Vera Brittain is best known for her novel, A Testament of Youth. Born into a wealthy family, Brittain was educated privately and in boarding schools. Though her father did not believe in advanced education for women, he relented and allowed Brittain to attend Somerville College at Oxford. Like many women of her time, Brittain joined the Voluntary Aid Detachment (VAD) at the outbreak of war and served in England and France. Her finance was killed early in the war, as was her brother and several other friends. After the war, Brittain returned to Oxford and took up a career as a writer. Her first two novels, The Dark Tide and Not Without Honor, were not well received. However, her journalism was much admired.
Published in 1933, A Testament of Youth, an autobiographical novel about her experiences in the First World War became a best seller on both sides of the Atlantic. Prior to the release of Testament, Brittain wrote two books on the role of women: Women’s Work in Modern Britain and Halcyon or the Future of Monogamy.
Brittain married and moved to the U.S. However in the 1920s she found it difficult to remain in America. As she continued to write, she became more convinced of her feelings about war and pacifism. She continued to explore her interest in pacifism in her books Humiliation with Honor and Seeds of Chaos. During the Second World War she became critical of Britain’s bombing of urban areas, and in the 1950s strongly opposed nuclear weapons. She was an active supporter of peace until her death in 1970.
Excerpt from A Testament of Youth
The excerpt from A Testament of Youth describes a field camp hospital in 1918.
I am a Sister VAD, and orderly all in one. Quite apart from the nursing, I have stoked the fire all night, done two or three rounds of bed pans, and kept the kettles going and prepared feeds on exceedingly black Beatrice oil stoves and refilled them from the steam kettles utterly wallowing in paraffin all the time. I feel as if I had been dragged through the gutter. Possibly acute surgical is the heaviest type of work there is, I think, more wearing than anything else on earth. You are kept on the go the whole time but in the end there seems to be nothing definite to show for it - except that one or two are still alive that might otherwise have been dead.
The picture came back to me of myself standing alone in a newly created circle of hell during the 'emergency' of March 22nd 1918, gazing half hypnotized at the disheveled beds, the stretchers on the floor, the scattered boots and piles of muddy clothing, the brown blankets turned back from smashed limbs bound to splints by filthy bloodstained bandages. Beneath each stinking wad of sodden wool and gauze an obscene horror waited for me and all the equipment that 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.
The cold is terrific; the windows of the ward are all covered with icicles. I'm going about in a jersey and long coat. By the middle of December our kettles, hot water bottles and sponges were all frozen hard when we came off duty if we had not carefully emptied and squeezed them the night before. Getting up to go on duty in the icy darkness was a shuddering misery almost as exacting as an illness.
Our vests, if we hung them over a chair, went stiff and we could keep them soft only if we slept in them. All the taps froze; water for the patients had to be cut down to a minimum and any spilt in the passages turned in a few seconds to ice.
Reflective Questions: A Testament of Youth
- What is it in the spirit of a nurse that allows for the ability to endure such hardships as those described in the excerpt from A Testament of Youth?
- What is the psychological pressure confronted by nurses at a battlefield hospital? How might the experience carry beyond time spent on duty or after leaving the service.
- Research post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), a condition associated with the Gulf and Iraq wars. Assess how PTSD closely resembles the symptoms shared by many you may have read about during the First World War.
- How might the role of a nurse or medic be different or the same today as it was during the First World War? Research background to the VAD and field hospitals in the Great War and do the same for the Iraqi War. Write a comparative study of the two.
- Brittain lost all of the people who were close to her during the war. Write a description of your feelings if something as tragic as that happened to you. You can also express your thoughts through poetry.