biography · english history · european history · history

Add to Your Reading List: A Testament of Youth

I suppose it is better to have had such splendid friends as those three were rather than not to have had any particular friends at all, but yet, now that all are gone, it seems that whatever was of value in life has tumbled down like a house of cards.”

-Letter from Edward to Brittain in response to the death of their friend, Victor

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Edward Brittain, Roland Leighton, Victor Richardson

I have spent August reading a memoir from World War I, which really kept me thinking for days after. I believe this is a very important memoir and one most people should take the time to read. It is one of the few accounts from the era that is from a female point of view. Many accounts of World War I are from the men in the trenches, but what about the women they left behind? In Testament of Youth, Vera Brittain writes of her life during this era and a bit afterwards. Brittain was born in 1893 and had grown up in northern England. She had one brother named Edward and the siblings were very intelligent and talented. Brittain was very interested in furthering her education and in writing, while Edward was a musician. The two were part of a lost generation and much of the memoir focuses on how their generation was affected by a war of that scale. She discusses how the generations that came before or after could never really comprehend what they went through. They were on their own island.

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Published in 1933

This memoir was obviously written to support her anti-war belief and possibly some of the memories were exaggerated, but I tend to agree with her message. During the course of the war, Brittain lost her fiance, Roland, her two good friends, Victor and Geoffrey, and lastly (a few months before the end of the war) her brother Edward. “For the first time I realised, with all that full realisation meant, how completely everything that had hiterto made up my life had vanished with Edward and Roland, with Victor and Geoffrey. The war was over; a new age was beginning; but the dead were dead and would never return (pg 463).” By the end of the war, after the passing of her brother, it seemed she had nothing else to care about in the world. She was overwhelmed by a deep sadness, which changed her life and her generation’s life forever.

Vera Brittain was a very intelligent woman and one can tell just from the way she writes. She was one of the few females to attend Oxford University in 1915 (and it is interesting to see how her parents actually disapproved of a daughter getting an education) and she had a love of learning her whole life. She was a feminist and supported the suffragette movement (her feminist political views would continue her whole life). Her Oxford studies were cut short when the war began as Brittain decided to enlist as a nurse in the armed forces. She served in hospitals in London, Malta, and in France. She risked danger herself as she traveled on the hospital ships that were at risk for a submarine attack. One of the most interesting parts of the memoir was when she was actually serving in the ally hospital that treated their injured, mainly German, prisoners of war. According to Brittain, these hospitals were always understaffed and the conditions less than adequate compared to the British hospitals. The staff at these hospitals seemed to be very overworked and Brittain felt it, but eventually embraced it. I thought this section was very interesting and shows the conflict within many of these nurses who had to care for German soldiers who may have, just yesterday, been shooting to kill their male loved ones.

“Another badly wounded boy-a Prussian lieutenant who was being transferred to England-held out an emaciated hand to me as he lay on the stretcher waiting to go, and murmured: “I tank you, Sister.” After barely a second’s hesitation I took the pale fingers in mine, thinking how ridiculous it was that I should be holding this man’s hand in friendship when perhaps, only a week or two earlier, Edward up at Ypres had been doing his best to kill him. The world was mad and we were all victims; that was the only way to look at it. These shattered, dying boys and I were paying alike for a situation that none of us had desired or done anything to bring about (pg 376).”

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Vera Brittain in VAD uniform (1915-1919)

Vera was constantly in contact with the four men in her life (who were also her greatest friends of her youth) via letters. The sections of letters she publishes in these books are very interesting and almost sad due to the fact the reader already knows the result. It struck me that the way they talked to each other was very intelligent, and they constantly would have discussions on philosophy, the point of the war, news, literature, they would use quotes from various sources to express their feelings and would write each other poetry. I personally grew to respect these men as well and could see the loss to this world that their death were. They were so talented and smart. They could have impacted the world so much if the war had not existed. Perhaps Roland would be able to have continued his Oxford studies and Edward could have been a great musician. It was heartbreaking to read these sections and the death of her brother, Edward, affected me the most. Out of the four, it was Edward who had survived the longest, up until a few months before the end of the war. Together, Vera and Edward, comforted each other through the loss of their three friends during this time and he was her last hope at this time. At the time of his death, Edward was a respected Captain and a loyal friend, though in letters Edward knew that life would never be the same even if he did come back. What he went through in the war cast a shadow over the lives of all the men who served, he had written that he did not know if he could live the life he once imagined for himself.

One day I remembered how Edward had told me that Geoffrey’s last letter, written two days before he was killed at Monchy-le-Preux, had ended with the worlds: “Till we meet again, Here or in the Hereafter.” Had they met now in the hereafter, I wondered? On the whole I could not believe they had. Edward, like Roland, had promised me that if a life existed beyond the grave, he would somehow come back and make me know of it. I had thought that, of the two, Roland, with his reckless determination, would be more likely to trespass from the infinite across the boundaries of the tangible, and incur any penalties that might be imposed. But he had sent no sign and Edward sent none; nor did I expect one. I know now that death was the end and that I was quite alone. There was no hereafter, no Easter morning, no meeting again; I walked in a darkness, a dumbness, a silence, which no beloved voice would penetrate, no fond hope illuminate (pg 446).”

The relationship between Roland and Brittain was interesting to me as it reflected a society that was still very much holding on to Victorian values (which slowly loosened due to the circumstances of the war). Roland was her fiance, yet they had really only met together on 17 occasions. Young couples needed to be chaperoned and it was not until later that Brittain noted during one of Roland’s moments of leave that “no one, this time suggested going with me to London; already the free and easy movements of girl war workers had begun to modify convention.” The was the first time that Brittain was able to be alone with Roland. During her time as a wartime nurse (she was eighteen), she would have been shocked to suddenly being thrust into a world where she was expected to treat the male anatomy and be subject to moments where she would see things that would have been deemed improper just a few years earlier. The Great War thrust women and society into situations needed out of necessity and as a result, conventions changed. Roland and Brittain’s romance was truly fleshed out in the letters between the two until his death in 1915. In person, they had just scarcely kissed lips. Their last tearful, goodbye was at the train station. I noticed after this time Brittain always held a superstious belief that it would cause bad luck to say goodbye at a transportation stop, like the train station. She would refuse to go to the station to say goodbye to any other loved ones for a long time. Roland passed in December, just before Christmas when he was to go on leave.

Already this was a different world from the one that I had known during four life-long years, a world in which people would be light-hearted and forgetful, in which themselves and their careers and their amusements would blot out political ideals and great national issues. And in that brightly lit, alien world I should have no part. All those with whom I had really been intimate were gone; not one remained to share with me the heights and the depths of my memories. As the years went by and youth departed and remembrance great dim, a deeper and ever deeper darkness would cover the young men who were once my contemporaries.

For the first time I realised, with all that full realisation meant, how completely everything that had hiterto made up my life had vanished with Edward and Roland, with Victor and Geoffrey. The War was over; a new age was beginning; but the dead were dead and would never return (pg 462-463).”

After the war Brittain continued her higher education and became very involved with politics. She was devoted to the causes of feminism and peace. She would eventually become a lecturer and was not afraid to compete with her male contemporaries. She became a writer and ended up writing twenty-nine books in total, but Testament of Youth (her memoir in remembrance of the men she had lost) really made her career. It is interesting that all the projects she became involved in after the war were truly unconventional for women at the time. She was even hesitant to marry. She still felt some connection to Roland, but the biggest reason was because she had established such a career for herself. She had seen what other women whom she had worked with before get married and have a family, but then they often had to give up everything they had worked for in their public lives. Brittain’s career was very important to her and she did not marry until she was in her thirties (this may not seem unusual to us now, but at the time she would have been viewed as a spinster!).

With this post I just wanted to bring to other’s attention the importance of this memoir and how it is a great primary source of the time. I learned a lot about how the war really affected those who lived through it. Though I may not ever truly understand what this generation went through, I still hold sympathy. It is important to still remember those who have past and I think this was a beautiful tribute to those men Brittain held so dearly.

To look forward, I concluded, and to have courage- the courage of adventure, of challenge, of initiation, as well as the courage of endurance- that was surely part of fidelity. The lover, the brother, the friends whom I had lost, had all in their different ways possessed this courage, and it would be utterly wasted if only, through those who were left, it could influence the generation, still to be, and convince them that, so long as the spirit of man remained undefeatable, life was worth having and worth giving. If somehow I could make my contemporaries, and especially those who, like myself, had once lost heart, share this belief; if perhaps, too, I could have children, and pass on to them the desire for this courage and the impulse to redeem the tragic mistakes of the generation which gave them birth, then Roland and Edward and Victor and Geoffrey would not have died vainly after all. It was only the past that they had taken to their graves, and with them, although I should always remember, I must let go (pg 656-657).”

Further Reading:

Testament of Youth by Vera Brittain (1893-1970)

First published in 1933

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