We Will Not Cease
The Ypres camp was broken up and we all moved back to Abeele. A man was sent into the hut to bring me out to join the others. We walked two miles to the railway. I saw Briggs at the station looking completely done. How he had managed to walk those two miles I can't imagine. As we moved away from the Ypres sector, going, as I knew, to the Somme, I was only conscious of an intense weariness, an unspeakable longing to rest and be done with it all in this never-ending struggle.
We reached Abeele and I spent the night in a hut with Briggs and some other men. It was a cold night and Briggs's blankets had failed to arrive. I tried to persuade him to take mine but he would not.
The following morning Captain Stevenson came into the hut, followed by four men, and ordered me out on parade. I said: ‘I never go out on parade.’
He ordered me again and I refused.
‘You—,’ he shouted and struck me in the face, knocking me down. I got up and he ordered me again. I refused. He kicked me and struck me another blow, knocking me down. This time I did not rise quickly, and shouting: ‘Come on, none of that!’ he dragged me to my feet, knocked me down again and kicked me several times about the body. His anger increased by the murmurs of the men with him, he gave me a final kick, the effects of which I felt for a long time after, and ordered the men to bring me out.page 143
‘I'll kill the bastard yet!’ he shouted.
They carried me out and laid me down gently on the duckwalk.
‘Lift him up as high as you can,’ he ordered, ‘and drop him on his back on the boards.’
They lifted me high on their arms and lowered me to the ground ever so gently, keeping hold of me all the time. Three times, cursing, he ordered them, and three times they lowered me in the same way to the ground.
It was a brave act on their part, for though, technically, they had obeyed the order they were incurring the wrath of the Captain and there were many ways in which he could make it unpleasant for them afterwards.
Then, at his orders, they carried me out into the parade ground and set me on my feet. But my legs wouldn't support me. I fell and lay against my pack. I felt completely dazed and had little idea of what was happening until Simpson passed along the ranks and came to where I lay.
‘What's the matter with you?’ he asked.
I answered: ‘I'm all right.’
‘Why don't you get up?’
I only wanted to be left in peace. I was silent.
‘Hm, mentally deficient,’ he said. then, shouting, so that the troops could hear: ‘He wouldn't even cook for his mates. I've no time for him at all.’
He passed on.
I do not know how long I lay there. When I looked about me again the troops had gone and I was alone.
Four men appeared beside me. They had been sent, they said, to bring me to the camp to which the men had shifted, about half a mile away. If I wouldn't walk they would carry me. I said I would try to walk, and we started off, with a man supporting me on each side and the other two men carrying my kit. They gave me frequent spells on the way and it took us a long while to do that half mile. They took me into a hut, put blankets over me and brought me a drink of tea. I lay there until some time in the afternoon, when Stevenson came in and ordered me out.page 144
‘Are you going?’ he asked.
I said ‘No.’
I had no fear of what he might do. Brute force had expended itself, had defeated its own object and put me beyond its reach. I believe that it always does, but unfortunately those who are subjected to brute force don't know that that point will be reached. One reaches this point; if one went forward to death it would mean going easily out. But coming back from it into ordinary life is another thing. Then one has to pay the price for that immunity.
Stevenson apparently realized that I was beyond his reach, for instead of attacking me, he ordered the men with him to bring me out. They carried me out and laid me down. After a time they took me before an M.O. in the medical hut. He sat on a table nervously moving things about on it. He gave one quick glance up at me, then down again.
‘What's the matter with you?’
‘I have not paraded sick of my own accord,’ I told him. ‘I have been brought here. I'm bruised from head to foot.’
‘Have you any complaint to make against anyone?’ he asked.
He pushed a couple of No. 9's across the table to me in silence. That was all. I never made complaints, for I would have been making them to the men who were responsible for what I had to complain of, and they were looking for me to make them. As far as an objector's position in the army was concerned, he had no rights. He had the rights neither of a soldier nor of a civilian. If I had given in, as was frequently explained to me by officers, I would then have the rights and the protection of a soldier.
I was told that the men who had brought me over to the camp that morning were brought up on the mat for having taken so long to bring me over. They had boldly and openly given their reasons. They described my condition and the treatment that had caused it. Some notice had to be taken of what had been openly stated and a doctor's report had to be obtained. Hence my interview with the M.O.
The next day a man came up to me in a state of excitement.page 145
‘You're no good!’ he said. ‘You wouldn't fight! You'd let the officer hit you.’
In his excitement, he imagined I was going to strike him. He jumped back.
‘No! No! Don't fight me! I'll bring someone to fight you. I'll bring three men if you like.’ He turned to the assembled men and shouted: ‘What are we to do with a man that won't fight? In my opinion he's nothing but a bastard!’
Another man came up to stand beside me, and loudly and clearly, in a voice that carried to the outskirts of the crowd, he said: ‘Listen to me. At the time when the National Register was taken in New Zealand 33,000 men said they would not serve in the army, either in New Zealand or out of it. Where are those men? I was one of them. There are many here. A few have stood to what they said and here is one of them. What has made him stand to it?’
There was a shout of ‘Guts!’ and the men laughed. The originator of the argument had disappeared. I certainly did not feel overburdened with guts at the time.
The man who had shouted abuse at me the morning Booth first struck me, now came and apologized to me. I had not seen him since that day.
‘I didn't know a thing about you that time I cursed you,’ he said.
I had forgotten all about it. It seemed very remote.
The same day I was taken down to the railway, where we were all crammed into trucks on the first stage of the journey to the Somme. We were packed in, forty men to a truck, sitting so closely together on the floor that it was almost impossible to change one's position. Stiff, sore and weary as I was I felt I would have done anything for a place to rest in. The men were strangers to me, but some, at least, must have known who I was.
‘About these conscientious objectors,’ someone began.
‘Sh! there's one here.’ said someone else, and not another word was spoken on the subject.
On the evening of the second day we stopped at a station, but we were not allowed to leave the trucks. All night long page 146 we sat in them beside the station. Not until the early morning did we detrain in heavy rain. Water was boiled for tea beside a hedge which bordered a field near the station. Only a cup of tea and a snack. At that point we left the railway and marched through the country by winding roads. As we passed through a village I noticed the men ahead of me buying food at a doorway. I had discovered twopence in my pocket. Where it came from I had no idea. ‘This will buy me some food,’ I thought. But by the time I reached the door everything was sold out and the French girls had closed it. Seeing a girl standing in the yard of the house, I went over to her, and offered the money, asking for something to eat. She said they had nothing left, nothing at all. But I was desperate.
‘Give me something to eat; I'm starving,’ and pressed the twopence into her hand. She went away then and, returning with a biscuit tin, tipped a few biscuit crumbs into my outstretched hands.
I went on with the others. It did not strike me to do anything else. I just went on. We halted for the night. Tents went up and they got busy in the cookshop. I came up with the others and held out my tin. I had received my food with them ever since Booth had left.
‘What's your platoon number?’
I knew I was done then.
‘I can't give a platoon number.’
‘Then I can't give you anything,’ and he turned away.
I should have had to go to an officer and asked to be attached to a platoon, and that would be, of course, the submission the authorities were looking for. I realized that it was now a fight to a finish, and there could be only one end to it, but I made my decision, to fight it out to the end. It was now a very bitter fight. I find it hard to write of it even now. Sometimes—quite often—I was sunk in despair, seeing nothing but utter hopelessness in my fight, in any effort to overcome the forces of destruction. The world would just go on for a thousand years and the effort of man to progress beyond mutual destruction was futile. At times I didn't bother to think about it at all, but just kept on. At first hunger drove me to hunt in page 147 tins for odd scraps and the dregs of tea, but after a while I ceased to be hungry and did not do so any more. As my bodily weakness increased I remembered the dead men lying in the mud and thought: ‘It won't be long now before I'll be with them.’ I wondered if any of the truth would reach New Zealand. I was not with men I had known before and I was no longer able to explain my attitude and views to them. The authorities, I knew, would put me down as killed in action or as having died of sickness and that would be all anyone would know. But I did not trouble about it as I once had. The men were friendly and filled my pockets with cigarettes. It was a token of kindly feeling, as I knew, but I could not smoke. They did not know I was getting no food and I did not wish to tell them as their rations were little enough and they hadn't much opportunity of supplementing them.
I have no clear and consecutive memory of that time. It may have lasted a week. It may have lasted longer. I only have a general recollection of growing weaker and of being less and less able to drag myself along. Certain pictures stand out clearly from the mistiness. I was toiling along a road up a rise, having fallen behind the main body of men. A doctor, I think the doctor who had attended to Briggs at the Ypres sector, was standing at a corner, urging on the stragglers pretty sharply. As I came past him he said to me:
‘I know how hard it is for you, but try to keep up a little longer and you'll get a spell, up there at the top of the hill,’ and he pointed to where a windmill stood outlined against the sky.
I struggled on and found a farmhouse up there, and got a drink of water at a pump. Then on again, wearily and hopelessly. As night came on I found myself with a group of men who had fallen so far behind the main body that they had lost touch with it. When we came to three cross-roads they had no idea which way to take. An English officer, passing by on horseback, directed us down a little valley to the left, where, he said, we would find some of our men encamped. We went on to a wood, and there we found tents had been erected and there were some of our men about.page 148
The others lined up for food. I had not tried again since the first refusal, long before, how long I do not know. But now I thought I should make one last effort to keep life in me. I held out my tin for the last time and met the same answer. I turned away and lay down exhausted, on the sodden earth. My head and limbs were burning and I could neither rest nor sleep. My brain was working at lightning speed but the thoughts were confused and incoherent. I can remember in the dim light of early dawn seeing Chinamen lying on the ground like caterpillars wrapped in their cocoons. Then everything was a blank until a time, later in the morning, when I looked round me and could not see a human soul. The place was absolutely deserted and looked to me like a place of the dead. I was clad only in my underclothes and socks. I had no recollection of taking off my uniform and boots or any idea why I had taken them off. I did not at the time, feel much surprised or puzzled over this. Only one thing was clear in my mind: I must catch up with the others. Shells were bursting near at hand and I reasoned that if I went in the direction from which they were coming I would find the other men.
I set out. There did not seem to be any roads. At any rate I found none. I floundered along, falling into ditches full of water and struggling out again until I found my legs would carry me no further. Then I tried to get along on my hands and knees. I came to a large shell-hole full of water. To go on I should have to crawl round it. I hadn't the strength to, so I lay down on the edge of the crater and realized that I could go no further. I lay half conscious, without thought. An aeroplane came down quite close to me, then mounted again and disappeared.
Suddenly a voice beside me said: ‘You don't want to fall into that,’ and I saw two Tommies standing near.
I said something to them but I don't think I made myself intelligible. One of them remained with me. The other went away. After a time he returned with a horse. They put me on its back and set off, one leading the horse, the other holding me on. After some time, I have no idea how long, we came to what must have been an English dressing station. The Tommies page 149 handed me over and I was put on a stretcher outside. An unknown face appeared above me within a short distance of my own. Startled, I exclaimed: ‘Who are you?’
‘I am Colonel—(some name I didn't catch). Now tell us who you are.’
They poured something down my throat and questions were shouted into my ear. I could hear them quite plainly, but it was difficult to answer. They had nothing at all to go on as I had no identity disc. After a time I managed to answer some questions and then they left me in peace to drowsiness and unconsciousness.
Some time in that day the face appeared again and the voice said: ‘You don't need to worry any more. We have found out all about you.’
I had not been worrying and the information did not interest me. Afterwards I would have given a good deal to know just what they were told about me when they made enquiries of the New Zealanders.
I was given something more to drink and, after what seemed a long time, I was carried out and slid into a sort of shelf. After that there was a continuous rumbling and swaying and bumping. It was night when I was taken out and laid on the floor of a large tent. I was given something to drink and began to revive a little and take notice of my surroundings. I was carried across the road and put into a bunk in a small room. There was one other bunk in it, occupied by an Australian. The orderly in charge of us made a few remarks and then went out, closing the door. I was sufficiently roused to notice that he locked it. At that time I thought nothing of it or of the fact that I should have been kept apart like this with one other man. Later, of course, looking back, I was able to realize the significance of it.
The Australian sat up, groaned and rose off the bunk. He was a tall man, young and strong.
‘Why have you been put in with me?’ he asked. ‘What's the matter with you?’
I told him I had been standing out against serving in the army and had been knocked out.page 150
He stared. Then his face changed and, showing his bandaged hand and arm, he said: ‘Look here; I don't mind telling you, I did this with my own rifle.’
I felt very embarrassed at his confession and did not know what to say. I last I murmured awkwardly: ‘That's a pity. Do they know?’
‘Yes, they know.’
It seemed to relieve him to be able to talk about it. He was on the verge of breaking down, wondering what would happen to him, what they would do to him. I let him talk. I felt for him very much. There would be no sympathy for him, no understanding, and his fate would inevitably be hard. Unless people can clear their minds of the war convention they can never have any real understanding of such cases, but will simply dismiss them as cases of cowardice.
At last he said, pulling himself together: ‘Well, I suppose there's nothing for it but to make the best of it.’
My momentary flare-up of clear consciousness was passing: I was slipping back into dreamy semi-consciousness, and I remember nothing more of that night.
I was on a hospital train on the way to Boulogne. Only a very confused memory of the journey remains. I thought I was on a ship. I could feel the motion of the waves. Sometimes I knew where I was. In the early dawn I can remember being carried up a sloping platform and laid down on a floor. Then I can remember no more.