A VISIT TO WILDERNESS CAMP

From The Tribunal August 15th 1918

_This is a further update in a series of extracts from the No Conscription Fellowship’s journal, published in the UK between March 1916 and November 1918.
For other extracts go to: http://nfpb.org.uk/tribunal

On August 2nd I went down with two Polish friends to visit the Russians, Poles and other Slavonic comrades attached to the Labour Company in Wilderness Camp, Sevenoaks. At first, I must confess, I felt somewhat bewildered. Numbers of men were brought up and presented to me, and for a while the air seemed charged with something which resembled an Overture by Strauss rendered by an orchestra suffering from hay-fever!

When it cleared a little I found to my great relief that most of my new acquaintances spoke French, some of them German, one or two of them English. My few polite nothings in Czech proffered with much trepidation forged a way into their hearts, and acquaintances became comrades and friends.

There were about 1,000 men in the Camp. Of these only 60 were Russians and Poles, the remainder being of the Hebrew faith. The latter I gathered had appealed in many instances on behalf of domestic grounds, but the former are purely political objectors, holding the belief that in event of their being sent overseas, they will sooner or later be called upon to take up arms against their own people. Many of them have signed a formal protest laying stress upon their passionate support of the Bolshevik government. I use the word “passionate” advisedly, and we should do well to keep this quality of our Russian friends in mind.

Owing to the language difficulty, they can hold little communication with the Jewish members of the Company who in the majority of cases speak only Yiddish and English.

When we remember that these men have been “put” into Labour compamies, and that they are officered by English N.C.O.‘s and commissioned officers, it is not difficult to visualise many awkward situations.

The position has not been relieved by the addition of three Russian officers to the staff. The three officers do not recognise Lenin and Trotsky, and the men whom they command do not recognise Kerensky! The parade ground must frequently have presented a scent rivaling the best of those in “Alice in Wonderland.”

A month ago 500 of these men were drafted out to France, and a fortnight ago another 150 were dispatched from Wilderness Camp for the same destination. A large number of these men have signed the protest mentioned above, and as a result of this, or of some change in policy, they were held up at an English port, and sent, it is believed, to Wales.

While drinking in the tales of adventures past and present which poured from the lips of these political objectors, I did not forget those men who are conscientious objectors as we understood the term. I was able to obtain a complete list of such men who were in the guardroom, together with their regimental numbers and further details regarding the position. That had been rumours of brutal treatment at Wilderness Camp, and I fear that this had been only too true in certain instances. Once the men are in the guardrooms there is less danger of this taking place, but I should like to impress upon all friends and sympathisers of conscientious objectors the need of careful watch over the men who are taken to Camp in obscure and inaccessible places. it is impossible to take effective action unless we possess the requisite knowledge. The War Office does not sanction brutality in the treatment of conscientious objectors, but we must remember that the War Office does not know conscientious objectors by name. To the War Office they represent numbered parts of a huge machine, and not flesh and blood individuals. Might I therefore urge the importance of taking note of regimental numbers?

On Monday, August 5th, I received information that 500 men, among them my delightful hosts of the previous Friday, had been sent from Sevenoaks to an unknown destination.

Readers of the Tribunal will sympathise with me, I feel sure, in my anxiety for their welfare, and my interest in the fight which they must inevitably make, and make soon. M.M.J.

dove..