For Christine/ Poems and One Letter
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In my case they decided I was. The tribunals were generally unsympathetic to conscientious objectors. Of the 16, men who claimed exemption, the vast majority were refused. Eric Dott recalled his treatment when he went before a tribunal. I stated that I was a CO and they said well then, I would have to go before a military tribunal, who would assess me and see if they thought I was a genuine CO.
And I had to appear before them and they put me through the usual sorts of questions that these tribunals did.
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They had certain routine questions. A favourite one was, what would you do if your sister was threatened with rape by some German soldier or something like that? The thing was this was a protest against the war, that the war was wrong. If a CO was refused exemption, he was conscripted into the Army. Around 6, of these men — known as absolutists — refused to obey military orders.
Walter Griffin was one of them. I was up against a sergeant major, a brute. He sort of tried to bully me in that way.
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He came right up to me and tried to shout as hard as he could to me, right within a yard or two. Absolutely barmy. In front of a lot of recruits, the most stupid thing anybody could do and he just went barmy. The treatment COs received varied. Some members of the army were sympathetic and prepared to hear them out. But other soldiers were angered by the COs and their disobedience. George Dutch had a particularly harsh experience when he refused to put on his army uniform. I sat there for a day or two and the whole camp was interested.
Everybody knew what was going on. The major was very much disliked and I can understand that.
I can see what type of person he was. He must have noticed it, because after a day or two suddenly my tent was taken up and taken right up on top of the cliff overlooking the sea. This was in November and it was pretty cold, misty weather. And I was taken up there and my uniform put beside me again by the tent pole, and just to make things worse than ever they rolled the tent walls up so that the wind came right into the tent, all round, and I could sit there and freeze. Which I did. And the orders were that no one was to come near me until I dressed and came down.
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I just sat there, day and night, just set my teeth to stick whatever came. Then suddenly a whole group of them turned up. The medical officer, the doctor, and the NCOs that had put me up there and rolled the tent walls up. The doctor was very angry. The COs who resisted all military discipline were arrested and court-martialled.
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The instructor was to be present as witness. I reported to the officer who told me to escort the rifleman to the guard-room and place him in close arrest. Nearly 6, men were sentenced to imprisonment for resisting military authority. Arthur Wilkinson was one of them. He described his cell at Wormwood Scrubs Prison in London.
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In the cell was a wooden stool, no table, but a built in piece of tabling with a hole where they could put food through to you without opening the door. And the bed, the first night you slept on the boards. It was three boards with cross members to brace them and the cross members raised them off the floor a bit you see. So you hit the harsh conditions straight away there. A rule of silence was enforced in prisons, and inmates were punished if they broke it. Solitary confinement had negative psychological effects, as Donald Grant experienced.
But it was severe to be in solitary confinement. I was, if I may say so, less affected than most others because I knew what I was doing, I had a way of life, I had a philosophy of life. I had a pretty well-filled mind, I could sing, I could recite poetry, meditate. Then the click goes back. There is no handle on the inside of the door. I am enclosed. Prisoners were usually given simple, monotonous work to do, such as making mail bags. There were few comforts, and the prison diet was insufficient, as George Dutch found out.
Which was very welcome, because the diet was very poor, much worse than the army diet. And I was a vegetarian and quite a number of us were and those of us who were, were even more unlucky because even part of that poor diet we had to reject. And sometimes our diet was little more than potatoes and bread and water.
Some of those people who died in prison or outside were probably affected by these harsh conditions. Because it was harsh enough, but we never had enough to eat. Prison had a very damaging effect on the morale of some of the COs. Eric Dott explained how this could happen. It depended, if you were young and fit as I was, you could relatively enjoy the time there.
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But there were many older men and men with worries at home for whom it was very hard. Because that was really one of the hard parts of it, people in poor circumstances, their families got a small pittance. Less than what the soldiers got for their families and that made it very hard for those. You slept on boards with a thin mattress between you and hard boards.
And altogether you had to be fairly fit to stand it. Some COs also suffered maltreatment in jail. Harold Bing served several prison sentences during the war. He witnessed one occasion when a CO was treated inhumanely. Conditions in these civilian prisons varied a good deal.
Some prisons had a reputation for being fairly lenient, others for being very harsh.