September 1916

By September, the format of the Tribunal had settled down into a steady state as it passed it’s six month of publication. The front page dominated by an essay on modern or historical matters concerning the philosophy of COs - September issues featuring “The Extremist” on what a “peace-crank” really was, “One Instance” an account of Quaker pacifism in Pennsylvania, “What would happen if -?” on a vision of world peace and “Fighting Militarism”, a little more self explanatory. Inside would be the editorial, usually updating readers on the activity of the No-Conscription Fellowship (NCF) followed by news (and occasional reviews) of the CO movement.

Despite the regular format of the Tribunal in mid to late 1916, the treatment of COs was rapidly changing. While men were still being passed from Tribunal to Army to prison, once in civilian detention they were faced with a choice - accept the Home Office Scheme (HoS) and be released from prison to a work centre, or serve out the rest of their sentence. August’s Tribunal issues had discussed the philosophy behind the HoS, but September’s would move onto the practicality of the scheme.

14th September - Walter Roberts
The first Tribunal issue of September 1916 was published on Thursday 7th. While it was being printed, one CO who had accepted the scheme and been sent to Dyce Quarry, Aberdeenshire sent a letter home to his mother. It read:

'As I anticipated, it has only been a question of time for the camp conditions here to get the better of me. Bartle Wild is now writing to my dictation, as I am too weak to handle a pen myself. I don’t want you to worry yourself because the doctor says I have only got a severe chill, but it has reduced me very much. All these fellows here are exceedingly kind and are looking after me like bricks, so there is no reason why I should not be strong in a day or two, when I will write more personally and more fully.'

Two days later, Walter Roberts, a 21 year old Religious Conscientious Objector from Stockport, died in the mud and rain of Dyce Quarry. Walter had died from a combination of the terrible conditions of the HoS camp and medical neglect, after weeks of breaking rocks in inadequate clothing, condemned surplus army shelters and little food.

Walter’s death sent a shock through the movement. The first of many COs to die as a direct result of their treatment during the war, his death came as a surprise for the COs who believed the Home Office Scheme was a useful and productive plan - though would have been recognised as a bitter inevitability by those who saw the scheme for what it truly was.

His Obituary forms the first of the articles we’ll look at for September. Written by Fenner Brockway, it shows some of the closeness the relatively large CO movement had achieved between it’s members.

Fenner eulogises beautifully about a man he clearly considered to be a fallen comrade - “the first of our members to meet his death in our fight against militarism” and stresses the achievements and character of Walter as a narrative of what it means to be a “good CO”.

Walter, Fenner writes, was “the first Conscientious Objector to appear before a Tribunal” and possessed “quiet strength and transparent nobility” that meant other, older COs “instinctively looked to him as their leader”.

The striking thing is that the obituary isn’t just a tribute to a brave young man, but also a tribute to the ideals that he stood for and the ability he had to inspire confidence in others - not simply the people he met, but for the movement as a whole. There’s a real sense of martyrdom in Fenner’s writing that shows some of the commitment and strength of character that it must have taken to be an absolutist CO and that while Walter had died, his spirit was “free and united with the life universal”.

It’s an article aimed both at people who knew Walter, but also all of those that didn’t, exhorting them with an example of a man who had been murdered by militarism simply for saying “no”, one “worthy to be the first to die in our struggle”.

Before we wax too lyrical though, Fenner - A better writer than many of his peers both pro and anti-war - brings the reader back down to earth on a sorrowful and realistic reminder of the human cost of war. Walter was a CO, but he was also a son, brother (to another CO, Alfred) and boyfriend - something we must remember when talking about Objectors today.

“I cannot express to his father and mother and brother, and to the girl he loved, the sympathy we feel towards them”

21st September - Pen Pictures of Prison Life
With Walter Robert’s death causing a stir in both the CO movement and the Houses of Parliament as to the organisation and purpose of the Home Office Scheme, other COs were still in prison - as they would be for another three years. Throughout the late 1916-early 1919 period, occasional reports would come out of Wandsworth, Wormwood Scrubs and the other large prisons into which COs were crammed in ever increasing numbers. Helpfully, these reports form a huge body of detail on the lives of COs in civilian prisons. Of course, this being The Tribunal, the reports are rich in the ironies of the authors - W. J Chamberlain’s - day to day life as a political prisoner.

Each article focuses on a specific topic - this week, and one of keen interest at least to the thousands of religious COs in prison, “Chapel”.

Prison chapel was clearly a strange place for religious and non-religious COs alike. Chamberlain writes about the uncomfortable mix of the sacred and the state when the warders approach a praying prisoner:

“in the midst of the prayers of the minister and congregation - in the midst of what may have been a crisis of the soul - he walks over the bowed heads of the prisoners, and, reaching the man with his head on the form, pulls him back into an upright position, saying in a loud and brutal voice ‘Now then! Kneel up, can’t yer!’ ”

For non-conformist COs, the Anglican service with it’s prayer book and lesson from the Governor celebrating heavy German losses on the front - and this in the midst of the Somme campaign - “in correct retired-Major style”, was “the most remarkable religious service we have ever attended”.

Small acts of resistance abound, even after the COs have secured the privilege of attending chapel, when ordered to sing the national anthem

“We stand and fold our arms instead of standing at attention and keep our lips tightly closed so that we cannot even be suspected of singing”

or when trying to supress the laughter of a socialist CO sat in the row in front

“We dig our knee into the back of our comrade in front of us. He nods his dead so violently that we begin to tremble for him”.

William Chamberlain’s articles for the Tribunal are an excellent resource for the kinds of stories that show a COs ongoing resistance to the military and civil system even from within prison, but they also show the kinds of everyday brutality and unthinking callousness that COs faced. The description of the chapel itself suggests Chamberlain’s cheer is covering up terrible conditions, where “the only touch of colour... is the blue uniforms and bright buttons of the wardens” and the other prisoners - some “heaving convulsively as he sobs out his repentance” only to later show “a look full of hatred and revenge” show that life as a CO in prison wasn’t just anecdotes of resistance and quiet heroism, but a long, tedious and damaging slog through rules, regulation and punishment.