Monday, 14 December 2009

Sergeant Randall

My father wrote nothing and said little to me about his activities in the Great War. My understanding is that at its outbreak in August 1914 he was working as a clerk in the Company Secretary's office in the City of London Electric Lighting Company (CLELCO), joining it on leaving a small Quaker boarding school in the Cotswolds at the age of 16.

I remember him talking approvingly of John Braithwaite, a stockbroker, descendant of a John Braithwaite, a seventeenth century Cumbrian farmer and one of the earliest Quakers. The official history of the firm Foster & Braithwaite describes its founding after Waterloo and how later in the century it took a role akin to that of a merchant banker today in promoting new companies, especially in the burgeoning electricity supply industry. One of these companies was CLELCO, of which a Braithwaite was Chairman until nationalisation of the industry in 1948. It must have assisted the career of an ambitious young man to have the same faith as the chairman of the company.

When Great Britain went to war with Germany many young Quaker men were uncertain about what part if any they should play in it. The Society of Friends had from its outset held pacifism as one of their central tenets, but this war seemed to be different from any other. To hold back entirely and have nothing whatsoever to do with the conflict seemed to many to be an inappropriate.

Philip Baker was the most prominent young Quaker of his generation, having been President of the Union at Cambridge and a finalist in the 1500 metres in the 1912 Olympic Games. He was chosen by a group of senior Friends to propose a middle course between pacifism and belligerence; this he did in a letter published in the periodical The Friend on 21 August 1914. In it he suggested that "young men Friends should form an Ambulance Corps to go to the scene of active operations, either in Belgium or elsewhere": the full letter Is shown at the bottom of this post.

My father was one of the young men who responded to this call and I think that he joined others at a camp organised by Baker at Jordans, a Buckinghamshire village with a Quaker Meeting House where William Penn, the founder of Philadelphia "the City of Brotherly Love", is buried. It was at Jordans, half a century later, that Julia and I married each other.

It seems that there was concern that if the unit went to Belgium it would be too heavily involved with the command structure of the British army, and so it was proposed that it went to Serbia, at that time being invaded by Germany's ally Austria-Hungary. The Serbian situation was precarious, however, so this plan too had to be abandoned. Baker told the men to return home and await events.

It seems my father did not want to wait and that he therefore enlisted in the non-combatant Royal Army Medical Corps. The sole hard evidence I have of what happened next is the inscription in a full morocco-bound edition of Milton's verse on my book shelves.

Sargeant [sic] Randall
A token of appreciation of the hard and very efficient work done as section commander of J Section T Coy RAMC
J Gordon Fleming
Llandridnod Wells, May 7th 1915
Best wishes for your welfare on active service

The choice would not have been accidental. As a gift to a young man of half-formed literary tastes and austere spiritual cast of mind, a book including an epic poem which sets out to "justify the ways of God to men", by a contemporary of the proto-Quaker George Fox, was singularly appropriate. Today though, almost a century later, it is difficult for us to envisage any officer giving any NCO a book of verse before his departure on active service to Afghanistan.

Sergeant Randall did not serve on the Western Front: he was sent to the Mediterranean theatre. The photograph shows him after he had been commissioned. Sometime and somewhere out there he concluded that stitching soldiers up so that they could fight again was morally no different from fighting oneself, so he abandoned his non-combatant status and enlisted in the Royal Flying Corps.

What happened later

John Braithwaite served with the Friends' Ambulance Unit, became Chairman of the London Stock Exchange in 1949 and was dubbed Sir John Braithwaite in 1953.

Philip Baker led the first Friends' Ambulance Unit to Belgium late in 1914 and was adjutant of the Unit in Italy 1915-1918. He won a silver medal in the 1500 metres at the 1920 Olympic Games, assisted in the forming of the League of Nations, entered parliament as a Labour MP and, as Philip Noel-Baker, was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1959.

Harry Randall rejoined CLELCO on demobilisation in 1919. More incidents in my father's life will be told soon. Stories in draft form are
How my father shot himself down
How my father built the Tate Modern

No comments:

Post a Comment