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.
What if Germans killed your mother?
Bert Brocklesby, a teacher in the Yorkshire town of Conisbrough, was called before a tribunal in Doncaster when he claimed a conscientious objection to joining the army. He was accompanied by supporters. They included a Mrs Wray, who he tried to call as a witness to the sincerity of his convictions. He was not permitted to call her.
That evening, Bert wrote out the transcript of the tribunal hearing from memory. Here it is.
A series of cartoons by ‘A.E.’, portraying conscientious objectors as scared, unmanly and unrealistic. [Image copyright below.]
Clerk You have a conscientious objection to killing?
Bert Yes, sir.
Clerk Would you retaliate if you were attacked?
Bert No, sir.
Clerk If I were to smite you on one cheek would you turn the other?
Bert That is our Christian duty, sir.
Clerk But give me a plain answer, yes or no. If I were to knock one of your teeth out, wouldn't you try to knock two of mine out?
Bert The question is hypothetical. One cannot say what one would do in the heat of the moment.
Clerk Very well, I will put another hypothetical question. If you were attacked by Germans would you kill to save your own life?
Bert No, sir. In view of the sixth commandment it is better to be killed than to kill.
Clerk But if the Germans were to arrive at Conisbrough and attack your mother.
Bert The case is hypothetical; I believe God would provide a way of escape before things got so far.
Clerk But it happened in Belgium.
Bert Yes, but the menfolk ran away and left their women to the tender mercies of the Germans.
Clerk But suppose for example that you were really cornered and there was no way of escape. If you were attacked by Germans with bayonets and you had a revolver, would you shoot?
Bert No, sir. It would be a happy release from this miserable world. (The clerk grunts and throws up the sponge).
Chairman Mr Baker, will you question this man?
Mr Henry Baker Mr Brocklesby, you are a teacher.
Bert Yes, sir.
Baker What is your salary?
Bert £115 per year.
Baker You have the young life of the nation to train. How many people know that you belong to an organisation of perhaps 50 or 60 members who have all sworn to refuse anything this tribunal may award?
Bert I have never made a secret of it.
Baker This woman Wray, is she a member of this organisation?
Baker Has she two sons of military age?
Bert No, sir. Only one.
Baker Is he a member?
Baker Is Wray the pawnbroker a member?
Bert I am not sure.
Baker Come now, don't tell me that. You know your own members.
Bert He is not a full member.
Baker How many members are there?
Bert Perhaps five thousand.
Baker But how many are there in this district?
Bert In our branch, perhaps forty-five.
Baker And is not Wray a member?
Bert He is not a full member; he may be an associate.
Baker Oh, there are associates; then (triumphantly) there are about fifty or sixty.
Baker Well now, if you are determined to refuse whatever this tribunal may be prepared to award, why do you come here?
Bert We merely come as an acknowledgement of the concession made to the conscientious objectors by the government.
Baker Now sir, answer my question.
Bert I have answered it as well as I can.
Chairman Yes, surely Mr Baker, he has given a very clear answer.
Baker Well then, if the Germans were attacking Doncaster, if you could save the lives of some women and children, would you do so?
Bert I would try to save life, but not by taking life.
Baker Would you not shoot any Germans?
Bert No, sir.
Baker Would you knock any down?
Baker Answer yes or no.
Bert Yes. (Snort from apoplectic member).
Chairman If you would not take life to save the lives of hundreds of women and children, you would be responsible for their deaths (smiles and gazes triumphantly around the tribunal).
A member Would you be prepared to take non-combatant service, say in a munition factory or mine sweeping?
Bert No, sir, they would not let me sweep English mines as well as German mines.
Clerk It seems as if he has an objection to doing anything that will take him into danger.
Bert It is very difficult to bring evidence to prove a conscientious objection; one can only prove it by suffering for it. I am prepared to die for my principles. I am fighting for the principle of freedom of conscience for every Englishman and I am prepared to die for my principles. It would be a pity if, while there are so many thousands who are ready to die for their country, there are not some who are ready to die for higher principles.
Baker Are you a local preacher?
Baker Well you had better go and preach somewhere else (laughter).
Chairman We will forward you our decision.
Much of the questioning seems arbitrary, but Bert's answers to the questions about attacks by Germans are particularly interesting. History provides many examples of nonviolent resistance, although they became more widely known during the twentieth century due to Gandhi's campaigns in India and civil rights struggles in the US and elsewhere.
Bert was speaking at a time when people tended to be less familiar with such methods of active nonviolence. How convincing do you find his answers?
Copyright: The transcript of the trial appears in Escape from Paganism, the unpublished memoirs of John 'Bert' Brocklesby. Used by kind permission of his daughter, Mary Brocklesby.
Image copyright: There have been many attempts by authors and researchers to trace the copyright-holder of 'A.E.' If you believe you own the copyright for this image, we will be very pleased if you contact us.
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Bert's brother Philip visited him shortly before his sentence was confirmed. Bert describes what happened after the sentence was read out.
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.
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 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.
Bert's claim of conscientious objection was based on Christian arguments against violence. Others took a different approach. Arthur Gardiner, a wool and cotton dyer from Huddersfield, rejected the notion of national loyalty.
Holly Wallis from Conscience outlines the campaign to extend the right to conscientious objection to allow people to legally object to funding the military through the tax system, diverting taxes to be used on the military towards peacebuilding.