About John 'Bert' Brocklesby
John Hubert (“Bert”) Brocklesby was born and grew up in Conisbrough, near Doncaster in Yorkshire. Brought up as Methodist, Bert had been drawn to both Quakers and Baptists, but had remained with the Wesleyan Methodist Church and become a lay preacher, only later becoming a Quaker.
As an eleven-year-old during the Boer War, he was confused when he realised that both sides were praying for victory to the same God. Bert was 25 when the war broke out.
A land of death
Last week, we saw the coded message that Bert sent to his family in Britain. Bert's brother Philip, who had just been made a lieutenant, was stationed not far away and used his new-found position as an officer to gain permission to visit Bert as he awaited his sentence. He arrived on the same day that four other COs, including Howard Marten, received their sentence.
Bert described what happened next.
Phil's visit was a real joy to us all. We knew we were not cut off entirely from our friends.
But there was more to it. As he left us, he found that promulgation of the first sentences was just to be carried out and he was present on that memorable occasion for the worldwide peace movement.
We heard of it when the corporal of the guard came rushing in, bursting with the news. “My gosh! You chaps aint half for it. They've just read out four conshies from the Field Punishment Barracks. They all got the death sentence with commutation to ten years.”
Well, we felt relieved and very hopeful we should get the same. “Ten years” held no terrors for us.
But perhaps we were most heartened to find that all those men of the first batch were putting up such a fine resistance. Marten, Scullard, Ring and Foister were the first four. The authorities evidently thought they had been unlucky with the first batch, and tried a second and larger batch, but with almost the same result. Almost the same, for one man gave in.
Our sentences were read out on the 24 June. The captain read out the promulgation which I quote from memory.
“The accused were tried by Field General Court-Martial on the thirteenth day of June, have been found guilty and sentenced to death. The sentence has been confirmed by Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig, and commuted to ten years’ penal servitude.”
The captain himself was very considerate and admitted to one of our visitors that he thought we were very brave men. It is, I think, a longstanding tradition in the army to acknowledge the courage of the enemy.
We were moved in stages; first to the Field Punishment Barracks recently vacated by the first group of COs, all except Alfred Evans who was under some medical treatment. But it was a joy to meet one of that first group who, suffering the Number One Punishment, had got it banned for any other COs.
We were soon moved to Rouen Military Prison, leaving Alfred behind. The next day we were marched down to the quay-side to await transport for England.
The corporal of our guard was very decent with us. He said there was some beautiful river scenery and we might sit on deck to watch it if we would promise not to try to escape. I said, “If I jumped overboard, I would be in Seine”, but the penny didn't drop.
At dark we went below but we were too excited to sleep. The ship continued its smooth barge-like progress downstream till about midnight when the whole vessel gave the unmistakeable heave that told us we were at sea.
We hugged each other and rejoiced at leaving that land of death behind. How much a land of death we were to learn later; about the time we were in Rouen Military Prison, one of the bloodiest battles of all history, the battle of the Somme, had been fought.
Bert was imprisoned in Winchester, before briefly accepting alternative work at the Dyce quarry near Aberdeen in 1917. On discovering that the stone from the quarry was used for military purposes, he voluntarily returned to jail. He was held in Maidstone Prison until all COs were released in 1919.
He then worked with the Friends War Victims Relief Committee in Vienna, with Hilda Clark. He joined the Quakers in 1920 and later returned to teaching in Britain, though found it hard to get a job as a former CO. Bert campaigned against the Second World War and later against the spread of nuclear weapons. He died at the age of 75 in 1962, four months after his last peace demonstration.
A memorial placed in Tavistock Square, London, devoted to all conscientious objectors of all times and nationalities. The caption reads "To all those who have established and are maintaining the right to refuse to kill. Their foresight and courage give us hope."
Image credit: Michael Preston © 2014 The Yearly Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) in Britain.
Copyright: This is an edited extract from Escape from Paganism, the unpublished memoirs of John 'Bert' Brocklesby. Used by kind permission of his daughter, Mary Brocklesby.
On arrival at Boulogne, Bert and his comrades from Richmond Castle discovered that another group of conscientious objectors had also been sent to France with the threat of being shot if they continued to refuse orders. They did not know whether the other group – which included Howard Marten – had given in or been executed.
Bert was concerned that campaigners in Britain should hear about what was going on and know that they were in Boulogne. He described what happened next.
Bert was sent to Richmond Castle where a unit of the Non-Combatant Corps was based. Within a few days he was on his way to France.
facing arrest for refusing to join the Non-Combatant Corps, Bert handed himself into the police station.
Bert Brocklesby was called before a tribunal in Doncaster when he claimed a conscientious objection to joining the army. He wrote out a transcript of the hearing.
Bert seems to have preached less often as he became more involved in campaigning against the war. He described how he came to know Quakers through the anti-conscription campaign.
A week after his bruising experience in Conisbrough, Bert found himself preaching in another church. He took a more cautious approach, but delivered the same message. He later wrote about the experience.
The war that began in 1914 was expected to be over by Christmas. John ‘Bert’ Brocklesby found himself preaching in his own church just after the beginning of 2015. He wrote about the response he received.
To Bert, war required either hatred or callousness. Writing about the early days of the war, he linked his convictions with a rejection of hatred – and a question about prayer during wartime.
How did Bert come to be such a strong pacifist? Unlike Howard, he did not grow up in a pacifist family. His brothers Philip and Harold joined the army shortly after war broke out.
The beginning of war saw thousands of men rush to enlist. Those who chose not to do so faced criticism.
Harold Tennant, Under-Secretary of State for War, had told Parliament that no COs had been sent to France, before making an embarrassed climb-down and admitting what had happened. This exchange took place in the House of Commons on 26 June 1916.
The Northern Friends Peace Board was set up in early 1913 to encourage “the active promotion of peace in all its height and breadth.” Philip Austin reflects on the different strands of the NFPB story and their work today promoting peace.