Men refusing compulsory military service for political, moral or religious reasons were known as ‘conscientious objectors’. Some were members of the Society of Friends (Quakers), or of other Christian denominations. They took the Bible, and the commandment ‘Thou shall not Kill’, at its word. Some socialists refused to fight in what they perceived as an Imperialist war, made by ruling elites setting workers against each other.
Some conscientious objectors worked on the Home Front in agricultural or labouring roles. Some joined the Friends Ambulance Unit, providing medical aid to soldiers at the Front. Others, known as ‘absolutists’, refused to do any war-related work that they felt would support and prolong the conflict. They received the harshest treatment from the authorities.
Around the borough
In 1918, a group of conscientious objectors were brought to Edlington to replace women workers in a timber yard. They were found lodgings, but were then followed around by angry villagers and run out of the village. The local newspapers described them as ‘unwelcome visitors’ and ‘conchies’.
John Hubert Brocklesby
John Hubert Brocklesby was born and raised in Conisbrough. He was a Methodist lay-preacher and refused to do any war work as it went against his religious beliefs of peace and non-violence.
After his appearance at the Doncaster Tribunal in February 1916, John was arrested and imprisoned in Richmond Castle. He and 15 other prisoners were sent to France and sentenced to death. Later, this was reduced to 10 years imprisonment with hard labour and he was moved back to the UK.
Many conscientious objectors received poor treatment from the military and their communities alike. Although John received a hostile reception from some in Conisbrough, his family supported his decisions, despite them not sharing his pacifist stance. One of his brothers was a soldier and another was a recruiting officer.
Oswald Clark was a member of a prominent Doncaster Quaker family. His father, Joseph Firth Clark was a local councillor.
Oswald was staunchly pacifist, and was given a particularly rough ride by the Doncaster press. They may have felt he used his well-known standing in the town to encourage others, including local Trade Unions, to refuse conscription. Oswald’s sister, Hannah, was also opposed the war. Oswald and Hannah were very close, and Hannah later became Doncaster’s first female councillor.
Oswald was arrested in May 1916 and taken to Pontefract Barracks where he was court-martialled. He then served sentences in Armley prison, Leeds and Wormwood Scrubs in West London. Following the war, Oswald remained a committed anti-war campaigner and died in Doncaster in 1951.
Walter Bone was born in Doncaster into a devout Primitive Methodist family. He left school at 14, and while still a boy, he began to deliver services in Methodist chapels. Walter was strongly anti-war and joined the Quakers aged sixteen. He joined the Friends Ambulance Unit in November 1915, but still appeared before a Military Service Tribunal in 1916. He was given absolute exemption from combat. Walter arrived in France on 14 July 1916, only two weeks after the beginning of the Battle of the Somme, and dealt with hundreds of casualties on Ambulance Train 17. He served on various ambulance trains throughout the war. While he was serving on Train No. 5, the train was hit by a German aerial attack, shattering the windows and riddling the coach with shell fragments. Walter left the Friends Ambulance Unit in January 1919 and returned to his home on Cunningham Road, Doncaster.
Brothers in the Friends Ambulance Unit (FAU)
Joseph Gregson Hirst and Robert Hewson Hirst were two brothers from Doncaster. Their father John Gregson was a carpenter and life-long Quaker. Both Joseph and Robert received absolute exemption from military service in Spring 1916 as conscientious objectors on the grounds of their Quaker beliefs. Robert was posted to Dunkirk, France with the FAU in January 1918, and Joseph worked first on the Western Australia Hospital Ship, before also being posted to Dunkirk in early 1919. Local folklore says that George Fox, the founder of Quakerism, preached under two ancient walnut trees at Rose Farm, Balby in the 1650s. The two trees were blown down ten years after the First World War and Joseph and Robert’s father John created three ornate carved chairs from the wood. One of these is in the library reading room at the Friends House in London, one is in Ackworth Quaker School in West Yorkshire and the other stands proudly in the foyer of Doncaster Quaker Meeting House.
Researched by Pip Townley, Balby Quakers
Modern peace activism: a Quaker perspective
Conscientious objectors gave us the right to refuse to serve in the armed forces; but that is not enough if others are still required to do so, and may lose their lives in unnecessary warfare. Quakers today actively work for peace in many parts of the world, where they are often trusted to speak with both sides. We also campaign against modern weapons, which threaten the lives of millions. As Quaker Helen Steven said, “a gospel of love cannot be defended by the threatened annihilation of millions of innocent people. It can never be morally right to use these ghastly weapons at any time.”
Balby (Doncaster) Quakers