Jack Foister, one of the 35 'Frenchmen'

Sentenced to death for disobeying military orders

By Jill Barber

A Primitive Methodist and a Socialist

Born in Cambridge in 1893, Jack Foister was a regular attender at the Primitive Methodist Church, and a strong socialist. It was his political, rather than his religious convictions, which led him to become a conscientious objector.  Opinions at home were split. Jack’s mother was strongly anti-war, but his father, a Cambridge boat builder, was in the Territorials and called up at the start of the war to serve in the equivalent of the Home Guard. 

Jack had won a scholarship to St Catherine’s College, Cambridge, and had hoped to join the Indian Civil Service, but the exams had been put off by the war, so instead he ended up teaching at King’s School, Peterborough.  In 1916, when the 22 year old announced his intention to refuse conscription on conscientious grounds, the headmaster, anxious to keep his teachers, tried to persuade Jack to claim exemption on the grounds of the educational needs of the school, and his genuinely poor eyesight. However, for Jack it was not about merely avoiding armed service, but about the principle that the war was wrong.

After a policeman came to arrest him when he was out, Jack handed himself in at the local police station. Here he found the arresting officer was a fellow Primitive Methodist who ‘had played in orchestras in the two missions in which I had taken part.’  Despite his father’s opposing views, on Jack’s first night as a prisoner he was home on a short leave, and came straight to the police station, bringing a meal for him.

Landguard Fort

After his arrest, Jack was sent from Cambridge to Landguard Fort, just outside Felixstowe.  He was clearly seen as a prisoner who could be trusted, as he simply gave his word that he would report to Felixstowe, and was allowed to go on his own without an escort.  It was a painful journey, as he records in his diary:

‘If Father could not read my feelings as the train left Cambridge it may have been because like feelings had dimmed his eyes. In former days I might have scorned a sentimental weakness, but now I would have counted it shame if I had not experienced misery at the thought of separation from all friends and all kin, a separation perhaps for ever… In order to reduce the distress at my home-leaving I had made a half-promise that if taken to France I might reconsider my position – I had not thought it likely but Father did. I thought this over and before Ipswich was reached I had made a firm decision that come what may nothing would make me become a soldier, nor an indirect supporter of the war.’

Harwich 

This decision was soon to prove a costly one. On arriving at Landguard, Jack refused to join the men on parade. As punishment, he was given three blankets and the floor of the detention room to sleep on, and the next morning was sentenced to 28 days imprisonment in Harwich Redoubt. This circular fort had been completed in 1810 to protect the town from a French invasion. It had granite lined walls three foot thick, a moat and drawbridge, and three dark, dank cells. The Redoubt was ruled over by Sergeant Chalkey who ‘promised me a hard life if I didn’t behave myself and only a bit less hard if I did.’ When Jack was given the task of washing the flagstones that ringed the fort’s courtyard, his fellow prisoners told him to slow down and wash and re-wash the stones, as otherwise they would run out of ‘acceptable’ work. The alternative was drill or other military duties, which the COs refused to do. This meant a spell in the punishment cells on bread and water with ‘moisture running down the cell walls’. The floor was rotten and it was impossible to sleep in the bitter cold.

Treatment of the absolutists became worse, and Rendel Wyatt, another CO in Harwich who was a Quaker, managed to get a note out to his parents on a scrap of paper telling them: ‘There are 11 of us in dark cells. We were put in irons tonight for refusing to drill and we shall get eight hours tomorrow morning for the same reason.’

Taken to France

In a determined attempt to break the men, Jack and the other COs in the cells at Harwich were brought back to Landguard Fort and told they would be ‘taken in irons to France’. They were warned that once across the Channel, acts of disobedience ‘would meet with the extreme penalty of death by shooting’ and that their friends in Parliament would be unable to do anything for them. Foister wrote in his diary, ‘it was a trying time for all of us, for now it really did seem that we had but a few days before we should “shuffle off this mortal coil”’.

Meeting up with others, Jack remembers the first meal the 17 absolutists had together in the guardroom at Felixstowe. They were allowed to hold a Friends’ Meeting on Sunday afternoon, and he particularly enjoyed the hymn singing that followed. The next morning the call to get up came at 3.00am, and they were marched off to Felixstowe station. Once across the Channel, they were taken to ‘Cinder City’, a camp outside Le Havre, where they again refused to obey military orders. After failing to break their resolve, the men were handed over to the military police and transferred to the ‘Field Punishment Barracks’ at Boulogne.  This, according to Jack, was ‘the real battleground’. Soon to join them were 16 COs who had been imprisoned in Richmond Castle, including a Wesleyan Methodist local preacher, Bert Brocklesby, and eight others from Seaford in Sussex.

Field Punishment Camp 

Here, Jack was subjected to Field Punishment no. 1, known as ‘crucifixion’.  His arms were fully stretched out and tied to barbed wire between two posts, and his feet tied closely together to prevent the relief of any movement. He had to stand in this position for two hours every day. Some of the shorter men, who were virtually hanging by their wrists found it exquisitely painful, but Jack found a way of loosening the ties which made it bearable, but still suffered great discomfort.  When not subject to ‘crucifixion’ they were handcuffed to their tent pole, subject to solitary confinement and bread and water. 

After three weeks, Jack records: ‘I was brought from the cell to the office and stood at attention in front of a table at which three officers were seated. The one in the centre lectured me quietly but firmly on the sin of disobeying orders on active service, said he was going to give me an order, if I did not obey, I should be court-martialled for disobedience, the punishment for which could be sentence of death.’  There was a soldier standing to attention in the same office. ‘The order given me was to fall in behind this soldier for drill. “Right turn, quick march” came the order. There was no response.’

For Jack this was a moment of acute tension, because he had already heard the death sentence being read for a soldier who had been shot at dawn a few days earlier for disobedience.

‘The greatest strain that I ever experienced was when that order was given because I knew it was the final point and I was the first one to be given the order and my mind went quickly round. Will the others do what I am going to do? But it was all in a flash you see. I didn’t have minutes to think about it … a couple of seconds. I was not going to fall in. I was ready to do whatever happened.’

Sentenced to death

What happened was a court martial, which in Jack’s opinion was rigged.  A week later, in a dramatically staged event, the first four COs were brought up from the field punishment barracks to hear their verdict.  Jack was one of the four, the others being Howard Marten, Harry Scullard and Jonathan Ring.  A square was formed on the parade ground, on three sides of which were drawn up 1,000 soldiers of the Non-Combatant Corps and Labour Battalions.  Jack’s name was read out, and he had to move to the centre of the square. His crime was: ‘When on active service refusal to obey an order.’  The verdict: ‘Tried by court martial and found guilty.’ Then a long pause: ‘Sentenced to death by shooting’.  Another long pause to let the death sentence sink in, followed by: ‘This sentence has been confirmed by the Commander in Chief’.  Finally, after another long pause: ‘but afterward commuted by him to one of penal servitude for ten years.’

Last minute reprieve 

In the end, despite their inhumane treatment, only one of the conscientious objectors gave in, having the courage to face death rather than do what they believed as wrong.  When word reached Prime Minister Asquith of their fate he intervened, fearing that if they were shot it would produce a political outcry.

Wakefield and Maidstone

Jack was returned to prison in England to serve his sentence.  Later on he was moved to Wakefield Work Centre, which was more relaxed than the harsher prison regime, but here he got into trouble for breaking the rules. On the third and final time, he was caught using one of the prison’s home grown turnips as a cricket ball and charged with behaving in ‘a contumacious manner like to bring scorn upon the institution’.  He was sent from Wakefield to Maidstone Prison, where many of the other ‘Frenchmen’, including Bert Brocklesby, were being held. 

After the war 

The armistice on 11 November 1918 did not mean the end of the war for Jack. It was not until 19 April 1919 that he was released, but he was returning to a very different world. As a Cambridge graduate before the war he had a bright future to look forward to.  Now, as a conscientious objector, it was almost impossible to get a job.  Jack had interviews with three different headmasters, who all said the same thing. ‘They were very willing to take me but they did not dare run in the face of public opinion and therefore they had to turn me down.’ Eventually it was a brother of his professor at Cambridge who found him a teaching post.

Many conscientious objectors took a similar stand in the Second World War, but it seems that Jack’s views had changed as he joined the Home Guard and ended up as a lieutenant.

Sources

Jack Foister’s story is told in W Ellsworth-Jones, We Will Not Fight (2008).  Papers, including his diary, and an interview with him, are held in the Liddle Collection at Leeds University Library.

 

 

This page was added by Jill Barber on 17/06/2014.

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