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 coded message
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.
The Officer in Command told us that as we were now on active service the penalty for refusing to obey orders was death; he would give us 24 hours to think it over. We were set at liberty and walked around the town.
We went and bathed on the shore, our first bath for many days. We pooled all our pocket money and went and had a nice tea in a café. We seemed to throw off all our problems for that day, but as we walked up the hill towards the camp I said, “Well, chaps, we're up against it now. It looks as if the first lot sent out here has given in, else they would never have brought another lot out.”
I was wrong on both points. We were walking past the Field Punishment Barracks where at that moment the first batch of COs were valiantly holding out to a man, in spite of the Field Punishment Number One, which consists in tying a man with arms extended to a barbed wire fence for at least an hour at a time.
“How far are you prepared to go?” I asked Leonard Renton, who was an International Bible Student from Leeds.
“To the last ditch!” said he, and one by one they all said the same. It was the most thrilling experience of my life.
Next morning we were ordered on parade by an NCO we hadn't seen before. I asked to see the officer.
The NCO said, “Who are you chaps?”
“We are conshies.” I answered.
“Here,” he said, “Get back to your hut. I'm not going to be a witness to get all you chaps shot.”
The next day we were ordered out by our own QMS and when I asked to see the captain, he said, “Go to the docks, you'll see him there.”
Of course the captain was not there. At the docks it was our old friend Sergeant Foster.
We were lined out in a dock shed and there was a case of bully beef on the floor. Foster went along the line and asked each man individually, “If I tell you to pick that case up, will you do it?” I believe Renton was first on the line, but I was the last.
I saw Foster getting redder as each man refused and when I said “I am sorry-” he burst out with “Sorry be damned!” and relieved his feelings with a round of oaths.
In due course we were court-martialled. The Officer in Command had told us there would be no martyrs' crowns because no one would know what had happened to us. It was not time for clever backchat, though it did occur to me as being a curious idea that the army controlled the issue of martyrs' crowns.
There was a field postcard in use in the army in 1916 designed to lighten the work of censoring letters. There were several stereotyped statements and the soldier had to cross out those which did not apply. Two of these which I well remember.
(a) I am being sent to base.
(b) I have not heard from you for a long time.
I crossed off the last three letters of “base” and everything in the second but the second and third letters of "you" and the word “long”. I made my cancelling look as haphazard as possible but thought it looked blatantly clear. Yet it evaded an overworked censor and told the folk at home: “I am being sent to b... ou... long”.
Bert's ingenuity had an effect. The postcard reached Britain and both the No-Conscription Fellowship (NCF) and the Brocklesby family discovered he was in Boulogne. The fate of the COs was raised in Parliament and the NCF managed to secure a meeting with the Prime Minister.
Bert was still only 27 at this point. How do you think his family might have felt upon receiving his postcard? Were he and the others right to go so far as to risk death? What would you have done?
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.
Image: 'What a CO feels like' was drawn by G.P. Micklewright, an artist and imprisoned conscientious objector. © 2016 The Yearly Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) in Britain
Bert's brother Philip visited him shortly before his sentence was confirmed. Bert describes what happened after the sentence was read out.
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.
The police made a systemic effort to suppress the newsletter of the No-Conscription Fellowship but were unsuccessful. Lydia Smith, who was editor of The Tribunal at the time, later described how they had managed it.
Many conscientious objectors rejected the idea of military 'solutions' to conflict. Hannah Brock of War Resisters’ International shares her thoughts on resisting militarism today, using some of the ideals of those who objected 100 years ago.