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.
or aesthetic anti-war feeling –
reactions that, as we will see, were as valid and real as any of a religious or
political nature. I felt it was time to set the record straight.
Very occasionally, this humanistic anti-war feeling has been noted in ‘official’ studies. 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. However, in Ceadel’s book, humanitarian pacifism is
to the destructive ‘fiery conviction’ of
the war years. In addition, Russell’s concerns were echoed, often independently,
by other individuals, whether celebrated or obscure.
The ground was being laid for the organised voice of historian Martin Ceadel’s
‘humanitarian pacifism’ of the 1920s and 1930s.16 It is clear that aesthetic and
A war of individuals
humanistic anti-war feeling was not simply an inter-war ‘innovation’, but existed much earlier during the actual conflict and emanated from differing sources
on an individual basis in its expression.
doubt and uncertainty thrown across page and canvas by the conflict. Despite their notoriety, the reactions of the Bloomsbury individuals are
important both in their own right and as a mirror to the similar reactions of
obscurer individuals from differing circumstances and backgrounds.
In the origins of Bloomsbury – well known as one of the foremost cultural
groups of the late Victorian and Edwardian periods – is to be found the moral
and aesthetic core for some of the most significant humanistic reactions to the
war. The small circle of Cambridge undergraduates whose
author of Conscription and Conscience (1922), to individuals such as the conscientious objector
Howard Marten, mentioned in the Introduction. Crucially, these observations
included (as will be seen) some evidence of contemporary recognition of aesthetic, humanistic and moral objections.
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.
Strong religious beliefs served to keep many individuals
seriously, he found that his relationship to all things, both external and
internal, was, ‘under the shadow of the big gun’. He continued, ‘One lives –
enjoys life full-bloodedly and even thinks and feels aesthetically now and again
– but having come away, one knows that there was a special abnormal tinge
over the whole of life.’20 He saw that the limit of experience of the infantryman
in this war was greater than ever before and hoped that, in response, there
would be a correspondingly large wave of practical pacifism after the war in
which he determined he would play a
Women and the war
The Great War, most people would have agreed at the time, was a male creation. Politicians, statesmen and kings bred it and soldiers fought and fed it.
Thus far, this study has regarded those women within Bloomsbury whose aesthetic reactions to the conflict provide such a good starting point when examining the war in this context. What of other women, existing independently from
that hot-house of creativity, but who felt similarly? Due to their status in society as a whole, women necessarily operated within a different cultural milieu to
Obscurer individuals and their themes
The destruction of nature as reality and metaphor
This chapter casts the net wider. Following the responses of the small but influential Bloomsbury circle, the earlier chapters have encompassed the experiences of other celebrated thinkers and writers (especially Bertrand Russell),
some of whom donned uniform, and also certain women, well-known and otherwise, some of whom travelled to the war-zone as nurses or observers. It has
became clear that similar aesthetic–humanistic responses occurred outside the
wise-cracks that pass for humour in the action
movies of Arnold Schwarzenneger, Bruce Willis etc. In some ways
they are similar to those often tiresome pauses between frenetic
action in which plot is explained slowly and carefully to both protagonist and audience in a certain kind of action movie. In addition there is often evidence of a display of the programmer’s
technical virtuosity, an attempt to push the limits of what is
realisable within the technology of the moment that generates the
same aesthetic appreciation as the finely realised illusion of the
as watersheds for women: in
wartime women gained new roles and opportunities; won political
rights (albeit apparently because of their wartime ‘good behaviour’);
and became more involved in politics, often through pacifism. In the
long term, the effects of war ‘revolutionized women’s status’.18
In 1990, Claire Tylee wrote women irrevocably into the cultural
history of the First World War. Drawing upon the work of Fussell, she
examined the ways in which the war had altered the consciousness
of Western society; but, where Fussell had focused on the