#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.

White feathers

Monday 11 August 2014
John 'Bert' Brocklesby

While most European countries conscripted young men into their armies, the British army relied on volunteers. The beginning of war saw thousands of men rush to enlist. Those who chose not to do so faced criticism. Conservative MPs and the Daily Mail called for the introduction of conscription. Bert later described the pressure he was under at that time.

In those first weeks, whatever company you might enter, it was like a debating society. Hard, long and minutely were the problems thrashed out; the morality of the Germans; were they all so militarised as to be incapable of any private moral judgement? Had the Kaiser gone mad? And so on.

Poster captioned "Your King and Country needs you" showing a young soldier shaking hands with an  old soldier. Used by kind permission of the Imperial War Museum. We had always prided ourselves in Britain in being unmilitaristic, while conscription was contrary to our liberal traditions. The Liberal Party was in power and claimed to put peace foremost in its policies. These attitudes were shown to be insincere. Few men enjoyed being sent into the army. We could afford to do without conscription so long as we had the most powerful navy in the world.

But our rulers made a moral issue of it. Germany had treated an international treaty as a "scrap of paper" and had raped Belgium. Soon came stories of atrocities, shoals of them, and people never enquired if they were really true. "Of course they are true! The Germans are capable of anything!"

So the harvest of hatred grew and sweet reasonableness languished. We were told that to save our honoured institution of voluntary service there must be many more recruits, and young women began to present young men in "civvies" with white feathers.

I did a peculiar thing. I asked God to give me definite guidance. That is not peculiar, but I demanded that God should give me a plain Yes or No to the question: "Should I enlist?" And like Gideon of old, I determined the method.

As I believed that God controlled everything, he could control the spin of a coin tossed in the air. So, it was heads for one course and tails for the other; I don't remember which way round it was and of course the point is immaterial. This is not a method maturer judgement would recommend, for it is too much like presenting God with an ultimatum, at least as regards the way he must answer. I also decided to take the majority of several tosses, thinking, I suppose, to avoid any appearance of chance.

I did not record the result at the time so I have only a distant memory to go by. There was a remarkable run of tosses saying I must not enlist; memory says about twelve, or possibly one No among twelve Ayes. The matter is not important now; I could not have faced the music with such a take-off; but I think it has significance as it shows my lonely extremity, and also the love of God who is ready to help us in whatever way we may be helped.

So I came to my first firm foothold. While I felt utterly incapable of solving the general question, "Should Christians take part in war?" (and it was on this general aspect that everybody expected an answer), I was quite sure that my problem must be decided on strictly individualistic lines. I could not forget my self-dedication, at the age of seven, to work for the building of God's church. I remembered the passage (1 Chronicles 22:8) where God told David that because he had shed blood he might not build a house unto God's name. If God called me to build his house, what man or government should demand that I disqualify myself?

Was Bert's experiment based on a genuine question or was he simply seeking confirmation of his decision not to fight? Is tossing a coin ever a sensible way of making a decision? What's your view?

Your Thoughts

Submitted by LollyO on
Bert felt betrayed by the Liberal Party, viewed its policies as insincere, and didn't know where to position himself in terms of the war. He appealed directly to God hoping that this would provide him with a clear and systematic response--but he realized that he had to work on this problem himself. While tossing a coin is not exactly sensible, it was the only concrete act he felt he could do to help himself move foreword. Sadly, he did not or could not engage his peers, his family, and others who might have been able to sit with him as he slowly came to clarity about what he should do. The turning point for him seems to have been when he realized that he was "quite sure" that his "problem must be decided on strictly individualistic lines". In that moment, it seems he was able then to follow his leading to resist the war, and embrace pacifism, white feather and all.
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 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

Monday 11 August

Those who reject war can still face pressure to change their views and support the armed forces.

Monday 11 August

Bert mentions white feathers but does not say whether he was given any. It seems quite likely.

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