Vera Brittain – A short appreciation

By the time Vera Brittain’s   Great War memoir Testament of Youth was published in 1933 the road towards a second and yet more devastating world war was already being mapped out. In the years that followed publication, before Chamberlain’s famous declaration of war in 1939, she worked tirelessly to promote peace and European understanding,  at risk once again today, appearing on countless ‘Peace Platforms’ such as that  at the Royal Albert Hall  along with Siegfried Sassoon among others.    Testament of Youth   was one of many survivors’ autobiographies, (like for example those by Robert Graves and Edward Blunden)  that constituted the ‘lifting of a collective amnesia’ about experiences that would overshadow the lives of millions of survivors. The military historian John Keegan thought the books were less useful as documentary evidence of the Great War but did offer ‘moving and enduring expressions of truth about how man confronts the inevitability of death’. However these accounts   are judged, Vera Brittain’s book stands as an unforgettable account of the suffering of many of those survivors.

Few   were able to express the pathos and loss occasioned by war as powerfully and cogently as Vera Brittain. Born into a comfortable but staid family life in Macclesfield and later, Buxton, Vera always struggled to transcend   socially imposed limitations and the life a well brought up young lady was supposed to live and be grateful for.   What course her life, and indeed many of the First World War writers, would have been without the intervention of war is of course unknown. But being ripped from her comfortable Somerville College life and plunged not only into the nightmare of wartime nursing but also having to face the loss of her fiancé, brother and close friends gave rise to enduring and heart rending literature both in her prose and poetry.   What sets Testament of Youth apart from many other books of wartime experience is not only an unfamiliar feministic perspective but also the quality of her writing. In the early stages of the book Vera Brittain paints an unforgettable picture of pre-war England, in particular through her account of her brother Edward’s end of school speech day ceremony at Uppingham Public School in the early summer of 1914 –  the very epitome  of  ‘the doomed generation’ of privileged young men destined, as junior officers,  to lead the millions of volunteer soldiers towards enemy guns on the Somme and at Ypres. She records without comment the Headmaster’s admonition in the pre-war summer that,  “If a man can’t serve his country he’s better dead”,  which serves as a subtext for much of what follows.

Vera herself spent much of the war as a newly trained nurse, in London, Malta and Northern France.  Perhaps the key chapters are those which document her time at Etaples hospital, in Northern France, where much to her initial nervousness she was sent into a ward of badly wounded German prisoners of war. Her accounts of life and death in these hospitals are unforgettably tragic whilst being humane and philosophical.  The acknowledgment that it was natural for her to accept the hand of friendship of a badly wounded German soldier, ‘thinking how ridiculous it was that I should be holding this man’s hand in friendship when perhaps, only a week or two ago, Edward (Vera’s brother) up at Ypres had been doing his best to kill him’ , challenges  the reader to examine   prior conceptions of what war is or should be.

Yet perhaps the greatest achievement of Vera Brittain’s writing is to convey that which is often forgotten, or certainly not always understood, by the millions who have visited war graves and battlefields in the hundred years since the end of the Great War. The graves certainly exemplify the more obvious loss and sacrifice by that generation of doomed young men. However there is a terrible and less obvious price paid by the great majority who served and survived the war, both men and women.  In an unforgettable passage towards the end of her book, Vera Brittain sums up this infinite legacy:  Only gradually did I realise that the war had condemned me to live to the end of my days in a world without confidence or security, a world in which every dear personal relationship would be fearfully cherished under the shadow of apprehension: in which love would seem threatened perpetually by death, and happiness appear a house without duration, built upon the shifting sands of chance. I might perhaps have it again, but never should I hold it.