Academics at war — Bertrand Russell and Cambridge
The thoughts and actions of the Cambridge mathematician and philosopher Bertrand Russell are central to this book. Russell was able to articulate with extraordinary clarity a fully humanistic opposition to the Great War and his ideas on war and the prevention of it directly affected the thinking of other individuals through his books, articles and speeches. On occasion, Russell's concepts were echoed spontaneously by other like-minded people — often from dissimilar backgrounds or situations. Although Russell enjoyed personal involvement with Bloomsbury (prompted by their Cambridge links and common aesthetics), he was able and willing to strike out intellectually and practically where most others faltered. 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. It is interesting, then, to observe how that academic establishment reacted to the arrival of war.
On 1 August 1914 the Cambridge Daily News carried several comments by J.J. Thomson, the acute Master of Trinity College and future President of the Royal Society. He warned that 'War upon [Germany] in the interests of Serbia and Russia will be a sin against civilisation', while accurately predicting that, 'if by reason of honourable obligations we be unhappily involved in war, patriotism might still our mouths'. 1 This comment was a fair representation of the view of the academic establishment towards the possibility of armed conflict dominating Europe. To one side of this view was the opinion that war was morally wrong and would slow down dramatically the natural processes of learning (and even perhaps reverse this process) while creating barriers against international academic research and cooperation. On the other side was trepidation about the effect of the war on domestic affairs and in particular the smooth running of the country's principal centres of knowledge and learning.
An early indication of fears of increased militarism was the public debate over military training at Cambridge University in the late spring of 1914. The respected Cambridge academic A.C. Benson wrote to The Times criticising a proposal of compulsory military training at national level. Despite years of