The advent of the First World War brought with it the stark reality of the 'progress' which modern man had made. Mankind found out that despite the eloquence of the enlightenment, and the wonderful advancements made in medicine, education, literature, and the arts that man could still take up arms against his brother, and fight hand to hand if necessary in order to gain a foot of ground, or in retaliation for yesterday's loss of a comrade. The First World War plunged the entire western world into a deep pit, governed by the engines of war, empowered by the newly mechanized assembly line manufacturing of the industrial revolution. Fro all his advancement, and enlightenment, mankind was still closely related to the Romans who burned and conquered peopled under their iron fist, and the Huns where known to destroy everything in their path. Civilized, and enlightened, we still were violent and murderous, capable of unleashing immeasurable evil on one another.
Into this fray came Vera Brittain, a 21-year-old college undergraduate from Somerville College, Oxford. In the middle of her studies, when war broke out in August of 1914, Brittain "temporarily" disrupted her studies to enroll as a volunteer nurse for the war effort. She gave four years of her life nursing casualties both in England and on the European continent's Western Front. Her experiences over the next four years were to cause a deep rupture in the idealistic student's life. She experienced the horrors of war first hand, ministering medical aid to soldiers who returned from battle. She also experienced the quadruple loss of close friends and family, including her fiance, her brother, and two close friends. Her resulting book, Testament of Youth, is a powerfully written, unsentimental memoir which has given readers a glimpse into what we can only watch in clean, sterile surrounding of our homes, or movie theaters.
Brittain approached the Great War as an idealist youth, who enjoyed her friends, and spent time as most young adults, pursuing an education, and looking for the better things in life. According to her diaries, which were published in Phoenix: A chronicle of Youth, Brittain enjoyed bridge games with friends, and reading George Eliot's books for inspiration? Her father, Thomas Brittain, was a wealthy paper manufacturer and her childhood years Brittain spend in Macclesfield, England with her brother Edward who was just two years her junior. After completing her final term in secondary school, she returned to her parents' home in Buxton, Derbyshire. To escape the Northern provinces and her somewhat sheltered life, she wanted to continue her studies at Somerville College, Oxford. While her father first rejected the idea, as was typical for women to experience opposition to attain higher education at this time, eventually her parents gave up their opposition.
Brittain's book give the reader a clear picture, back through time, into her attitudes, hopes, and dreams as the great war approached her on the horizon. Civilized peoples had never engaged in a battle to this scale before this time. During the 18th and 19th centuries, the source of wealth was commerce and trade, so many of the greatest battles occurred on the high seas. France, England and Spain were constantly at war, recovering from war, or subtlety preparing for the next conflict. However, the idea of a war fought between sailing vessels can be idealized when discussed in the history classes. Even the revolutionary war, which robbed England of her greatest step child, was fought on foreign soil, away from the English home land. As a result, the concept, and reality of war's horrors was not known by the common citizen at the time of Brittain's writing. This may explain her causal approach to the news of war in the mainland. "When the Great War broke out, it came to me not as superlative tragedy," wrote Brittain. This war was not of supreme trouble, "but as an interruption of the most exasperating kind to my personal plans." She did not perceive that a war would change her life, but only put her plans on hold for a time. Following her desire to contribute to the national cause, Brittain left Somerville and served as a Voluntary Aid Detachment nurse. Her assignments took her to refuge camps, POW centers on the Western front, and to English hospitals on the English mainland. And the experiences here changed her perspective on war and on her place in the war forever.
Her fiance was killed by a sniper in 1915. She wrote of him, and their correspondence that "Nothing in the papers, not the most vivid and heartbreaking descriptions, have made me realize war like your letters." (Brittain, 1994) Her fiance Leighton had corresponded with her until his death. Brittain also lost her younger brother Edward, who died in 1918 on the Italian Front, and two other close friends in the war effort. These experiences turned Brittain from a naive college student into a convicted pacifist, and an active member of ongoing peace movements in both England and the United States. Her work for peace lasted into the advent of the Second World War.
Brittain give the reader a portal into the conditions of the war by her experiences serving the wounded in hospitals. In Camberwell, England, she served as a volunteer nurse in an army hospital. When she arrives, she is surprised that her quarters are little more than a professional cubical, without so much as a shelf on which to place a few books. She writes that the nurses often work until their hands are chapped, their faces weathered and their ankles swollen from the long days on their feet with little relief. Her descriptions of the patients also capture the imagination of the reader.
When I began to work in the long hut (a medical barracks of over 60 beds) my duties consisted chiefly in preparing dressing trays and supporting limbs - a task which the orderlies seldom undertook because they were so quickly upset by the butcher's shop appearance of the uncovered wounds. Soon after I arrived I was assisting one of them, who was holding a basin, faint right on top of the patient.
Many of the patients can't bear to see their own wounds, and I don't wonder," I recorded.
Although the first dressing at which I assisted - a gangrenous leg wound, slimy and green and scarlet, with the bone laid bare - turned me sick and faint for a moment... what I described to Roland as "the general atmosphere if inhumanness" was far more than the grotesque mutilation of bodies and limbs and faces." (Brittain, 1994, p. 211)
The stark inhumanness of war affected Brittain most deeply. The chapters in her book also reflect the influence of warfare. As she approached her decision to join the war effort, she entitled the chapter 'Oxford vs. War.' The next chapter is 'Learning vs. Life' and the next, the vivid description of her work in a field hospital she entitled 'Chamberwell vs. Death.' Her experiences were not allowed to be tempered by the comfortable discussions of a classroom setting. She was not seeing the sanitized images which are filtered back citizens through news papers, and today radio and television. She was on the front lines where men's purpose is reduces to surviving another day and killing his enemy. AT this level, most of the comfortable trappings of everyday life are summarily stripped away, and replaced with images of the horror which mankind can inflict on each other. As a nurse, Brittain was able to watch the process, and be forever changed by it.
The devastation she experiences was not limited to personal loss of friends and family, or to serving at the bedside of a wounded man. During her tours on the western front, she…