#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.

War madness

Monday 4 August 2014
John 'Bert' Brocklesby

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. On Sunday 2 August, Bert, then aged 25, set off for a walking holiday with his brother Harold and his friend Maurice.

Here is Bert's own description of the next few days.

John Brocklesby early in World War IOn August Bank Holiday we set off, making for Castleton in the Peak District, where our choir was having its annual outing. Just before we left them we all sang hymns together in the Winnats Gorge. There seemed something very solemn and impressive about this, and we could not at the time realise that we were singing goodbye to Peace - and indeed the funeral song of a whole era. That evening we got about twenty miles further on our road and camped about a mile south of Buxton.

The next day saw us away over Axe Edge (1,500 feet) and as far as Wolverhampton. The whole countryside was seething with excitement as the Germans had invaded Belgium and Britain might be at war at any time. People, seeing us with our camp equipment, asked if we were joining up. We camped in a boggy lane about two miles south of Wolverhampton. The site was soft and wet but our ground sheet kept us dry.

Heading for Kidderminster next morning we passed a newsagent's by the roadside where we saw a placard announcing "Britain declares war on Germany". So that is how we received the most fateful news and from that time the world became a quite different sort of place. We were stunned. War with Germany! How could such a thing be? The ruling houses of Britain and Germany were linked by the closest ties of blood. Queen Victoria had seen to that, thinking it was a sure way to preserve peace.

The first signs of war madness soon appeared. We saw details of the army mobilising and the papers reported thousands of recruits volunteering for service at every recruiting station in the country.

Here I may record my first conviction. However many might volunteer, yet would not I; and for this certainty in my mind, that God had called me to work for his kingdom, that whatever any other man felt he must do, God had not put me on the earth to go destroying his own children.

Neither could I swear away any right to follow my own conscience and to obey the guiding of God's Spirit. It seemed monstrous to me that men should sell their souls to wicked commanders who might order them to commit the foulest crimes.

Very soon the spy scares began to sprout. People wondered who we were, wandering with a tent around the country, just as though a spy would carry around some distinctive mark. At one village in Worcestershire, the local policeman came to identify us. The only mark of identity we could show was Harold's Post Office Savings Bank book. Things were getting so uncomfortable we decided to abandon our tour and make a beeline for home.

Bert insists that he was certain from the beginning that he would not join up. Was he more certain than those who later changed their minds? Is it better to pursue a conviction with certainty or after a period of struggling to make a decision? What do you think?

Your Thoughts

Submitted by Jane Heptonstall on
A conviction of the mind made steadfast is perhaps more easily achieved than emotional uncertainty. However, both are part of the human condition and that remains constant.

Submitted by Mike Smith on
Its moving and fantastic and important that the centenary includes all the voices who were part of the British response to the war and its a testament to their memory and the effort of those today who remember the numerous voices who did not want fighting in their name but were often prepared to put themselves in harm's way. Thankyou for these diaries. They're a timely reminde of something that can always slip from your mind.

Submitted by ian Howarth on
Very moving. As a fellow Methodist, I found the bit about singing hymns feeling like singing a goodbye to Peace especially poignant. Remembering my grandfather today, a Quaker, who also refused to fight. We always thought he went into internal exile as an agricultural worker, but a Quaker researched says there is evidence he went to prison. Is there a way of finding out for sure?

Submitted by LO on
Such a heavy decision, which differs from person to person. Bert Brocklesby seems to have known himself well. Not so for everyone. Bert's commentary is so clear and so thoughtful. I would like to have known him. He reached clarity out of deeply held conviction from a young age, that he was called to work in God's kingdom. Thank you, Bert.

Submitted by Eddy Knasel on
He must have thought and felt about the morality of war a lot to react with that certainty so quickly. I'm sure I would not have done at his age.

Submitted by Andrew on
Different people make decisions differently; some 'just know' what they think or feel, and often have to work out why that is after the fact. Others (so I'm told!) need time to reflect or consider the circumstances, but once they make a decision will be just as committed to it.

Submitted by Donald Saunders on
Ian Howarth asks if records are available of COs sent to prison.The PPU have extensive records and could advise him. My father spent several years in prison as a CO in WW1.He had very strong convictions all his life that it was wrong to take another's life or support such actions at any time.As a CO myself in WW2,having the same views as my father I served with the Friends Relief Service.

Submitted by hazel t on
Bert was imprisoned in Richmond (North Yorkshire) Castle from where he and others were shipped out to France to be in 'the face of the enemy' where, if they refused to obey an order, they could be shot. They were Court marshalled and duly sentenced, this was commuted to ten years hard labour. They spent much of the rest of the war in solitary confinement in civilian prisons in the UK before being released in April 1919. Some never recovered from their experience as did so many serving soldiers.
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 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.

Related Materials

Monday 4 August 2014

Quakers like Bert Brocklesby, who oppose all war, are still speaking up for nonviolent responses to conflict and injustice...

Monday 4 August

While most British people supported the war, there were many who shared Bert's determination to oppose it. Others were unsure what to think.

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We rejoiced at leaving that land of death behind. We learned later about the battle of the #Somme https://t.co/r0jRYe8HTX #WW1 #whitefeather
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We were moved first to the Field Punishment Barracks recently vacated by the first group of COs https://t.co/r0jRYe8HTX #WW1 #whitefeather
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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