Mr Sterling Sticks It Out

During the Great War, a work of fiction had to be pretty extreme to attract the attention of the authorities, who had their work cut out regulating the Press (and were sometimes criticised for only dealing with the London papers, and letting the provincial press go more or less unchecked). A pacifist novel like Theodora Wilson-Wilson’s The Last Weapon of 1916 could be published by C.W.Daniel, the Tolstoyan publisher, without being prosecuted. (This is a work of religious pacifism, and gets very allegorical, but contains a very strong chapter depicting a soldier who has returned from the front, where he has done terrible things. He angrily confronts the minister who had persuaded him to enlist because it would be doing Christ’s work.)
Even Despised and Rejected by ‘A.T.Fitzroy’ (Rose Allatini) was on sale for several months before a press campaign forced the authorities into prosecuting it. (This was a novel that compounded its offence by being about young men who were not only pacifist but homosexual, a provoking combination in the year of Pemberton-Billing’s campaign against treason and depravity in high places.)
The government prided itself on allowing more freedom of expression in Britain than there was in Germany, and on the whole seem to have been happiest when difficult cases were not thrust upon their attention.
That was what happened, however, with Harold Begbie’s Mr Stirling Sticks It Out. Begbie was a popular novelist who had written rousing recruiting poems at the start of the War:

Where will you look, sonny, where will you look,
When your children yet to be
Clamour to learn of the part you took
In the War that kept men free?
Will you say it was naught to you if France
Stood up to her foe or bunked?
But where will you look when they give the glance
That tells you they know you funked?

He had become concerned, however, by the treatment meted out to conscientious objectors, and so wrote this book about a pair of brothers. Both are idealist, but one is a soldier, the other a Christian pacifist. (The book’s title echoes Wells’s Mr Britling Sees it Through. Is there an implication that endurance was easier for a non-combatant whose opinions were as fluid as Mr Britling’s than for a pacifist who stuck firmly to his principles?)
The book contains a disturbing account of the treatment of conscientious objectors in prison, and the printer entrusted with the manuscript by the publisher referred it to the Press Bureau who ‘disclaiming their power to censor, nevertheless felt it their duty to read the book, and having read it they informed the printer that its publication was against the national interest.’ They refused to indemnify the book against prosecution, whereupon the printer refused to hand back the manuscript. The Press Bureau continued to refuse an authorisation even after the War was over, since sections of the book, they claimed, contained untruths about the prison service.
I think the Press Bureau found itself caught in the censor’s dilemma. If the book had been published and they could claim official ignorance of it, they would have let it go; once it had been brought to their attention, however, to allow it would seem to be to endorse it.
In 1919 the book finally got into print, with a preface by Begbie that gives a full account of the affair, including correspondence with the Prime Minister’s office and elsewhere.
He asks why his book is banned while pamphlets on the same subjects have circulated freely, and is told that ‘there was a considerable difference between an obscure pamphlet and a novel written by one who might be sure of a considerable number of readers’. Which seems a reversal of the usual policy of being harder on pacifist pamphlets than on fiction, and is maybe a testimony to the effectiveness of the book’s later chapters, detailing the pacifist’s treatment in jail.
Here is a Punch comment of 1919, which I’ve cut’n’pasted in. It’s mildly interesting, I think, for its having-it-both-ways tone. It’s critical of the government’s handling of the matter, but makes the claim that not all C.O.s were as saintly as Begbie’s hero. Some, the implication is, were Socialists, or Bolsheviks. The Punch writer seems to think that such men would have deserved the worst.

I quite agree with Mr. HAROLD BEGBIE, whose Mr. Sterling Sticks it Out (HEADLEY) is a generous attempt to put into the form of a story the case of the conscientious objector of the finest type, that, when we are able to think about this matter calmly, we shall have considerable misgivings at least about details in our treatment of this difficult problem. I also agree that the officials of the Press Bureau don’t come at all well out of the correspondence which he prints in his preface, and, further, that the Government ought to have had the courage to alter the law allowing absolute exemption rather than stretch it beyond the breaking point. But I emphatically dispute his assumption that the matter was a simple one. It was not the saintly, single-minded and sweet-natured C.O.’s of Christopher Sterling’s type that made the chief difficulty. There were few of this literal interpretation and heroic texture. The real difficulty was created by men of a very different character and in much greater numbers, sincere in varying degrees, but deliberately, passionately and unscrupulously obstructive, bent on baulking the national will and making anything like reasonable treatment of them impossible. It would require saints, not men, to deal without occasional lapses from strict equity with such infuriating folk. Mr. BEGBIE’S book is unfair in its emphasis, but it is not fanatical or subversive, and I can see no decent reason why it should have been banned. I certainly commend it to the majority-minded as a wholesome corrective.


  1. Roger
    Posted November 27, 2009 at 10:10 am | Permalink

    It’s easy to understand why Socialists or Bolsheviks were treated with greater hostility than religious or ethical pacifists: they were often enthusiastic about killing, merely choosy about who they wanted to kill, which would have been difficult for tribunals to understand and even more alarming for the tribunals if they did understand. John Maclean, the Glasgow Marxist, is an example.
    How far were the sufferings of C.O.s in prison actually deliberately inflicted and how far were they typical of the treatment of all prisoners at the time, which came as a particular shock to idealistic and usually middle-class young men?

  2. Posted November 27, 2009 at 6:38 pm | Permalink

    In civilian jails C.O.s seem to have generally been treated no worse than ordinary criminals, and some were even given privlileges, such as access to books. But most were sentenced to hard labour – a very tough regime, appropriate maybe for violent persistent thieves, but a very harsh punishment just for having religious or humanitarian scruples.
    The worst treatment was for those forcibly enlisted in the Non-Combatant Corps who then refused to obey orders. They were at the mercy of the military police who had no sympathy for their viewpoint whatsoever. Some, having refused to wear a uniform, were left naked in the cold in the hope that their will would be broken. Some were sent to France, and were told that if they refused to obey orders there, they could be shot. Their story is here:

    It has been estimated that at least 73 C.O.s died because of the harsh treatment they received in prison; a number suffered long-term physical or mental illness.

  3. Nemo
    Posted November 27, 2009 at 11:58 pm | Permalink

    While you are correct in stating that there was no prosecution of anyone for publication of Theodora Wilson-Wilson’s (I love writers with odd names) THE LAST WEAPON, apparantly 18,000 copies of it were seized and destroyed by the British government in 1917.

    See the following:

    Even if no criminal prosecution entailed, I’d say that definately counts as an act of suppression.

    • Posted November 28, 2009 at 8:33 am | Permalink

      Thanks very much for this. It looks as though the original small edition (and the sequel, published in the same year) were published with impunity, but when the very large popular edition was published (18,000 is a huge number, at a time when the average first novel might sell 1,000 or so)the authorities stepped in.

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