To me and my contemporaries, with our cheerful confidence in the benignity of fate, War was something remote, unimaginable, its monstrous destructions and distresses safely shut up, like the Black Death and the Great Fire, between the covers of history books. … What really mattered were not these public affairs, but the absorbing incidents of our own private lives — and now, suddenly, the one had impinged upon the other, and public events and private lives had become inseparable. (p. 98)
For those who read this memoir, War will never more be “something remote, unimaginable.” It will be real, searingly painful, ineffective and so obviously wrong. When World War I broke out in 1914, Vera Brittain was only 18 and had recently overcome tremendous odds to be admitted to Oxford. When her fiancé Roland, her brother Edward, and two good friends all joined the Army, Brittain left her studies to become a nurse. She served first in London, later in Malta, and finally at the front in France before returning to England.
Brittain was an early feminist; every decision she made went against the norm, something she was keenly aware of:
Probably no ambitious girl who has lived in a family which regards the subservience of women as part of the natural order of creation ever completely recovers from the bitterness of her early emotions. Perhaps it is just as well; women have still a long way to travel before their achievements are likely to be assessed without irrelevant sex considerations entering in to bias the judgment of the critic … (p. 59)
She was driven, but also understood the “frivolity” of pursuing a degree in wartime. Her nursing experience forms the heart of this book, and is also the most emotional. Brittain describes each hospital’s harsh and inadequate conditions, and some of the soldiers under her care. When she is assigned to a ward for German prisoners, the reader begins to understand that “the enemy” also have mothers, wives, and families who love them. And, while Brittain is “doing her bit,” she experiences tremendous personal loss as those she loves lose their lives in the conflict. I found myself holding back tears, and cautiously turning the pages, fearing the next death.
After the war, Brittain found that not only had her country changed, but so had she:
Only the permanence of my fondest ambitions, and the strange and growing likeness of my son to Edward, reminds me that I am still the individual who went to Uppingham Speech Day in 1914, for although I was a student at Oxford in both my lives, it was not the same Oxford and I was not the same student. (p. 495)
Her experience left permanent emotional scars, and she struggled to cope with being part of “the lost generation.” Still, she was able to return to Oxford, and obtained her degree shortly after the university began awarding them to women. Brittain became a regular lecturer with the League of Nations Union. She returned to Europe, touring several countries to understand the impact and aftermath of the war; this once again brought home the pointlessness of it all.
This is one of the most moving and powerful books I’ve ever read. If all you know of war is strategy, tactics, good guys and bad guys, then you must read this book. Brittain has left us an important legacy. In her words:
Perhaps, after all, the best that we who were left could do was refuse to forget, and to teach our successors what we remembered in the hope that they, when their own day came, would have more power to change the state of the world than this bankrupt, shattered generation. (p.646)