Peace Pledge Union

Richard Sheppard (always known as Dick Sheppard), a canon of St. Paul's Cathedral, had been an army chaplain during the First World War. A committed pacifist, he was concerned by the failure of the major nations to agree to international disarmament and on 16th October 1934, he had a letter published in the Manchester Guardian inviting men to send him a postcard giving their undertaking to "renounce war and never again to support another." Within two days 2,500 men responded and over the next few weeks around 30,000 pledged their support for Sheppard's campaign.

In July 1935 he chaired a meeting of 7,000 members of his new organization at the Albert Hall in London. Eventually named the Peace Pledge Union (PPU), it achieved 100,000 members over the next few months. The organization now included other prominent religious, political and literary figures including Arthur Ponsonby, George Lansbury, Vera Brittain, Wilfred Wellock, Reginald Sorensen, Max Plowman, Maude Royden, Frank P. Crozier, Alfred Salter, Ada Salter, Margaret Storm Jameson, Siegfried Sassoon, Donald Soper, Aldous Huxley, Laurence Housman and Bertrand Russell.

Brigadier-General Frank Percy Crozier, who had a long record fighting in numerous wars, became a pacifist and a member of the Peace Pledge Union: "My own experience of war, which is a prolonged one, is that anything may happen in it, from the very highest kinds of chivalry and sacrifice to the very lowest form of barbaric debasement - whatever that may be." Crozier now became a great supporter of the creation of a Peace Army.

Richard Sheppard became very depressed by the international situation. Alfred Salter claimed that Sheppard "admitted that love, as the main motive of his life, had failed - that it had played him false." Another friend, Fenner Brockway said: "He had had one blow after another. He realised that he had failed to create a movement of conscientious objectors sufficient to deter the nation from engaging in war. He had been subject to the limitations which the Church of England had imposed on him. He had struggled against increasing bodily weakness. Then came the final personal tragedy. His wife left him." Richard Sheppard died on 31st October 1937.

John Middleton Murry purchased a farm in Langham, Essex. Murry and Max Plowman established a pacifist community centre they called Adelphi Centre on the land. Murry argued he was attempting to create "a community for the study and practice of the new socialism". Plowman organised summer schools where people such as George Orwell, John Strachey, Jack Common, Herbert Read and Reinhold Niebuhr lectured on politics, philosophy and literature. During the Spanish Civil War the farm was handed over to the Peace Pledge Union. They used it to house some 60 Basque refugee children.

From 1937 the PPU organized alternative Remembrance Day commemorations, including the wearing of white rather than red poppies on 11th November. In 1938 the Peace Pledge Union campaigned against legislation introduced by Parliament for air raid precautions, and the following year against legislation for military conscription.

The rise of Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini caused problems for the Peace Pledge Union. Wilfred Wellock pointed out: "Soaked in politics, we were all ardent anti-imperialists and even anti-militarists, but the real essence of pacifism, which is a positive faith, was not in us. We survived the Abyssinian War, because our loathing of Italian imperialism was balanced by an equal loathing of British and French colonial policy; and we were logical enough to see that it was absurd to demand sanctions against Italy unless we favoured providing rival bandits with a gendarme's baton."

Alfred Salter was one of the main figures in the Peace Pledge Union. He argued that "I denounce Hitler's brutal methods as much as anyone, but there is no cause on earth that is worth the sacrifice of the blood and lives of millions upon millions of innocent and helpless men, women and children." Salter and George Lansbury went on a peace-tour of the United States. He estimated that he "spoke in the presence of two hundred thousand people, and over the wireless his voice reached tens of millions more." They also had meetings with President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Cordell Hull, the American Secretary of State.

Salter's pacifism was so strong that he became a supporter of appeasement. After the Munich Agreement he insisted that "the average German will withdraw his backing from Hitler if we show willingness to be just". He added: "I denounce Hitler's brutal methods as much as anyone, but there is no cause on earth that is worth the sacrifice of the blood and lives of millions upon millions of innocent and helpless men, women and children.... We and France made Hitler and put him where he is. Our policy of refusing justice to the defeated Powers after the Great War prepared the minds of the German people to support him and gave him his case. Our present attitude helps to rally them behind him today."

In September 1939, Vera Brittain of the PPU began publishing Letters to Peace Lovers, a newsletter that expressed her views on the war. This made her extremely unpopular, as she criticized the government for mass bombing of civilian areas in Nazi Germany. The newsletter obtained over 2,000 subscribers and was published throughout the war.

The PPU campaigned, as well, against the National Service Act that called up unmarried women aged between twenty and thirty. The PPU gave strong support to the 60,000 conscientious objectors who refused to join the armed forces.

Adolf Hitler ordered the invasion of France in May 1940. Margaret Storm Jameson, Louis Mumford and Bertrand Russell left the PPU. Jameson wrote: "I had joined Dick Shepherd when he started it, in October 1934. Then, I was absolutely certain that war is viler than anything else imaginable... I don't think that now." During the Second World War members of the PPU were also arrested for holding open-air meetings and selling the PPU newspaper, Peace News, in the streets.

In June 1940 six members of the PPU were arrested and charged with encouraging disaffection amongst the troops by publishing the poster, "War will cease when men refuse to fight. What are YOU going to do about it?" The six, Alexander Wood, Maurice Rowntree, Stuart Morris, John Barclay, Ronald Smith and Sidney Todd, were defended by John Platts-Mills and he managed to save them from going to prison.

© , September 1997 - April 2014

Primary Sources

(1) Elaine Robson-Scott was a schoolteacher in Wales during the Second World War. She wrote about her war experiences in Jonathan Croall's book, Don't You Know There's A War On (1989)

One day, shortly after the fall of France in May 1940, the headmistress came into the common room where the teachers were assembled, and said that the local authority had given her a document for each of us, which she then distributed, and asked us to read. I thought I had never read anything so crazy in all my life. The document consisted of three questions. The first was, 'Are you a member of the Peace Pledge Union?' The second was, 'Are you likely to be a member of the fifth column?' And the third was, 'Are you in favour of the successful prosecution of the war?' I thought to myself, 'Well, if one is a member of the Peace Pledge Union, they will have a list of members somewhere,' so there would be no point in disguising the fact. If one was a member of a fifth column, the last thing one would do would be to say, 'Yes, I am a member of a fifth column.' And of course even-one there was anxious that the war should be brought to a successful end.

So, in the quiet of my place in that common room, I decided that I would refuse to sign. We were all given time to look at the document, and the headmistress asked us to bring them signed to her study at the end of the afternoon. She went out of the room. There was a long silence, and then I said to the woman sitting next to me, who I suspected might have feelings similar to mine, 'I'm not going to sign it.' I didn't give any explanation, I just said, 'It seems to me the most ridiculous document I've been presented with in my life.' And then, out of a staff of about forty, five of us refused to sign. One was a member of the Peace Pledge Union, but the others were not, and they all had varying reasons for refusing. I felt that we should offer no explanation for our refusal, but there was one very intelligent woman, who taught history and who had studied in America, and who was very articulate. She said that we ought to sum up our reasons, and say that one of the reasons why we were refusing to sign was that this kind of investigation of the political and religious views of any member of a teaching staff in Britain had been finished long ago. So we did that. Against my will, we did draw up some small statement of that kind, and the five of us took our unsigned documents to the headmistress.

Though I had never thought of her as very liberal, she was in sympathy with us. She didn't reveal whether she was presented with the same document herself, but she accepted our unsigned ones, and said that she would notify the local authority that she had five members of staff w ho were not going to sign. And I think the five of us w ho refused to sign were her most valued members of staff, and this must have struck her, so she was in greater sympathy than I had expected. She did inform the local authority, and the one woman who did belong to the Peace Pledge Union was suspended, I think on full pay, for about two months, while they sorted out the position. There were I should say ten or twelve men and women in the town who belonged to the Peace Pledge Union, and they were all suspended.

(2) Sidney Greaves was a member of the Quakers in Sutton Coldfield. A conscientious objector, he was sentenced to six months in Wormwood Scrubs Prison after refusing to serve in the armed forces.

It was while I was working in London that I had to spend six months in Wormwood Scrubs, for refusing to accept a condition. I went up to Bow Street, which was the top joint. I had a rather benign but stern little magistrate called Sir Bernard Watson. I made my statement as to why 1 thought war was incompatible with Christianity, and why I refused to accept a condition, that I felt conscience should be respected. He listened to it, and then sent me down. At both my tribunal and appeal, I felt that the authorities were going through the motions, I don't think there was any attempt to discuss my point of view with me, or probe. They just listened and said, 'Nothing doing.'

My sentence was hard labour, which was supposed to involve sleeping for the first fortnight on bare boards. But they forgot to take my mattress away, so it wasn't anything but in name. We were locked up in the early evening, about half past five, and let out again about seven in the morning. There were the usual appalling unsanitary conditions, with a bucket in the cell. Slopping out in the morning was a dreadful experience, faeces and urine everywhere.

The warders on the whole were hostile to COs. People who were in for robbery with violence got much more respect from them. They made it very clear that we were regarded as the scum. There was a subdued patriotic bias. One or two of the screws were better, but by and large that was the attitude.

(3) Vera Brittain, Testament of Experience (1979)

Ever since Armistice Day 1918 had found me alone, with my young and dear contemporaries gone, I had been trying to understand why they died. Was not the unthinking acceptance of an aggressive or short-sighted national policy, followed by mass-participation in sociable war-time activities, one of the ingredients which created a militant psychology and made shooting wars possible? I had studied their consequences too, and knew how rapid a deterioration of civilised values followed the initial nobility and generosity, until the Christian virtues themselves came to be regarded with derision.

Surely the path which I had trodden for two decades now summoned me to struggle against that catastrophic process? Though I still underrated the cost of such a stand, I knew that the routine performance of dangerous duties would be stimulating and congenial compared with the exhausting demands of independent thought and the task of maintaining, against the deceptive surge of popular currents, a conscious realisation of what was actually happening.

And where, apart from the usual writings and speeches, could I newly begin? An idea suddenly came from my endeavours to answer the daily quota of letters from unknown correspondents which had increased so rapidly since the outbreak of war. Some wanted to help others to be helped; all were eager to stop hostilities. One correspondent hopefully suggested that the women of the world should immediately unite, and call a truce.

By means of a regular published letter I could not only reply to these anxious, bewildered people, but seek out and rally such independent-minded commentators as the author who wrote to deplore the lack of vision among Britain's rulers.

A periodic word to similar correspondents, if based on determined research behind the news, could elucidate vital issues for the doubting, galvanise the discouraged, and assure the isolated that ' they were not alone. Its title, I thought, might be Letter to Peace Lovers, for the group that I hoped to reach was much wider than the small bodies of organised war-resisters.

(4) Richard Sheppard, speech (January 1936)

You and I who were sensitive to our world in 1914, we who are 40, 50 or more, to-day, in the silence of those moments when the veil that hides us from the other world kind of wavers like gossamer in a slight breeze; we who look back into the faces of those we know and those we loved, and whom, before God, we still look upon as martyrs for peace because they died to end war, we cannot easily today, I say, forget what it cost them to do what they did, believing they were doing so to save us from that hell, nor can we forget the terrible, ghastly, awful way in which we are failing them, because it does look, doesn't it, I speak not only to you but to myself - that we are not to be depended on.

(5) Circular sent out to people considering subscribing to Letters to Peace Lovers (1939)

What I do want is to consider and discuss with you the ideas, principles and problems which have concerned genuine peace-lovers for the past twenty years. In helping to sustain the spirits of my readers (and through writing to them to invigorate my own). I hope to play a small part in keeping the peace movement together during the dark hours before us. By constantly calling on reason to mitigate passion, and truth to put falsehood to shame, I shall try, so far as one person can, to stem the tide of hatred which in wartime rises so quickly that many of us are engulfed before we realise it.

In a word, I want to help in the important task of keeping alive decent values at a time when these are undergoing the maximum strain.

My only object is to keep in close personal touch with all who are deeply concerned that war shall end and peace return and who understand what Johan Bojer meant when he wrote: "I went and sowed corn in mine enemy's field that God might exist".

(6) Vera Brittain, Letters to Peace Lovers (25th October, 1939)

Even supposing that we do destroy Hitler, we shall not again be confronted by a Europe agreeably free from competitors for power. The disappearance of Herr Hitler will probably lead instead to a revolutionary situation in Germany, controlled by puppets who own allegiance to another Power. We, the democracies, will still be faced by totalitarianism, in a form less clumsy but no less aggressive, and even more sinister in its ruthless unexhausted might.

(7) Storm Jameson, Journey from the North (1969)

If this country... is got into another Great War I shall take every means in my power to keep my son out of it. I shall tell him that it is nastier and more shameful to volunteer for gas-bombing than to run from it or to volunteer in the other desperate army of protestants. I shall tell him also that war is not worth its cost, nor is victory worth the cost.

(8) Martin Ceadel, Pacifism in Britain 1914-1945 (1980)

Richard Sheppard's second asset was his intellectual humility. Plowman, who had certainly been surprised (and was probably flattered) by being rung up out of the blue by Sheppard and asked whether he should quit the Church, later believed Sheppard's strength lay in being "the living contrary of the modem intellectual. He was a brilliantly perceptive and imaginative man whose active love of persons prevented him from any intense concern with intellectual abstractions"...

Equally characteristic was his attempt to define his spiritual beliefs in a note to Ponsonby on 14 May 1936: "As to my own religious faith, I am blowed if I know exactly where I stand. I am mostly a Quaker these days but Jesus Christ, man or God, (I have never wished to define him) is the hero I would wish to follow."

It was Sheppard's brilliant achievement to turn into a positive asset this notable weakness as an abstract thinker. With the Sponsors divided over what policy the P.P.U. should adopt, Sheppard's lack of defined views enabled him to devote his energies to teasing out what he thought to be their general will. Such positive opinions as he held, moreover, were middle-of-the-road: he was opposed to adopting either a collaborative orientation towards collective security, as he made clear in We Say "No", or a position of sectarian quietism, as when he whispered to Kingsley Martin, one of the guests invited to his flat to meet Gregg on 17 July 1936: "Can't you get up and tell them that we haven't time for all this intensive cultivation and that our job is to stop the next bloody war." Indeed, essential to his Christianity was his faith that a middle position could be occupied that was sufficiently pure and idealistic to stand outside the self-defeating compromises of politics while at the same time sufficiently relevant and practical to have wide-ranging regenerative power. Just as he had always called for a Church "that was in the world but not of it", he was still calling a fortnight before his for support for pacifism.

(9) Frank Percy Crozier, A Brass Hat in No Man's Land (1930)

It is perfectly clear to me, that in the future, if a rumour of war is ever hushed or noised around, the peoples of the world must all rise up and say "No," with no uncertain voice: not because they are now denied any chance of real victory in the field which soldiers have been able to promise with reasonable certainty in the past, prior to 1914 - in that respect, "the game is up;" but because of the havoc which is created in the ramifications of daily life among the young and innocent. A gamble in war might be excusable if only the players stood to suffer but no man or nation has a right to gamble on the break-up of the moral fibres of society or of civilisation itself.

But there has now appeared a third factor in the game of war: hitherto there were only two, the puppets of victory and defeat. Now those who arrange the wars and take the initial steps will surely suffer too. This may be our safeguard. The vulnerability of Whitehall and such like places of the earth from the air; the certain knowledge on the part of the politicians, statesmen, diplomats, profiteers and wire-pullers (hitherto quite safe) that they will be among the first to die, and the threatened loss of treasure by men of big business, may yet save the honour of our youths and maidens, and stave off the decay of our race; because suffering, to be known and realised, has to be endured or, visualised as a certainty. But the "interested rings" which turn out battleships and munitions will have to be watched and kept in order, as avarice is a "diehard." And again, many people were happy in the outbreak of 1914 - I was one of them. I am now chastened, as I have seen the suffering. I shall, of course, fight again if I have to, in defence of my country; but I advise other and wiser methods than war for the settling of disputes. I knew, in 1914, that I must either get on or get under. Dug-out officers, more particularly senior ones, welcomed war. To them came power and pay without any danger.

Unhappy husbands and miserable wives welcomed war as a way out and even courted death. Munition makers and caterers, clothiers and countless other people welcomed war. There will always be some who put profit before patriotism.

Youth sprang to the call but, thank God, British youth always will, if guided. Let us guide our youth to the hard battle of peace.

(10) Fenner Brockway, Bermondsey Story: The Life of Alfred Salter (1949)

Salter was now a lonely, sorrowful man, sad for the world, sad because everything good he had striven to build seemed doomed to destruction. Still another blow fell on him. How often it had happened in his life-that his principles came into conflict with the organisation to which he was devoting his service! Thirty-seven years ago it had been so with the Liberal Party, eleven years ago with the I.L.P., four years ago (not for the first time) with the Labour Party. Now it happened with the Peace Pledge Union.

This time it was not political principle which led to the divergence; it was a principle of moral conduct. Salter, as our story has revealed, took a very strict view of matters on sex. As a Christian he believed that physical relationship outside wedlock was a sin. This view was not shared by all adherents of the P.P.U., including certain members of the head office staff. Some based their pacifism on libertarian ideas which found reflection in their attitude not only towards war and the State but to marriage; others, whilst not condoning promiscuity, did not regard it wrong for a man and a woman to live together outside wedlock when there were barriers to legal marriage. Salter and James Hudson could not countenance what they regarded as immoral conduct in an organisation of which they were officers, and, when a majority of the National Council of the P.P.U., feeling they had no right to control the private lives of their employees, declined to accept a motion that staff members "should enter into no irregular sex relationship," or, in default that they "forthwith sever their official connection with the Union," they resigned their posts as joint treasurers. They addressed a letter to the membership explaining their views. "The moral code in these matters arises out of the need of the community for the sanctity and permanence of family life," they wrote. "Divinely sanctioned, as we think it is, the code cannot be disregarded without weakening a well-established and a necessary social institution, and at the same time imperilling the happiness and the rights of men and women and of their children and children to be." They expressed surprise that a plea for tolerance had been made by several Christian pacifists. "There can be no tolerance by either Christians or pacifists for whatever tends to disintegrate a good and pure social life."

The break with the P.P.U. hurt Salter greatly. He had loved and revered the Union as the child of Dick Sheppard. He had high hopes of the service which it could render to peace. The war had brought many disappointments, but disappointment with his fellow pacifists was the most difficult of all to bear. If he could not depend on them, on whom could he depend? Where was there hope? He felt lonelier than he had been all through his public life.

(11) Andrew Rigby, A Life in Peace: A Biography of Wilfred Wellock (1988)

One of the better known ventures was The Adelphi Centre at Langham, near Colchester in Essex. The PPU had taken over the house (The Oaks) and its 35 acre estate originally as a home for refugee Basque children during the Spanish Civil War. In October 1939, when all the children had returned to Spain, Max Plowman launched a "voluntary service scheme" calling on pacifists to help him renovate the property. The aim was to provide maintenance for pacifists who were unemployed as a consequence of their convictions, and in the process demonstrate pacifism as a way of life based on fellowship and service. Plowman talked of creating a "pacifist university - a centre of pacifist activity, a nucleus of life which will actually demonstrate that pacifists are willing to give up their personal liberty and comfortable home living."

(12) Wilfred Wellock, Off the Beaten Track - Adventures in the Art of Living (1961)

One difficulty about the Movement was the fact that I and my colleagues on the small staff at Long Acre had ceased to be pacifists, without clearly realising the fact. Soaked in politics, we were all ardent anti-imperialists and even anti-militarists, but the real essence of pacifism, which is a positive faith, was not in us. We survived the Abyssinian War, because our loathing of Italian imperialism was balanced by an equal loathing of British and French colonial policy; and we were logical enough to see that it was absurd to demand "sanctions" against Italy unless we favoured providing rival bandits with a gendarme's baton ... The Spanish Civil War presented more complicated issues, but they were not so easy to evade.