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‘If they could get us into the firing line, then they could pass the death sentence.’

Alfred Evans, Harry Stanton and Howard Marten were three of seventeen COs who were imprisoned in Harwich in May 1916.

Harwich prison, Alfred Evans explained, ‘had been built to house French prisoners during the Napoleonic wars and was a vile place in which severe punishment was given out. For example, two of us were strapped up in strait-jackets and stood outside against the wall in the hot sun, and the vindictiveness of the military prison staff saw to it that the strait-jackets were strapped too tightly. I and two others were put into the cells, completely dark, dripping with water and overrun with rats, for three days without food.’

Despite the unusually warm spring, inside those cells it was bitterly cold, too cold even to sleep. The prison guards ‘repeatedly told us that we would soon be pushing up the daisies’, so what followed was no real surprise:

‘An officer told us we were to be taken in irons [shackled] to France, where we would be under active service conditions and if we persisted in our conduct we would be shot. We were asked to make our wills in a space provided in the army pay-book. All seventeen of us refused.’

One night they were moved across the Channel to Le Havre and an army camp called Cinder City. On Cinder City’s vast parade ground, about a thousand soldiers were lined up, with the seventeen COs scattered among them. ‘The parade was then ordered to right turn, quick march. Not one of us seventeen moved.’ There was a lot of shouting from the officers, then small groups of soldiers were sent back to drag the COs off. ‘For a short time it must have been an amazing sight to see us scattered motionless over the huge (and now empty) parade ground.’

They were now forced into army workshops and kicked about. One soldier told Alfred Evans, ‘I don’t agree with you, laddy, but I admire your pluck’. A few other soldiers showed kindness, too. But the officers continued to bully and beat the COs, finally telling them they would be sent to the front line.

‘We were forever being threatened with the death sentence,’ said Howard Marten. ‘Over and over we’d be marched up and read out a notice: some man being sentenced to death for disobedience at the front line. I don’t know if they were true cases or not. It was all done to intimidate us. The military authorities didn’t know how to react to us: it was something outside their experience. We were always civil, but were never prepared to do things in a military way. We never saluted, we never stood to attention. We treated the military as we’d treat any normal person.’

Some COs were now moved to a Field Punishment Barracks. Harry Stanton was one of them. He described the open-air torture they endured, strapped for hours to a wooden framework by the wrists so that their arms took most of their body weight, and later roped to barbed wire so their faces and eyes risked being torn. But ‘I didn’t feel we had any special grounds for complaint. We were exceptional cases and the military was trying to break down our resistance. What did seem shameful was that any volunteer soldier, offering his life in what he believed to be his country’s service, was liable to this same punishment for quite a trivial offence.’

Then the seventeen were moved to Boulogne. ‘We were handcuffed with our hands behind our backs and put into a dark underground cage about 12 feet square and made of thick planks. With us was one latrine bucket with no lid.’

In June the men were tried at a series of courts-martial with power to pass the death sentence. They were taken out to the parade ground to hear their sentences. For each one an officer read out their various crimes – refusing to obey a lawful command, disobedience and so on – and then: ‘The sentence of the court is to suffer death by being shot’. Howard Marten was first on the list, and when he heard these words he thought ‘Well, that’s that’. After a moment the officer added ‘confirmed by the Commander-in-Chief’. Another pause, rather longer. Then the officer said, ‘But subsequently commuted to penal servitude for 10 years’.

All the COs had the same painfully long-drawn-out sentence. Their hearts lifted. Penal servitude meant return to England, and civilian authorities at a civilian prison.

What few people knew at the time was that the army chief had been instructed that no conscientious objector should receive the death penalty. That order had not been made public.