the men who said no





The following account of the death of Paul Gillan in Winchester Prison was written shortly after W.J Chamberlain was released from that prison following his breakdown in health. He was in the hospital ward with Gillan and watched him while he died.

“Twelve men, all correct, sir.”
The Governor of Winchester Prison acknowledged the salute of the officer in charge of the hospital, marched down the ward, and then on to the next place of call on his daily inspection.

It is essential to the régime of His Majesty's prisons that everything should be 'all correct' at least twice daily when the Governor or Chief Warder makes a tour of the prison, visiting every department, and receiving from the officers in charge the number of prisoners under their supervision. These numbers are added together and compared with the grand total on the slate in the central hall, so that any attempt by a prisoner at escape or concealment would be detected at once.
When one has been on one’s back in a prison hospital for a month, unable to read or sleep or eat, and forbidden to speak, one finds oneself taking an abnormal interest in the most trivial events: the Governor’s inspection, the visit of the doctor, the arrival of a new patient - all such incidents become as exciting as the circus procession of our boyhood days.

On Tuesday, March 12th, 1918, as I lay longing for something to happen to revive my interest in life, which had somewhat flagged since the excitement engendered by the Governor’s inspection, I was relieved to hear the rattle of keys at the hospital gate, and on looking towards the door of the ward I saw that a warder was bringing in another war-resister prisoner.

“One on, sir!” shouted the warder as he pushed the prisoner inside the ward and re-locked the door. The officer in charge altered the number on the slate from 12 to 13 and motioned the prisoner to an empty bed.

Then it was that I saw Paul Leo Gillan for the first time. A frail, tottering figure; jet-black hair which gave his wan face a ghastly whiteness; eyes heavy and bloodshot through lack of sleep. He staggered across the ward to a bed opposite my own, and as he struggled through the process of undressing, I could see that every movement of his body caused him intense pain.

He was racked by a cough which became worse with every attack. His temperature was found to be at 102, and he was treated for a feverish chill.

In the evening I was able to converse with him in whispers via a fellow prisoner who acted as orderly. I discovered that he was an Irishman, a Roman Catholic, in keen sympathy with the aim of the Sinn Fein movement, but opposed to violence. His objection to military service was based on his interpretation of the gospel of Christ, and was so deep-rooted that he was prepared to be shot rather than shoot.'And even if I had no such religious objection,' he added, 'I should not, as an Irishman, fight for a country that has treated Ireland worse than Germany has treated Belgium.'

He had spent nearly two years in various English prisons, and during that period he had had ten months of severely restricted confinement because of his refusal to do the regulation prison work. He had arrived at Winchester Prison in a state of collapse, having been transferred to that prison from another in the hope that a change of prisons would induce him to change his attitude.

That was his story as I got it from him in the quiet of the evening while the officer in charge, free from fear of a visit from the Governor, was human enough not to hear the whispering that was going on at our end of the ward.

On the following day the new patient’s temperature dropped below normal, and his cough became more painful to hear. The doctor and the hospital warder treated him kindly enough - but it was too late. Months of prison punishment had exhausted his reserve strength, leaving him helpless to struggle against an illness that a man of normal strength would probably overcome in a week or two.

On the Friday his state was desperate. All through the day and night he lay groaning and gasping for breath. From my bed I watched him sink lower and lower; his face changed from white to an ashen grey. Pleurisy had now set in, and poultices were being applied at frequent intervals. I could see that he realised how very near he was to the end.

On the Saturday afternoon his groans and terrible struggle for breath became so distressing to the other inmates of the ward that the doctor ordered his removal to a cell in the corridor. The hospital orderly - a soldier prisoner sentenced to a long term of hard labour for a trifling disciplinary lapse after months of hard fighting in France - carried him tenderly out of the ward.

“Cheer up, mate!” whispered the orderly to his choking burden. “When you get over this lot you’ll get your discharge, certain.”

“Yes,” gasped poor Gillan. “I shall get my discharge - very soon now.”
Everything was very still in the ward after he was carried out. All of us were listening to those short, rasping gasps coming from the cell outside. I found myself counting them ... Then I lost count and tried to remember how long I had been in prison ... And I thought what a good thing it would be if I could get my discharge in the same way ... No more courts-martial, no more “Escort and accused, ‘shon!” no more visits from the Chaplain ...

“Thirteen men, all correct, sir!”

The voice of the warder rose above the groans and gasps. The Chief was making his afternoon round. Everything was quite “all correct”. No prisoner had escaped - yet.
At 7.30 p.m. the doctor came again hurriedly. By this time the gasps had become feeble, rapid sighs, and I listened to them with tense expectancy.

Yes, he was still breathing. One-two-three-four-five-six ...
Then a sudden silence.
Paul Gillan had got his discharge.

There was a rattling of keys as the doctor left the hospital. The warder came into the ward and threw up his hands with an expressive gesture.
“Gone!” he said, with something like awe in his voice. “Went off just like that”; and he threw up his hands again.

They carried the body into a spare room to await the inquest. As the door shut on all that remained of our comrade the officer in charge for the night came into the hospital on his round of inspection.

“Twelve men; one dead ‘un; all correct, sir!” said the hospital warder.

From W.J Chamberlain



red line