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The Battle

On 6th June 1916 the testing recommenced in earnest. Early this morning the men were awakened by the Sergeant Major for parade. They ignored the request until they were told that the officer was down at the docks and that they could state their objection to him. On this basis they went down to the docks but found no officer on arrival but an order to unload ships. The COs formed a line before a Sergeant who later appeared, asking each CO individually if he was prepared to move the cases. Senior was the first to be asked, and refused, saying, my Christian principles will not allow me to do any work for this war. The other men also refused orders to unload Army supplies from the Quayside at Boulogne, which resulted in evidence being taken that night for a Field General Court Martial. Senior noted:

"The charge was the gravest possible for a soldier: refusing to obey his superior officer in the face of the enemy."

As a result of their disobedience, eleven of the men (including Senior, Renton and Stafford Hall) were taken to the Field Punishment barracks at Boulogne, a disused fish-market near the Quay. Here they were placed in dark and disgracefully crowded cells with a stone floor and one blanket as a bed. These must have made the cells of Richmond Castle seem like a paradise. Senior reminisced:

"[We] were put into a dark cell with atrocious toilet facilities. It was down a passage and the only air that entered this cell had to get down this passage and through inch spaces between 8 to 10 inch board that formed the front of the cell, and no outlet. It reminded me of the Black Hole of Calcutta I had read about when I was a boy. The size was such that seven could lie close together on one side, five on the other side with our feet meeting in the middle."

Senior also described a large latrine bucket with no lid, which the twelve took turns sleeping next to. Though they could scarcely have believed it at the time, the earlier party of 17 conscientious objectors had apparently slept in these cells a few days before. Not surprisingly, perhaps, these seventeen - which included Bernard Bonner, an IBSA member from Luton - reported the incidence of dysentery breaking out. Senior recalled that a high official later visited the barracks and was horrified at the conditions he saw.

On 12th June charge sheets were given to the many of the COs, who were told that their Court-Martial would take place on the following day. The next day, an escort arrived at the Field Punishment Barracks to accompany them to the place of trial. As they climbed a hillside en route they saw the English Channel, which inevitably caused them to wonder if they would ever see their homeland again. When they reached their destination, each was read their charge:

"No. --- Private -------------------- 2nd Northern N.C.C. Sec. 9(1) Army Act. Disobeying, in such a manner as to show a wilful defiance of authority, a lawful command given personally by his superior officer, in the execution of his office, in that he, at Boulogne, on 6th June, 1916, when, as one of a working party at the docks, he was personally ordered by Sergeant ----, the non-commissioned officer in charge of the party to commence work, did not do so, saying 'My religious convictions won't allow me to do it' or words to that effect."

Charles Herbert Senior

There followed a perfunctory trial, in which the COs disputed thier alleged status as soldiers, but were inevitably convicted.

Senior and his fellow IBSA members were returned to Henriville Camp in preparation for their big day which proved to be Saturday 24th June. Senior recalled that the army made a great show of the proceedings presumably to deter others from following their example. According to external records, these COs were marched out in front of hundreds of troops formed by soldiers being lined up on three sides of a large square. The COs were led up to a raised platform on the fourth side of the square where a high-ranking officer met them. When silence was established in accord with military order, the crime and punishment of each CO was announced:

"Private ----, No. ---, of the 2nd Northern N.C.C., tried by Field General Court-martial for disobedience, sentenced to death by being shot."

The statement was followed by a pause, after which it was stated that the sentence was confirmed, by General Sir Douglas Haig. Another pause followed after which the words and commuted to 10 years penal servitude was added. The tension of the previous five weeks was at last ended and, though difficulties remained, the anxiety of not knowing their fate was finally broken. The COs had called the bluff of their military superiors who had taken them all the way to the place of execution and at the very last moment not been prepared to pull the trigger.

The events were alluded to in Rowland Jacksons letter sent to the Watchtower in late June but which appeared in a later issue. Two paragraphs from his letter appear under.

Loving Christian Greeting to all the dear ones in Christ Jesus! We were "read out" on Saturday last, and the verdict you will be anxious to hear is now public: "Sentenced to suffer death by being shot, but commuted to 10 years' Penal Servitude." 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? We came out here in full reliance upon the Lord's grace and prepared in the strength He supplies for anything He should deem good for us.

Charles Rowland Jackson

The way before us is uncertain, but we have learned so much of the Lord's care during the past few weeks that we are prepared to leave all in His hands. We have this confidence, born of our Christian experience, particularly that of recent days, that He who is for us is more than all that can be against us. There is not the least doubt in our minds that if we trust Him, we shall not be confounded, though storm and tempest may come. Oh, what a joy and peace this knowledge brings to our souls! Here is another "mystery of the Kingdom." Those with whom we have come in contact cannot understand our being so quiet and confident, when, as they say, the situation is so serious; and we do not murmur at our trials, because we count it a privilege to suffer for righteousness' sake.

Continue to pray for us that we may come out of the fire purified and made white. Love to all the dear brethren.
ROWLAND JACKSON

Bible Students sentenced to death

The 1973 Yearbook of Jehovahs Witnesses mentions an earlier report concerning eight IBSA conscientious objectors who were sent to France and sentenced to be shot, only for their sentence to be commuted to ten years of penal servitude. A list of names originally published by The Friends Service Committee in the Daily Despatch of 27 June 1916, and The Tribunal on 29 June 1916 included the names of the eight Bible Students listed under. More recently the eight were included in Gerald Oram Death Sentences Passed by Military Courts of the British Army, 1914-1924 (Francis Boutle Publishers, revised edition 2005).

Name Age in 1916 Residence in 1916 Location of Non Combatant Corps Field General Court Martial Date Of Death Sentence
1 Bonner, Bernard M 21 Luton East Non Combatant Corps - Harwich 10/06/1916 24/06/1916
2 Hall, Clarence 20 Leeds 2 North Non Combatant Corps - Richmond 13/06/1916 24/06/1916
3 Hall, Stafford 23 Leeds 2 North Non Combatant Corps - Richmond 12/06/1916 24/06/1916
4 Jackson, C Rowland 21 Leeds 2 North Non Combatant Corps - Richmond 13/06/1916 24/06/1916
5 Jordan, Philip B 30 Harrow, Middlesex 3 East Non Combatant Corps - Seaford 13/06/1916 24/06/1916
6 Renton, Leonard 20 Leeds 2 North Non Combatant Corps - Richmond 12/06/1916 24/06/1916
7 Senior, C Herbert 29 Leeds 2 North Non Combatant Corps - Richmond 12/06/1916 24/06/1916
8 Walling, Arthur Frank 30 Harrow, Middlesex 3 East Non Combatant Corps - Seaford 13/06/1916 24/06/1916