Monday, 6 October 2014

Ealing’s Alternative First World War Heroes: Part 1

Two who refused to kill and were prepared to pay with their lives...
The sudden transference of COs [Conscientious Objectors] to France in May, 1916, marked the crest of the wave in the efforts of the military authorities to ‘break’ the [no-conscription] movement. Riding rough shod over the promises of the highest civil authorities that objectors would not be taken out of the country, they transferred to France from Landguard Fort, Harwich, from Richmond Castle, Yorks and from Seaford some fifty men, thirty five of whom received the death sentence.

The first rumours of the intended move came from Harwich, where the Eastern N.C.C. was stationed and where a party of the earliest arrested COs was in irons at Landguard Fort. A Quaker Chaplain was hurried down as soon as possible, but before his wire was delivered saying that the men were gone, information was received that the N.C.C. and its C.O. prisoners were on their way to Southampton. This warning was conveyed by a letter thrown out of the train by one of the ordinary N.C.C. men while passing through a London suburb.
Efforts were promptly made to reach the party at Southampton, where they were delayed by the discovery of an outbreak of measles in the corps; but before this could be accomplished and before personal representations to Mr. Asquith led to the sending of a telegram ordering their retention in this country, the prisoners had been separated from the rest of the men and shipped to Le Havre—sure evidence that the Army authorities intended making an "example" of them.`-
As previously posted, two of these men, in the Harwich group were :
Alfred William Evans of 26 Endsleigh Road, Southall
Oscar G Ricketts of 73 Mayfield Avenue, West Ealing
The story continues:
They were told that they would be 'under active service conditions', and if they refused to obey orders they would be shot [...]
The sentences were read out in public, in front of thousands of soldiers in formation [...] commuted in each case (after a dramatic pause in the reading) to penal servitude for 10 years. They were shipped back to Britain, this time to civilian imprisonment [...]Two hundred men were placed [in Dyce Work Camp near Aberdeen, where Ricketts and Evans are identified in an iconic photograph] to work at quarrying stone, and they endured harsh conditions, leaky tents, little sanitation, not much to eat, and no treatment for illness. A young CO called Walter Roberts died, and after that the camp was closed.

Alfred Evans is among the better known COs of the First World War, having evidently recounted his experiences in some detail. He is mentioned several times by name in the above account, as follows:
·         Alfred Evans, an apprentice piano tuner, was another Harwich detainee. He was the son of a committed trade union man - and connection with a trade union was a risky thing in those days. He was at first willing to join the RAMC, and was granted a non-combatant certificate on that basis. When he reported to his local recruiting office, 'the lieutenant asked for my certificate and promptly tore it up: I was going to be put in the NCC, he said. I flatly refused, and he called the guard - two men and a corporal with fixed bayonets - and I was taken to Hounslow Barracks.'
·         Moved to Boulogne, the 17 were handcuffed with their hands behind their backs in a timber cage roughly 12 feet square, with one toilet bucket between them. After protests such extreme treatment was stopped, but conditions still weren't good. After a month Alfred went down with dysentery. Too weak to move, he couldn't go to the aid of a wounded man whom a medical orderly had let fall. The orderly hauled his patient up, pointed at Alfred and said, 'There's the bloody man who wouldn't help a wounded soldier'.
·         All 50 'Frenchmen' were brought together at Henriville military camp in June for court-martialling. Just before the trials, a captain told Alfred that his papers were marked 'Death': was he going to continue to resist? Alfred said, 'Yes. Men are dying in agony in the trenches for the things that they believe in and I wouldn't be less than them.' To Alfred's astonishment, 'he stepped back and saluted me, then shook my hand.' 
·         [After comutation of sentence and return] Alfred agreed to be assigned to manual labour under the Home Office Scheme [and after Dyce closed] was sent to a waterworks in South Wales. 'It was a slave-driving job and they put professional slave drivers over us.' Alfred soon found out that the managers were creaming off much of the government's labour grant into their own pockets. He called 'our boys' together; the COs went on strike and were promptly sent back to prison.
·         After 1919 [when COs were finally released] Alfred had difficulty getting work. 'I was drummed out of London.'     Out of London, however, he had better luck than most of his fellow COs: 'There was a shortage of piano tuners, you see. It was purely economic: they wanted a tuner and so I got a job.' 
                                                                                             Picture: Alfred at Dyce
In We Will Not Fight:  the untold story of World War One’s conscientious objectors, (London, Aurum, 2008),  Will Ellsworth-Jones describes him as driven by socialism rather than by his religion, reported to be Roman Catholic (rather unusually for a CO), and adds further information, also referring to his own account. He was willing to join the RAMC (Royal Army Medical Corps) because “prepared to take risks of war without inflicting death on other people.” Reportedly in the recruiting office, Ealing Broadway, a lieutenant tore up his exemption certificate – rather pointlessly since he had not been granted absolute exemption and so was liable to service in the Non-Combatant Corps (NCC). Evans refused to sign on for the NCC, insisting that he could not, on principle, take the military oath. He was escorted to Hounslow Barracks by soldiers with fixed bayonets, and “the Army gained a problem”. (p.120) On being ordered to peel potatoes he “wasn’t going to do it as military order”,  and so was sent as a prisoner to Harwich.

In France, at “Cinder City” outside Le Havre, he was apparently the focus of special attention, involving persuasion, threats, and priests, to try to make him change his mind, but did encounter one sympathetic sergeant of guard, “a grand lad who did us proud”, even organising a party. (p.143) Evans’ court-martial was held after the others (late June) because he was so ill, having been in hospital with dysentery, but he received the  same sentence:  “To be shot”, commuted to 10 years penal servitude.
According to the same book (p.250), Evans maintained his CO stance in the Second World War, refused to participate in fire-watching duty when ordered, and served two months in Bedford jail.  The author somewhat judgmentally alludes to him as seeming to have been “rigid” with “little time for anyone else’s point of view”, and claims that although his parents supported him throughout his First WW ordeal, they didn’t endorse his stance in the Second.
In late 2014 at least part of his family is happy to celebrate his memory:
25 November: Experiences and Beliefs of Alfred Evans, World War 1 CO threatened with Execution – Malcolm Pittock (his nephew).
Organised by Bolton Quakers and all welcome.

Ealing background
The 1911 Census records the  Evans household as living at 85 Darwin Road, Ealing, with Alfred William     as a 15-year-old Grocer's Errand Boy, born in Fulham. Other family members were:
(Last name: all Evans)
First name(s)
Relationship to household head
Marital condition
Birth place
William Thomas
London Chelsea
Coach Painter
Maud Emma
London Chelsea
Alfred William
London Fulham
Grocer's Errand Boy
Richard Lionel
Albert John
London Fulham
Joseph Arthur
[This may not be the whole family; there could easily have been more children born after 1911.]  
Middlesex Military Appeals Tribunal records available (free) from the National Archives include:
Case Number: M56. Alfred William Evans of 26 Endsleigh Road, Southall . Occupation: Apprentice to ...Central Military Service Tribunal and Middlesex Appeal Tribunal : Minutes and Papers. Middlesex Appeal Tribunal. Case Number: M56. Alfred William Evans of 26 Endsleigh Road, Southall . Occupation: Apprentice to Pianoforte Tuning . Grounds of Appeal: F: On the ground of a conscientious objection to the undertaking of combatant service. ...
  • Collection: Records created or inherited by the Ministry of Health and successors, Local Government Boards and related bodies
  • Date range:1915 - 1922
  • Reference: MH 47/8/36
  • Subjects: Conscientious objection | Labour
       (Download size approximately 1.5 MB)
The chairman of the Tribunal (presumably the local one) to which Evans applied for exemption is said by Ellsworth-Jones to have been in the same NUR (National Union of Railwaymen) branch as Evans’ father. Tribunals did customarily have a (more or less token) “labour” representative as well as a (much more influential) military one. The above file includes a letter in support of Evans from Southall Trades Council. See transcription on this blog, September 2014.
Chronology according to Pearce (database):
April 1916 gave himself up; (Report of arrest and handing over 18.5.16)        Absentee         Hounslow; Felixstowe - 28 days in Harwich redoubt;
France; Court Martial Boulogne  24.6.16 sentenced to death com. to 10 years; Winchester Civil Prison;
Home Office Scheme [alternative work] Aug.1916 Dyce Camp Aberdeen; Oct.1916 Dyce Camp (photo); Nov.1916 Wakefield; Feb.1917 Penderyn; March 1917 - gave up HOS work on learning that it was a private contract.         
May 1917 Pentonville; Maidstone - released 12.4.19  
Sources for above Including: Labour Leader 18.5.16; No-Conscription Fellowship Souvenir History p.47; IWM taped interview 000489/11; Friends Service Cttee.1916/20;  Writings in Liddle Evans CO/030 Mss. typed reminiscences; Typed transcript of interview.

1 comment:

  1. In case of any confusion, it may be worth noting that there was another Alfred William Evans who applied to the Middlesex Appeal Tribunal in the summer of 1916: <> He was 25 and married, with a child. His appeal failed, but he was granted temporary one-month exemption on appeal, after a parallel application (made by his employer), on the grounds that his continuing in his job was “expedient in the national interest”, until a substitute, preferably a discharged soldier, could be found.