I’m faintly embarrassed to have to admit that for a long while I thought Vera Brittain and Vera Lynn were one and the same. I was really impressed that ‘she’ could both sing and write so well. Oh, my blessed ignorance! However, I will now never be confused again, after wading my way through the gargantuan Testament of Youth, which opened my eyes to so much, fascinated me, moved me, and yet also infuriated me. I haven’t read an awful lot about the First World War and this educated me immensely, which I greatly appreciated, as well as giving me a wonderful insight into the life of a ‘bluestocking’, a VAD, and a feminist pacifist in the early 20th century.
Vera Brittain had a remarkable youth, by virtue of being born at the fin de siecle, when the world was changing rapidly, war and revolution were brewing, and the lives of women were opening at exciting and unprecedented levels. As a wealthy middle class girl with enlightened parents and a good brain, she was in a perfect position to benefit from the advances of the Edwardian period. At the dawn of 1914, with an Oxford scholarship for the taking and in love with a handsome, intelligent friend of her brother’s, all seemed set for a charmed life of academia and romance for the young Vera. However, fate had different ideas for her, and by that summer, she found herself in a world at war, with all of her ambitions of an Oxford education suddenly meaningless and those she loved most facing almost certain death in the muddy fields of France.
Vera took up her place at Somerville College, Oxford, in 1914 as planned, though she had many reservations about doing this due to the war. Her youthful precosity and idealism is illustrated through the Dawson’s-Creek esque angst ridden letters she quotes from the time; it would be rare to find an eighteen year old today who included Latin poetry and religious discussions in her letters to her boyfriend! I greatly enjoyed her description of life at Oxford; the cocoa parties I read about in Bluestockings featured, as did the constant presence of chaperones, or ‘chaps’, and the myriad of rules, constantly being evaded, that the girls had to live under. The liberating independent environment and Vera’s enjoyment of studying meant that, despite the war, and her fiance, Roland, being on the front line, she still managed to enjoy herself tremendously, and she revelled in the stimulating atmosphere of Oxford and in the company of like minded women. However, before her first year was up, Roland was killed in action, and with him went Vera’s zest for life. Wanting to do something to feel that she was contributing to the war effort, and to keep her mind and body busy, she left Oxford and became a VAD, or voluntary nurse.
This period, from 1915 to 1918, takes up most of the book, and I found it absolutely enthralling. Vera started off her training in Camberwell, South London, was posted to Malta, and then to France. As a young girl with no experience of nursing, war, or naked men(!) she was suddenly thrust into a position where men with the most horrific wounds were dependent on her for their survival. Long days with barely a break were followed by freezing nights in inadequate accomodation, and VADs’ health or personal needs were not given a moment’s consideration. Exhausted, emotionally drained, grieving for Roland and also desperately worried for her brother and friends still at the front, Vera worked herself practically into the ground, relishing being busy and having constant rounds of tasks to do to take her mind off her personal troubles. She describes the draconian Matrons, the endless amount of pointless cleaning and polishing, the lack of supplies, the agonised cries of the men, the slow realisation that she has become numb to death and pain and blood. It was a terribly difficult, back breakingly exhausting job that Vera did for four long years, risking her own life in the process, as she crossed submarine ridden seas and lived in camps ever in danger of being bombed to smithereens, just yards from the front lines. I was in awe at her bravery, her tenacity, and her strength; despite the most crushing personal blows and being pushed to the limits of physical endurance, she found the ability, somewhere within herself, to carry on, driven by her desire to do something that made a difference.
By the end of the war, Vera’s world had changed beyond recognition. Most of the people she loved had been killed, and she found that people wanted to forget the war, and pretend it never happened, rather than confront it and learn lessons from it. When she went back to Oxford, she joined a year group of women who hadn’t directly experienced the war, and they mock her for her ‘survivor’ status. No one wanted to hear about her experiences or her losses. She is almost a harbinger of doom in the corner; the young women who, by virtue of being just two or three years younger than Brittain, missed having their lives uprooted by the war, just want to enjoy being young and free and independent. Out of place, with no friends left, a growing sense of frustration, anger, loneliness and grief, and a determination to make the deaths of her beloved fiance and brother worth something, she resolves to dedicate her life to pacifism, and politics. As the book closes, she has met and moved in with Winifred Holtby, her greatest friend, and has a new lease of life as she takes on work for the League of Nations and learns that it is not dishonouring to Roland’s memory to allow herself a chance of love again.
One of the things I found most interesting is Vera’s description of the mentality of Roland, Edward and their friends. They were of that public school boy set who believed in duty and honour and the glamour of war, signing themselves up to fight as soon as it started. Before long, these still adolescent boys, with no experience of life beyond their school grounds, found themselves on foreign shores, living in trenches, in command of other men, and having to fight for their lives in muddy fields, often with inadequate equipment and a woeful lack of training. Their intelligence, idealism and knowledge of classical languages proved to be no use on the battlefield, and a disproportionate amount of young men of this age and social background – the ‘officer class’ – were killed compared to their lower ranking comrades. This was not down to incompetence, but instead their idealistic willingness to put their lives on the line; they had grown up with the belief that honour and duty were everything, and so it was they that were first ‘over the top’, and the first to be gunned down.
This massacre of the future great and good led to the popular eulogising of the ‘lost generation’, something that Vera Brittain clearly believed was true. All of the first rate men of her generation, she repeatedly insists, were killed, leaving a world full of incompetent young men to rule the next. This rose tinted view of the unknown future prospects of those she loved best began to grate on me after a while; for all of her liberal, socialist ideals, Vera Brittain was still very much a middle class snob, and her opinions of the great unwashed compared to her view of the almost god like magnificence of Roland, Edward and their classmates, was more than a little condescending. Her belief that these public school boys possessed intelligence, talent and skill enough to change the world into a better place if only they had lived made me intensely angry in places, as if those who had fought and came back were second rate citizens, and didn’t deserve to survive. Her tone of superiority and snobbery throughout the book – as if no one else had lost anyone during the war and could possibly match up to her level of grief – did leave rather a lot to be desired, in my opinion, and this did slightly mar my impression of her.
However, despite these misgivings, it would take someone with a heart of stone not to feel for Vera Brittain, and for how the best years of her youth were taken from her, along with those she loved most dearly, by a war she never wanted, and that turned out to be futile. I found myself close to tears in many places as she described her grief, and the personal qualities of those who turned out to be killed just pages later, and I really have so much admiration for how she coped, pushing herself to face her fears, intolerable discomfort and dangerous situations in order to do her bit as those she loved had done theirs. Her story sheds a light on what life was really like during the first war of this scale mankind had ever known; the perpetual fear, the uncertainty, the complete eradication of a former way of life, practically overnight. At 18, with the world your oyster, suddenly to see it all crumble and turn to dust, must have been devastating. Feeling like an old woman, at just 24, when it was all over, Vera had lost the chance to be young, irresponsible, foot loose and fancy free. She carried the burden of griefs too heavy for young shoulders to have to bear, and was haunted by experiences that had changed her forever. This fate must have applied to so many of her generation, both men and women, and how they found the strength to go on with their lives afterwards is beyond me. Testament of Youth is astounding in how it demonstrates just how enduring the human spirit can be, and how much we can find to live for, even when everything worth living for seems to have gone. It also shows how in war, there are no true victors, and Brittain’s powerful description of post war Europe hammers that point home well and truly.
Vera Brittain went on to become a very influential pacifist, to marry, and to have children, and though marked by her losses for the rest of her life, she used them to do good, to bring about change, and to improve the lives of others. I found her story so inspirational, and I would be very interested to read her other two volumes of autobiography, Testament of Friendship, and Testament of Experience, to see how her life developed after the period she documents in Testament of Youth. Overall, I think this book should be required reading, so that everyone growing up now can understand the pointlessness of destroying one another due to the greed and ignorance of men. The sheer scale of young men who were led like lambs to the slaughter, gunned down before they had even a chance to live, made me so furious in places that I wanted to scream with frustration at how this is STILL happening today. It makes me so angry that nearly 100 years on from 1918, we are still failing as a society to understand that wars are pointless, and such a futile, needless waste of precious lives. They achieve nothing, and never have done; all they leave behind is devastation and bitterness. If only those who ordered their countries to go to war were actually on the front line themselves, then perhaps things would be different. I’m sure those in power would think twice if they were the ones facing the barrel of a gun.