By Dr. Phylomena H. Badsey
Originally published by the Journal of the Centre for First World Studies. Posted here with permission.
Vera Brittain (1897-1970) is best known to this audience for her sixth book Testament of Youth An Autobiographical Study of the Years 1900-1925, published in 1933 and based on her own war diary, Chronicle of Youth, published in 1981.
Testament of Youth opens with Vera Brittain as a young, middle-class girl seeking higher education and a role for herself in the wider world, outside marriage. She discusses the life of provincial Buxton, and her relationships with her brother Edward, his close school friends Roland Leighton and Victor Richardson and later Geoffrey Thurlow.
The outbreak of the First World War with all the excitement and naive patriotism, soon becomes the main theme of the book.
Vera Brittain describes her changing moods and reactions to the war news and details her own decision to train and serve as a Voluntary Aid Detachment Nurse (V.A.D.) in June 1915. She trained in Buxton before being posted to the 1st General Hospital, London, in November. In March 1916, she volunteered for overseas service and was posted to Malta in September, where she remained until May 1917. She requested a posting to the Western Front, and she was sent to 24th General Hospital at Étaples on the coast of Northern France from August 1917 until late April 1918. She broke her service contract at the command of her father to return at once and nurse her mother. Vera Brittain was to feel ‘a deserter, a coward, a traitor to my patients and the other nurses’1 and remained ‘conscience-stricken’ for many years.2 She resented being called back over what was in reality, a minor domestic crisis, her mother soon recovered from her illness. Vera Brittain returned to a home posting, nursing first at St. Thomas’s and then Queen Alexandra’s Hospital, London, in September 1918 until April 1919.
Vera Brittain’s service record as a V.A.D nurse is placed within the historical, social and political context of the First World War.
She also writes about her own private fears and concerns. For example, discussion of Mons and the British Expeditionary Force is linked to Roland’s fears of not being able to enlist because of poor eyesight, to problems with learning Greek for her Oxford Entrance exam and her active support of Edward to be allowed to enlist, over the fierce refusal of their father and her early days at Somerville College, Oxford, reading English Literature. She followed the war news intently and wrote to Edward and Roland, in particularly about each new development and the minutia of their training. This correspondence is almost unique within the context of First World War primary sources, being published as Letters from a Lost Generation - First World War Letters of Vera Brittain and Four Friends (1998). Vera Brittain did believe most firmly in the national myth of the ‘lost generation’, the nature of which has been questioned by the research of military historians in recent years, or as I think of them, the Bond School. However, within the confines of Vera Brittain’s own restricted world-view and social conventions, the myth was a very harsh reality. Vera Brittain’s decision to become a V.A.D nurse and to be of practical service to people, who needed these skills, was partly made because of the atmosphere around her, but also because of her strong sense of duty. The tone of Testament Youth becomes sorrowful, after the first death, the true realities of the war, its anguish and despair become real, not just for Vera Brittain, but for many thousands of other women, just like her.
Lieutenant Roland Leighton, 7/Worcesters, Vera Brittain’s unofficial fiancé, died of wounds on the Western Front, on 23 December 1915.
In 1916 she wrote to her brother Edward: ‘If the War spares me, it will be my one aim to immortalise in a book the story of us four’.3 Lieutenant Victor Richardson MC, 9/Kings Royal Rifle Corps, was blinded at Vimy Ridge, on 9 April 1917. Vera Brittain broke her service contract as a V.A.D. nurse, in order to return to London, with the intention of offering to marry him, but Victor died of his wounds in June 1917. This action was partly prompted by the death of Lieutenant Geoffrey Thurlow, 10/Sherwood Foresters, who was killed when attacking the Scarpe on 23 April 1917. Vera Brittain’s only brother, Captain Edward Brittain MC, 11/Sherwood Foresters, was the last to be killed, while leading a counter-attack on the Italian front, 15 June 1918.
To quote Dr John Bourne, ‘After the war Vera Brittain became a pacifist and socialist, but during it she remained committed to an Allied victory, which alone could justify the losses she had suffered’.4
Vera Brittain returned to Somerville College, Oxford, in April 1919, to read Modern History with a Special topic in International Relations.
She sought to understand the causes of the First World War and its aftermath. She graduated in 1921 with a Second Class Honours Degree, establishing a home in London with her college friend, Winifred Holtby. In September they toured Europe together and visited the graves of Roland and Edward. Testament of Youth follows Vera Brittain’s very successful career as a political journalist and activist, writing for newspapers such as The Manchester Guardian and Time & Tide magazine on topics such as equal pay and married women’s careers.5 Her support for the Feminist Six Point Group, founded in 1922 by Lady Margaret Rhondda, and the changing economic and social status of women in British society is also discussed. Vera Brittain started to lecture for the League of Nations Union, in 1922 at public meetings all over the country and attended Summer Schools and League Assemblies in Geneva. In 1923 she published her first novel The Dark Tide, set in a women’s college. In 1924 she published Not Without Honour, a novel which draws on the social manners of pre-war Buxton’s society, the same year she became a life-time member of the Labour Party. Testament of Youth ends with Vera Brittain meeting her future husband, the Political Scientist George Catlin, named as G in the text. He wrote Vera Brittain a fan letter after reading The Dark Tide - they married in 1925, after which they moved to America, so G could continue his academic career at Cornell University.
When Testament of Youth was published it received laudatory reviews from such literary figures of the time such as Compton Mackenzie and Storm Jameson, who wrote: Its mere pressure on the mind and senses makes it unforgettable. The cumulative effect of these pages, on a contemporary, is indescribably troubling and exalting. To later generations... it must convey the weight and the nervous and spiritual excitement of an experience which, though it only struck them a glancing blow, intimately concerns them.6
The general publics’ response to the book was reflected in its sales, all 5,000 copies of the May 1933 print run were sold out within one week, by September 15,000 had been sold. On the first day of publication in the USA 11,000 copies were sold. Testament of Youth was to remain in print until the Second World War, with 120,000 copies being sold and twelve impressions being published in Great Britain alone.7 Toni and Valmai Holt include Vera Brittain as the only women in their book Violets from Overseas (1996):
‘Vera Brittain is not included in this anthology as a mere “token women”, but earns her place on several counts. Unlike many of the other published women poets of the Great War, she actually served in theatres of war as a V.A.D. She was literate and educated to an unusual degree for a girl of that period and a highly competent poet.’8
Vera Brittain published in August 1918 a slim volume of poems, dedicated to Roland, one of them is entitled ‘Vengeance is Mine; In Memory of the Sisters who died in the Great Air Raid Upon Hospitals at Etaples.' The last six lines refer to the terror of night-time bombing
Shall they not answer, the foeman assailing us,
Women who suffer and women who die?
Who shall avenge us for anguish unnameable,
Rivers of scarlet and crosses of grey Terror of night-time and blood-lust untameable,
Hate without pity where broken we lay?
Vera Brittain read the personal recollections and the novels of the First World War as they were published, for example she saw the first production of R.C. Sherriff’s play Journey’s End in 1928. She lamented the lack of books being published by women about their experiences of the First World War, notable exceptions being Mary Lee’s novel It’s a Great War (1929) and Helena Zena Smith, the pen-name of Evadne Price, Not So Quiet...Stepdaughters of the War (1930). Vera Brittain started to write Testament of Youth in 1929, on the 21 February 1930,9 she wrote to Time & Tide magazine on the subject of women and war-books:
Being a woman, and one who has both read and reviewed a considerable number of war-books, I should like to add further comment to A.D.’s letter in your issue of February 7th on the attitude of women toward war-books in general.... In several of the books - as in Journey’s End - women do not appear at all; in nearly all others (Death of a Hero is an outstanding example) they are either morose or time-servers, parasites or prostitutes. At best they play the part of wives in Kingsley’s Three Fishers, “giving” their husbands and sons, and weeping forlorn, unavailing tears. Rarely, if ever, is any description given of their active war-work; only occasionally is the existence of nurses, W.A.A.C.s or land-workers even mentioned, and then very often in an uncomplimentary sense... Mary Lee’s gigantic novel, It’s a Great War, seems to me to have been more unfairly treated by reviewers than any important book for a long time... I suggest, therefore, that women are not, as A.D. indicates, bored with war-books, but that their, real interest has not yet been aroused. And it will not be aroused until a war-book is published which removes the impression that one sex only played an active part in war, and one sex only experienced its deepest emotions.
This letter was prompted by the review given by Cyril Falls in War Books, A Critical Guide (1930):
Novels by women with the “Great War” as a subject are not numerous. In the best of them the authors have wisely pictured events at home or at any rate far from the front. Miss. Lee is more ambitious. But really, it is not the place of women to talk of mud; they may leave that to the men, who knew more about it and have not hesitated to tell us of it. Miss. Lee’s long book - a prize winner in America, by the way - is lively and exciting after a fashion, but not a very serious contribution to its subject. She is wholly mistaken in her notion that important books on the war must be written by women.10
In a further letter to Time & Tide of 7 March 1930 Vera Brittain continues the discussion.11
Your correspondent, --- appears to have been rather unduly annoyed by my harmless and entirely speculative little letter on women and war books. Her objections to it - or to me - do not, however, seem to be altogether relevant... I am far from despising... the women who wept “forlorn, unavailing tears” provided that this was not the only thing that they did. Most of us, both men and women shed such tears on occasions during the war - not because we thought them useful, but because we could not help ourselves. What I object to is the sentimentalization [sic] of women’s suffering that was current both then and later, the idea (perpetuated in some of the war books) that, provided one was a female, merely to weep and suffer was somehow an active contribution to victory...Somehow, I regret to say, this idea of women’s passive suffering - because, I suppose, it is the traditional idea - seems to have captured the imagination of those more benevolent war-recorders who were not moved to a screeching bitterness by the war-time parasitism of women. Yet at each of the five hospitals in which I served at home and abroad for nearly four years, I have known women who thrust that fatal telegram into their pockets and carried on - not with any idea that such assumed callousness was “noble”, but because it was, in the long run, the easiest way to bear the unbearable. I cannot see that I have in any way disparaged the men who fought in the trenches by my suggestion that the women who thus preferred active work to inanimate grief have so far been inadequately portrayed.
A number of military historians have misunderstood Vera Brittain’s Testament of Youth, which is not a pacifist text, nor an anti-war book. She did not become a convinced pacifist until 1937, four years after its publication. Vera Brittain wrote it with one aim in mind; ‘to write history in terms of personal life could I rescue something that might be of value, some element of truth and hope and usefulness, from the smashing up of my own youth by the War... I have tried to write the exact truth as I saw it about myself and other people, since a book of this kind has no value unless it is honest.’12 Vera Brittain was very well schooled in the plays, novels and personal narratives of the First World War, which she referred to when giving a lecture at the Royal Society of Literature entitled ‘Literary Testaments’ in December 1960, I quote:
I suspect that most authors of First World War records, whether they produced autobiography, poetry, fiction, or drama, were impelled to write by the impulse defined by Somerset Maugham; they wanted to exorcise intolerable memories and overwhelming griefs by getting them down on paper... the reader gets an impression of tremendous events in the background... the pathetic destruction of modest human happiness... of men and women in the grip of forces beyond their control. It dominates such great books as Siegfried Sassoon’s Memoir’s of an Infantry Officer, Edward Blunden’s Undertones of War, Robert Grave’s Goodbye to All That… Guy Chapman’s A Passionate Prodigality, and the Sagittarius Rising of Cecil Lewis. The writer is not the only or even the chief protagonist in these books; the War itself... seems to play the major part of a ruthless Juggernaut rolling on in supreme indifference to human anguish.13
The value of personal archives and accounts, novels and plays, facts written in the form of fiction and supported by official sources, has long been a valid and accepted academic research tool, enriching and informing our understanding of contemporary writing on the First World War. The excellent volume edited by Hugh Cecil and Peter Liddle Facing Armageddon The First World War Experienced (1996) has brought many of these sources together, from all sides, enabling a greater understanding of the authors feelings and motives.
Professor Gerard De Groot in his book Blighty (1996) is very antagonistic to both Vera Brittain and Testament of Youth, while quoting extensively from the text, he describes the nurses of the First World War in the following terms:
A large number of women, Vera Brittain notable among them salved their frustrations by becoming nurses, predominantly in the Volunteer Aid Detachment. Their contribution was undoubtedly significant but it is still reinforced the traditional female role of carers. And strict rules determined where women were allowed to do nursing. Most were not allowed anywhere near the fighting front.14
Vera Brittain published an article in The Manchester Guardian on 22 May 1930, following public fears about nurses’ morals when on active service, entitled, ‘The Real V.A.D. from Fancy Back to Fact’.15
The full-fledged member of a Voluntary Aid Detachment, complete with first-aid and home nursing certificates and the experience of preliminary weeks of training in a civilian hospital, who passed (for the magnificent salary of £20 a year, plus £2 for uniform) entirely under the control of the Army Nursing Service, renewed her contract every six months, and was liable in the same way as an R.A.M.C. orderly to military orders involving either home or foreign service. The majority of V.A.D.s were, like myself, very young and quite unsophisticated. When we first joined up our chief preoccupation was the fear of being turned down for incompetence after the month trial with which every voluntary nurse’s army career began. Disturbed far more by the unfamiliarity of our duties than by sex complications, we were childishly and ardently conscientious; inspired by a pathetically high patriotic idealism, we had a touching faith in the righteousness of our cause and the disinterested Olympian virtue of such war-time leaders as French, Jellicoe, Foch and Mr. Lloyd George. This type of mentality may be consistent with nervous over-exertion and unnecessary self-sacrifice, but it is quite incompatible with emotional orgies and physical excess.
Professor De Groot continues that ‘Excessive attention has been given to the war experiences of young middle class women’.16 In this view, he is correct, in recent years many more accounts of working-class women’s experiences have been published for example Claire Tylee’s The Great War and Women’s Consciousness(1990), and Deborah Thom’s Nice Girls and Rude Girls (1998). The majority of working-class women were employed in the expanding, after March 1915, armaments industry. These women lived at home or in local hostels and so produced very few written records. The writer Syliva Townsend Warner, an exact contemporary of Vera Brittain’s, answered an advertisement in 1915 for ‘lady-workers’ at Vickers factory in Erith, a district on the banks of the Thames in South London. The pamphlet she received included the advice that ‘low-heeled shoes are advisable, and evening dress is nor necessary’.17 But the blunt fact does remain that only middle-class women could afford to volunteer as nurses and they produced the letters, diaries and books of their war service. These form the backbone of the many local and national archive collections, not least that held at The Imperial War Museum, in London. Vera Brittain never claimed to be other than middle-class and Testament of Youth’s success reflects the fact that she was typical, the very embodiment of many women who served as V.A.D.s.
Professor Jay Winter refers to Vera Brittain’s social status in a recent interview published on the Internet, in the following terms; ‘Vera Brittain was very much the daughter of an upper middle class family whose sons were recruited into the officer corps in the British army… And Vera Brittain’s entire male company, her social world was stripped from her because of her social situation, where she was and who she was.’18 The wives, sisters and daughters of these men had no means to have their voices heard in public, but Vera Brittain could articulate and personify in writing, their motives and emotions, making them accessible to a readership which was seeking both information and understanding. Professor De Groot describes Vera Brittain and Testament of Youth in the following terms: Vera Brittain, egotist, elitist, mistress of self-pity and principal spokeswomen for the Lost Generation, described male survivors of the war as “fussy, futile, avid, ineffectual”. They wallowed in nauseating sentimentality and hadn’t the brains of an ear-wig simply provided one proof after another that the best of their sex has disappeared from a whole generation. (As regards sentimentality, one can only conclude that is a fine example of the pot calling the kettle black.)19 Apart from this being a very offensive term, I am not convinced that Professor De Groot has ever in fact read Testament of Youth. The passage from which he quotes selectively is, in full:
The various men, I thought bitterly, with whom I had come into contact since the War - men who were married already but enjoyed making use of my company for a little romantic diversion, men who imagined that I could be tempted by wealth and promises of financial support in politics, middle-aged men who were fussy and futile, elderly men whose avid eyes looked upon me with a narrow, appraising stare, young men who were ardent but ineffectual, men of all ages who wallowed in nauseating sentimentality and hadn’t the brains of an earwig - simply provided one proof after another that the best of their sex had disappeared from a whole generation.20 The context of this passage is also very important. Vera Brittain had just received, in June 1923, a visitors-card from G her future husband, introducing himself as a fellow student from Oxford and inviting her to tea with him on the river. She had been well brought-up and threw the card of this ‘impertinent young man’21 into the wastepaper-basket, while recalling past romantic trysts.
In an article of 26 July 1996, published in The Times Higher, Professor De Groot asserts that Vera Brittain was a member of the movement against Field Marshal Earl Haig after his death in 1928, I quote: The reaction against Haig was a post-1928 and largely middle-class phenomenon. As the years passed, sections of the middle class began to feel shame over what they saw as a betrayal of trust by Haig. This upsurge of remorse was fuelled by disillusioned war poets, by anguished writers like Vera Brittain.22
Again this seriously misrepresents Vera Brittain’s actual views. On 3 February 1928, the day of Haig’s death, Vera Brittain wrote an article published in The Manchester Guardian entitled ‘Our Backs to the Wall - A Memory of War’23 in which she pays tribute to Haig’s Special Order of the Day of April 1918:
Standing there, with our weariness and our hunger strangely diminished, we read the words which put into so many whose need of endurance was so much greater then ours... Most of those who were reading, at any rate among the V.A.D.s belonged to that generation which had grown into women-hood with a scorn of showing its feelings and a reluctance to admit even their existence; but fatigue had made us vulnerable to emotion, and we left the notice-board fired with a tearful and growing determination. Whatever our private views about the war, we were then in the midst of it and individuals - whether fighters or merely workers - who are faced with the alternatives of resistance and collapse, seldom stop to argue the merits of the case until afterwards. No doubt we were all mad, and a noble madness is the most dangerous form of insanity; the fact remains that it was nobility at which we aimed, and nobility that Lord Haig’s order enabled us for the time to achieve.
In Testament of Youth, published in 1933, Vera Brittain again refers to this Special Order:
the publication of official “revelations” has stripped from the Haig myth much of its glory, I have never been able to visualise Lord Haig as the colossal blunderer, the self-deceived optimist, of the Somme massacre in 1916. I can think of him only as the author of that Special Order, for after I had read it I knew that I should go on, whether I could or not. There was a braver spirit in the hospital that afternoon, and though we only referred briefly and brusquely to Haig’s message, each one of us had made up her mind that, though enemy airmen blew up our huts and the Germans advanced upon us from Abbeville, so long as wounded men remained in Etaples, there would be “no retirement.”24
Testament of Youth is no more an anti-war book than any other first-hand account of the First World War and well deserves its status as an accepted text within the established literary canon of the subject. The experience of being a V.A.D influenced and stayed with Vera Brittain for the rest of her life. She and George Warbuton Sizer, Hull Vice-Chairman of the British Limbless Ex-Servicemen’s Association, co-wrote a book called Long Shadows in 1958. This was a semi-autobiographical novel of his experiences of physical disablement, after losing a leg in the First World War. In this novel Vera Brittain describes the reaction of wounded servicemen to V.A.D. nurses:
She well knew the dread she inspired. She had saved many lives, but she was always the giver of pain. This was the damnable part of the job. The doctors - they didn’t know the half of it. They were not in hourly contact with the pus, with the pain and the stinks.25
Professor Ian Beckett, in his respected book The Great War (2001), claims Testament of Youth ‘fits well into the pattern of anti-war books and assisted in establishing 1st July as a symbol of tragedy’.26
In fact, Vera Brittain wrote very little about the Somme in Testament of Youth. The Somme and its aftermath is written about on pages 274 to 289, which mostly discuss Edward and his experiences of the morning of the 1 July 1916. He was wounded, first in the thigh and then by a shell splinter in the arm, when leading his men twice over the parapet and into one-mansland for about seventy yards. He crawled into a shell-hole and was later joined to two other wounded soldiers, later he dragged himself back to the British lines, was picked up by stretcher-bearers and directed them to his companions in the shell-hole. For this very brave act he was awarded the MC, for ‘conspicuous gallantry and leadership’. Vera Brittain’s own war diary, on which Testament of Youth is based, has a brief entry for 1, 3, 4 and 5 July, and then nothing until the end of August, due no doubt to the pressure of work.27 It was the Third Battle of Ypres (Passchendaele), which began on 31 July 1917 and which lasted well into November, which Vera Brittain writes about with some emotion:28
I was now quite hardened to living and working on my feet; only a very exceptional “push” made bones and muscles ache as they had ached after the Somme. As for the wounds I was growing accustomed to them; most of us, at that stage, possessed a kind of psychological shutter which we firmly closed down upon our recollections of the daily agony whenever there was time to think.29
Vera Brittain was working at the time at the 24th General, at Etaples, in a surgical hut, nursing British and German wounded. She does refer to the views of pacifists in Testament of Youth, and states that the central problem for pacifists is overcoming the general public’s reaction to war, ‘this glamour, this magic, this incomparable keying up of the spirit in a time of mortal conflict’.30 She then refutes with some force the claim of pacifists; ‘that war creates more criminals than heroes’.31 Vera Brittain replied, ‘that war while it lasts, does produce heroism to a far greater extent than it brutalises’.32 In Testament of Youth she wrote: I have heard, as yet, very little of the bitter tale of pacifism during the War - the Union of Democratic Control, with its interrupted meetings and police-raided offices; the imprisonment of E.D. Morel; the removal of Bertrand Russell from his post at Cambridge; the persecution and humiliation of conscientious objectors - but I had already started on the road which was ultimately to lead me to association with the group that accepted internationalism as a creed.33
The group was the League of Nations Union, I quote from Testament of Youth:
I’m so glad I did “International Relations”, glad I am lecturing on them now, though in ever such a small way, glad to do anything, however small, to make people care for the peace of the world. It may be Utopian, but it’s constructive. It’s better than railing at the present state of Europe, or always weeping in the dark for the dead.34
Vera Brittain believed in a political means to prevent war - collective security - as offered by the League of Nations, which she had supported since its inception in 1919.35
Vera Brittain contributed a chapter entitled, ‘Peace and the Public Mind’ in a book called Challenge to Death (1934) in which she discusses the use of propaganda and its effect on public opinion, I quote: ‘In wartime only half the truth is ever told; the enemy’s virtues and our own vices are alike omitted. To allow a detestation of Fascism to drive this fact from our minds is to find ourselves already half-way to a new war mentality.’36 She praises the League of Nations Union and peace organisations in their efforts to prevent another war. She suggests that, ‘the practical alternative does not lie between national war and unilateral disarmament, but between national and international control over the means of defence’.37 This to be achieved by the creation of and I quote: ‘An international police force...for some distinguished pacifists it is certainly not direct enough - but many peaceworkers closely in touch with public opinion accept it as the only effective method of arresting a new race in armaments’.38 She concludes that more women and young people should be involved in politics39 and that writers have a particular part to play in the process of peace, I quote: ‘To assist in the creation of that state of mind is the first obligation of all those whose pens and voices have any authority over public opinion to-day.’40
Vera Brittain was active, in a number of peace groups but did not have direct contact with pacifist circles, until June 1936, when she spoke at the Dorchester Rally at the invitation of Cannon Dick Sheppard, of St. Martin’s-in-the Field and founder of the Peace Pledge Union. In a recent biography, Vera Brittain – A Life (1995) by Paul Berry and Mark Bostridge, her views on pacifism are set out in the following terms:
Christianity, though “apparently unattainable”, was the only common sense left and the only condition of survival. But she interpreted Christian pacifism, as espoused by Sheppard and his followers, as a state of mind, offering a “revolutionary principle” ultimately rooted in Christ’s teaching in the Sermon on the Mount, rather than a constructive policy which could provide an alternative to war.41
Only in September 1936 did Vera Brittain start to re-consider the question of Pacifism after being heckled by members of the PPU, at League of Nation Union meetings,42 and it was only after reading Bertrand Russell’s Which Way to Peace? (1936), which concludes: ‘modern war is practically certain to have worse consequences than even the most unjust peace’,43 that she become an uncompromising pacifist. She resigned from the League of Nations Union, believing ‘It had become a mere French-dominated instrument for continuing the unjust status quo, set up at Versailles, of which Hitler was the appalling consequence’.44
On the 13 January 1937, Vera Brittain shared a platform with Siegfried Sassoon, a Sponsor of the Peace Pledge Union, and very shortly she became a Sponsor herself. From this point on Vera Brittain was a ‘high pacifist’ a person who does not accept military or violent intervention under any circumstances, a term used by Yvonne Bennett in her thesis Testament of a Minority in Wartime, awarded in 1984. After Dick Sheppard’s death in October 1937, divisions within the Peace Pledge Union became apparent, in particular the religiously inspired members and the highly politically conscious groups could not agree on a fixed policy. Yvonne Bennett remarks: Brittain was herself a politically minded pacifist, although like many in the Union, her religious sense grew deeper during the war. At no time, however, did she lose her belief in the validity of activism and the possibility of co-operative action with non-pacifists.45
In 1943 Vera Brittain wrote Humiliation with Honour, in which she tried to define her pacifism:
Pacifism is nothing other than a belief in the ultimate transcendence of love over power. This belief comes from an inward assurance. It is untouched by logic and beyond argument - though there are many arguments both for and against it. And each person’s assurance is individual; his inspiration cannot arise from another’s reasons, nor can its authority be quenched by another’s scepticism.46
Vera Brittain’s close friend Storm Jameson and fellow Sponsor, who resigned from the Peace Pledge Union in September 1938 said of its members; ‘awfully respectable...such good people - but they didn’t know much about life’.47
In a recent book entitled Men, Women & War (2001) Professor Martin Van Creveld cites Vera Brittain as an enthusiastic supporter of the outbreak of the First World War, on 4 August 1914, who regretted that she could not fight on the front-line, I quote: ‘the subsequent pacifist Vera Brittain, expressed her fear lest “our bungling government” would remain neutral and “desperately wished” she were a man so she could “play that Great Game with Death.”48
After checking the references given by Van Creveld, I contacted the Vera Brittain Archive, which is held at MacMaster University, Hamilton, Canada, and where I undertook my primary PhD research in November 58 Vera Brittain – The Militant Pacifist 1998. They faxed back a letter written from Vera Brittain to her brother Edward, dated 19 February 1916. I quote:
My Dearest Edward,
I received your most interesting letter written on the 16th Feb this morning, which was quite quick; Roland’s nearly always took longer - It quite thrilled me to read it, just as when I read His first letter from the trenches it made me wish desperately that I were a man and could train myself to play that “Great Game with Death” - I wish it were my obvious duty to “Go and Live in a ditch” as Roland called it. But you roused my interest and curiosity very much. I want immensely to know what it was about the trenches that surprised you so. Couldn’t you write to me more fully & explicitly & not censor it yourself? I should imagine that censoring your letters must make you almost over conscientious. I know it would me. Roland, I remember, when He wrote long explanatory letters, censored by someone else, and I don’t remember anything ever being cut out. I want to know, too, exactly what it all looks like before you actually step into the trench. Is it just two rows of ditches & nothing more – or are their ruins of things about? And are there always a lot of shells & things bursting, like you see in Punch cartoons?49
Vera Brittain is quoting, in fact, a letter from 1914, written by Roland to her, back to Edward in 1916. This letter is four pages long and she is clearly seeking information about the conditions in which her brother is now living and in which her fiancé died. My only comment of this misuse of primary sources is that it is distortion of the facts and that it falls well below the normal academic standard.
Vera Brittain gave a lecture at the Royal Society of Literature entitled ‘Literary Testaments’ in December 1960:
I was present when Mr. Edward Blunden, the poet who wrote the distinguished memoir Undertones of War, took the chair at a lecture on autobiography. He began by saying that the previous night he had dreamed of himself looking up the word “autobiography” in the Oxford Dictionary, and finding beneath it “See Fiction”. So he looked up “Fiction” and found “Autobiography”.50
some of the literary testaments of this century are likely to retain their interest for posterity, not because they represent the work of official personalities on pedestals, but because they are the recourse of ordinary men and women who happened to live in an age of stupendous change.51
Testament of Youth was re-issued by Virago Press in 1978, a BBC television production was first broadcast in November 1979, has been repeated twice since then, and was released as a video in the spring of 2000. Testament of Youth is still important today because it is on the history syllabus of the English and Welsh National School Curriculum since its introduction in 1990. For many young people this may be the only book they read about the First World War. Hence it is essential that it is studied and understood in the social and political context in which it was written.
The very success of Testament of Youth is now obscuring everything else which Vera Brittain did in her long and productive life. Her literary output was considerable and in part this explains the many diverse texts and references to her writings. Vera Brittain published 29 books - she undertook the roles of poet, novelist, bibliographer, social researcher and editor -as a journalist she published over 1,000 newspaper and magazine articles - many of which were in the international press and read around the world. Her experiences of the First World War, led directly to her development as a pacifist and her actions during and after the Second World War. The writer Elizabeth Bowen in her novel The Heat of the Day (1948) describes people from Vera Brittain’s era, ‘as a generation, was to come to be made to feel it had muffed the catch’.52 This duality in Vera Brittain’s life has caused confusion, both with the general public and some military historians even misrepresenting her views. This is dangerous and unfair, not least because the topic of women and warfare has a long and very distinguished academic history, as cultivated by Professor Arthur Marwick in his seminal book, The Deluge (1965) and other texts.
I hope my own PhD entitled The Political Theory of Vera Brittain, due for submission this October, will break through some of the puzzlement and at times open hostility to Vera Brittain’s life and work. I have sought to place Vera Brittain within the social and political context of her time, in part by studying and understanding military history.
This paper was given at the University of Birmingham War and Society Seminar on Thursday 6 June 2002.
The author has completed her doctorate.
Dr. Phylomena H. Badsey is giving a presentation on 'Her Life Known, and Unknown' this August (10th Ausgust 2015) in Newastle under Lyme, at the Newcastle Methodist Church.
1. V. Brittain, Testament of Youth An Autobiographical Study of the Years 1900-1925 (London: Gollancz, 1933), p. 369.
2. MacMaster University, Hamilton, Canada: Vera Brittain Archive (VBA), G286, ‘The Real V.A.D. from Fancy Back to Fact’, The Manchester Guardian, 22 May 1930.
3. M. Bostridge, ‘Testament of Longevity,’ review of Letters of a Lost Generation, The Independent, 18 October 1998.
4. J.M. Bourne, Who’s Who in World War One (London: Routledge, 2001), p. 38.
5. Brittain, Testament of Youth, p. 38.
6. P. Berry & M. Bostridge, Vera Brittain. A Life (London: Pimlico,1995), p. 262-3.
7. Berry & Bostridge, Brittain. A Life, p. 264.
8. V. Brittain, Violets from Overseas, p. 212.
9. MacMaster University: VBA G277, ‘Women and War Books’, Time & Tide, 21 February 1930.
10. C. Falls, War Books, A Critical Guide (1930), p. 282.
11. MacMaster University: VBA G279, Time & Tide letter, 7 March 1930.
12. Brittain, Testament of Youth, p. 11-2.
13. Brittain, ‘Literary Testaments’, Essays by Divers Hands, pp. 31-2.
14. G.J. De Groot, Blighty: British Society in the Era of the Great War (London: Longman, 1998), p. 69.
15. MacMaster University: VBA G286, ‘From Fancy Back to Fact’, The Manchester Guardian, 22 May
16. De Groot, Blighty: British Society in the Era of the Great War, p. 305.
17. C. Harman, Sylvia Townsend Warner A Biography (1989), pp. 30-1.
18. Interview with Jay Winter given as part of the United States’ Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) website on the television series The Great War and the Shaping of the 20th Century: http://www.pbs.org/greatwar/interviews/winter7.html [accessed on 30 May 2002].
19. De Groot, Blighty: British Society in the Era of the Great War, p. 275.
20. Brittain, Testament of Youth, p. 608.
21. Brittain, Testament of Youth, p. 607.
22. Brittain, ‘He had hatred thrust upon him’, p. 18, The Times Higher, 26 July 1996.
23. MacMaster University: VBA G92, ‘Our Backs to the Wall - A Memory of the War’, 3 February 1928, The Manchester Guardian.
24. Brittain, Testament of Youth, p. 420.
25. V. Brittain & G.W. Sizer, Long Shadows (1958), p. 3.
26. I.F.W. Beckett, The Great War 1914 - 1918 (Harlow: Longman, 2001), p. 447-8.
27. A. Bishop (ed.), A Chronicle of Youth Vera Brittain’s War Diary 1913- 1917 (1981), p. 326-8.
28. Brittain, Testament of Youth, p. 383-8.
29. Brittain, Testament of Youth, p. 383-4.
30. Brittain, Testament of Youth, p. 291.
31. Brittain, Testament of Youth, p. 369.
32. Brittain, Testament of Youth, p. 370.
33. Brittain, Testament of Youth, p. 473.
34. Brittain, Testament of Youth, p. 539.
35. Berry & Bostridge, Vera Brittain. A Life, p. 355, 337.
36. Brittain, ‘Peace and the Public Mind’, Challenge to Death (1934), p. 42-3.
37. Brittain, ‘Peace and the Public Mind’, Challenge to Death, p. 55.
38. Brittain, ‘Peace and the Public Mind’, Challenge to Death, p. 55.
39. Brittain, ‘Peace and the Public Mind’, Challenge to Death, pp. 60-1.
40. Brittain, ‘Peace and the Public Mind’, Challenge to Death, p. 66.
41. Berry & Bostridge, Vera Brittain. A Life, p. 356.
42. Berry & Bostridge, Vera Brittain A Life, p. 357.
43. Berry & Bostridge, Vera Brittain. A Life, p. 357.
44. Berry & Bostridge, Vera Brittain. A Life, p. 357.
45. Y. Bennett, Testament of a Minority in Wartime: The Peace Pledge Union and Vera Brittain 1939-1945 (1984), pp. 35-6. 46. V. Brittain, Humiliation With Honour (London: Andrew Dakars, 1943), p. 8.
47. Bennett, Testament of a Minority in Wartime: The Peace Pledge Union and Vera Brittain 1939-1945, p. 175. 48. Van Creveld, Men, Women & War: Do Women Belong in the Front Line? (2001), p. 22.
49. MacMaster University: VBA, Vera Brittain to Edward Brittain, 19 February 1916. Original emphasis.
50. Brittain, ‘Literary Testaments’, p. 21.
51. Brittain, ‘Literary Testaments’, p. 34-5.
52. E. Bowen, Heat of the Day (1948), p. 25. 64