"YOUR country needs you," the famous First World War recruitment
posters said, a stern, moustachioed Lord Kitchener pointing at
every British man walking past who had not enlisted. As with the
Napoleonic Wars a century earlier, England expected every man to
fight, and perhaps die, for King and country. But what if your
primary duty was to God?
Bert Brocklesby, a schoolteacher and Methodist lay preacher, was
25 years old when the Great War broke out. A staunch pacifist, from
Conisborough, in South Yorkshire, he immediately began campaigning
against the war.
Although two of his brothers had joined up, he decried the
conflict from the pulpit and to anyone who would listen: "However
many might volunteer, yet I would not," he said. "God had not put
me on earth to go destroying his own children."
But, in 1916, as volunteering fervour subsided and the
attritional war entered its third year, the Government was forced
to introduce conscription. Brocklesby sought exemption as one of
the conscientious objectors, or "conchies" as they were known. The
chairman of his local Military Service Tribunal found his faith
"If I hit you, would you not hit me back?" he asked.
"No," Brocklesby replied.
"Then suppose the Germans got here, and those dear to you were
in danger, would you stand by and see them ripped to pieces, and
not raise a sword in opposition?"
"I would certainly not strike them down. No man is justified in
Denying his appeal for a full exemption, the tribunal told
Brocklesby to join the Non-Combatant Corps, an army unit set up for
conscientious objectors to work on non-military projects. He
Even the act of sewing coal sacks for the Navy or peeling
potatoes for soldiers furthered the war effort, he believed.
Instead, he was imprisoned in Richmond Castle, with 15 other
Fed on a diet of bread and water, and kept in solitary
confinement, Brocklesby kept his spirits up by placing a picture of
his girlfriend, Annie, on the cell wall, and by etching biblical
texts. When several months of this harsh regime failed to alter the
conscientious objectors' stance, the Army decided on a different
IN JUNE 1916, a group of 36 conscientious objectors, including
Brocklesby, were shipped to France. There, on the battlefield, they
were technically on active service; so their refusal to fight meant
that they could be court-martialled. Brocklesby's brother Philip,
then a Second Lieutenant in the army, slipped away from his camp in
France, and eventually found that his brother was being tried in
He arrived just in time to hear the verdict read out. "Tried by
court martial and found guilty . . . ," the judgment began. There
was a pause. "Sentenced to death by shooting. . ." Another pause.
"This sentence has been confirmed by the Commander-in-Chief, but
afterwards commuted by him to one of penal servitude for ten
Bert was taken back to prison in Britain, while Philip went on
to fight in the Battle of the Somme. Shortly afterwards, Philip
wrote home to his parents: "Love war? Not I, after these
experiences. Long horrible wars like this one are one of the
strongest arguments for conscientious objectors."
While Philip Brocklesby may have felt a growing sympathy for
Bert and his pacifism, British society did not. The conscientious
objectors' arrival back in Winchester coincided with the departure
of a train filled with troops for the Front. Brocklesby recalled
how the crowd turned on the group, shouting insults and hissing at
them. Brocklesby merely sang hymns to himself.
Serving in civilian prisons, he still refused any work that was
connected to the military. A prison chaplain told him he was a
"disgrace to humanity". He served out the rest of the war in
prison, and was released in 1919.
Dramatic though it may be, Bert Brocklesby's story is just one
of many. Up to 16,000 men declared themselves conscientious
objectors, and a significant number of these were motivated by
their faith. Many were Quakers, but there were also Methodists,
Congregationalists, and Anglicans, among others. Most of the
conscientious objectors clung to the finality of the Sixth
Commandment - "Thou shalt not kill" - as the only justification
BRITAIN may have considered itself a Christian country, but much
of the nation did not recognise a Christianity that precluded
warfare. The Military Service Tribunals that adjudicated the claims
of conscientious objectors were notoriously harsh, and often
concluded that men were cowards, or shirkers.
Of the 16,000 men recorded as conscientious objectors, 4500 were
sent to do non-military work of national importance, such as
farming. A further 7000 were given non-combatant duties; but 6000
were forced into the Army, and, if they refused orders, were sent
In August 1914, Admiral Charles Fitzgerald founded the Order of
the White Feather, which sought to shame men who had not
volunteered. Women were encouraged to give unenlisted men a single
white feather - a token of their presumed cowardice. Many were sent
such a feather in the post; often the only evidence required was
that they were in civilian dress.
The scheme was notoriously haphazard. Hundreds of feathers were
given by mistake to soldiers who were on leave, to the point where
the Army was forced to issue to soldiers on leave, and workers in
state industries, lapel badges that read "King and Country",
meaning that they were not cowards. None the less, white feathers
heaped further pain on the heads of conscientious objectors.
Ardent Christian supporters of the war were given support by
church leaders such as the Bishop of London, Arthur
Winnington-Ingram. In one famous sermon, Winnington-Ingram said:
"Everyone that loves freedom and honour . . . are banded in a great
crusade . . . to kill Germans; to kill them, not for the sake of
killing, but to save the world; to kill the good as well as the
bad, to kill the young as well as the old, to kill those who have
shown kindness to our wounded as well as those fiends."
The ferocity of his call to arms was unusual, but the Church
generally supported the war, and mostly found conscientious
objection hard to understand.
BUT the picture was not a straightforward one of a uniformly
militarist Church against staunchly pacifist Nonconformists. As
there was division among Anglicans, so the Christian pacifist
movement was divided at the start of the First World War. Some,
like Bert Brocklesby, were so-called absolutists - so opposed to
conflict that they would refuse to do any work that could be
construed as aiding the war effort.
Others, however, were prepared to do some kind of alternative
service. One such avenue for this was the Friends' Ambulance Unit
(FAU), which was set up in 1914 by a Quaker and later Nobel Peace
Prize Laureate, Philip Baker.
These volunteers worked on the front line in France, ferrying
wounded soldiers back to hospitals. In its first year alone, the
FAU carried 15,000 injured troops in its ambulances, besides caring
for 1600 in-patients at its four hospitals.
Other Quakers established the Friends War Victims Relief
Committee, which did humanitarian work - sometimes across the
battle lines - in Europe.
Still others, although they were devout Quakers, joined up to
fight. A mark of the division within the Christian pacifist
movement was the statement released by the Society of Friends three
days after war had been declared: "While, as a Society, we stand
firmly to the belief that the method of force is no solution of any
question, we hold that the present moment is not one for criticism,
but for devoted service to our nation."
The prevarication reflected the concerns within Quakerism about
how to respond to the conflict, and what to do about the several
hundred Quakers who had already volunteered for the armed
Sometimes - as they had with the Brocklesby brothers - these
divisions cut across individual families. Thomas Attlee, an
architect and socialist activist in east London, was an Anglican
who felt obliged not to fight. He was arrested, and imprisoned from
1917 to 1919. Yet his younger brother Clement, who would later go
on to lead the Labour Party and serve as Prime Minister, joined up
and fought throughout the war.
Correspondence between the two shows a remarkable lack of strain
on their relationship, despite their opposing views on the war.
Cath Attlee, Thomas's granddaughter, believes that it was his faith
that drove him towards being an objector, while Clement was a more
nominal believer. Nevertheless, their parents supported each son in
THERE was a similar story in the Cadbury family. The chocolate
empire had been founded by Quakers, but, in 1914, one son, Egbert,
joined the Royal Flying Corps. Another, Laurence, could not go
against his conscience, and instead signed up to the FAU.
Letters between the two reveal a kinship and deep respect for
each other, Ruth Cadbury, one of their descendants, said. "Neither
men were 100 per cent sure that they had done the right thing."
The Military Service Act of 1916, which led to so much trouble
for conscientious objectors, was, in fact, the beginning of a
movement towards acceptance of pacifists in times of war. It was
the first time that a process had been laid out in law whereby
conscripts could object on grounds of their conscience (although
Quakers had been excluded from military service in the 18th
By 1939, when conscription was reintroduced in the war against
Nazi Germany, the tribunals were led by judges, not military men,
and it was relatively straightforward to be granted an exemption if
your faith prohibited military service. Today, even volunteer
soldiers have the right to change their minds, become conscientious
objectors, and be discharged.
The heated rhetoric and divided families of 100 years ago have
disappeared. Contemporary relatives of objectors speak of their
pride at their ancestors' sacrifices. Ruth Cadbury said that she
was glad to share the Quaker faith of her great-uncle, Laurence
Cadbury, a conscientious objector: "I do feel proud - I'm also a
Quaker, and what they did was a demonstration of the faith I share.
I would have done something similar to them - if there wasn't the
equivalent of an FAU, I would have probably sought to start
CATH ATTLEE always wears two poppies on Remembrance Day - a red
one for her mother's father, who died in France during the war, and
a white one for her paternal grandfather, Thomas, who was
imprisoned for refusing to fight. For herself, she is torn.
"I can see the faith argument which says there is no situation
in which taking up arms is the right thing; but then, when you get
into real life, it's quite difficult; if [people] are being
oppressed and justice is being damaged - is there another way of
doing it? We need people to stand up against war, but it is a very
brave decision, and may not always be the right one."
Both women were speaking at an annual service held on 15 May,
International Conscientious Objectors Day, in Tavistock Square,
central London, to commemorate those who said no to Lord
Kitchener's call. This year's event, 100 years after the outbreak
of conflict, had the largest attendance for many years.
In a quiet, moving ceremony, relatives of dozens of
conscientious objectors from the First World War read aloud their
ancestors' names before laying a single white flower down in the
square. Afterwards, the crowd sang a simple song:
Yes, it takes courage to march into
Go where authority tells you to go,
Whether as butchers or lambs to the slaughter:
Courage no less had the ones who said No,
Courage no less had the ones who said No.