Vera Brittain’s ‘Testament of Youth’

I usually avoid watching a film adaptation of a book until after I’ve read it, but I saw ‘Testament of Youth’ on Netflix before realising it was based on an actual memoir from the First World War. The film was powerfully affecting and I’d already ordered the memoir before the end credits had finished rolling.

Waiting for an opportunity to fully immerse myself in such an important lengthy tome, I took Testament of Youth (1933) on holiday with me last month. Having seen the film, I thought I knew what to expect, but was awed afresh by Vera Brittain’s powerful evocation of the impact of the war, particularly on the young. Discovering that Brittain was the mother of the politician, Shirley Williams, seemed to shrink the century between the unfolding of events in the book and my reading of them, to touching distance.

Brittain’s own story is an engaging one, striving against the odds, she achieved a place to study at Oxford University.  After achieving her hard-fought aim, she then abandoned her studies for nursing, as she felt unable to pursue what she saw as a privileged path while her brother and friends were leaving in droves to risk their lives on the battlefield. The memoir vividly portrays a life lived in constant fear over the safety of loved ones; the awkwardness of a courtship forced in fits and starts rather than flourishing at its own pace, due to the threat of war casting a doomed shadow over the young lovers; and the wave after wave of devastating loss, as one by one, her closest friends, her sweetheart and her brother are lost.

Brittain’s writing is powerfully erudite, showing a maturity beyond her years. Her evocation of the experiences of war are visceral and heart-breaking, whether it be the constant looming fear of unwanted news or the horrifying task faced daily by nurses, putting back together the broken bodies of a nation’s brave young boys. I’d never before appreciated the scale of the war, nor comprehended the gulf between the experiences of the young and the old. While the older generation left at home bemoaned short rations and inconvenience, an entire generation of young men got butchered in the trenches. Those left alive were patched together by ill-equipped, over-worked nurses facing the worst horrors of war and loss on a daily basis.

What came as an unexpected shock was discovering that when the war was over, the entire nation – especially those untouched by loss and those too young to have been involved – conspired to erase the memory of the horror and loss, to now look resolutely forward instead of back, leaving those shattered by their losses to mourn in silence. Returning to Oxford after her war work, Brittain struggled to fit back in with the new optimism of her peers, and her bitterness is palpable.

Obviously it wasn’t a popular thing to have been close to the War; patriots, especially of the female variety, were as much discredited in 1919 as in 1914 they had been honoured….

In the eyes of these realistic ex-High-School girls, who had sat out the War in classrooms, I was now aware that I represented neither a respect-worthy volunteer in a national cause nor a surviving victim of history’s cruellest catastrophe; I was merely a figure of fun, ludicrously boasting of her experiences in an already démodé conflict. I had been, I suspected, largely to blame for my own isolation. I could not throw off the War, nor the pride and the grief of it; rooted and immersed in memory, I had appeared self-absorbed, contemptuous and “stand-offish” to my ruthless and critical juniors.

I found Vera Brittain’s memoir to be a deeply moving and chilling reminder of the terrible cost of war. I wonder that it isn’t on the curriculum in schools along with the War Poets, which was my first introduction to WW1. More than ever in the unsettled times in which we live, we must not forget the devastating loss of a whole generation, and hope to god, we don’t ever have to experience anything like this again.

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