The Deserter: Just as He Was


Chatham, England, 1917. — I was bending over my kit bag, stuffing things into it, when the platoon sergeant came to the door of our hut and shouted: ‘Before you go on parade you’ve all got to go to Number Eleven to give in your home addresses! It’s for draft leave.’

We had all been busy in our various, personal little ways before he came in, giving a final shine to our coat buttons, rubbing a last dull polish on to our boots, examining our freshly shaved faces in small pocket mirrors, and finishing all the tiny jobs one found to do before appearing on the second morning parade for the company officer’s critical scrutiny. But there was a sudden silence in the hut as the sergeant flung his verbal bombshell at us. It was that curiously alive and stubborn silence with which the British private invariably greeted any new order as it was being issued.

These orders, filtering down from the highest and most distant headquarters through the hierarchy of officers and N. C. O.’s until they reached the lowest military rank of all, the common privates, always brought some change in our plans or some new regulation. Sometimes they seemed merely silly to our untutored, unmilitary souls; sometimes they became extremely important to us as individuals. This time the message, shouted to us in the selfsame voice which sometimes told us to get ready for a sudden rifle inspection, was one of the very important ones.

Every one of the twenty chaps in our hut knew that ‘draft leave’ meant only one thing: we were all to be shoved off back to France and the front line again as soon as we returned from our homes. Every one of the chaps had been ‘out’ at least once before, so they all knew that the chances of returning alive from France were very slim. Whatever else each man was thinking of, there was one picture, that of sudden death, which was almost certain to be lurking in his mind. In two weeks’ time, perhaps, half of us might be killed.

But everyone turned to his little task again, trying to pretend that the order meant nothing really serious, trying to hide the mixed feelings which the words ‘draft leave’ conjured up — thoughts of going home, perhaps for the last time, thoughts of seeing people one loved, also perhaps for the last time, of bidding good-bye once again to all the peace-time life which one had known as a child and boy and youth. Someone began to sing: ‘Take me back to dear old Blighty.’ The short spell was broken. The words of the familiar Army song sounded through the hut like a challenge, and that boring, prison-like camp life flowed on again just as though nothing had happened. Someone shouted across the hut. I turned to the chap at the next bed and spoke. Words of the song still floated in the air: ’I don’t want to die . . . ManChester or Birmingham ... I don’t care.’

In a few minutes we all rushed off to the orderly hut, Number Eleven, formed ourselves into an excited, goodhumored queue, laughed and joked in our usual way, filing past a table where addresses were taken so that we might have railway passes for the journey home and back.

When my turn came, and I stood in front of the sergeant, I gave a hastily concocted false address in Dublin, Ireland, as my home address. If the smiling sergeant had said that this address did not tally with the original Leeds one I had given when I entered the Army, I had ready a plausible story in which I should say, half truthfully, that as I had no real home I was merely going to stay with another aunt of mine who lived in Dublin. Fortunately I had no need to tell this story. I learned, to my surprise, that soldiers going to Ireland on leave were granted two extra days for traveling. I smiled back at the sergeant, trying to conceal my fear that my plans would be discovered.

The whole morning, while we were out on parade, and when we went marching to the bayonet-practice field, I lived through a hell of fear. Every moment I expected an orderly to run up to the officer and have me called out to the orderly room to explain why I had given a false address in Dublin. For the address which I had given had been made up out of my head. I had taken some number and simply added Sackville Street, since that was the only street I knew by name in Dublin. Perhaps there was no such number in Sackville Street. Perhaps they would telegraph to find out if the address was all right. There were so many possibilities when one was faced with the military machine during war time that my heart quaked the whole of that hot summer morning as we jabbed the sham sawdust bodies with our bright, clean bayonets.

During our midday meal everyone talked of where he was going and of what he was going to do, everyone in the gayest spirits now that the first shock had been overcome. But I was unusually silent, and, since the afternoon was free, I managed to go off alone. Walking out of the garrison town, I went on and on until I reached a small village where I turned down a sudden path which led to the river. I sat down on the grassy bank and stared at the water. It was a brilliant end-of-July afternoon. The lazy Thames lapped the flat land with slow, tender caresses, its broad expanse of water shining like floating gold. I do not know how long I sat there that summer afternoon gazing with unseeing eyes at the lovely English landscape, but I can still see myself sitting there, alone, forlorn, a thin-chested English soldier with serious brown eyes and short-cut hair, my cap on the bank beside me, thinking and thinking and thinking. For I had taken the first step in my determination to desert from the Army. There could be no turning back now. I had chosen my path and I must walk it to the bitter end.


I do not know when the idea of deserting from the Army entered my head. During those winter months in the trenches in France I had often said: ‘Christ! Wait till I get back to England. They’ll never get me out here again.’ Just as most of the other soldiers in our lot would talk at times. We were all men from factories, mines, shops, and offices. There was none of that Journey’s End English publicschoolboy spirit (let us all be Peter Pans forever) that won the Battle of Waterloo on the playing fields of Eton about us. We were unwilling soldiers, conscripts.

Walking along one of those interminable French roads, Harry, the youngest of our bunch, dressed in his beautiful black-and-white skin coat, would say, ‘I shall escape to Spain disguised as a dark peasant woman,’ and I would laughingly ask, ‘With that English voice?’ and he would answer, ‘Yes! Why not?’

But no one, however disgruntled and disgusted with the whole business, seemed to talk seriously about getting ‘out of it.’ Each soldier seemed to live in the dull hope of evading death and stumbling through alive somehow. I had decided to take no more chances. Just as I had made up my mind when I first went out to France that I would not kill a human being, and had been able to keep that vow, so I had also made the private vow that ‘they’ would not get me back to France again. I meant to keep my word to myself, even at the expense of appearing disloyal to my comrades in arms. I had absolutely no qualms of conscience. For I was not one of the patriotic youths who rushed out so gayly and gallantly to fight Germany in 1914. I was not deserting a cause in which I had once believed.

When the Great War began I was nineteen, earning a guinea a week in a small clothing shop in a slum district of Liverpool. The war aroused no feelings of patriotism in me. Despite the sensational daily paper brought into my boyhood home in Yorkshire, I had been fortunate in escaping any patriotic education. I had just started to read Bernard Shaw, and my naturally skeptical mind was slowly being awakened. And when I went to live in London in the last months of 1914 my feelings did not change as I came into contact with the more feudally minded South of England people. All during 1915 I went about, aloof, untouched by the middle-class, genteel, and ‘quite the thing’ patriotic sentiment of London. I worked in a clothing shop near the Crystal Palace, getting more weary and dissatisfied, after seven years, of the monotonous shop life into which I had been pushed. I felt, like Kipps in Wells’s novel, that I was in a drain out of which I must crawl or die. Only those who know the very peculiar quality of pre-war English class life, its taboos, its rigid conventions, and its narrowness, can understand this feeling of suffocation. I saw myself trapped in a job which I should have to stick to all the rest of my natural life for little pecuniary reward. I determined that I would get out of it somehow, sometime.

Thus when Conscription came to England in the early part of 1916, and I found myself in the first groups officially ‘called up,’ I welcomed the opportunity to escape from the dull drudgery of shop life. I saw a way out of my economic slavery. I dreamed of a freer life when I got out of the Army. It was an escape from a life I hated. It was also an experience, and I was in that adolescent mood which welcomed experience, especially one which could be used as a means to an end.

I was called up on Saint Patrick’s Day, March 17, 1916, placed in a wellknown London regiment, and sent to a training camp. After four months I landed in France on July 14, a date easy to remember, for the flags were flying at Boulogne for the French national holiday. After a part summer, autumn, and part winter spent on the Somme and the Ancre, taking part in only one battle, that of Beaumont-Hamel, I finally managed to get an ankle broken — a sudden, unexpected event envied by all the other chaps when it luckily took me back to England.

It was funny, that ankle business. But for that little innocent accident I might never have left France alive. We were down, one cold winter’s day, helping to unload timber from a train. For some mysterious reason we were working alongside British colored troops — from the West Indies, I believe. These soldiers were standing on top of the lengthy pieces of wood, sliding it down to us. While I was leaning near to one of the wagons, all unconscious that the colored soldier was yelling to me to get out of the way, the wood slid clean and heavily on to my foot. I yelled and collapsed to the ground.

This was the end of February, 1917. While in the London hospital I was found to be suffering from a mild form of typhoid fever — I had had trench dysentery — and I therefore spent the next few months recovering from my minor accident and my minor illness. In July I was discharged from the convalescent camp, and sent down to Chatham to train for several weeks preparatory to being sent out again to the front. But the plans of the military authorities and my own did not coincide. I did not mean to go back to the front again. Although France held some of my most splendid memories of comradeship and subtle, irresponsible happiness, — villages, roads, blue skies, trees, woods, — I could not go back to the futile slaughter of human life.

During all those months in hospital I had vaguely known at the back of my mind that I should have to face the issue sooner or later. But whether because I was ill and weak, or because the return to civilization from the trenches made me evade the solving of serious problems, I did not think very much about the matter. There was just the solitary chance that I might not be sent out to France again, and in that case I was going to say and do nothing, but keep my mouth closed.

But Chatham and drilling and route-marching and bomb-throwing and bayonet-fighting all brought it vividly back to me. I was in the machine again, being trained to kill and be killed. And I was absolutely firm in my own mind that I was not going to risk being shot or killed by a German any more. What I felt and thought at that time may be called sheer cowardice by some patriotic people, but, as I saw it, it was the most primitive kind of common sense carried into action. I just felt the whole war was futile — it was just three years old — and my connection with it less than nothing. I felt a fool ever to have allowed myself to be drawn into the mess. Now it was up to me to get out of it once and for all. But how? That was the question.

It was at Chatham, then, that I began to think again about deserting. I even talked about it in a cool, light-hearted manner calculated to disarm suspicion. ‘What would happen if one went off to Ireland and stayed there until the war is over?’ I would ask.

‘The Catholic priests would give you away. I know them,’ said a young Irish chap lying on his bed opposite. This idea impressed me for a long time, but later I found it was incorrect.

One of our chaps, son of a famous detective at Scotland Yard, said that it was quite impossible to get away from the Army, because they have all the addresses and can easily trace a missing soldier. This idea, too, impressed me, but I realized that war time was different from peace time.

I had chosen Ireland as a place of escape because it seemed to be the only comparatively safe place where I could hide until the war was over. But I could not risk landing there without knowing a single soul. Surely those enemies of England, the legendary Sinn Feiners, would welcome me and help me!

I got up from the river bank feeling rather stiff, and walked rapidly back to Chatham, where I wired to X in London saying I should be in town the following day.


London. — The following afternoon, armed with a railway ticket that would take me to Dublin and back, I arrived in London, and went straight to X’s flat, which looked out on to the tree tops of a quiet Bloomsbury square. X, a young writer, idealistic and radical, suggested that I make a public protest against being sent back to France, somewhat in the Sassoon fashion, and if there was any attempt to illtreat me some of the pacifist Labor members would back me up in the House of Commons. But I said to X: ‘I remember a conscript in our camp who refused to train to go out to France. They tried hard to make him, but he was very obstinate and would n’t move. Finally he was taken from our camp, and the next we heard about him was that he had committed suicide. I don’t know what they did to him. No, thank you, I don’t want to go through all that.’

X, however, still felt optimistic about the “protest" proposition, so that evening we went down to the House of Commons. Arthur Henderson had just returned from Russia, then in the throes of revolution, and was making a spectacular speech on his visit. As we stood waiting in the great stone entrance hall, Lord Birkenhead walked by, scowling at life in general, little dreaming that the insignificant young soldier gazing so innocently at him was deserting his precious military machine. The particular M. P. whom we had come to see, now holding one of the highest offices in the British Labor Government, was not there. So we walked out into the summer night, — three years before, almost to a day, war had been declared on this spot on such a summer night, — walked up dark Parliament Street, through gloomy Trafalgar Square, and to the Café Royal in Regent Street. That then-Bohemian haunt was full of men and women, all gay and loudly laughing, not at all suiting my own melancholy goingaway-from-it-all mood. We returned to the flat, where X cooked some bacon and made coffee. Finally I went to sleep on a low divan bed — a welcome change from the uncomfortable Army bed — usually used by X’s wife, who was away at the time. She was Irish, and I had hoped that X would know, through her, someone who would be useful to me. But the Irish of her ruling-class set were hardly likely to sympathize.

In the morning X took me round to a quiet Bloomsbury boarding house to see Y, an old Socialist writer, whom I had already met once. (An Indiapaper copy of his most famous book had bulged out my breast pocket all during my days in France. When Bernard Shaw heard this, he said, ‘Put your bayonet through it and hand it back to the author!’) Y listened to my plans, and although he was unable to supply me with useful addresses in Ireland, he knew, fortunately, a certain person who would be sure to help me. Leaving the dear old man, who gave me his benediction, we went to a small street off the Strand near to the Adelphi. There we met Z, a fiery radical of the nineteenthcentury picturesque Cunninghame Graham type, who came and lunched with us in a Soho restaurant. He heard my plans, and promised help and an appearance at five o’clock at X’s flat.

I have not attempted to describe X, Y, and Z in detail, because I feel that it would not be fair to the two members of the trio who are still living, X and Y. They would be easily recognizable, and it serves no good purpose to bring them by name into the story. X, Y, and Z all ran rather grave and unpleasant risks in helping me to desert during war time, but I was blissfully unconscious of this side of my actions at the time. Now that I see, in retrospect, what they did in forwarding my plans, I admire them still more, for there was no obligation on their part to lift a finger to help me. Except for their common humanity, — see Galsworthy’s play, Escape, for a similar problem, — they might so easily have turned their backs and said, ‘You got yourself into this mess. Now get yourself out of it.’ But they did not. And although their social and political opinions justified, in some measure, their helping any soldier to escape the military machine, still the common humanity implicit in their actions was the most precious part of the whole episode.

Tea was set when Z arrived. Gulping down a cup, he went into the study and began to write. Soon he called me in to him.

‘I have written two letters for you to take over to Ireland,’ he said. ‘One is about my own private affairs [ he had been refused permission to enter Ireland for some reason], for the Countess Markevich. I want you to deliver it yourself into her hands personally, or give it to someone you can trust to get it into the Countess’s hands safely. The other is a letter of introduction which will help you when you go to this address which I have written down for you. Have you any money?’ ‘A little,’ I answered shyly.

He gave me two pounds and said, ‘Here’s some to be going on with. I think you’ll be all right. Here’s good luck.’ And he was away and out of the flat like some tall swift bird.

Fortunately X was just about my own build, so he looked out a civilian suit, which was packed into a brown-paper parcel. At last I put on my leather belt and small knapsack, carrying the parcel, and left the flat to catch the seven-twenty boat train at Euston Station. Walking across the Square, I looked up at X still standing at the window, and, waving a last good-bye to him, disappeared round the corner. I felt intensely lonely and forlorn.

As I approached the wooden barriers of the boat-train platform I suffered another hell of fear that there might be detectives waiting to arrest me. I went through hoping that the ticket collectors would not notice my guilty face.

The compartment was full. Two young Catholic priests, returning to Ireland from Rome, read and talked. I tried to read X’s latest book. At Crewe I wrote a postcard, ‘I am crossing to Ireland to-night,’ and posted it to my aunt in Leeds.

Holyhead was in darkness when we reached the coast. But by the time the ship began to move away a bright August moon had risen. I went up on to the boat deck, wishing to be alone with my thoughts. It was chilly, and I found a sheltered seat on a bench. A man was already sitting at one end.

‘It won’t be rough to-night,’ said the stranger.

‘Oh! I’m glad,’ I said.

‘Is your home in Ireland?’ he asked.


‘Are you going on leave?’


‘I see.’

We talked, and I felt, somehow, that the stranger with the amused smile on his face understood my position. We walked up and down the deserted deck, talking of George Moore, James Connolly, Strindberg, James Clarence Mangan, the Abbey Theatre, Easter Week, the Irish Rebellion, while the moon rose higher. Then we went down to the bar, where the strange Irishman insisted that I drink some hot punch. When the morning came, and the coast of Ireland was seen in the distance, I asked him, shyly, if he would mind carrying my parcel until we landed. He agreed willingly. All seemed well — until landing came, bringing with it another hell of fear in case they had telegraphed over about the false address. A sudden vision of being shot for deserting came before my eyes.

There were two gangways, one for civilians and one for soldiers. They examined my railway warrant and my Army pass. I walked up the gangway alone, feeling horribly guilty and as though all eyes were fixed on me, and probably looking miserable.

But once on Irish soil I felt free. The stranger was waiting for me, with my precious parcel, near the train which was to take us into Dublin. When we arrived in the capital, after a short railway journey, the stranger took me up to a jaunting car, and told the driver where I wanted to go. ‘Good-bye! Good luck!’ And I drove off alone on the Irish jaunting car through the soft, fresh, early-morning air. Something awakened in me. Freedom!


Dublin. — Driving rapidly through the unpeopled streets of Dublin, for it was still early morning, my mind was full of thoughts of freedom and escape. But sometimes a building would make me think of James Joyce’s Portrait ofthe Artist as a Young Man, which had just been published that summer, and I would remember that these were the streets through which Stephen Dedalus had walked his soul-weary way.

At last we reached some road not far from the centre of the city, and I clambered down from my perilous perch on the jaunting car. The fare was 3/6, but I had only 3/4 in small change. So there was a small argument with the jarvey, and at last he was satisfied with that amount. I walked across the road to a small corner house and knocked at the door, which was opened by the person to whom my letter of introduction was addressed.

‘Is this the house of Mrs. A?’ I asked.

‘Yes, it is,’ replied the short, motherly woman, who looked at me sharply, for I must have seemed a strange visitor indeed, a young soldier in English khaki calling at that house of all others. Taking my letter, she opened it, read it quickly, then smiled at me, and invited me into the small, narrow hall of the typical lowermiddle-class house.

‘Your Government murdered my husband.’ Even after thirteen years I cannot forget the impact of those bitter words, which were spoken like a line from a modern Irish play. I stood there, at the door of the little front parlor into which I was being ushered by Mrs. A, while she pointed to an enlarged photograph of her dead husband which hung above the mantelpiece.

It was a face I knew well, for I had seen it in all of the English newspapers the year before, when the British Government had shot the various leaders of the Easter Week revolt. It was the face of the man who will probably be known to posterity as one of the greatest men produced by modern Ireland. The actual tragedy of his death lay in the fact that he was summarily shot for participating in a revolt with which he was not wholly in sympathy.

But I did not know all that at the time. So I stood there, not knowing what to say, feeling guilty and wretched and miserable. I stood there as though I were being accused personally of all England’s injustice to Ireland. And I was really there as a beggar, asking for help, seeking some kind of refuge. The only gleam in my mind was the thought that A had died believing and fighting for something real and tangible. But the other stubborn thought of all those young men who had died around me in the trenches made me feel angry and confused and ashamed. I was silent.

’You can’t see the Countess just now. She’s at a special Mass they’re celebrating for Roger Casement. It’s just a year ago to-day since he was shot. But my daughter will take this letter down to her at the chapel.’

We talked of what I should do. Mrs. A said that as my railway pass was made out to Dublin it would he bad for me to stay in the city. The British authorities might look for me there. It would be far better to go and stay in Belfast. There were lots of young chaps from England up there. They had skipped across when Conscription came.

But I should need some clothes. If I wore my uniform in the streets I should be liable to be challenged by the military authorities. I had X’s suit. Good. Now I needed a cap, shirt, tie, socks, and so forth. Mrs. A said she would go out and buy these items for me.

I gave her some of my small stock of cash, and she left me alone in the darkened parlor, for she had drawn down the shades in case detectives were watching the house, with the picture of her dead husband. Soon she returned with a small parcel, and she left me alone again to change.

I stripped off all my clothes, and stood there for some moments gazing into the long mirror at my naked body, feeling extraordinarily free now that I had thrown off my khaki uniform, a badge of military service which I had now worn for seventeen months. I dressed slowly, voluptuously savoring the sense of freedom in a new, cheap, colored shirt. X’s suit just fitted me, and except for my short, Army-cropped hair, I should pass for a civilian again. My hair would be covered by my cap, and it would soon grow thick.

Just as I had finished dressing, a young woman in deep mourning knocked and entered the room. She was the wife of one of the Easier Week rebels, having married her young husband in prison just before he was shot. The atmosphere of desolation created by the accusing portrait on the wall of the dead leader deepened. I felt that it was all awful. Then a young thick-haired Irish poet came in, bringing more bitterness and despair into the tiny room.

The young woman began to talk in a low, beautiful Irish voice of political assassination. Could n’t one poison members of the British Cabinet? At that moment, escaping as I was from the atmosphere of daily death and mountainous slaughter of human beings, it seemed terrible to be confronted with such ideas in that peaceful little room. Was life to be forever a prison of Death? Should I never escape from the foulness of people killing each other in mutual despair?

They took my khaki uniform and Army puttees away, remarking that they would probably come in useful sometime in the near future. I suppose they were used during the Black-andTan period of the more recent civil war. Then I went out and walked along the bank of a near-by canal, and dropped all the military badges from my uniform into the still water —all except my cap badge, which I kept, and which I still possess. I returned to the house breathing deep breaths of freedom.

But I was not quite free of all the material evidences of my Army life yet. I was still wearing the thick, heavy boots issued out to us. I could not go about wearing such boots and posing as a civilian. So I went out again, determined to try to change them for a pair of second-hand civilian boots.

Walking down the wide street into the city, I felt very conscious of my large boots. I avoided walking past the giant policemen. Turning down a small side street near the Nelson Monument, I found a little bootrepairing shop, and managed to get a light pair of boots in exchange for my own, plus the payment of a shilling. And how hard the pavements seemed now! I felt as though I were shod in paper. I should get used to them, I hoped.

Then there was another little matter to be settled, which had not entered my head. I must have a new name. Mrs. A was not long in finding me an excellent hundred-per-cent Irish name, which I adopted and used successfully during the twenty months I lived in Ireland. Later I was amused at what people must think of the great contrast between the very Irish name and my very English accent.

I tore up all letters and papers on me bearing my old name. From now on I was another person with a new name.


Belfast. — That night I slept peacefully in a modest Temperance Hotel, and the next morning I left, luggageless, for Belfast. There I went straight to the address Mrs. A had given me.

It was a little tailor’s shop reached by climbing one flight of rickety stairs. This small, one-room establishment was run by a real Irish character, Danny —, who was more interested in politics than the cut of a suit. With that amazing generosity characteristic of all the Irish I was to meet, he received me with welcoming arms, and offered me a refuge in his shop. I was against the Government — that satisfied his Irish soul.

Above the shop was a huge room, supposed to be empty by the landlord of the place, but filled with old furniture. For ten weeks I shared that dusty room with a fellow exile and Englishman, sleeping on an old bed. For ten weeks I lived on bread and margarine with a Sunday treat of boiled potatoes. At the end of that time Danny had performed the miracle of finding me a job, also in a shop, but well paid for Belfast. I kept the job until I threw it up to leave Belfast.

Danny’s shop was not a shop. It was a political forum, and a crowded rendezvous for the Belfast intelligentsia. One met there all the wits and talkers of the town: Sinn Feiners, I.L.P.-ers, Socialists, Marxians, Communists, poets, intelligent illiterates, agitators, future politicians (one of the daily visitors was the present leader of the Irish Labor Party, Tom Johnson), and all who had some social and political axe to grind. Talk flowed there almost twenty-four hours of the day, while one or two men went on sewing. And what talk it was! Endless discussions of all the burning questions of the moment, passionate talk about the political blunders of the past. Eager discussion of plans for the future, with tea constantly on the brew and bread always being cut for some hungry visitor, and everyone happy. Never before and never since have I participated in such wonderful conversational debauches.

But my twenty months’ life in Belfast was not circumscribed by the exciting atmosphere of Danny’s shop and its amazingly mixed group. I was drawn into the narrower and smaller political groups that had transcended Nationalism and were organizing on the economic field, those who saw the light from Moscow. These groups were mostly manned by the more materiallyminded and agnostic among the young Irish, and by the large number of young Scotch radicals who had fled from their own country when Conscription came to Britain. Naturally the Scotch all had false names, too, so that it was difficult in later years to link up some fiery young Scotch radical with the person one had known in exile.

There were two important events during my stay in Belfast: the frustrated attempt to force Conscription on the Irish, which brought about a vigorous anti-Conscription campaign, and the strike of the Belfast shipyard workers for a 44-hour week. But as this story is not about my life in Belfast, but a report of how I deserted from the British Army, I must hurry on to tell how I returned to England, leaving exile behind.


London, 1919. — It was in April 1919 that I decided it would be a good idea for me to return to England. I had had a wonderful time in Ireland, perhaps the happiest of my whole life. I had not been harried by the police, or by private persons, and had been utterly free to go about and do and say just what I liked either privately or publicly. But I was tired of it all, and wanted to get back home to England. The Armistice spirit was still abroad, and perhaps I might get back without any trouble.

So one fine day I threw up my good job, slipped down to Dublin, and took a boat across to Fleetwood in Lancashire, and went to Yorkshire for a few days. A week later I was in London, looking for a job. Alas for my pre-Army hopes of escaping shop life! It was the only thing I could do. So again the hunt began, and success came at the first effort.

One of those extremely select shops in that curious survival of eighteenth-century London, Burlington Arcade, advertised for an assistant. I applied, taking care to put my regimental cap badge into my civilian coat lapel before I appeared personally. I got the job. The gray-haired, middle-aged gentleman who owned the place naturally concluded, looking at my badge, that I had done ‘my bit.’ He little dreamed that he was keeping a deserter! The low wages he paid for serving members of the British aristocracy were supposed to be those fit for heroes to live on, for the whole of his small male staff had been soldiers in the war.

I stayed for five months at that job, rushing each evening out of the airless Arcade, down Piccadilly, and into the Green Park. Some day I would get free from that slavery! That was my one thought. But it was not until two years later that I was finally able to tug myself free from that shop life. And that is quite another story.

There was one positive outcome of both my compulsory participation in the war as a conscript and my deserting from the Army: I began to think seriously about both the economic system and modern warfare.

The temporary acquiescence in something so actively antagonistic to my whole nature, and the act of turning my back on it, forced me into a formulated attitude towards war.

I have not, therefore, written this anti-romantic account of what is generally regarded as a romantic or despicable act in any spirit of sensational confession. I am not ashamed of what I did thirteen years ago. Publicly, I can even say that I am glad I had the common sense to follow my own healthy instincts and vague convictions. If I had not deserted I should probably be dead now. If behaving as I did is labeled as cowardice, then I prefer to be a physical coward rather than a moral one.

The reason I submitted this manuscript to a magazine is not far to seek. Plunged recently into the reading of several war books, especially British ones, I felt that the story of one who shared some of the experiences of those writers, without sharing their beliefs, ought to be told.

There must have been many men in all the various armies who behaved as I did. I exclude the notorious cases of mass desertions on the part of subject nationals. I feel, therefore, a kind of spokesman for these inarticulate individuals. The Army files at Washington, London, Paris, Berlin, and Rome must be full of the names and numbers of deserters. It would be very interesting to know just how many individual soldiers actually deserted from the various armies.

Returning to the war books, I found that most of the writers described the physical horrors of modern warfare — as though that were the really tragic element! — without giving the reader any idea of whether they would fight in any future war. One got the vague impression that they shelved this inconvenient question, ‘What will you do in the next war?’ hoping that it would not need to be answered in their lifetime.

It thus belongs to the common cant of these stocktaking years to regard many of the writers of war novels and war plays as newly born pacifists. This is where I disagree with the general vague opinion. For I have read carefully all the interviews with such successful writers as Remarque and Sherriff, and I have found no evidence whatsoever that these writers feel concretely towards future wars as I do.

Perhaps my own credo about the whole damnable business may be stated as follows: I will not participate in any kind of war. I am not a fanatic enough about any belief to feel that it is worth dying for. If all people felt as I do about killing there could be no such thing as war. If I cannot escape as I did in the last great war, I will not die for these beliefs of mine. I shall attempt to sabotage the efforts of the combatants all I can.

I doubt very much, however, whether my determination to steer clear of future war madness will help me at all. The next war may not be kind to those who are not put into uniform. If, as one suspects, it is to be a magnificent orgy of aeroplane warfare, then those of us who feel as I do about the whole problem will have little chance to express our feelings. Mankind will really go mad, and sane people will be left with nothing but the chance to organize escape parties to the South Seas or other unpopulated parts of the earth.

I am a complete and uncompromising skeptic about the possibilities of peace.