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Illingworth House: 26 - Deserters

The war brings about changes in Abe Illingworth, emphasising the harshness in his nature.

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

Mary was well aware that Abe’s devotion to business was at the expense of their relationship, but she loved him too deeply to care - until it was too late. She fondly thought that once his divorce came through - and it was a long time coming - he would be hers. She was prepared to wait years for him to ask her to marry him, and while she waited, she watched him change.

Whatever softness he had, the war took away. She always knew he had an unpleasantly officious and snobbish side to his nature, even before the war. His treatment of Joe Gibson had shown that. And the troops under him in war feared his authority as much as they admired his courage. He showed this in the treatment he meted out to a deserter when he returned to the bench in Keighworth towards the end of the war.

As the war dragged on, desertion from the front became more frequent. Shell-shocked men left their units and made their way back home - unless they were caught first. The punishment was harsh: at best a flogging, at worst death by firing squad. Of the allied armies, the British were the only soldiers subjected to this barbaric treatment.

When any deserter was caught in Keighworth, Abe Illingworth was made presiding magistrate because of his army service. He usually sent them back to their units for court-martialling, and as a result his popularity in the town waned.

One day a deserter arrived back lice-ridden and emaciated. He was traumatised, and his family hid him for some weeks till word leaked out he was at home and the police picked him up. Illingworth had to decide if he was fit enough to be sent back to France and stand trial there.

The deserter’s doctor said he was too weak, but after sitting silent for some time studying the doctor's report, Illingworth looked up tight-lipped. He himself had survived at the front, and he expected others to do the same. If they treated deserters leniently, there'd be whole-scale desertion.

"What made you leave your unit, soldier?" he barked at the man in the dock.

"Ah couldn't take no more, sir," the defendant whimpered, and he shook visibly.

"Pull yourself together, man," Abe barked again. "What would happen if everyone packed up when the going became rough? What would happen to the comrades you've left behind, fighting and dying for their country?"

He made some notes while the prisoner stood white-faced in the dock. Finally he said, "I'm sending you back, soldier. You'll be court-martialled by your regiment. They know how to deal with deserters."

The deserter left Keighworth under escort. Later news filtered back that he had been shot by a firing squad drawn from his own unit. Any respect Abe Illingworth had from the workers in Keighworth after that disappeared. He was universally hated by his workers and the townsfolk, but he didn't care. He rarely mixed with them and cared for them even less.

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