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Illingworth House: 22 - Shameful Security

Joe Gibson, who has thrived during the war, exempted from service because of his work skills, volunteers to join the army and is called up into the Coldstream Guards.

To read earlier chapters of John Waddington-Feather's novel please click on Illingworth House in the menu on this page.

Joe felt guilty every time he saw his old workmates coming on leave in uniform. He felt even worse when they arrived home in hospital blue, sometimes blind or without a limb, and those who never returned preyed most on his mind. And the white feathers kept coming through the door. They were always anonymous but he had a shrewd idea who sent them, for the senders all had sons in the army.

His boss made sure he was exempted from service because of his skills and foreman's position. He earned good wages so that he and Mary were able to buy their house when his mother died and left him some money. They were in clover compared with life before the war. Yet Joe became more depressed and guilt-ridden the longer the war continued.

In 1916, matters came to a head. Joe's pals in the adjoining allotments had been called up earlier in the war and Joe had looked after their hen-pens. One came back badly wounded and was invalided out of the army. His lifelong friend, Henry Johnson, also returned home wounded from the first Battle of the Somme where he and Abe Illingworth were in the thick of the fighting.

Both were badly injured and but for Johnson, Abe Illingworth would have lost his life. They were in hospital down south a long time before they returned to Keighworth and were hospitalised there.

Henry Johnson was transferred to the military hospital at Moorton, where Joe visited him regularly, but every time he walked the length of the ward past row on row of wounded men he felt ashamed. In the end it became too much and one day he told Mary he was going to join up.

She had shared his humiliation and knew how he felt, yet she hated the thought of his going away, of losing him like so many other wives, and she tried to convince him he was doing just as good a job for the war effort in industry as he would be in the army.

"Somebody has to make the guns and munitions," she said, and stood loyally by him as the insults flew. As the casualty list grew in the neighbourhood, she dreaded his joining up, moreso as those dreaded telegrams continued to pour in and every other household in the street had had one. In the end, Joe could no longer meet folks' eyes as he trudged to work each day, slinking past them like a cowardly cur.

Another batch of white feathers finally decided him and he asked to see the chairman of the tribunal that granted exemptions. He wanted off the list. The chairman was a florid faced retired colonel and the rest were elderly pillars of Keighworth society. When he said he wanted to join the army, they looked surprised. "You're the first man we've seen who wanted to join up. Usually it's the other way round, Gibson," said the colonel. "Are you quite sure that's what you want to do?"

"Ah'm sure of it, sir," Joe answered with feeling.

"And you're aware of what you're letting yourself in for?" said the colonel.

"Aye," said Joe simply, and it didn't take them long to grant his request.

The following day he took the paper they'd given him and reported to the recruiting office in Bradford for his medical. A week later he received his calling up papers to report to the Guards Training Depot in Surrey. Hed been allocated to the Coldstream Guards because of his height.

When Sam Greenwood heard about it, he thought Joe was crazy. "Trust him. Just the sort of daft thing he would do," was all he said to Mary. "He has a safe job, well paid - an' all he does is join up. He's wrong in his head!" And he wasn't the only one who thought Joe was mad. Jabez Grimstone who had recently sold him his house was another.

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