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at war for peace

Vera Brittain was conspicuous by her absence from the Women's Peace Campaign. In an article which appeared in 'Peace News' in the issue following that which carried the last Women's Section Column, Brittain explained her position:

The Women's Section was originally started in the autumn of 1939 to organise a limited series of meetings under the name of 'The Women's Peace Campaign'. Some of us who have worked for years on behalf of equal rights and opportunities between men and women felt misgivings about both this campaign and its perpetuation as a 'Women's Section', for we regarded its conception as reactionary and its methods out of date.

The time is past when women, by organising themselves into separate groups have to demonstrate their ability to work politically at all. The modern phase of the women's struggle is the much more difficult one of equal ... co-operation. (43)

It was in this spirit and with this understanding that Brittain threw herself into wartime peace work. Brittain was a woman of fierce determination and will power, moral courage and conviction of purpose, indefatigable energy and industry, and a remarkable consistency of belief. Without these driving qualities Brittain could not have accomplished a fraction of the tasks she set herself. My intention here is only to sketch Brittain's activities in order to provide a composite picture of their variety and scope.

Brittain earned her living by the pen and it was to the pen she turned to make her first contribution to wartime pacifism. War had immediately created an increase in Brittain's correspondence from fellow pacifists concerning issues relating to war and to peace. In order to cope with the volume of questions she received, Brittain conceived the idea of a fortnightly newsletter maintained by individual subscription. The idea proved successful enough to sustain the project and Brittain published the newsletter, without interruption, throughout the war. Indeed a Cabinet memorandum issued in May 1940 singled out Brittain's 'Letter to Peace Lovers' as one of the most successful publications of its sort. (44) In addition to the newsletter Brittain also published five books during the war, two of which addressed themselves directly to the subjects of pacifist and military issues. 'Humiliation with Honour', written in the form of explanatory letters from a woman pacifist to her adolescent son, sought to provide a readily intelligible explanation of the pacifist position to a general audience. (45) But the most controversial of her wartime books was 'Seed of Chaos. What Mass Bombing Really Means'. (46) A powerful indictment of saturation bombing, the book has withstood well the test of time. The publication received little attention in England and was chiefly to be noted for the savage criticism it provoked from George Orwell. (47) But extracts from an earlier version of the book were also published in the United States. Twenty-eight leading American Protestant clergymen appended their signatures to a postscript supporting Brittain's critique of mass bombing, producing a 'furore' ... (which) had even inspired three and a half columns of adverse criticism in the 'New York Times'. (48) In addition to these major works Brittain wrote a number of small pamphlets dealing with pacifism, food relief for occupied Europe and mass bombing. (49) Brittain also contributed innumerable articles to national and provincial newspapers, as well as to 'Peace News', on these and related subjects. Furthermore, she used to very good effect the 'Letters' columns of these papers to make her case, or to explain and defend the pacifist position, seeking always to remind the public audience of the values she understood the world to be abandoning at it peril.

Brittain also travelled extensively through wartime England lecturing to small PPU groups as well as to larger public gatherings. (50) The considerable influence which her high profile as a successful writer and popular speaker enabled her to exert upon large audiences was conceded by the government. Indeed the government viewed Brittain - from its perspective - as a political trouble-maker. (51) She was referred to by two different government officials as 'a determined pacifist' and as 'an aggressive pacifist' whilst another gave the following assessment:

She is of the kind that thrives on opposition and counterblast will merely call forth counterblast and give her more publicity than before.

Brittain was clearly not a woman easily ignored, even by the government's reckoning!

Within the Peace Pledge Union Brittain poured her tremendous energies into her responsibilities as a member of the Union's Council and Executive Committee. Her views and opinions carried considerable weight within the PPU, especially in terms of moving the Union away from the sectarian tendencies inherent in the pacifism of people like Middleton Murry. She advocated the increased, active involvement of pacifists in political, humanitarian and relief activities, irrespective of whether or not one's co-workers were fellow pacifists. Many absolutists or, to use my own terminology, 'high pacifists', seriously questioned involvement in relief work - especially with non-pacifist co-workers - on the grounds that it compromised pacifism's complete and utter rejection of war and all its works. Vera Brittain maintained that the high pacifist position, in its most orthodox sense, became untenable for the vast majority of pacifists and liable to be construed as hand-washing by the majority of non-pacifists.

Brittain gave very concrete expression to the position in society and wartime work that she advocated for pacifists by becoming a founding member of the Bombing Restriction Committee and the tireless chairperson of the PPU's Food Relief Campaign. Her wartime witness, like that of other women pacifists, was one of constant struggle. But for Vera Brittain the belief that her life as a pacifist contributed positively to the long-term goals of peace and a war-free world absorbed the disappointments and frustrations of apparent failure in the short term. The logic was that of the Cross. Christ had died believing that whatever the immediate results

of a course determined by conviction and ending in failure, His Father would reveal in time's long perspective that the action performed in accordance with the Divine Will would produce the results desired for His world. (52)

It was in this faith, whether understood in religious or moral terms, that Vera Brittain and other women pacifists endeavoured to witness to their pacifist commitment during the Second World War.


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