Today, a century back, Max Plowman updates his friend Hugh de Selincourt on the progress of his protest.
Just a bulletin.
Medical Board reported me “Fit for General Service”.
The day before yesterday I found a note waiting for me when I came in in the evening telling me to go to the Reserve Battalion of the West Yorkshire Regt. at Whitley Bay forthwith, signed by the Adjutant.
Yesterday morning I replied acknowledging it and adding “but as it is now more than five weeks since I tendered the resignation of my Commission I regret that I am unable to comply with these instructions… We had a long & very amiable talk about the war & it was another case of Paul before Agrippa! & we ended a pleasant hour by my being put under “close arrest” (they hadn’t the power to make it “open”) & with his promise to fix up a General Court Martial as quickly as possible. “Close arrest” simply means that I have to put up with one of the subalterns I’ve been sharing this room with, all day as well as all night…
It all goes on being miraculously pleasant…
One of the problems with principled Pacifism is that it can’t easily be contained. Plowman began in the ambulances, then went into the infantry and fought on the Somme. Now he will fight no longer. But if the war is wrong, what can he do?
Now, when I can remember to think of it, I am weighing over the pros. & cons of “Alternative service” should I be hauled up by the Tribunals, & at present I am growing more convinced that failing absolute exemption I shall not accept any alternative, on the grounds that if I have to come into contact with militarism I decline to make terms with it & being a “conscientious objector” cannot admit that the military service act has any validity or any power over me. I think that alternative service under the military service act is another name of civil conscription, & that civil conscription in time of war is, on grounds of principle, more objectionable than military conscription…
Meanwhile, Eager Eddie Heron-Allen–a man approaching the war with similar deliberate speed but on an opposite vector–has been piling on the “firsts” of late. Today marks his training-camp baptism of another sort of fire.
20 February 1918:
I was detailed at 2pm to march a platoon to Broadwater Devon (we do get sick of that tramp) to throw live bombs. I might have served on a court martial, but I wanted to see real bombing, so I wrapped up in my Burberry, for it was raining gaily, and led the platoon out. They were in full marching order, and seemed very grateful when I gave them 10 minutes rest by the roadside, before attacking the last (and worst) mile.
We got to the bombing pits at 2.45 pm, and I was keenly interested. First we ploughed across country to the stores, a large hut entirely filled with boxes of loaded bombs, and fetched half a dozen boxes back to the shelter, a great mound of earth with a ‘dug-out’ on one side and two ‘cells’ at either end, from which the bombs are thrown over a parapet at marks, trees stuck up in the ground. The boxes were carried into trenches and prepared there so that if anything went wrong they could be thrown out at once. Each box contains 12 bombs and a box of 12 detonators, beastly little things like a red worm, which if not handled carefully blow your hand off…
In the trench each bomb was tested, the detonator is put in, secured if it looks flabby with a pinch of plasticine, the base plug is screwed on, and the bomb put back in the box upside down…
Two men throw at a time alternately. The man looks out over the parapet for an instant and then gets down, points one hand in the direction of the mark, and throws with the other. As it goes through the air the spring flies off, and we all duck out heads under cover. The explosion is tremendous, and bits of bomb come flying over our heads and pattering on our logs, any one of which would kill us if we didn’t ‘duck’ in time. I found a chink on my side through which I could see the bomb. After seeing half a dozen, Densham caught me, and told me gaily that I ought to have been killed through my chink. So I thought I had seen enough of that.
When all the men had thrown three bombs we went down and had a shy. After my first I mentioned to Mates that I had never even thrown a dummy before, and he opined that I had better leave well alone…
Yes, he’d better, hadn’t he. The instructors themselves then toss a few and become concerned when a double-toss produces only one explosion. They all go out to investigate, since an instructor can’t leave a possibly unexploded bomb on the range… and here the reader would grow nervous, were it not for Heron-Allen’s jaunty tone. It’s all so fascinating!
They find nothing, conclude that there had simply been a simultaneous explosion, and head back to their billets. And so, for once, bombing practice concludes without major incident…