“We quickly realised that we were working with a retreating, not a fighting army. There were so many casualties – we operated for nine hours continuously until the Japanese were within minutes of our position. It was hectic. Those who hadn’t survived had to be buried. We had to wash down, clear up, repack and reload, and then move on as quickly as we could before the Japanese caught up with us. Then we’d start all over again.
“There were men who were so badly injured that they were going to die. What could we do for them? There was no way that we could leave them for the Japanese to bayonet. It was a terrible dilemma.”
We’d started the afternoon in the Friends’ Meeting House, DearHeart and I, at a session to learn about Quakerism. But Tom – he was back in the Burmese Jungle with the Friends Ambulance Unit, and he’d taken us with him. Wooden benches, bees outside the open window, deep tick of the clock; all gone. Just Tom’s quiet voice.
“I’d joined the Ambulance Unit as a pacifist believing in the sacredness of human life. This was the most horrible and distressing thing for me in the whole of the war and it has lived with me ever since. I backed up the doctor and surgeon. The wounded soldiers were not alive when the Japanese arrived.”
Nearly fifty years on, Tom was still brought to tears in the telling, as we were in the listening. We heard how his father had thrown him out for registering as a Conscientious Objector, telling him that “if he wasn’t prepared to shed one drop of blood for his mother and sisters, then he was no longer welcome under the family roof.”
Eventually, Tom was commended for bravery when he’d taken prompt action to avert a disaster: I actually don’t remember the details – it involved pushing away barrels of explosives, and Tom was very matter-of-fact about what he’d done. But I do remember Tom saying how he’d considered that his father had disowned him for the wrong reason and then taken him back for the wrong reason.
Through our local Quaker Meeting, I got to know a few Friends who had been Conscientious Objectors in the war. Sometimes they would talk about how very difficult it had been to make that decision to follow their conscience, knowing that it would put them at odds with their friends, family and the world around them. Some ended up in prison, some in the mines and some, like Tom Haley, joined the Friends’ Ambulance Unit.
They are in my thoughts because next Wednesday – 25th May – is a hundred years to the day since general military conscription was passed into law. My friend Mike Mears has spent years researching the history of those who refused the call to arms and has organised an event to share some of their stories. It’s at the Conway Hall – details here.
Yesterday, Mike posted this picture of Walter Roberts, who was just 20 when he became the first C.O. to die in the World War One. He contracted pneumonia after four months of hard labour in prison.
On telling Pa about this last week, I discovered that a couple of his uncles had also become C.O.s in World War One, following their religious beliefs. Uncle Charlie was consequently sacked from his job and Uncle Bob from an academic career. They both then worked as stretcher bearers in France.
It must take an awesome amount of courage to swim against the tide in such a significant matter. Remembering how much, a couple of years back, I dithered and dathered about just going out on a day’s strike when most of the staff were in a union that wasn’t striking suggests strongly that I’d not have the courage of Uncle Charlie, of Uncle Bob, of Tom, Clarence and Beryl.
Thanks, Mike, for all your work in marking this moment. Break a leg on Wednesday!
It’s more than twenty years since I first heard Tom speak, though that afternoon is still vivid. I’ve been helped in remembering his words by an article in The Friend about the FAU. Also, by Lyn Smith’s book Voices Against War.
Mike is taking a version of this show to the Edinburgh festival. Here’s the poster