VERA BRITTAIN
a short biography

 
       
 

PART ONE
PART TWO
PART THREE

 

Some of the 73,000 names of men killed in the battles of the Somme who's boies have not been found.


‘Testament of Youth’was published in 1933. In that year Vera went to France and visited the First World War battlefields and the cemetery where her fiancé was buried. (Her brother Edward was buried where he was killed, aged 22, in Italy.) In Thiepval she stood beside the British memorial to 73,367 men who had died in the battle of the Somme and whose bodies had never even been found. This, she bitterly understood, was one of the horrifying results of ‘my generation’s pursuit of heroism’.

 
 


















George Lansbury, Dick Sheppard, Donald Soper and Vera Brittain at the Peace rally in Dorchester.

See also:
Verdun

 


After 1918 Vera put her hopes for a peaceful future in the League of Nations (later to become the United Nations): for a while she still believed that armed force could be justified as a last resort to maintain ‘collective security’. But she grew disenchanted as the years passed and no real international commitment to lasting world peace seemed to exist, nor any determined and imaginative pursuit of it even by its promoters. In 1934 she wrote an article calling for a ‘real peace crusade’ with banners and slogans, and an end to ‘perpetual pamphlets and the dreary droning of tired voices in somnolent lecture halls’.

1936 was the year in which, with the threat of another war, the peace movement divided into those who supported ‘peace but not at all costs’, and those who rejected war absolutely. Many of these ‘absolutists’ became members of the Peace Pledge Union, which had just been founded. In April, on another visit to Europe, Vera chanced to encounter a ‘Pilgrimage of Peace’ organised by a group of French pacifists: 1,600 men and women were affirming an Oath of Peace in Verdun Cathedral. In June she was a guest speaker at a Peace Rally in Dorset, where on impulse she abandoned her prepared speech and talked instead about her experience in Verdun. On the train back to London she talked with Dick Sheppard, the PPU’s founder, and ‘found myself more and more sympathetic with the complete pacifist outlook’. By January 1937 she was a PPU member, and remained an active supporter for the rest of her life.

People have been drawn to pacifism for many reasons. For Vera, it was her belief that the best rule for human behaviour, either as individuals or as groups and nations, was ‘Treat people as you would like them to treat you’. She was a realist: she knew that world peace was an ideal that would be difficult to reach, at least quickly. As long as war is possible, she said, ‘righteous reasons will be found for it’. But that did not mean that the ideal should be abandoned; on the contrary, it was vital to keep it in people’s minds. This is why Vera became a public speaker for peace - and she was a popular speaker, who expressed her views clearly and simply, and whom people came specially to hear. No ‘dreary droning’ to half-asleep audiences when Vera was on the platform.

Her listeners heard her views on other matters close to her heart, too. She had recognised that oppression and injustice of all kinds were the breeding-grounds of war. She said ‘the struggle against war, which is the final and most vicious expression of force, is fundamentally inseparable from feminism’; she also saw, and said, that the anti-war struggle was linked to ideals of democracy and socialism, and to the abolition of slavery, tyranny, colonisation and racism throughout the world.

Vera Brittain was the sort of person who acted on her principles as well as talking about them. By 1938 she was publicly protesting against the treatment of Jews in Germany and finding ways to help refugees escape to Britain. When the Second World War began she gave up time and energy to help people whose homes had been bombed. She worked very hard for the PPU’s food relief campaign, set up to help the starving peoples of European countries occupied by German troops. This was a project that proved controversial, as some people believed that such aid would make the war last longer, and others thought it would help ‘the enemy’. But Vera saw this work as a practical way of being a pacifist: helping to ease the suffering caused by war.

Above all, she believed that people should know the truth about what was happening. From 1940 to 1946, she produced her fortnightly ‘Letter to Peace-lovers’, which gained 2,000 subscribers (some of them in the armed forces) and provided them with all the reliable information she could obtain. She also provided advice and support in facing extensive propaganda against pacifists. The government acknowledged that Vera Brittain’s ‘Letters’ were one of the most successful anti-war publications - and she was blacklisted and restricted from travel as a result. (This meant that she couldn’t visit her much-missed children who had been evacuated to America.) continue...

 
   

     

     
         
 

 

 

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