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The courage that brings peace
Norman Gaudie
First published in 1922

It was on a May morning in the year 1926 that a troop ship bumped against Havre quay. With her attendant cruisers she had crossed the channel by night in a choppy sea. Her deck was packed with men who had been trying to sleep. They were lying in all sorts of positions, some with necks bent nearly to a right angle, some leaning on the balustrade leading to the lower deck, some asleep on their knees because there was no room to lie down, some too ill or too miserable to sleep at all. A voice was heard speaking to God as to one quite near, asking that all might have strength and courage for whatever was coming to them. There was silence for a moment and then the bustle of landing.

It was a young Yorkshireman who spoke. He had appelaed for military exemption on conscientious grounds and had been refused and forced into the army. Now with fifteen other conscientious objectors he was to be sent up to the firing line. These men had to spend a good deal of their time in guard rooms, for disobeying orders which had as their aim the staying of the enemy, but they were friendly and helpful towards the soldiers and the friendly Tommies responded. They suffered no ‘field punishment’ – as did another party of ‘COs’ who were sent to France about the same time, and though remand to the guard room involved forfeiting their books and other possessions – the guards usually gave them back. Most of their time was spent moving from place to place, sleeping in the usual soldiers’ huts or on parole in rest camps. So they reached Boulogne where they were told that they were technically in the presence of the enemy and that they would receive orders disobedience to which would involved the sentence ‘To be shot at dawn’. The officers strongly advised them to consider their protest as made, and to join the labour battalion. The other party of Conscientious Objectors had done this (so said the officers), and it would be mere suicie to hold out. They might have 24 hours’ leave to make their decision.

They would make the most of the time, possibly their last day, and five of them went for a bathe. Later they seriously consulted together. They were more than ever convinced of the sinfulness of war, and felt that if the other group had given way it was the more incumbent on them to hold out, both on account of the principle and because if they wavered others would be sent out after them, including married men. One said he would join the labour battalion, the rest would take what came.

Next day 15 out of the 16 conscientious objectors refused to obey the order given and were remanded to the guard room. If any of them felt any self pity it was removed when the man who had joined the ‘labour battalion’ appeared with their rations. He was weeping bitterly.

Then came the court martial, and the sentence ‘To be shot at dawn’. The pause which followed seemed very long ‘commuted to 10 years’ penal servitude.’ Back in the guard room, ‘That’s an awful sentence’, said an old jail bird who had been persistently there so as to learn chess from one of them. ‘You must learn morse there’s nothing like it when you are in prison’ – so he taught them. And afterwards no forbidding of speech could keep them from communicating with each other. ‘Right hand long, left hand short.’ They spoke with hands, by winking eyes, by any possible bodily motion, as well as by tapping on walls and floors.


Text extract from Voices for Peace interactive CD

In that Boulogne guard room they sang songs and told funny stories and rocked with mirth when the point of the story reached a dull Tynesider five minutes after they had all lain down to sleep – tight packed with feet into the middle of the room. One day there was the strange sight of a few tommies following round the guard room soap bubbles made by one of these COs from a piece of borrowed soap.

From the Boulogne guard room they were sent to Rouen and confined in a prison foul and disgusting beyond words, whence they were taken down to the quay to be shipped back to England. As they waited there a crowd gathered, for behind them was a hospital ship and some French officers in high comand were inspecting it. The officers left but the crowd lingered for a man had begun to address them. He praised the generals who would shrink from no sacrifice to drive the enemy out of France and the brave men who had come out of England to their help, and who now lay wounded and perhaps dying in the ship. Then he pointed to the ‘despicable cowards’ – who had come indeed, but in the face of the enemy had refused to fight. They should have been shot, but instead were on their way home. The crowd grew angry, dangerous, and jostled and pushed until they were almost thrown in the water. There was only one of the group who spoke French. He said to a small boy near him, ‘We are trying to follow the Good Saviour.’ The boy’s face suddenly changed and an old man near him asked what had been said. The words were repeated and repeated again, and behold slowly and silently the crowd moved away.

Arrived in Winchester, where they were to serve their sentence, they found the other party of 17 already there,and there they all remained until April 1919, during many weary months.

The dividing line is a very fine one between these men and many equally determined to obey the highest they knew who saw no other way than to fight. And it is still true, as Mabel Dearmer wrote from a field hospital, that ‘only love and mercy and terrific virtues such as loving one’s enemy can bring a terrific thing like peace’.

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