March 2016 marked the centenary of the Military Service Act, which brought compulsory military service into British law for men aged 18 to 41 and, eventually, the right to conscientious objection.
Despite the widespread patriotic support for the Great War, there were many people in Britain who opposed it for moral, economic or political reasons. Over 16,000 men became conscientious objectors (Cos). For many, their moral stance was based on their religious convictions. They included Primitive and Wesleyan Methodists such as Bert Brocklesby (see below) and Jack Foister. As a result of their stance alongside others, Britain became the first nation to enshrine in law the right to Conscientious Objection.
Conscientious objectors usually faced rejection by their country, their employers and often by their church and own family. For some COs, the record of having been to prison for being a conscientious objector followed them for the rest of their lives, keeping them from steady employment. A few COs even died in prison.
A commemorative service took place at Englesea Brook Chapel on 20 March, led by former President of Conference the Revd Dr Inderjit Bhogal, and broadcast online at www.methodist.org.uk/co100. This page will also carry details about other churches marking CO100 in May.
See our suggestions of hymns relating to the challenges of taking a stand in war time, and the challenges of keeping the peace: Remembering conscientious objectors
Bert Brocklesby and the Richmond Sixteen
John Hubert (Bert) Brocklesby was a schoolteacher and Methodist local preacher from Conisborough in South Yorkshire. “God has not put me on this earth to go destroying His children”, he said. He became one of a group known as the ‘Richmond Sixteen’, made up of Quakers, Methodists, members of the Churches of Christ, International Bible Students (related to the present-day Jehovah’s Witnesses), and socialists.
Like others accepted at tribunals as conscientious objectors (COs), Bert was designated to join the Non-Combatant Corps (NCC), specially created exclusively for COs. This would have involved him in supporting the war in a non-fighting role, but Bert refused even to do that and ignored notices to report to the NCC. Eventually, he was arrested and taken to join the 2nd Northern Company of the Non-Combatant Corps, stationed at Richmond Castle. Here he met the other COs who became part of the sixteen.
As ‘absolutist’ COs, they refused to wear uniform or undertake any duties at all, and they became subject to an order to send random groups of absolutists to the Western Front, where they could be court-martialled for refusing to obey orders and face the death penalty, a sentence unavailable to the authorities within Great Britain itself.
In Boulogne, the sixteen men were told they were “in the presence of the enemy” and categorised as deserters.
Now facing court martial, fifteen of them held out, including Bert, partly on principle and partly because they believed that agreeing to obey military orders would lead to other objectors being treated in the same way. They were sentenced to be shot at dawn, but the sentence was immediately commuted to ten years’ penal servitude.
The men were released unconditionally in April 1919 but were seen by many as cowards and suffered the fate of other COs. Bert couldn’t get a teaching job and so went to Austria to help victims of war. Later he worked as a missionary before eventually returning to teaching in England. He died aged 73 having recently marched in Ban the Bomb protests.
Bert’s story is told more fully in We Will Not Fight by Will Ellsworth-Jones and also on the Bible Society website. The Peace Pledge Union offers further information about COs. Also explore The World is my Country, the website of a touring exhibition which celebrates the people and movements, especially the feminist peace initiatives, that opposed the First Word War.