Cheltenham, Gloucestershire: The Man Who Refused to Fight
In the spring of 1916, 22-year-old Jack Foister was teaching maths at Kings School in Peterborough. He considered himself a Christian and had been involved in mission work attending the Primitive Methodist Church.
From his early teens he was always interested in politics with a very radical outlook, a trait he had inherited from his great grandfather; a printer who had founded the Cambridge Independent Press.
Before leaving School Jack had met Clifford Allen, later Baron Allen of Hurtwood and under his influence had become a socialist. He eventually joined the Independent Labour Party and was influenced by Keir Hardie who he says had striven to get the Socialist International to adopt the policy of preventing war by organising general strikes to make the running of wars impossible.
His father, brothers and friends had all answered the call to arms but Jack thought war was mad and after reading an article printed in the Labour Leader paper he decided he must be a war resister. Despite this he never felt totally at ease and described being “torn in his mind” as churches lined up behind the national war effort just as the political parties did. The head teacher at Kings School asked him to consider applying for exemption from military service based on being a maths teacher and therefore irreplaceable, rather than on grounds of conscience. This he turned down flat which resulted in him having to appear before the Peterborough local tribunal which had the power to grant exemption from military service. Jack left the school and went home to await arrest.
After a policeman had called at the house he made his way to the police station to be arrested. The formality of arrest was made by a young man he knew from his time in a mission orchestra. As the key was turned in the cell door he remembers an awful feeling descending on him, leaving him with nothing to do but think. The next morning he was taken to the Magistrates Court. From there he was taken to the local prison before being collected by a military escort and taken to Northampton Barracks and then onto Landguard camp at Felixstowe. Here he refused all duties and was put in a cell along with two other conscientious objectors. Along with fourteen others he was taken to the prison at Harwich Redoubt. Handcuffed, he was put in one of the dark cells where he could just about make out that it was bare except for a low stool. The following Sunday he had his first experience of a Friends Meeting (Quakers) and then the travel to France on board the S.S Clementine.
After leaving the ship they were escorted by guards and marched through French villages. The march was exhausting after violent sea sickness during the night. After marching for two hours they came to an encampment protected by barbed wire. Their stay was short and they were moved to a camp at Le Havre called Cinder City. It was a place of recuperation from the frontline for soldiers suffering from minor wounds or exhaustion. After refusing to do the work allotted to them they were taken before an officer and charged with their crimes.
The performance was repeated the following day and this time they were sentenced to 28 days field punishment. It saw them undergoing crucifixion in the evening with their wrists and ankles tied to the barbed wire surrounding the camp. From here they were taken to the field punishment barracks at Boulogne firstly by night in a horse box and then by passenger train. They were given bread and water and lectured on the crime of disobeying orders. Told to fall in behind a soldier, Jack didn’t bat an eyelid and walked back to his cell. The court martial followed very soon. He describes the reading out of the sentences as a tremendous occasion. The name of Marten was read out first and told he was being sentenced to death.
The prisoners never forgot the debt owed to Herbert Asquith the British Prime Minister who overruled the military. They left Boulogne the next day for Rouen staying there for two days and then being transported by boat down the river and across the Channel. Nobody met them at Southampton but on the railway platform Marten bought a copy of the Daily News and the front page was given to them and to the storm in parliament when the army was denounced as deceiving the government and acting illegally.
Location: Location: Shire Hall, Cheltenham, GL1 2TH where many of the tribunals were held
Photograph of Jack Foister in 1928 with wife Elizabeth and daughter Margaret, courtesy of Elizabeth Macnamara
Presented by Jack Foister's daughter, Elizabeth McNamara, and his memoirs are voiced by actor Robert Hardy
Available since: Wed 28 May 2014
- Robert Hardy
- Elizabeth McNamara
This clip is from
WW1 at Home: a growing collection of stories about life on the WW1 Home Front
Places in Gloucestershire that tell a story of World War One