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The Christadelphian | May 2017

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Whose image and superscription?

The story of one prisoner of conscience

Harold Blake was a conscientious objector throughout World War One and suffered greatly because of his unwillingness to do any work connected with the war. He later became Brother Harold and his life experience is salutary for all who share his views.

Many examples of courage in World War One have been brought to our attention during the ongoing centennial anniversary celebrations. The bravery of those who resisted conscription through conscience deserves to be revisited. Some have already written of their plight in The Christadelphian. What follows is the record of a man who endured nearly three years of imprisonment and then diligently documented his experiences. Brother Harold Blake not only refused military service, he refused to do any work connected with the war. At times the authorities deceitfully disguised these connected works, which eventually led him to refuse all work and to his permanent solitary isolation.

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Enforced military service for all men between the age of eighteen and forty commenced in June 1916. Single men were conscripted from March 2, 1916 but such was the slaughter that more and more men were required and the conscription of married men began only three months later.

Harold based his objection to military service on his objection to war, that ‘participation in war was wrong and unchristian’. ‘My strongest reason for resistance’, he wrote, ‘is found in the cross of Christ. Jesus did not refuse to carry his cross, but I cannot conceive of Christ carrying a cross in order that another may be crucified upon it.’ To Harold it was inconceivable that a follower of Christ would agree to do ‘work of national importance’. To him this was ‘an alliance with the kings of the earth’. Ultimately he came to realise that no human court had the right to judge him and that ‘the rulers of this world will be called to account before their tribunal and their injustice found to be a testimony against them’.

Harold’s choice of title for his documented story needs no explanation. The coin which Jesus held on the day he asked, “Whose image and superscription is this?” bore the image of a man. Choosing between God and man’s authority was a daunting task during World War One. Harold persevered in choosing God’s authority.

Harold Blake did not have the services of any agency to support him at tribunals (e.g., the Military Service Committee) or even any brethren. He had not encountered any Christadelphians at the time, though his sister was baptized before the end of the war in 1918 and that presently led to his own decision to be immersed in 1928.

Born in 1890, Harold was twenty-four at the outbreak of war. On September 2, 1915 he married Amy, who was loyal throughout their separation.

In his unpublished memoirs, Harold explains how his arrest on the morning of August 28, 1916 was the beginning of his long imprisonment. He was a qualified pharmacist and as such was eligible for the R. A. M. C., the army medical unit. He had already decided, however, that employment in that arena would bring him too close to service with the kings of the earth.

He was not afforded the opportunity to write more than the occasional letter whilst in jail. It was not until three years after the war, torture, asphyxiation, deprivation and malnutrition (his emotional scars being so traumatic) that Harold recovered sufficiently to begin penning his memories. Even then he was only a quarter of the way through before his wife urged him to cease as she could see returning signs of emotion-triggered sickness. It was not until 1937 that Harold resumed his task. The shadow created by a further war persuaded him that he must advise future objectors.

First court martial

At his court martial in August 1916, Harold was sentenced to six months hard labour in Wormwood Scrubs. The government salved its conscience by appearing to care yet at the same time making an example of him, thus attempting to break down resistance. Completely unnecessarily, Conscientious Objectors (COs) were the subjects of eye and teeth checks whilst naked and in company. These ‘tests’ were humiliatingly frequent. The familiar broad arrow of detention became the symbol on his uniform and, in his case, shoes that were far too big. After six weeks of shuffling misery he was given a size to suit his feet. The merriment of other COs that they were women’s shoes took away none of the delight in at last wearing footwear that fitted.

Second court martial

After only four months detention, his sentence was mysteriously commuted. The possibility of freedom was soon dashed, however, by a second court martial for again refusing to don military uniform. His sentence was two years hard labour at Wandsworth Prison. Cells were bare but for a stool and table near enough to the door for guards to place a plate without leaving the doorway. Only after a week did a straw mattress replace the cold stone floor. Hard labour meant sewing the traditional mailbags. There was one hour of exercise daily in the yard, whatever the weather, and two visits a week to the chapel. Guards sat on a raised platform in the aisle.

For the first four weeks, three books were provided: a Bible, the Church of England Prayer Book and one other book ‘of educational nature’. After that a book of fiction was changed every week (without choice, of course).

The stool afforded Harold the opportunity to watch the exercise of others in the yard, though the inhumanity of guards towards frail inmates often made his blood boil. He was not supposed to watch but he always kept an ear attentive to the tread of a warder in the passage.

The diet was a punitive one meal a day. It was composed of six ounces of bread, or eight ounces of potato, plus:

  • Sunday – four ounces of corned beef.
  • Monday – eight ounces of haricot beans and two ounces of fat bacon.
  • Tuesday – one pint of soup.
  • Wednesday – ten ounces of suet pudding.
  • Thursday – eight ounces of corned beef.
  • Friday – one pint of soup.
  • Saturday – ten ounces of suet pudding.

Harold’s character was amazing. He never showed anger. His awareness of scripture applicable to each situation is often demonstrated in his writing and his quiet humour is a joy to read. Harold’s whimsical style can best be illustrated by two examples. The first was the arrival of a new inmate by the name of Littlejohn. “Pushed in the doorway by an irate sergeant, the sergeant exclaimed, ‘We’ll tame you. We can tame lions in the army’. To this Littlejohn responded with such coolness that it almost amounted to indifference, ‘I know, but you cannot make lambs fierce’.”

On another occasion, a sergeant “with a quite friendly attitude” said “I wouldn’t go on like this if I were you chaps. Why look at Brown (another CO) over there, it’s made an old man of him, afore he’s a young ’un.”

The monotony of confinement was a continual challenge. A welcome diversion during his second incarceration was the making of fireballs. These were not some sort of luxury for the prisoners but rather were destined for the guardroom fire. Harold tells that they were “about the size of a cricket ball and made of clay and very small coal”. As much coal as possible was worked into the clay, to ensure it resulted in a slow burning fire. The process of making them outside in the cold was not pleasant but it provided a break in routine.

How to occupy yourself when each day is largely spent in solitude was a challenge to which Harold was equal. When deprived of the means to record anything, he turned to scouring each stone of his cell for signs of recording by a previous occupant. In one cell, he was cheered by the following scratchings: “We have upheld the Republic for twelve days.” Harold perceived the irony that those words were inscribed by a Sinn Feiner who was imprisoned for fighting for his country while he now was imprisoned for choosing not to fight.

Third court martial

Harold’s third period of internment commenced in May 1917. Again the previous sentence was commuted and again he refused when ordered to put on the military uniform. A new two year sentence commenced from which he was not freed until April 24, 1919, his period in prison therefore being two years and eight months. It was during this time that Harold was able to transfer to the carpentry section, for which he had some skill, and which afforded some covert activities. Cutting down the carpenter’s pencils to make two illicit one-inch pencils, without apparently diminishing the size of the original, was not difficult. The wardens never noticed the alteration.

Opportunities to exercise independence were of course few. A delightful example of one rare unrehearsed corporate occasion was a rendering by around twenty prisoners who, as they returned from an exercise period, halted on the bridge between the two sides of the building and sang “Home, sweet home”. The rendering was worthy of any Welsh choir. The wardens wisely let the incident pass without retribution. On another occasion the imitation of the muffled mew of a trapped cat caused more than ten minutes of amusement while two officers searched for the beleaguered animal. Surely that is a school-boy trick as old as schools themselves.

Of communication, Harold reports, they were able to send and receive one letter a fortnight, and a visit of thirty minutes was permitted of one person once a month.

During his third internment, Harold grew increasingly suspicious that his ‘hard labour’ was connected with work of national importance. This was something he had strenuously tried to avoid. The two-by-three feet hessian mailbags he sewed and on which he stencilled GPO were unmasked as sand-bags for the army! In the carpentry workshop, Harold was told to make shoe racks. Because it was obvious to everyone that the prison desperately needed new shoe racks, Harold was duped. When complete, the whole consignment was requisitioned for army use. Harold was furious and this was the beginning of a period of complete isolation for him in which he refused to perform ‘hard labour’.

Isolation

Shortly preceding this, and while still in the carpentry area, he made tapestry looms for prisoners. These were easily dismantled for concealment about the body. For the backing, prisoners used thread from the edges of mailbags while everyone found whatever coloured thread they could from elsewhere. Guards rarely found the looms. Harold became a rug-maker on release. Scores of people benefited from his skill. As a wedding gift, Harold made a beautiful rug for us. At that time we did not know that the inception of his skill began behind bars.

Refusal to perform hard labour resulted in close confinement for three days. There was no exercise period and the cell was bare except for a water can and chamber pot. Every three days Harold refused all labour and the sentence was renewed. Even under the extreme deprivation which followed, Harold’s tenacity was not extinguished. Hidden upon him was his one-inch pencil. With this stub he wrote so much upon toilet paper that no space remained. He also used a slate pencil on the slate floor. His brain was strongly mathematical and, on the floor, he dissected formulae and investigated logarithms with enthusiasm. He also exercised his brain to recall whole sections of Shakespeare.

During the Summer of 1918 Harold became more and more aware that all was not well with him. He began to suffer increasingly frequent spasms of severe pain across his abdomen. Being a pharmacist, he recognised these symptoms were due to the diet containing too great a proportion of starch; this was congesting his liver. The attacks persisted and one morning in October, without any appetite for many days, he could not rise. The doctor prescribed quinine, which Harold was sure would only be detrimental – and was.

Some readers might suppose that the armistice of November 11, 1918 would bring release. This was not the case. By then Harold was in hospital and in a serious state. Very slowly he began to improve but it was not until the following February that he was deemed sufficiently well to return to his cell.

Throughout his imprisonment, Harold acknowledges the care and attention of the Quakers. They continually pressured the government for humane treatment of COs and, though clearly a small dispensation, they were allowed to provide extra books in cells. When Harold was finally released on April 25, 1919, the Quakers were the providers of a week-long expenses-paid holiday for Harold and Amy in Worcestershire.

My summary of Harold’s writings does not do justice to the 119 pages of A4 which Harold’s grandson, Anthony Blake, typed up and put online several years ago, or the original three volumes in copper-plate handwriting which I was privileged to read in the 1970s shortly before Harold ended his pilgrimage. Since 1962 he had been a brother at my ecclesia in Teignmouth, Devon.

We are grateful to Anthony and family for allowing this summary to be published. There are many gems which have been omitted. Only reading the entire document would do justice to this fine quiet brother who suffered for Christ so we are additionally grateful that Anthony has also informed us about the website, where the whole document can be read.

David Welch

 

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