#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.

We tame lions here

Wednesday 9 March 2016
John 'Bert' Brocklesby

Last week, we saw Bert's account of the tribunal hearing at which he stated his conscientious objection to killing and to joining the army. The tribunal ordered that he join the army's Non-Combatant Corps, which he was not prepared to do. Facing arrest, he agreed to hand himself in at the local police station. This is an edited version of his description of the following events.

I walked into the Conisbrough Police Station and soon after appeared before the bench, being remanded to await military escort. I sat most of that day in the remand cell and was very touched by the love and kindness of Mrs Holland, the caretaker of the Doncaster Friends' Meeting House, when she sent in a basket of refreshments.

CO sustained by spirit of international brotherhood drawingTowards evening a corporal and a private from Pontefract Barracks arrived to escort me there, where I was immediately lodged in the guard room.

I still think of my first night ‘in the army’ as the most uncomfortable night in my life. There were about thirty men in a room designed for fifteen. There were five broad shelves hinged to the wall each providing sleeping room for three men. The men who couldn't get on a shelf were parked on the floor, almost filling the floor-space.

The stench of humanity and drunks was nothing to the crowning stench of a filthy latrine in the corner, of which the drain was choked and urine was seeping across the guardroom floor. I, as the last comer, had to pick a dry patch and edge off as far as possible.

I did not feel happy, nor that I was suffering in a noble cause. I knew that these inconveniences were paltry compared with the sufferings brought to millions by the cursed war, but coming from an ideal home it was bad enough. Two blankets had been doled out, one for mattress and one for cover, but I had no pillow. I had brought my Teachers' Bible, which for many years had given light and strength. This served for a pillow.

The next day I cajoled and, I must confess, bribed the corporal of the guard to put me into a cell. He couldn't understand why I wished, according to army ideas, to step up my punishment, but at last he gave me this promotion.

In that cell was an atmosphere of the peace of heaven, away from the smell of drunks and urine and the filthy small-talk. I drew a deep breath of thankfulness, and felt more at peace than at any time since August 1914. A room of my own instead of that Black Hole of a guard room, with a whole bedboard, a table and a stool all for my own use. Are heaven and hell just degrees of relativity? This, at any rate, was heaven.

But the greatest privilege was that Frank Beaumont was in the next cell, Conisbrough's first CO to be pitchforked into the army. He had won his private cell in the correct way, having refused to obey orders and having been sentenced to a term in the cells.

Frank gave the army people at Pontefract their first inklings of what conscientious objection really meant.

"We tame lions here!" the NCO yelled at him.

"Can you make lambs fierce?" asked Frank.

It is striking that Bert's emotions changed so quickly. In the guard room, held alongside other prisoners, he did not feel that he was suffering for a noble cause but in the cell he felt more at peace than at any time since the war started.

How far can the feeling of suffering for a good cause sustain people in dreadful circumstances? Does it make a difference, or is this just wishful thinking? 

Prisoners of conscience, and other political prisoners are sometimes granted special status. This highlights that they broke the law as a direct and calculated reaction to a specific government policy. Is this a useful distinction to make?   

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: A drawing by G.P. Micklewright shows an imprisoned conscientious objector sustained by the spirit of international brotherhood. © 2016 The Yearly Meeting of the religious Society of Friends (Quakers) in Britain.

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.

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

Women in the London office of the FAU
Wednesday 9 March 2016

Rosa Hobhouse and Clara Cole charged under the Defence of the Realm Act for distributing anti-war material.

Mobile phone on old-style newspaper
9 March 2016

Mairi Campbell-Jack, Scottish Parliamentary Engagement Officer for Quakers in Britain, shares her work on increasing transparency around armed forces recruitment in schools in Scotland.

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