EACH of the eight cells measures six by eight-and-a-half feet. Dark, dank, cold, and claustrophobic, the stone walls crush in on the 16 partially clad, shivering prisoners, who are eating chunks of dried bread and sipping from pannikins of water. The sanitation consists of metal buckets.
This is not a medieval dungeon, but Richmond Castle, in 1916. The 16 men were conscientious objectors during the First World War. The story of how and why they got there is one of brutality and scorn.
The war in Europe was going badly. The Germans were advancing, and men were dying in the trenches every day. The British Commander-in-Chief, General Sir Douglas Haig, desperately needed more soldiers for his planned offensive on the Somme. Military service was not compulsory, but intense moral pressure was put on men who did not join up. Postcards were sent to them, intimating that they should join the Girl Guides. Red discs were placed in the houses of serving soldiers so that everybody could see who had not enlisted.
The battle of the Somme was looming, and only an input of more troops could prevent defeat. Lord Kitchener put pressure on the government, which immediately introduced full-scale conscription with the 1916 Military Service Act. The only grounds for exemption were to be family hardship, ill-health, and faith, or moral belief.
Conscientious objectors were ordered to attend tribunals. Those who passed muster were sent to the Non-Combatant Corps, where they had to participate in non-fighting military tasks.
In that year, 16 men went a step further, and refused to put on military uniforms or obey any army orders. They became known as the Absolutists. One, John Brocklesby, told the tribunal: “They can take me where they will — even into the front-line trenches — but they will never get me to raise my hand against my fellow men”. Asked if he was prepared to work on a minesweeper, he replied: “No, sir. They would not let me sweep English mines as well as German mines.”
Another objector, Norman Gaudie, made this reply to the members of the court martial: “My religious convictions prevent me from taking any part in the military system.” He maintained that his convictions were “based on the spirit and teaching of Christ”.
The men were immediately arrested by the military police and carried off to Richmond Castle, where they were thrown into the cells and subjected to bullying, verbal abuse, and abasement. Banner slogans and comments from the public were scathing: “Conchies are a disgrace to our town and country.” “Injustice! Even cowards share the fruits of victory.” Horsewhipping and shooting were considered suitable reprisals by some.
Most of the men were Quakers, Congregationalists, Wesleyans, and Jehovah’s Witnesses, for whom the words of the commandment “Thou shalt not kill” were non-negotiable.
Besides Brocklesby, who was a talented artist and schoolteacher, and Gaudie, who was a 29-year-old railway clerk, county-class cricketer, and team member of Sunderland Football Club, there was Alf Myers, an ironstone miner from Carlin How, in Cleveland, and a member of the Wesleyan Chapel; Alf Martlew, who was employed in the Quaker-run Rowntree’s chocolate factory in York; and Billy Law, a house painter, and his brother, Bert, a storekeeper in Darlington.
The men knew what fate awaited them: court martial, long prison sentences with hard labour, physical cruelty, and disgust. To keep their spirits up, they salvaged small pieces of charcoal and wrote their messages on the cell walls. Some are intensely moving. Brocklesby drew a picture of a young, fresh-faced girl: “My Kathleen,” he wrote.
Gaudie sketched his mother. Her eyes look out affectionately across the cell at her son, her hair tightly pulled back, mouth smiling. A few days after doing the drawing, he was sentenced to death. The words used by the President of the tribunal were: “Private . . . Number. . . of the . . . tried by Field General Court Martial for disobedience, sentenced to death by firing.”
Percy Goldsborough wrote: “I was brought from Pontefract on Friday, August 11, 1916 and put into this cell for refusing to be made into a soldier.” The messages flow poignantly off the cell walls: “I have no quarrel with the German proletariat.” “All COs who enter here be of good cheer for we cannot lose in this fight for liberty, for right ever comes out on top.”
One that stirs the heart is the picture of a man lying crushed beneath a great cross. The legend reads, “Every cross grows light beneath the shadow, Lord, of thine.” Three are marked indelibly in my mind. “Goodnight, angel. I shall always remember you smiling.”
Another speaks of his girlfriend: “I see her thronged around with troops of beautiful angels, to enshrine her from all wrong.” One man has scrawled a single, pathetic word: “Alone.” The impact of seeing these cells and the heartfelt messages and drawings is devastating.
There was hostility, too. On one cell wall is a picture of a rat standing on its hind legs, with the caption “Conscientious Objectors”. Admiral Sir Hedworth Meux, presiding over a tribunal, said: “Is there one sentence in holy writ which justifies cowards who will not defend women and children?”
GENERAL HAIG and Lord Kitchener were furious at the government exemption for “conchies”, as they were dismissively named. They decided to make an example of the men, and their agenda was short and vicious: public humiliation, followed by execution by firing squad.
The men were secretly loaded on to a train at Southampton, and put on board the torpedo boat HMS Viper, heading for France. They were transported by a cross-country route to Henriville, an army camp near Boulogne.
During the railway journey, Brocklesby managed to doctor one of the army’s pre-printed postcards by highlighting key letters. His message, decoded, read: “I am being sent down to b . . . ou . . . long . . . e’. It was the best he could do for Boulogne. He addressed it to his brother, and tossed it out of the train window.
If the men disobeyed orders now that they were in France and technically on active service, there could be no mistaking the statutory punishment. Summary justice and an automatic death sentence were inevitable.
The men were lined up and forced to watch the execution of a young British deserter. Ranks of troops stood motionless on the parade ground, watching. The treatment was intended to soften up the conscientious objectors. They were given 24 hours to decide whether they would take up arms or suffer the same fate as the executed man.
At the appointed time, they were ordered to unload army supplies from a truck. They refused, and were sentenced to the barbaric Field Punishment No. 1. Their arms were stretched out and their legs were tied together in the crucified position, against a barbed-wire fence that ripped into their flesh. They were left there for two hours.
Meanwhile, back in England, the tide was partially turning. A section of public opinion was showing sympathy, saying that war was a negation of the Christian ethic, and that compulsory military service should be abrogated. Then something not far short of a miracle occurred. Brocklesby’s letter was found, and handed to a prominent Quaker, Arnold Rowntree.
He confronted the Prime Minister, Lord Asquith, with the letter during a parliamentary session. The Prime Minister bowed to public opinion, and ordered that the men should not be harmed.
Yorkshire newspapers backed the prisoners’ cause. “All men whose objections to active military service are founded on honest conviction ought to be able to avail themselves of the exemption which Parliament provided,” The Southern Echo thundered in its issue of 30 June 1916.
At the height of the turmoil, Lord Kitchener was killed: his ship hit a German mine, and he was blown to pieces. Kitchener’s death, Brocklesby’s letter, and Rowntree’s intervention saved the men from certain execution by firing squad.
But the army was determined to have the last word. The conscientious objectors were marched out on to the parade ground, in front of watching ranks of soldiers, to hear a proclamation that their execution was imminent, and that it had been upheld by General Haig. After a long, cruel pause, they were informed that the sentences had been commuted to ten years’ penal servitude.
A letter home from Rowland Jackson after the announcement proclaims the strength of his faith: “We are still peaceful in the knowledge of our Heavenly Father’s loving care, and are not too greatly concerned, for have we not agreed to be faithful to the Lord, come what may?”
Their troubles were not over. Some were returned to Dyce, in Scotland, and forced to do back-breaking work in a stone quarry in inhumane conditions. Others were locked up in Dartmoor and Maidstone prisons. They were betrayed to the last; for their hewn stone was used to build military roads without their knowledge.
THE last prisoners walked free from Maidstone prison in April 1919. The other convicts woke at dawn, and emitted, at first, a low hum, which rose to bursts of ragged cheering. One of the COs said it was the only time he had cried during their ordeal.
Their hardships continued relentlessly. They were shunned and banned from sports clubs and bars. One drowned himself in the River Ouse. Many were refused jobs. Two escaped to Australia, to find only that persecution followed them.
English Heritage has stepped in to record this episode in Yorkshire’s history. The fragile graffiti on the cell walls has been preserved, and the public, banned from entry, can see them online. And Neil Swanson, a Manchester-based landscape architect, has designed a memorial Cockpit Garden to the Richmond Sixteen. It has open spaces, topiary shapes, and a grassy area.
A relative of one of the men, who attended the opening ceremony, said: “My uncle felt really strongly that it was unacceptable to kill, for whatever reason. A garden is all about life and things growing. It is very peaceful, and I think he would have approved of this.”
It is a fitting tribute to the 16 men who faced death in a Yorkshire castle for their religious convictions.
No one could doubt the courage and self-sacrifice of the men who fought and died in the trenches. The Richmond Sixteen were prepared to follow in the footsteps of the Christian martyrs. This, too, was courage. Nobody who has seen those grim cells and their moving graffiti can doubt it.