#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.

Relying on force

Wednesday 16 March 2016
John 'Bert' Brocklesby

Last week, we saw Bert imprisoned in Pontefract Barracks. The Major in charge of the barracks soon realised that Bert had been ordered by the tribunal to join the Non-Combatant Corps. He took the opportunity to get rid of him by sending him to Richmond Castle, where a unit of the NCC was based.

Bert refused to drill and, knowing that he was likely to be put in a cell again, managed to hide some bacon in his trousers. He later described what followed. Here's an edited version.

I was brought before the captain and we had an argument. Why was I a conscientious objector? I said that war was breaking the command, “Thou shalt not kill”.

Did I not think, he asked, that those commands applied to individuals but not to the state? “They apply to both” I replied.

He next asked if I was a Christian and on my assenting he said that there were thousands of Christians in the war. I said it was not my idea of being a Christian. His verdict was that I should have three days confined to the cells on bread and water.

How cheerfully I went, smiling inwardly at the thought of the fat bacon under my belt. But there was a more pleasant surprise. An old hot water system in which a pipe had come through the floor had been removed, and there, if I lay down and peeped through the hole, I could see the bright smiling face of Norman Gaudie, also in “solitary” confinement and on bread and water. His smile expanded visibly when I showed him the fat bacon which we rationed out so that it lasted us two days each out of our three.

I also had a pocket chess board that made innumerable journeys through that hole, and somehow, as we cleaned the hole and removed sundry loose particles, it seemed to grow visibly larger.

Within a few days we were drafted to France. Arrested on May 11th, I arrived at Richmond on 15th. By the 28th we were on our way to France.

Drawn by Bert Brocklesby on the wall of his cell in Richmond Castle, 22 May 1916. Used by kind permission of the Peace Pledge Union. 

The resisters at Richmond were in two parties, eight being in the guard room and eight in the cells. As the guard went to turn out the men in the guard room, our chaps offered resistance by clinging to tables, chairs or door frames, and they got some rough handling from the guard. I asked to see the captain and begged him to let me speak to the guard room lads, saying I hoped I could persuade them to give no more trouble. He looked very surprised but gave me permission and came to hear what I should say.

I said, “Look here, chaps, it's no good offering resistance to these orders. If you use force to resist, I can tell you the army knows all about force and you don't stand any chance. We must rely on spiritual forces. For my part, they can take me where they will, even into the front line trenches, but they will never get me to raise my hand against my fellow man.”

There was no further trouble of that kind all the time we were in the hands of the military.

Our transport left Southampton and we saw a beautiful sunset over the Isle of Wight. We went ashore at a beautiful port where a few French people gave us a welcome, and a lad told me in answer to my question that it was Le Havre. After one night in camp we reached Amiens and wondered when we turned northward where we were bound.  At last we were within sight of the cliffs of England at Boulogne.

Because COs such as Bert and Howard had been ordered to join the army, they were technically soldiers and could be imprisoned for refusing to obey orders. But for soldiers who were on “active service” at the front, the punishment for disobedience was death. As time went on, it became clear that some in the army were determined that COs should be sent to France so that they could be shot for refusing to fight.

Was Bert right to persuade his comrades not to resist by holding on to tables or door frames? Or was this a form of nonviolent resistance that challenged the army's power?

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.

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.

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 18 August 2014

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.

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

NCF members going to a trial
Wednesday 16 March 2016

Some in the peace movement expected that they might have to die to defend the principle of refusing to kill and prepared themselves for this eventuality.

Mobile phone on old-style newspaper
Wednesday 16 March 2016

ForcesWatch is a research and campaigning organisation which challenges military recruitment practices in the UK that are not in the best interests of young people. They are currently working on raising the age of recruitment to 18 and challenging the growing presence of the military in the education system. Emma Sangster from ForcesWatch discusses their work.

Latest Tweets

30th Mar
We rejoiced at leaving that land of death behind. We learned later about the battle of the #Somme https://t.co/r0jRYe8HTX #WW1 #whitefeather
30th Mar
I said, “If I jumped overboard, I would be in Seine”, but the penny didn't drop https://t.co/r0jRYe8HTX #WW1 #whitefeather
30th Mar
We were moved first to the Field Punishment Barracks recently vacated by the first group of COs https://t.co/r0jRYe8HTX #WW1 #whitefeather
30th Mar
It is, I think, a longstanding tradition in the army to acknowledge the courage of the enemy https://t.co/r0jRYe8HTX #WW1 #whitefeather
30th Mar
We were heartened to find that the men of the first batch were putting up such a fine resistance https://t.co/r0jRYe8HTX #WW1 #whitefeather