Freedom News

Frank Leech: Why I went on Hunger Strike

The following article by a wartime conscientious objector is taken from an April 1944 issue of War Commentary, brought out by the Freedom Group during World War II shortly before its editors were arrested for sedition. Leech (1900-53) was a close collaborator with the group at the time, having edited Fighting Call and run the Bakunin Press Bookshop in Glasgow. He had previously been arrested in 1940 for campaigning against conscription and in 1943 was jailed for refusing to involve himself in fire-watching of private property. He was offered the choice of 60 days in prison jail or a large fine and chose the latter, being taken to Barlinnie Prison where he went on hunger strike. His 17-day action was ended when supporters paid the fine instead. A well-known speaker in Glasgow, he was also an industrial correspondent for Freedom. This article has been produced thanks to the kind loan of a set of 24 War Commentaries which we are currently digitising for the Freedom Newspaper Archive project.

UPON MY RELEASE from prison, following my 17 days on hunger strike, I was amazed at the amount of interest aroused by my protest. So much so that I feel constrained to put pen to paper on the issue.

My action, though hardly a picnic, was small in comparison with that of hundreds whom I found in prison — men serving six months, one year and two years for desertion and resisting conscription — some doing 10 years for mutiny in Africa. These men are not “deserters” of the cause of liberty. Their calm acceptance of the punishment and ostracism, which the State inflicts upon them for their refusal to obey, equals in bravery and suffering the deeds of men on the battlefields. And what is more, they are fighting with different weapons for a cause that is worthwhile. Hundreds of them are buried in prison — their deeds unsung. The solidarity they extended to me in prison gives me further encouragement to continue to work for anarchism knowing there will be a day of reckoning in which these heroes will take their part — the day when tyranny and exploitation will be swept aside and the common people, the working class, will come into their own, the day when prisons will be abolished and their inhabitants, the men in moleskins or other convict garb, the men who have greater human understanding than those in authority, will be free. These comrades are performing greater deeds than mine. Hence my constraint.

However, I will write of my own stand, in the hope that others will be encouraged to be more articulate in their protests against conscription. I hunger struck because anarchism and my own experience has taught me that: —

(1) There can be no freedom for the working class until class society has been abolished and an era of economic and social equality has been inaugurated.

(2) Wars today are a result of capitalist economy — wars in which the working classes of the respective belligerent countries are engaged in the mutual murder of each other in the interests of their respective masters.

Accepting these premises I could do no other than follow the logic of them and refuse to be used by any ruling class in their wars.

In the early days of 1939, six months before the present blood-bath commenced, the Communist Party was clamouring for a “Popular Front” and calling upon “Churchill, Sinclair and Attlee to get together”1. Shortly before the Clyde apprentices were on strike2, partly in response to the threat of conscription. We Glasgow Anarchists issued a leaflet calling workers to resist conscription by a General Strike, a call to which there was no response. Ever since, in common with other groups and individual workers, we have fallen back on individual resistance, an individual resistance which is a two-edged sword plunging into the heart of the present regime. One side the struggle for our individual liberty, the other by example breaking down the morale of our enemy and uplifting the courage of those who are searching for a way out. We have taken this stand, hoping that before this holocaust ends our individual resistance, with the increasing restrictions and misery, will find a ready response in the many.

Many of us have received persecution at the hands of the state for this resistance: Eddie Shaw3 (who has been prosecuted again for refusing to go for medical examination and is now awaiting appeal to High Court at Edinburgh) and myself were arrested in 1940 and charged with inciting young men to avoid military service, but after a two days’ trial received a verdict of “Not Guilty”. The charge arose out of giving advice to COs (conscientious objectors) and holding Mock Tribunals. Dozens of our members have served 12-month sentences for refusing mandatory enlistment. Young Alan Burnett, only 19 years of age, is still in Saughton Prison, Edinburgh, serving 12 months. At the Appellate Tribunal, after serving nearly three months of his sentence, he threw compromise back into the teeth of the Tribunal, and went back to prison to serve the remainder of his sentence. That is the spirit revolutionaries are made of.

We are often told by men in one service or another “We wish we had had the courage to do as you did. If we had our time to go over again we would be COs.” Yes, victory or defeat, War is always a tragedy for the working class. War! from which there is only one final escape … anarchism.

To get back to myself. I am determined that our dictators will only conscript my dead body. Not whilst there is breath in it will I submit to them. If my time and life is to be spent it will be spent in the cause of freedom — not the hypocritical “freedom” of the British or any other Empire — but the freedom of which anarchists are the exponents. That is why I hunger struck. Upon entering Barlinnie Prison I was examined by a Dr. Scott, the only medical examination being a cursory glance and the question “Have you any broken skin?” The rest of the examination was certainly not medical. His questions: “Your religion?” “Are you Irish?” led to arguments and cynical repartee which continued every day and only ended with my release. Next procedure was discarding of my own clothes, signature for them, bath and the supply of prison garb, or at least what garb could be found that I could get into. Jacket and vest I had to wait for until next day.

At 11.30am I was ordered into what is known by prisoners as a dog-box, a cupboard 3ft 6in x 2ft 6in x about 8ft high, with a shelf placed about 2ft 6in from the floor for a seat. I was left in here till 4pm. During this time I received two visits from warders. To their question “What is your occupation?” I replied, “anarchist”. This found them in a quandary. They ultimately wrote on my cell-door card against occupation: None. Except for “exercise”, which was “solitary” after my third day in prison, and for visits to the “arch” I was confined to my cell. This confinement was anything but monotonous. The visits from doctor, sky pilots, governor, assistant governor, chief warders, the verbal battles over the breaking of prison regulations, their questions, put by one after the other, “What would you do if Hitler came here?” kept my faculties alert. The various apologies by the warders for their acceptance of such a job, my appeals to the younger warders to chuck it before the work (sic) made them inhuman, my shout to the first warder on the Sunday morning “Hey McKay what about me preaching the evening sermon tonight,” bringing a good laugh from the passmen, all left my short prison life anything but monotonous.

I would like here to express my gratitude to the “passmen” (prisoners who do the cleaning and dish out the grub), especially W M Gilliespie, Donald Nicolson and Alan McLean, whose sentences are now finished, although Alan has since been court-martialled for desertion. The solidarity I received from them is an example of the binding force in human nature that is not to be found amongst politicians. Their solidarity will stand as an inspiration to me as long as I live.

Regarding my physical condition on hunger strike, I felt sick from hunger on the third and fourth days, and had several pains all over. These I massaged away! I exercised every day, thoroughly enjoying it, as it increased the circulation and warmth. On the tenth day I got a chill, which made me feel very uncomfortable. Lying in your cell with the temperature rising and falling, with the change in the weather and sporadic supply of hot water in the heating system, is very likely to bring on pneumonia. However, next day I picked up a little, but by the twelfth day my gums began to bleed, my mouth swelled and my tongue got very hot and sticky. I asked the doctor for an enema. He refused this and offered caster oil or salts. I told him “I would do without”. I requested a toothbrush from the chief warder. Its use helped my mouth considerably. I increased the amount of water I was drinking. From then till the day of my release although I got weaker and had occasional dizzy turns, my gums did not bleed.

I was released on the 17th day. My friends having paid the balance of fine, £16 10s. and not £25 as reported in the yellow press. I lost 1 stone and 6 pounds in weight. I regret that space does not allow me to write of all the incidents that happened, and of my impressions of prison life. All I will say is that I confirm the statement made by comrade Roger Carr upon his release after 12 months in Barlinnie, “to anyone who has been there it holds no terrors”. I conclude by showing my appreciation of all the efforts made by comrades and friends in all parts of the country in their appraisal of my protest.

~ Frank Leech

1. The CPGB, at this time the most powerful hard-left force in British politics, was infamous for basing its policies on whatever Stalin was in favour of. In 1939, however, then-editor J R Campbell was using the party-aligned Daily Worker (now Morning Star) newspaper to call for a united anti-fascist fight. Campbell was ousted in September that year and replaced by the more compliant William Rust, who echoed Stalin’s view that the war was essentially just an imperial conflict. This lasted until Russia was itself attacked in 1941, when in a screeching policy U-turn the paper again decided to support a united anti-fascist coalition of nations.

2. The apprentices dispute, which was most prevalent on the Clyde but also made inroads in Manchester, had kicked off in 1937 with demands for higher pay, district-wide minimum age-wage scales, a right to part-time technical education during the working week, a ‘reasonable’ proportion of apprentices to journeymen, and the right to union representation. The dispute was still live in 1939 when a sequence of lunchtime factory gate meetings persuaded various apprentice groups in the outfitting trades, including plumbing, joinery and engineering, to go out.

3. Eddie Shaw was a close associate of Leech. A Stirnerite and founder member of the Glasgow Anarchist Group, he was regarded as a good speaker and friendly with Freedom Press. Both his and Leech’s activities are talked about extensively in the pamphlet Anarchism in Glasgow.

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