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Peace Pledge Union


If women are indifferent -
If they remain politically non-conscious -
If - in brief - they choose not to choose -
Then they are indirectly but none the less certainly assisting those forces which are pushing civilisation towards chaos
Vera Brittain, 'How War Affects Women', 1937 (1)

A direct product of the 'never again' mood so pervasive in Great Britain during the 1920s and 1930s, the Peace Pledge Union was founded by an Anglican priest, Canon 'Dick' Sheppard, in October 1934. The Union fast became Britain's premier pacifist organisation, claiming over 100,000 members by the summer of 1939. Vera Brittain was one of its most influential leaders and arguably the most important woman pacifist to emerge in twentieth-century Britain.

I propose to examine Brittain's writings on the responsibilities of women to peace; secondly, to consider the early attempt on the part of women to organise for peace, namely, the Peace Pledge Union's wartime Women's Peace Campaign; and lastly, to sketch Vera Brittain's own work for peace during the Second World War both as an individual and as a member of the Peace Pledge Union.

Yvonne Bennett

Vera Mary Brittain was born in Staffordshire, England in 1893 and died, at the age of 77 years, in March 1970. By profession a writer, she is probably best known for her autobiographical work, 'Testament of Youth', first published in 1933. (2) The book describes Brittain's provincial, late-Victorian upbringing; her struggle, as a woman, to ensure a higher education for herself; her nursing career in the Great War and her subsequent readjustment to peacetime; her work for the League of Nations Union; her disenchantment with liberalism and her consequent embrace of socialism. But above all, the book is a statement against war and, as such, ranks as a classic.

Brittain had decided upon a literary career at a young age, and to further her goal of becoming a writer Brittain decided to attend university, a proposal which her parents greeted with dismay; an early marriage and motherhood were expected developments for a woman of the provincial upper middle classes. (3) It was thus against significant odds that Brittain won a place at Somerville, and she keenly anticipated going up to Oxford in the autumn of 1914 to read English, in the company of her brother Edward and three of his friends, one of whom, Roland Leighton, was shortly to become her fiancé. But the outbreak of the European War shattered her hard-won dreams:
In cities and in hamlets we were born,
And little towns behind the van of time;
A closing era mocked our guileless dawn
With jingles of a military rhyme.
But in that song we heard no warning chime,
Nor visualised in hours benign and sweet
The threatening woe that our adventurous feet
Would starkly meet.

Brittain's brother and his companions immediately volunteered for service and were commissioned. Unable to endure life on the sidelines at Oxford, and aware of the privations suffered by the four, Brittain became a Voluntary Aid Detachment Nurse. Life certainly did not spare her sensibilities: in three years Roland, Edward and their two close friends were killed. These successive deaths and the daily, unremitting suffering she saw in the field hospitals on the Western Front caused her to begin to question the popular, unquestioning enthusiasm and patriotism aroused by the war. Indeed, the seeds of her gradual conversion to pacifism were sown in the summer of 1917 whilst Brittain was nursing at a military hospital in Etaples.

One day, when I finished the gruesome and complicated dressing of a desperately wounded prisoner, a disturbing thought struck me. Wasn't it somehow odd that I, in Etaples, should be trying to save the life of a man whom my brother up at Ypres had perhaps done his best to kill? And didn't that argue the existence of some fundamental absurdity in the whole tragic situation? (5)

Such thought of tragic irony did not emotionally catapult Brittain into pacifism. It was only with great reluctance that she admitted the bankruptcy of the trust she placed in the League of Nations for a new world order. Her pacifism, from its inception, was rationally and pragmatically inspired, although in later years an overriding Christian dimension came into play. In short, Brittain's move to pacifism was not sudden. Her personal journey to Damascus involved the gradual and at times unconscious adoption of a set of beliefs and values which crystallised into a total renunciation of war.

By the end of the 1930s Brittain could not ignore the fact that the leadership of the League of Nations Union (an organisation formed to advance the goals of the League of Nations) was becoming uninspiring and myopic, whilst the organisation as a whole was systematically ousting the left-wing element to which Brittain belonged. Furthermore, Brittain was also of the opinion that in England the League of Nations platform was being used to advocate rearmament, not so much in the name of collective security, but as a pretext for strengthening Britain militarily. Indeed by the summer of 1936 Vera Brittain was forced to admit that the LNU was no longer a body which, in conscience, she could support. Accordingly, in January 1937, she responded positively to an invitation from Canon Sheppard to become a sponsor of the Peace Pledge Union. Twenty years later Brittain gave expression to the rift which the escalation of European tensions, in 1935 and 1936, had caused to open between the advocates of collective security - reinforced by military sanctions - and their former pacifist allies:

For fifteen years after the First World War (the) ... wide moral division between the supporters of collective security and the exponents of revolutionary pacifism had always existed but had not been emphasised. But with the threat of a second World War, the gulf became clear. Individuals who believed that war was wrong in all circumstances could no longer join with those who were prepared to fight in the last resort. (6)

Vera Brittain's personal belief in pacifism and the institution of the Peace Pledge Union had their roots in this shared realisation.


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