Sunday, June 28, 2015

One woman's war and resurrection

Vera Brittain, World War I nurse and memoirist.
Diplomacy collapsed. Hubris reigned. Blithe patriotism seized the day. War came. Because of technology, mainly the machine gun, wholesale murder in the mud masqueraded as battle. Life was cheap, gains were few. Statesmen and generals resisted plain facts, and war went on and on.

Perhaps the only good that came of World War I was the vast literature it unleashed. During the Vietnam War that literature came back into vogue, and I couldn’t get enough of it. (If you’re inclined to embark on a similar literary journey, start with Paul Fussell’s The Great War and Modern Memory.) Later, my wife Monique and I visited many battlefields of the Western Front, including the Somme, Ypres and Verdun.

Now, during the centenary of this war, we are reading and rereading a few of its classics. One of my favorites is the postwar memoir of Vera Brittain. She was a feminist and a war nurse. Like thousands upon thousands of young women of her time, she suffered devastating personal losses during the war. In 1933, using her copious diary, she wrote a heartbreaking book called Testament of Youth. (The diary itself, published as Chronicle of Youth, is also excellent.)

A war of machine guns and gas masks.
Testament of Youth tells the story of Vera Brittain’s war and her painful resurrection from its sorrows. While rereading it, I was tempted again and again to share excerpts in this blog. In the end I chose these four brief ones.

The horrors of war. In 1917, during the now-forgotten Cambrai offensive, casualties became heavy. The field hospital where Brittain worked had to wake patients in the middle of the night and turn them out of their beds to sleep on the floor in order to make room for new masses of badly wounded men. At this stage of the war, a new and terrible weapon was in common use. Brittain wrote in her diary:

“We have heaps of gassed cases at present who came in a day or two ago; there are 10 in this ward alone. I wish those people who write so glibly about this being a holy War, and the orators who talk so much about going on no matter how long the War lasts and what it may mean, could see a case – to say nothing of 10 cases – of mustard gas in its early stages – could see the poor things burnt and blistered all over with mustard-coloured suppurating blisters, with blind eyes – sometimes temporally (sic), sometimes permanently – all stick and stuck together, and always fighting for breath, with voices a mere whisper, saying that their throats are closing and they know they will choke. The only thing one can say is that such severe cases don’t last long; either they die soon or else improve – usually the former; they certainly never reach England in the state we have them here and yet people persist in saying that God made the War, when there are such inventions of the Devil about.”

Wartime jokes: As in all wars, black humor was common. Brittain recorded this example of the wry logic of trench warfare:

Three men in Vera Brittain's life: Edward Brittain, her brother, Roland
Leighton, her fiance, and Victor Richardson, her friend.
“When you are a soldier you are one of two things, either at the front or behind the lines. If you are behind the lines you need not worry. If you are at the front you are one of two things. You are either in a danger zone or in a zone which is not dangerous. If you are in a zone which is not dangerous you need not worry. If you are in a danger zone you are one of two things; either you are wounded or you are not. If you are not wounded you need not worry. If you are wounded you are one of two things, either seriously wounded or slightly wounded. If you are slightly wounded you need not worry. If you are seriously wounded one of two things is certain – either you get well or you die. If you get well you need not worry. If you die you cannot worry, so there is no need to worry about anything at all.”

The “lost” cause: Brittain often raises the central questions whose answers became less and less clear as World War I ground on, becoming a gruesome tragedy with a life of its own. Why are we fighting? Why can’t we stop? The best answer, she suggested, may have come in a British marching song sung to the tune of “Auld Lang Syne.”

“We’re here because
we’re here because
we’re here because
we’re here.”

Beautiful writing. Because Brittain quotes often from the diary and wartime letters, the book is long, but she often expresses a thought with startling clarity. Here is the view from 15 years after the war:

“Whenever I think of the War to-day, it is not as summer but always as winter; always as cold and darkness and discomfort; and an intermittent warmth of exhilarating excitement which made us irrationally exult in all three. Its permanent symbol, for me, is a candle stuck in the neck of a bottle, the tiny flame flickering in an ice-cold draught, yet creating a miniature illusion of light against an opaque infinity of blackness.”


  1. Have you tried Letters from a Lost Generation by Vera B?
    Or Mark Bostridge's Vera Brittain and the FWW which shows how she exaggerated her wartime experiences for pacifist effect.

    1. Thanks for this. Coincidentally, I just ordered the Bostridge along with Edmund Blunden's memoir. Have not read "Letters." So much to read! The new book on Soutine in Paris, the new biography of William Shirer . . . oh, yes, and then there's my job!.

  2. Ruth, the mother of one of our daughters-in-law, asks:"I read your blog post on Testament of Youth. . . . I was a pacifist before I read the book, but if I had not been one that book would have converted me. I wonder if the memories of the Civil War was what kept the US out of WWI for so long."

    Response: I cannot give you an expert’s answer to your excellent question, but I can share my thoughts.

    By the early 20th century, shock over the horrors of the Civil War had faded. Young people whose grandfathers had fought in it revered their connection to it. Civil War veterans were the Greatest Generation of their time. The postwar was about reunion of whites, not rights for African-Americans. The war was remembered for its shared hardships and its glory.

    The country retained a streak of bellicosity. Many young men longed for a chance to prove themselves, as gramps had. At the hint (even a false hint) of a threat to American interests, people were quick to resort to war. Remember the Maine.

    Manifest Destiny spawned the countervailing impulse in Americans’ feelings about foreign relations. Part of the sea-to-sea (and beyond if possible) logic of it was the security it implied. Two great oceans protected the United States from any need to engage disputes in East or West. Also, many immigrants had fled repeated wars in Europe and had no desire for their new country to involve itself abroad.

    Part of the isolationist impulse was political -- Wilson's campaign slogan of "He kept us out of war," his dovish secretary or state. But in time, mainly because of German brutality, real and perceived, this impulse died away, and America went to war.

    Judging by Brittain's comments about the arriving Americans, she was glad to see them.