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A war of individuals

Bloomsbury attitudes to the Great War

Jonathan Atkin

The Great War still haunts us. This book draws together examples of the ‘aesthetic pacifism’ practised during the Great War by such celebrated individuals as Virginia Woolf, Siegfried Sassoon and Bertrand Russell. It also tells the stories of those less well known who shared the attitudes of the Bloomsbury Group when it came to facing the first ‘total war’. The five-year research for this study gathered evidence from all the major archives in Great Britain and abroad in order to paint a complete picture of this unique form of anti-war expression. The narrative begins with the Great War's effect on philosopher-pacifist Bertrand Russell and Cambridge University.

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Jonathan Atkin

In our search for reflections of aesthetic response to the Great War across barriers of experience, the soldier, poet and author Richard Aldington is a good example of John Galsworthy's identification of the human spirit under the pressure of a seemingly mechanised military existence (the ‘herd of life’). He introduces a series of creative men who actually donned a uniform at some stage (though not always willingly) and fought at the front. Gerald Brenan was another fledgling writer in uniform who, like Aldington, felt his soul threatened by the strictures of war. Unlike Brenan, the poet Max Plowman declared his anti-war feelings and suffered a court martial. For Plowman and others, the experience of being within the war machine acted both as a compass towards and a justification of his later anti-war stance. Two further examples of this process concerned possibly the most celebrated poets of the war: Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen. Robert Graves's concern was with the outward effect of an anti-war protest on the very individuals whom Siegfried Sassoon was supposedly trying to influence.

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Jonathan Atkin

For some, the effects of the Great War seemed to turn time in upon itself, thereby unwinding the clock of human development to a darker age peopled by trench-dwelling brutes who had lost comprehension of what they were fighting over. This ‘throw-back’ concept was highlighted by H. S. Innes of the 23rd Battalion (later 20th), the Middlesex Regiment, whose awareness of the ‘abomination of desolation’ at the front mirrored the bleakness of the ‘conscript country’ that he felt Britain had become. Frederic Hillersdon Keeling is not remembered to any great extent as one of the major figures of the war, but after his death on August 18, 1916, he was mourned by those that had known him as a perfect example of the ‘gentleman-soldier’ and as ‘one of the most remarkable men in the army’. Just as Keeling expressed a moral objection to the introduction of compulsion, D. H. Calcutt of the Queen's Westminster Rifles deplored the general lowering of former standards of morality by which he had fixed his life and values.

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Jonathan Atkin

The Great War of 1914–1918 was the first ‘modern’ war, involving more spheres of human experience than perhaps any previous conflict. Whole populations were caught up in it and exhibited myriad shades of reaction to it – including, naturally, opposition. This book concentrates on those individualistic British citizens whose motivation for opposition in thought or deed was grounded upon moral, humanistic or aesthetic precepts. In his Pacifism in Britain 1914–1945: The Defining of a Faith, the historian Martin Ceadel singles out what he terms ‘humanitarian pacifism’ as a valid form of anti-war feeling, stating that it is ‘no less a dogma’ than religious or political pacifism. The years of the Great War were the formative ones that helped to mould the Bloomsbury Group into the image which would be recast by the public imagination in succeeding generations. This book explores both the past itself and the personalities of bohemian Bloomsbury, from Bertrand Russell and Ottoline Morrell to Siegfried Sassoon, Wilfred Owen, Paul Nash, Ivor Gurney, Mabel St Clair Stobart, Virginia Woolf and Lytton Strachey.

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Jonathan Atkin

Bertrand Russell was just one man largely thinking and acting alone – and therein rests his reputation. But to what extent – whether in private or public – did similar anti-war concerns to those of Russell and the Bloomsbury Group express themselves among the intelligentsia? In common with Russell, E. M. Forster believed the Great War to be partly due to misdirected destructive energies; forces that could be channelled during times of peace into creative efforts. In his letter to Siegfried Sassoon, he explained that his other hope for the future, though ‘very faint’, was for a League of Nations. This was a hope that Forster shared with both his frequent correspondent Goldsworthy Lowes Dickinson and with other intellectuals such as the writer and ruralist Edward Carpenter. The emotional response of Carpenter and Dickinson to the war was matched by that of Henry James. In contrast with James, the dry, precise tone of George Bernard Shaw provided perhaps the most prominent intellectual commentary of his time on the war's ebb and flow.

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Jonathan Atkin

The Cambridge mathematician and philosopher Bertrand Russell was able to articulate with extraordinary clarity a fully humanistic opposition to the Great War. At times during the war's course, Russell was truly a man alone, despite his seemingly secure position in 1914 amidst the Cambridge University establishment. To Russell, armed conflict was ‘so irrational as to be literally unthinkable’. Although later in the war he might rethink and reshape his particular pacifism and his views on the pacifism of those around him, Russell's basic opposition to the war from the outbreak of hostilities was fundamental and stemmed directly from deep personal conviction. Russell was always distrustful of politics, especially during war. Once he realised that there was little chance of bringing an early end to the war, he commenced his work on the psychology behind not only the war in progress, but also war in general. For Russell, the ‘ideal’ of patriotism was only partial and inadequate, and hence not valid.

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Jonathan Atkin

Many women in the period leading up to the outbreak of the Great War could lay claim to a history of opposition. In the evening of August 4, 1914, during the final hours of peace, a meeting was held at Kingway Hall in London in order to discuss the position of women and the women's movement with regard to the rapidly approaching conflict. This meeting marked a confluence of some of the various leading women's organisations of the day such as the Women's Co-operative Guild, the Women's Freedom League, the Women's Labour League, the National Federation of Women Workers and the sponsor of the meeting, the large National Union of Women's Suffrage Societies. This chapter focuses on some of the women who had expressed opposition to the Great War, including Catherine Marshall, Helen Bowen Wedgwood, Sarah Macnaughton, Evadne Price, Enid Bagnold, Mary Agnes Hamilton and Mabel St Clair Stobart.

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Jonathan Atkin

In her Society at War (1931), the social analyst Caroline Playne concluded that the experience of thinkers and artists who had languished under the Great War was just as real as that of the shattered soldiers. The Bloomsbury Group, perhaps typically, reacted to the Great War on an individual basis. Other people also based their objection to the conflict on aesthetic or humanistic grounds, and did so from a wider cross-section of the cultural landscape. Although most of these people were from the educated middle classes, similarly linked anti-war feelings occurred throughout the war and beyond, and emanated from differing contexts; from the equally well known to the obscure, from male to female and from those who fought to those who did not. With the advent of the Great War, conflicts of morality ensued. Those who volunteered for military service in the early months of the war voluntarily laid down individualistic claims for a variety of reasons, not least due to the pull of pre-war collectivist patriotism and a resulting sense of moral duty.

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Jonathan Atkin

Opposition to the Great War took many forms. Of a wartime total of 3,964 conscientious objectors referred to the adjudicating Pelham Committee by local tribunals, 1,716 declared themselves Christadelphians and hence possessed a religious objection to the war. There existed, of course, other denominations of religious opposition within the almost 4,000 declared conscientious objectors in Great Britain – in particular the Quakers. It is worth pointing out how even within the ‘organised’ forms of anti-war protest, there was a great variety of personal response. While religion of all denominations played a large part in determining responses to the war, both for and against, in many cases the boundaries between ‘recognised’ opposition and humanistic anti-war reaction could become blurred. There were individuals who exhibited a drier, more ‘rational’ and (especially) moral stance in relation to the war. Some examples show that the existence of a moral element to objection to war and military compulsion was not only documented in post-war studies but also in contemporary publications.

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Jonathan Atkin

What were the anti-war feelings chiefly expressed outside ‘organised’ protest and not under political or religious banners – those attitudes that form the raison d'être for this study? As the Great War becomes more distant in time, certain actions and individuals become greyer and more obscure, whilst others seem to become clearer and imbued with a dash of colour amid the sepia. One thinks particularly of the so-called Bloomsbury Group. The small circle of Cambridge undergraduates, whose mutual appreciation of the thoughts and teachings of the academic and philosopher G. E. Moore led them to form lasting friendships, became the kernel of what would become labelled ‘the Bloomsbury Group’. The emotions of Bloomsbury mirrored to a large extent those of its mentors. For one of the ‘fathers’ of Bloomsbury, the older Cambridge academic and humanist Goldsworthy Lowes Dickinson, the coming of war was disastrous. This chapter looks at the views of some Bloomsbury members about the Great War, including Dickinson, Bertrand Russell, Virginia Woolf, John Maynard Keynes, Lytton Strachey, Ottoline Morrell and Vanessa Bell.