So much has been written – and continues to be written – about the First World War that sometimes it’s difficult knowing what to say about a book, especially when the volume in question has become a classic, but Vera Brittain’s Testament of Youth remains one of the most definitive accounts of the war that decimated the lives of a generation.
In the immediate aftermath Bright Young Things partied as I there were no tomorrow, for nothing seemed to matter any longer. They drank and danced and took drugs to forget what they’d seen and heard, to dull the grief for those who had gone and, perhaps, to kill the fear that death and destruction lay just around the corner, and there were no longer any certainties in life. Many artists and writers seem to have viewed life in a similar way, living for the moment, doing what they wanted, and pushing the boundaries in their artistic and private lives and using their wartime experiences as the basis for their work.
But Vera Brittain was one of the people who hoped a better world would evolve from the slaughter and desolation, and she poured her energies into campaigning for peace, in a bid to ensure there would never again be such a terrible conflict. And, while authors like Hemingway, Fitzgerald and Graves wrote unforgettable fiction about the war, she wrote an autobiography which contains some of the most haunting – and moving – descriptions about the horrors of WWI that you are ever likely to read.
Her book covers the period from 1900 to 1925, and there are tremendous contrasts between the war years, and what happened before and after. She had a sheltered and privileged upbringing, and overcame family opposition to gain a place at Oxford at a time when women were still struggling to be considered as serious scholars. However, a year later, in 1915, she joined the Voluntary Aid Detachment (VAD) and spent the rest of the war nursing in military hospitals in London, Malta, and close to the front line in France.
Her fiancé, brother, and two other close male friends were all killed, and her description of conditions in the hospitals, and the terrible injuries suffered by the men, and the grief and anguish of those who survived, is still shocking. Almost a century has elapsed since the outbreak of the First World War, but the passing of time has done nothing to lessen the impact, and Brittain’s words moved me to tears, as well as evoking rage and pity.
As the war progresses notions of idealism, patriotism and glory are blown to shreds, just like the men who died on the battlefields of France. In March 1918, ‘standing in a newly created circle of hell’ she gazes:
… half-hypnotized, at the disheveled beds, the stretchers on the floor, the scattered boots and piles of muddy khaki, the brown blankets turned back from smashed limbs bound to splints by filthy blood-stained bandages. Beneath each stinking wad of sodden wool and gauze an obscene horror waited for me – and all the equipment I had for attacking it in this ex-medical ward was one pair of forceps standing in a potted-meat glass half full of methylated spirit.
|Part of the military camp and hospital
at Etaples, where Vera Brittain was based
for a time during WWI.
She manages to get some medical supplies from the stores, a sister arrives to help and they cope, sending newly bandaged men to be shipped back to England and laying out the dead ‘too hurried to be reverent’. For nearly a month, she says, the camp resembled a Gustave Doré illustration to Dantes’ Inferno:
By day, a thudding crescendo in the distance, by night sharp flashes of fire in the sky, told us that the war was already close upon their heels. Nearer at hand, a ceaseless and deafening road roar filled the air. Motor lorries and ammunition wagons cashed endlessly along the road; trains with reinforcements thundered all day up the line, or lumbered down more slowly with their heavy freight of wounded. Even the stretcher cases came to us in their trench-stained khaki, with only the clothing round the wound roughly torn away; often their congealed blood fastened them firmly to the canvas, and we had to cut it before we could get them free.
There is no time to tidy the wards, for the work is never finished, as one convoy replaces another, and she is glad not to be nursing German prisoners any longer, for she feels ‘social tact’ would be too difficult on both sides. Elsewhere she tells of the effects of mustard gas in its early stages, when she could see:
… the poor things burnt and blistered all over, with great mustard-coloured suppurating blisters, with blind eyes – sometimes temporally (sic}, sometimes permanently – all sticky 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…
|Part of the Etapes cemetery and monument..
Overall, it’s a harrowing read, but it’s not all as dark and grim as you might think. There’s a touching moment when Brittain picks a pink geranium from the grave of a young soldier, and sends it, carefully wrapped, to his mother. And, despite the horror, and the grief and pity, there are comic moments, jokes are shared, friendships formed and there is occasional time for enjoyment – in Malta she admires the profusion of wild flowers and attends the opera.
In a way the final part of the book, charting Brittain’s life after the war, is almost unnecessary – or, perhaps, it should have been another book altogether. For when the war ends she cannot celebrate or feel joy. It is too late for her, she says, as those she loved have gone, and her past life has vanished with them and she adds: “The War was over; a new age was beginning; but the dead were dead and would never return.”
This was posted for the War Through the Generations WWI Challenge – click on the picture to find out more.