Harold Steele

Extracts from testimony

I have to declare that I have never repented the “Absolutist” Conscientious Objector stand which I tried to make against the 1914 War and its Conscription laws, and my scorning of those Conscription Tribunals (so ironically defined by dictionaries as “Courts of Justice”, forsooth) – though at the time, I most bitterly regretted that I had to feel I could (as Martin Luther said of himself) “do no other” than stand aside from all the good and infinitely brave fellows who, for their part, could not possibly take the path of the “Conchie”. How I longed that my pals of my Public School (whose traditions I was forsaking) and University, would be as gentle in their judgement of me as I was wholeheartedly admitting and envious of their endurance and courage as they went so debonairly to the War. I dared to sustain my own morale during the grimmer moments of my time in prison by remembering always that the Regiment into which the Conscription Act “deemed” me to have enlisted, was nicknamed the “Diehards”. I think it is still fair to put me down as a Conchie (Absolutist”) against War and military Conscription – and for the same basic reasons and claims which moved me half a century ago.

What I have tried to set down now as my reasons for striving against the 1914 War, and for resisting Conscription, formed the basis for the defence which I attempted to offer at my Court Martials. Those arguments still seem to me valid. I have been asked if I now feel that the protest I sought to make was “the best possible one under the circumstances”. I did refuse in prison to do forms of work which would be directly useful to the prosecution of the war.

But on two occasions, when very serious bullyings and beatings-up of prisoners (not C.O.s) were occurring (during evenings and nights when the Governor and other High-ups were out of sight) I felt I must threaten the Governor that, if these goings-on were not stamped out forth-with, I would myself hunger-strike and organize my fellow C.O.s into a general hunger-strike and work-strike for as long as it should take him to improve his Prison’s discipline. (This Governor blustered and fumed against me, but the beatings-up did cease, and, shortly afterwards, the Warder who was the chief bullying culprit was transferred to another prison.)

What, chiefly, I would now wish had been otherwise in and about my strivings against the 1914 War and its Conscription? Above all else, I wish that my memories now could give me firmer assurances that I had been throughout, and particularly in Guard Rooms, Barracks and Prisons, more gently kind and patient, friendly and tolerant. I can only plead in lame excuse that I was very young and inexperienced, feeling very “strange” and disconcerted within my situation, and very, very often (I suspect) plain scared for the future.

First and foremost, and more constantly and poignantly as I grow so old, remembrance of those who died in prison, or were bundled out of prison to die outside to avoid embarrassment for the Government. A sad place to die in – a prison in wartime fifty years ago, especially if you were in opposition to the popular cause. There were seventy-three who died in prison or who were hustled out just in time to die outside prison. It happened that I came to know, or at least have contact with, every one of those 73 – either before the war, in the struggle against the war and conscription before the introduction of conscription on March 2 1916 (after the slogan on every hoarding “Will YOU march too, or wait till March 2?) or within guard rooms or in prison. The pitiful thing above all, for those of us blessed with better health or greater strength, was to watch other comrades becoming ever weaker and weaker, and know surely, as probably they did, too, that they were condemned to this miserable death.

As a particularly pathetic example I specially recall our poor comrade Hoar in Maidstone Prison, a prison where discipline was fiercer than anywhere else I experienced other than a “Glasshouse”. A slightly built, rather short man, a little older, I fancy, than most of us. For weeks, he grew ever more feeble and frail at exercise time: unable to keep up with others on the endless pacing round and round the several concentric rings of the exercise yards: towards the end he was barely able to totter round the innermost ring. But this did not gain him any release or any sort of consideration. I shall ever recall the gentleness and resignation in his poor smile right up to the day we saw him no more. after Christmas 1913, I had a strenuous struggle to preserve my own ability to survive the equivalent of “prison pallor” of the mind. I owed much to a very powerful memory of all I had devoured previously from wide reading in several languages – a memory which I took deliberate care to exercise constantly every day also, at even the grimmest times when my mind threatened to give way, I somehow succeeded in calling to my aid my lifelong ability to sleep at any time or in any circumstances – an ability I still find now very useful. After release from prison, it was some considerable time before I could grow accustomed to using my tongue again so long out of regular use.

It is not too much to say that every one of all those who died in prison were done to death because of the vindictiveness and/or blindness of the powers-that-be.

One of my sharpest memories is of the horror of the days before an execution – the sounds of the preparation of the chamber where it was to take place, the ever-increasing tension throughout the prison, and, above all, the irritability of the warders even in the case of those usually kindly, easy-going, good-humoured, and the gloom that shadowed the whole Prison was upon even those warders who rarely showed humanity. So, too, on the prisoners – some went nearly off their heads by the time fixed for the hanging. Once only, I happened to see the condemned man and I still recall the horror in his eyes and a strangely gentle pathetic, appealing smile flitting, sort of apologetically, over his face.

The whole battalion was paraded on the parade-ground in full state – in a hollow square with the Colonel and his attendant Staff occupying one side, with the drums piled. I was brought from the cells by an escort which had spent the whole morning on its spick and span appearance. After a long pause of dead silence, I was shoved forward into isolation within the square, somebody whipped my cap off, and the sentence, confirmed by the General of the Military District, was read out very solemnly, by the Adjutant, I believe, To the veteran soldiers of the regiment to which I was attached, imprisonment was a terrible matter, and I well remember the murmur of horror which rippled over all those men rigidly at attention under the Colonel’s eye at the words “sentenced to 2 years hard labour.” Then my escort marched me along the lines of men round the three sides of the square. These were the veteran troops of the Die-Hards, back from France: I count it one of the most glorious heart-warming of my memories that as I was perambulated past them, there were looks of pity and concern in many eyes, and quite a lot of these “old sweats” hissed out of the corners of their mouths, “stick it out, mate”, “never say die, boy”.

I was kept shut up in a particularly ill-ventilated cell, without relief of daily exercise, during a spell of great summer heat…(and) one day, being a bit worn down already otherwise, I collapsed in a faint, and in falling, brought down on my head the heavy bed-board which had to stand leaning against the wall in day-time. A warder, on his rounds, found me bleeding and unconscious, and what a to-do ensued: and what speculation there was when my fellow C.O.s next saw me with a head swathed in bandages. My skull wasn’t cracked as it might well have been, but it has cost me ever since, the hearing of one ear, where the blow landed.

Sometimes now, when I’m under the weather and below par, and always when I’ve been ill enough to be delirious, I wake and can still feel what handcuffs feel like on my wrists and how difficult it is to go to the lavatory in the bracelets. And I recall so gratefully how in handcuffs, I edged near the bookstall at Victoria Station and out of the corner of my mouth managed to ask a girl – a mere child – at the counter to come round and tweak from my pocket a note I had previously written, just in case, telling my Father whither I was being marched (from Warley Barracks to Chatham Barracks) And lacked her to post it. I recall how eager she was to help me and eagerly promised to Post my note at her own expense as I had no stamp -and she did, most neatly and as in a thriller; and there tears in her eyes. I am sure she never guessed I was one of those scoundrelly Conchies; perhaps she thought I was just a Tommy out of luck. A coat was dangled over my wrists, but it was pretty obvious that I was hand-cuffed.

The Colonel of one regiment I was in, came to my guard-room while I was awaiting trial – said he deplored that such a well-educated fellow as I was, should be in such a plight, with prison life ruining my health etc. – I was reading for an Honours Degree in Classics when I was arrested not long before my Final exam. He gave me his solemn promise that if I would agree to be his batman I would never be made to drill, handle fire-arms, fight or even wear full kit of belt, side-arms etc, just khaki uniform. I had already done two long sentences. I felt very “down” after I had declined his offer – made, everything in his voice, manner, bearing, convinced me, only in sheer good-heartedness and, I like to think, because he was satisfied I was a genuine Conchie. But I did manage to convince him that I was no more able to accept his suggestion than one of his regular soldiers of the regiment, could go over to the other side in his kind of warfare.

His modus operandi was, on every occasion, when he was on parade, or even “up before’ his Company Officer, or the Colonel, to arrange, while still standing at attention, to make water’ in vast quantities. If, in this proceeding, he could manage to contaminate fellow soldiers standing next to him, so much the better. His excuse was that he could in no way help it but had always been subject to this weakness, was noticed, and he was constantly punished, he was in a cell opposite mine in the detention barracks when he made his supreme effort. He managed to make successive enormous meals and then took a huge dose of some opening medicine he had obtained. During the night , he rolled himself, uniform, his blankets, in the results of his own diarrhoea. When he was unlocked in the morning, he was an appalling sight (and smell). Even his hair. No one knew where to begin with him. As he was in no fit state to be taken before authority, authority came before him to announce sentence – from a fair distance. A party was detailed to hose him down, and part of his punishment was to clean his cell. The conclusion of the matter was that he was discharged from the Army with little more ado.

During the bitter winter of 1917 my mug of drinking tea froze every day in my cell in Maidstone prison, and every night the contents of my chamber-pot froze.

The great thing for me in, and arising out of, my experiences in World War I, was the tasting of what it means to be free – free to do what I thought to be right. I was unmarried, and my father had said to me; “My boy, I can just about manage to follow your box to its grave if you peg out in this venture, but I could not bear it if you were to give in and do what you really felt was not right, so feel yourself free to make your choices.” Wonderful it is (and comes rarely) to feel quite free to choose what you feel to be the right, untrammelled by any other lesser considerations than the searching for the right – the Truth. I’ve been wondrously blessed in that I’ve had that chance, that experience, twice in a lifetime. For by the word, the commission (literal) to me of my wife, Sheila Steele, I was made quite free in 1957 to venture forth to risk all I had, all I was, to do what I felt to be right and Truth alone demanded, in an attempt (a complete failure as it turned out) to protect against the testing of my own country’s H-Bomb. These remembrances are exhilarating – though I have now to regret I’m old and grown feeble in body.

The other thing I found out – surely and once and for all – was how good are fellow men – indeed ‘made in the image of God.’ For though there was this, that and the other less pleasant happening to put up with – I could write pages and pages to record the kindnesses that were done to me, in units of the Army, in Guard-rooms, in Prisons (even in that grim Fort Clarence) by rank-and-filer soldiers and Prison staff, and by -‘high-ups’ in Army and Prisons – when once we could ‘get through’ to one another and we communicated man to man. Time and again, the great treat was afforded me of seeing the flicker of compassion for me come into some chap’s eyes. The two ‘Red-caps’ who were detailed to put me into khaki uniform were as gentle as gentle. When, once; I was left to sleep on a cell floor with no kind of covering and my boots for pillow, some chap coming off guard came in, looked, and got his greatcoat to throw over me without a word (thinking I was asleep). In one guard-room, in which I spent rather a long spell, the guards bugler, when he came in from blowing reveille, never failed to smuggle into my cell a basin of ‘char’ (all the food at that camp was served in basins!).

And there came a time when everybody seemed, by common consent, to be anxious, that I should not give in. Perhaps it was because, in those days, I looked very boy—ish for my years.

Source: Imperial War Museum, London, archive, as at 7th March 2018.