was searched for contraband such as food, tobacco, or implements with which we might have cut the wire. In spite of these precautions and the fact that he was always escorted by a guard when bringing meals to the tent, Jock, from his position as mess orderly, did sometimes manage to convey to us prohibited articles of food slipped to him by the cook, who was also a prisoner. On the evening of my second day in the compound, page 109 just as I was able to gain my legs and was making my way slowly and painfully to the tent, Jock brushed against me and I felt a slight tug at my tunic. When I got back to the tent I found a pepper tin full of hot tea in my pocket. That tea was worth all the world to me at that moment.
‘You shouldn't run risks for me, Jock.’ I said to him afterwards.
‘Never fear that, boy,’ he replied, ‘my hands are far quicker than yon loon's een. Allow me,’ and he managed it again several times without being detected by the guard.
One night after tea had been brought in, Jock rose and looked out of the tent door to make sure there would be no intrusion by the guards—they could hear what we said if we raised our voices and would shout to us to cut it out if we became too loud—and produced about a quarter of a pound of cheese. With an implement that he had fashioned out of some piece of tin he cut it into cubes about the size of a dice and shared them round. We said we didn't want to eat his rations.
‘It's all right; it's buckshee,’ he said, and described how the cook had given him the tip and he had managed to slip it off the table when the guard was looking the other way. Scotty, though he swallowed his cube, ridiculed Jock for insisting on sharing so small a quantity. Jock said it was a matter of principle. Scotty said the principle would be all right if there were more cheese. Jock said: ‘Principle is principle in much or in little, but I'll take no more backchat from you, so shut up.’
The tent accommodated twelve men when it was full. We slept on the floorboards wrapped in our blankets, a hard bed for anyone as stiff and sore as I was.
After breakfast in the morning the other men went out on their job of filling in shell-holes, usually at some distance from the compound, and I was left alone in the tent. The gate in the wire round it was left open and I walked in the enclosure containing the two tents until the sergeant came for me. Usually I did a little more than a hour on the post before dinner, page 110 though sometimes the sergeant chose to come earlier and then I had longer. In the afternoon I never did less than two hours and sometimes as much as three or even four. One day I was put on shortly after dinner. The other men went out to work, accompanied by their escort. The sergeant disappeared, the guards also, and as far as I could see, not a soul remained in the compound, though, as I could not see behind me, there may have been someone there. Hours went by. No one came to release me and I began to wonder if I were to be left on all night. At last I heard voices at the gate, and the sergeant came, hurrying for once. The others told me that he had met them at the gate.
‘Surely you must be late,’ he said to the N.C.O. in charge of the party.
‘Yes, we're very late.’
‘And I've left that man on all this time,’ exclaimed the sergeant.
Jock said to me one night: ‘There's something about your philosophy I don't quite understand. We've got to go through hard punishment here and we'd do anything on earth to get out of it. You get it worse than us, and yet you've only got to say the word to escape it all. What enables you to hold out as you do? Is it religion?’
‘I'll tell you, Jock,’ I said, ‘the answer is quite simple. Religion, as I understand it, and the foundation of my philosophy, is: do as you would be done by, and war seems to me to deny that and to include everything evil that is in the world. The only lasting victory that we can win over our enemies is to make them our friends. You asked me what enables me to hold out? Chiefly, my belief that my attitude to war is right, and my faith that I am doing more for humanity than I could do in any other way. My fight is not against individuals, but against systems and conventions. I am doing my bit in the war by fighting the war convention.’
I had been several days in the compound when one afternoon, just as we were all going to be put on No. 1, the lieutenant in charge came over to have a talk with me. He took me round behind the buildings, out of sight of the poles. He asked page 111 me a few questions and, after listening to my views and an account of my experiences, he said: ‘We all know that war is bad and that it would be a great thing if it could be abolished, but what can a small minority do?’
‘What can small minorities do? They can spread their influence, they can grow until they become majorities. You are an Englishman and must know how many times in English history that very thing has happened.’
He laughed and admitted that it was so and gave some instances. In the course of the conversation he asked me what sort of time I was having.
I said: ‘You are the officer in charge here. You must know what No. 1 Field is like.’
‘As a matter of fact,’ he said, ‘I dislike the whole business so much that I never come near, if I can help it, when I know it's going on.’
I said I could understand his not liking it, but what I did not understand was why, in that case, he should take on the job.
He excused himself: ‘Well, I happened to be offered it. Most jobs in the army are pretty rotten, and one never knows what one is going to drop into.’
We had talked so long that I only had about half-an-hour's punishment after he had left me. It was frightful to look at that row of suffering men—men who had committed no crime against society (and if they had, would such treatment have been justified?)—who were social, self-respecting beings, subjected to such a horrible and degrading form of punishment. That in itself, apart from anything else, would have been enough to make me feel I could have nothing to do with the military machine.
We were released and left, as usual, to make our way back to the tents in our own time. We had just started off when the gate swung open, and in poured a stream of German prisoners with sand-bags on their heads, looking about as war-like as a pen of hoggets. They were only little boys, fair-haired and blue-eyed, without a man among them, and they were in terror of death. They came running up to us, shouting ‘Kamerad! page 112 Kamerad!’ and trying desperately to tear the buttons off their coats to give to us. They only saw the uniform and did not realize that we were prisoners like themselves. I thought of the adjutant at Sling with his lions and tigahs, and I thought, too. of the sergeant-major at Simonstown and what he had told us. The Germans were rounded up and run into their tents and we went into ours.
‘You scored this afternoon by your long talk with the officer,’ said Jock. ‘If they manage to break you here, it will be a feather in his cap.’
‘He'll have to wait a long time for his feather, Jock,’ I said.
‘What do you think of him?’ he asked.
‘He seems a queer easy-going devil. I can't quite make him out.’
‘I'll tell you what I think of him,’ roared Scotty. ‘He's a bastard. He may be easy-going in a way, but he knows how to keep a soft job, and he's responsible for all the muck that lousy sergeant rubs into us here.’
‘Shut that gab, or I'll shut it for you,’ hissed Jock. ‘We'll have the guard in here and you don't want that.’
Jock asked me one evening: ‘If they send you up to the front line, what will you do?’
‘I'll continue to fight as I am doing here.’
‘It must be hard to fight without support. I don't know what will happen to you in the end.’
‘It doesn't matter what happens to me, and, as far as support goes, whenever I have a chance of making myself understood, I get it every time. You men have already been at the Front. Tell me, would those armies which are fighting and slaughtering one another, take long to fraternize if their respective Governments called a halt and came to terms?’
And the whole tent answered as one man: ‘If the war were called off, they'd become friendly in no time.’
‘You are certainly doing something,’ said Jock. ‘You've made a difference to this place. What I'd like to know is, what are all the preachers and parsons doing? In peace-time they preach: “Thou shalt not kill” and “Love your enemies,” and page 113 all that, and when the nation goes to war, what happens to them?’
‘Aye,’ said Scotty, butting in, ‘I know that crowd. It's bread and butter they're after. Preach love and goodwill in peacetime and in war-time mounting a recruiting platform and preach hate and bloody murder. They're the same in all countries, supporters of the capitalist system, hounding the workers on to kill one another. Tell me if they're not on the side of the wealthy and the powerful every time?’
‘I'll tell you what I think about that,’ I said: ‘I've no time for recruiting parsons myself, but I know there are good men in the Churches and out of them, who have courage and sincerity, and my hope is that in the future they will get together and inspire more and more people to see the futility of war and to bring pressures on Governments in the interests of world peace.’
‘Hope!’ said the only other New Zealander in the tent, who always looked on the dark side of everything. ‘There is no hope of altering things for the better. It doesn't matter what people try to do. We're like rats in a trap, and no matter what you try, there's no way of getting out. What good do you think you're doing by your fight? Nothing, only making things worse for yourself.’
‘It may look hopeless,’ said Jock, ‘but I'm convinced that it's not. I've not lost my faith in the common people and I believe that, when they come to understand better, things will change.’
He began to talk about his life in Glasgow and what a wonderful woman his wife was. He had the greatest admiration for her even when, as sometimes happened, she criticized him pretty freely. Jock never believed in despondency. Newcomers, sunk in the depths of despair at finding themselves in such a dreadful place, would be greeted with: ‘Well, mate, what's your trouble? Overstaying leave? Ever been in an outfit like this before?’
And when they had indignantly denied this: ‘Well, you'll find the best brains in the army here.’
Even if at first they looked on him with scornful wonder, as if cheerfulness in such a place were blasphemy, it was not long page 114 before they fell in with his ways and found things the better for it.
I had been in the compound some little time when Kirwan, one of the fourteen deported men, was brought in under escort. I hardly knew him, for he had been separated from us on the Waitemata after the first few days. As he was not in the same tent with me we did not get much opportunity for conversation, for when we were on the poles we seldom exchanged a word. He did tell me, however, that this was not his first experience of Mud Farm. He had already served a previous sentence there and had spent part of the time in the punishment cells on biscuits and water.
Soon after his arrival the weather became very cold and rough. With the change in the weather the other prisoners were no longer put on No. 1, but Kirwan and I were, morning and afternoon, as usual. I thought nothing could make the punishment worse than it was, but I soon found that cold, stormy weather greatly increased the suffering. I began to find it almost impossible to sleep at nights from restlessness and pain. I was alternately burning hot and shivering with cold, and the constant pain in my joints woke me whenever I did doze off from exhaustion. The kindness of the other men in the tent to me I can never forget. They insisted on making my bed for me, and often, I know, would put their own blankets and overcoats under me to make it a little easier for me. One man, a Canadian, was particularly friendly, and ever since, because of him, my heart has warmed to Canadians.
It is hard to say if I would have lasted out the whole of my sentence—I was going down physically every day—if something had not occurred a few days before it was up. A day came—one of those days in early March that outdo the middle of winter in cold and storm. There was a blizzard blowing, with the temperature below zero and the snowflakes freezing as they fell. I was not expecting to go out, for I did not imagine that they would tie us up in such weather. I was mistaken. The sergeant called me out. As we had never been allowed to wear our overcoats when on punishment, I did not suppose I should be allowed to take mine now, and I left it in the tent. Outside, page 115 I found that Kirwan had risked it and worn his. I thought of asking to go back for mine, but on second thoughts decided not to, as the result would probably have been that Kirwan would have been told to take his off.
We were tied to the poles as usual. The sergeant and the guards retreated to the guard hut, where we could see them through the open door, which faced away from the wind, sitting over a red-hot stove. Soon a smell of coffee came to our nostrils and we knew they were enjoying their morning cup. The storm blew in our faces and in a very short time we were white with snow from head to foot, the flakes freezing so rapidly that they clung in spite of the gale. The cold was intense. A deadly numbness crept up till it reached my heart and I felt that every breath I drew would be my last. Everything grew black around me, although I was still quite conscious. Suddenly loud voices sounded behind us and an angry, red-faced New Zealand sergeant appeared beside the poles.
‘What's all this bloody business?’ he shouted, ‘At first I thought they were posts; but when I went closer to look I saw the hats. I never saw such a damned thing done in all my life.’
Here the compound sergeant, who had come hurriedly out to meet him, made some remark which I could not hear.
‘I don't care who they are or what they've done,’ the stranger shouted. ‘It's what you're doing to them I'm concerned about. I didn't think men would do such a thing. I'll make it known everywhere. Take them off at once.’
The sergeant drew him aside for a moment and I heard no more. Then they came back and the visitor stood by in silence while we were released. Afterwards the two sergeants walked away across the road in the direction of the officers' quarters. That ended it for us. We were not put on again.
Two days later a police escort arrived to take us back to Abeele. I would have liked to have said goodbye to the other men, but they were at work when the escort arrived. As we made our way towards Abeele, one of the military police remarked: ‘There's been a great go about you two men at camp. Everyone's talking about it.’page 116
One of the first men I met on arrival at Abeele was the sergeant who had cursed me when I had refused to plant cabbages. He came up to me and asked me to forgive him for what he had said. ‘I didn't understand then. I do now. I've changed my mind.’
‘There's nothing to forgive,’ I said. ‘I never had any feelings against you. I knew you didn't understand. I'm glad you've changed your mind, but do tell me what has made you change it.’
‘It's Mud Farm! Mud Farm!’ he said. ‘I know—we all know—what you suffered down there.’
I held out my hand and he took it. We stood silent for a moment. His face showed his feelings. I said: ‘We won't talk about it just now.’
We took leave of each other and I did not see him again. He, and others like him, made me feel my fight was not in vain.
The next morning Kirwan and I were taken before Colonel Simpson. He glanced at me and said: ‘Well?’ I looked straight at him and answered: ‘Well?’
‘They tell me,’ said he, ‘that they can do nothing with you down there,’
‘You sent me there to try to compel me by force to submit to army discipline.’
‘I have tried hard to consider you, but my hand has been forced. I once had hopes of you. It is most regrettable that you should take up such an attitude. What do you think will happen to you up at the lines if you won't submit?’
I told him I had no intention of submitting and was not concerned about consequences.
He said: ‘Well, I hope it is so.’
This remark puzzled me at the time and still does.
He turned roughly on Kirwan and ended by saying: ‘I have no time for you at all. When you get up there and are ordered to dig, take my advice and dig. If you don't, you'll be hammered black and blue from head to foot.’
‘That's the way he always goes for me,’ said Kirwan when we were outside again; ‘he seems to have a set on me.’page 117
‘It's meant for me just as much as for you,’ I said.
As I knew we were to be sent up the lines the next day, I thought I should try and give my people some idea of what had happened to me so far and what my attitude still was. This might be the last chance I should have of writing. I said:
‘I have just time to send you this brief note. I am being sent up the lines tomorrow. I have not heard where Jack and Sandy are. As far as military service goes, I am of the same mind as ever. It is impossible for me to serve in the army. I would a thousand times rather be put to death and I am sure you all believe that the stand I take is right. I have never told you since I left New Zealand of the things I have passed through, for I knew how it would hurt you. I only tell you now, so that, if anything happens to me, you will know. I have suffered to the limit of my endurance, but I will never in my sane senses surrender to the evil power that has fixed its roots like a cancer on the world. I have been treated like a soldier who disobeys (No. 1 Field Punishment). That is hard enough at this time of the year, but what made it worse for me was that I was bound to refuse military work, even as a prisoner. It is not possible for me to tell you in words what I have suffered. But you will be glad to know that I have met with a great many men who have shown me the greatest kindness … If you ever hear that I have served in the army or that I have taken my own life, do not believe that I did it in my sound mind. I never will …’
I cannot think how I could possibly have imagined that such a letter would pass the censor. The strange thing was that it did, and reached my people in New Zealand unaltered. I wrote the letter in the police quarters, and took it down to the censor's hut. I was wearing neither hat nor coat. I laid it on the table in front of him. A sergeant who was present roared at me: ‘Salute the officer!’
I refused: ‘I have never saluted anyone in the army and I don't intend to.’
‘If you never saluted before you'll do it now,’ shouted the sergeant. ‘Salute the officer.’
I turned to the censor who was sitting behind the table: ‘I refuse to salute you, not because I have anything against you personally, but because I object to military service. I have no page 118 doubt I would respect you if I knew you as a civilian, but I have no respect for your rank as officer. I consider myself a civilian, and do not salute officers. Besides,’ I added, ‘I am in undress.’
The officer had a kindly smile and most intelligent face and it now lit up with a smile. But he said not a word.
‘Shall I crime him, sir? Shall I make out a crime sheet, sir?’ asked the sergeant eagerly, disregarding my remarks on being in undress.
‘Not as far as I am concerned,’ the officer replied.
The sergeant nearly choked. ‘He's refused an order, sir, shall I take him to the guardroom, sir?’
The officer, still smiling, answered: ‘I think he'll find his way there without you,’ and I left, without an escort.
On my return to the guardroom, the military police dressed me fully, put a box respirator on me and took me along with Kirwan, to a small structure like a telephone booth, in which we went, one after the other, through a gas test. Back again in the guardroom, they tried to force a rifle with bayonet fixed, on to me. I refused and when it was forced into my hands I stuck the bayonet into the floor and told them to go and ask the Colonel if I was to be given a rifle. They came back with the information that the Colonel had said I was on no account to be given a rifle.