A Test of Faith

BY AWAKE! WRITER IN GREAT BRITAIN

RICHMOND is a picturesque town in North Yorkshire, England. Its castle, built just after the 1066 Norman conquest, affords a commanding view across the valley of the river Swale, leading to the Yorkshire Dales National Park.

The television documentary The Richmond Sixteen has revealed an important aspect of the castle’s modern history​—the fate of 16 conscientious objectors imprisoned there during World War I. What happened to them?

Conscription

Following Britain’s declaration of war in 1914, patriotism swept some 2.5 million men into its armed forces. In the face of increasing army casualties, however, and the realization that the war was not going to end as quickly as the politicians had promised, “recruiting became less a matter of entreaty, more a matter of pressure,” comments war historian Alan Lloyd. So for the first time in British history, in March 1916, single men were conscripted into the armed forces.

Two thousand tribunals were set up to hear appeals, but few, if any, of those who objected on the grounds of conscience were granted total exemption. Most conscientious objectors were ordered to join the noncombatant corps, set up to support the war machine. Those who refused to join were still viewed as conscripts and were court-martialed. They were dealt with harshly and imprisoned, often in terrible, cramped conditions.

The Richmond Sixteen

Among the Richmond Sixteen were five International Bible Students, as Jehovah’s Witnesses were then known. Herbert Senior, who became a Bible Student in 1905 at the age of 15, wrote some 50 years later: “We were put into cells that were more like dungeons. They had probably not been used for years, as there was two to three inches of debris on the floors.” Graffiti and writing, now faded and in places illegible, that prisoners drew and wrote on their whitewashed cell walls have recently been made public. They consist of names, messages, and drawings of loved ones, along with statements of faith.

One prisoner simply wrote: “I might as well die for a principle as for a lack of one.” Many messages include references to Jesus Christ and his teachings, and there are also carefully drawn replicas of the cross-and-crown emblem, used at that time by the International Bible Students Association (IBSA). Herbert Senior records that he drew on his cell wall the “Chart of the Ages” from the Bible study aid The Divine Plan of the Ages, but it has not been found. It may be lost along with other writings on walls in the main cell block or  elsewhere. Another inscription reads: ‘Clarence Hall, Leeds, I.B.S.A. May 29th, 1916. Sent to France.’

To France​—And Back!

War casualties in France and Belgium were increasing at an alarming rate. War minister Horatio Herbert Kitchener and British General Douglas Haig desperately needed more troops, including married men, who by May 1916 were also being conscripted. To strengthen their hand, officials decided to make an example of conscientious objectors. So at gunpoint the Richmond Sixteen were illegally loaded onto a train, their hands in irons, and secretly taken to France by a roundabout route. There on the beach of Boulogne, says Heritage magazine, “the men were tied with barbed wire to posts, almost as if they were being crucified,” and made to watch the execution of a British deserter by firing squad. They were told that if they did not obey orders, the same fate awaited them.

In mid-June 1916, the prisoners were marched before 3,000 troops to hear their sentence of death, but by this time Kitchener had died, and the British prime minister had intervened. A postcard with a coded message had got through to authorities in London, and the military order had been countermanded. General Haig was ordered to commute all death sentences to ten years’ penal servitude.

Upon their return to Britain, some of the 16 were taken to a Scottish granite quarry to do “work of national importance” under appalling conditions, says an official report. Others, Herbert Senior among them, were sent back to civil, not military, prisons.

The Legacy

In view of the fragile state of the cell walls, a comprehensive exhibition at Richmond Castle, now under the care of English Heritage, includes a virtual-reality touch screen that enables visitors to scrutinize closely both the cells and their graffiti without damaging them. Student groups are encouraged to understand why conscientious objectors were prepared to suffer punishment, imprisonment, and possible execution for their sincerely held beliefs.

The Richmond Sixteen successfully “brought the issue of conscientious objection to public attention and began to win acceptance and respect for it.” This led to a more understanding approach by the authorities when dealing with those who registered as conscientious objectors during World War II.

In the year 2002, a pleasant garden in the castle grounds was dedicated in part to the memory of the Richmond Sixteen as a tribute to their moral convictions.

[Pictures on page 12, 13]

From left to right: The 12th-century tower of Richmond Castle, with the detention block containing the prison cells

Herbert Senior, one of the Richmond Sixteen

One of the cells where the Richmond Sixteen were kept

Border background: Portions of inscriptions made on the prison wall over the years