#whitefeather diaries
John 'Bert' Brocklesby

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.

Preparing for struggle

Monday 18 August 2014
John 'Bert' Brocklesby

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.

In this edited extract from Bert's previously unpublished memoirs, he reflects on how his attitudes were shaped by his experiences in the years running up to the war.

What did I know of Quakerism? Not much! My chief informant up to that time was my brother George. He told me that the Quakers were pacifists; in their worship they had no fixed order of service; they all sat still till God told someone to do something, to pray or preach or read the Bible.

"If you were at a Quaker meeting," he said, by way of illustration, "You could go up into the pulpit to preach, if you had the call". How sensible, thought I.

I joined neither the Baptists nor the Quakers then but went to the Methodist Training college in Horseferry Road, Westminster.

We learned about manuscripts, papyri and codices. We learned of doubtful passages, marginal notes that had become incorporated in the text, spurious passages, ambiguous passages; where did it all lead to? I became more and more dissatisfied, nay worse, like a man drowning in a sea of paper, so to speak. Had such a faith only a paper foundation?

I became convinced that I was a lost soul. My hope seemed almost dead. Yet I could not give up all hope. I had an impulse to go upstairs to that room where first I saw the light of day, my first birth. I threw myself on my knees there are the bedside and resolved to kneel until this dreadful problem should be solved.

Time seemed to vanish, and I do not know how long I knelt there, but all at once I heard a still small voice as clearly as I may ever hope to hear it in this life and I had the distinct feeling of being spoken to by another personality:

"Can you forgive any and all who have wronged you?"

I found this rather a staggerer and I certainly cannot think that this question was the logical conclusion of a line in my own thinking, for it came unexpectedly, and with a shock of surprise. For though I was far from being ready to forgive all who had wronged me, the question seemed too facile, too much like a short cut sidestepping all the elaborate "schemes of salvation" of which I had heard so much.

After a struggle with myself, and a searching self-inspection, I answered, "If that is what is needed for my peace, then I forgive all who have wronged me."

Like a flash came back the question, "Do you think you can be more forgiving than God?" A great light of comprehension burst into my mind, and I answered, "Of course I can't!"

I realised the love of God as never before, and great peace and joy filled my heart. So my spiritual rebirth came at the same place where my physical birth had occurred.

It was soon after this that I realised that the only forgiveness of sins that Jesus mentions is that conditional forgiveness recorded by Matthew only (6:14): "For if ye forgive me their trespasses, your heavenly father will also forgive you, but if ye forgive not men their trespasses, neither will your father forgive your trespasses".

So I came to understand that that darkness of soul was due to my harbouring hateful thoughts. The teaching of Jesus that we must forgive to seventy times seven (i.e. infinity) and not think that God would forgive us once only.

This was the greatest liberation of my life. It was also my greatest preparation for the big struggle that was near at hand.

An ant-war cartoon from shortly after WWI showing a woman peace campaigner, clearly unimpressed with the men 'fighting for her sake'

Caption: An anti-war cartoon from shortly after WWI. Used by kind permission of On The Record and Banger Archives and Special Collections

During the war and for the rest of his life, Bert linked this experience with his conscientious objection. For Bert, love and forgiveness meant that participation in war was impossible. Bert’s revelation suggests that the pacifist position is not confined to wartime. What is the role of the pacifist in peacetime?

Your Thoughts

Submitted by LollyO on
The passage from Bert's diary is quite remarkable, and in its simplicity and earnestness, quite touching. His writing is so clear, and provides a moving testimony to his struggle. The query regarding the role of pacifism in peacetime certainly brings Bert's struggle from 100 years ago right into our own historical moment. There is so much work to do, it seems overwhelming, though I know of so many Friends (and friends) who quietly go about their business trying to build peace one person at a time. It's the everyday interaction, sometimes with difficult people, just trying to listen or offer support for those in difficult circumstances, that helps to create the kind of world we seek. That, and work with organizations that seek peace and social justice. One person at at time, one act of kindness everyday. It is a challenge. I am often humbled by the kindness I see in others, and am heartened especially when younger people are active in trying to work toward a peaceful world.
Memorial stone for conscientious objectors
Wednesday 30 March 2016

Bert's brother Philip visited him shortly before his sentence was confirmed. Bert describes what happened after the sentence was read out.

Sketches of what a CO feels like
Wednesday 23 March 2016

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.

Drawing on cell wall
Wednesday 16 March 2016

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.

A conscientious objector in prison sustained by the spirit of international brotherhood
Wednesday 9 March 2016

facing arrest for refusing to join the Non-Combatant Corps, Bert handed himself into the police station.

Conscientious objectors singing love songs to huns
Wednesday 2 March 2016

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.

Pamphlet challenging national service
Monday 9 November 2015

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.

Brocklesby family photograph
Monday 2 November 2015

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.

Monday 26 October 2015

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.

Monday 25 August 2014

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.

Monday 11 August 2014

The beginning of war saw thousands of men rush to enlist. Those who chose not to do so faced criticism.

Monday 4 August 2014

In the summer of 1914, the prospect of war felt far away to Bert Brocklesby, a teacher in the Yorkshire town of Conisbrough near Doncaster.

Related Materials

Monday 18 August 2014

Forgiveness was central to Bert's understanding of Christianity and his own life.

Monday 18 August 2014

When he writes about forgiveness, Bert mentions Jesus' teaching that God will forgive those who forgive others.

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