Vera Brittain

English Writer and World War I Pacifist

By Guest Contributor Carol Devlin

Reading “Testament of Youth” by Vera Brittain in college changed my views on war and my focus as a historian. I was so impressed by Vera Brittain’s experiences that I gave the book to my activist brother not once, but twice. Vera Brittain remains one of the most poignant and insightful voices of a generation betrayed and maimed by the War to End All Wars.
Carol Devlin

Image of Brittain's "Testament of Youth"

Vera Brittain’s Testament of Youth Fair Use/Wikipedia

In the summer of 1914, 20-year-old Vera Brittain looked forward to her first semester at Oxford’s Somerville College. She planned to share the Oxford experience with her brother, Edward and his friends, Roland, Geoffrey and Victor. The five of them were a tight-knit group with an optimistic view of their future. Vera and Roland, in particular, dreamed of their future as they basked in the first blush of their romance.

In the patriotic fervor of the first months of the War, all of Vera’s plans came to a screeching halt. The men who were the center of her life enlisted and started maneuvering to be sent to the front. After a year at Oxford, Brittain decided she couldn’t concentrate on her education for the duration of the war. She needed to be useful and contribute to the war effort. She became a Voluntary Aid Detachment nurse (VAD) and worked at hospitals in Buxton, London, Malta and France while the four contemporaries dearest to her risked their lives for God, country and honor.

As Brittain expresses so eloquently in Testament of Youth, the war ground both her future and her past to dust. Roland, by then her fiancée and the epicenter of her dreams, was killed in France in 1915 putting a permanent pall over her future. By the Armistice, Vera’s past had also been destroyed: Victor and Geoffrey died in 1917 and Edward died in 1918. Edward’s death in Italy left her the sole possessor of her most important childhood memories and marked the end of Vera’s past. She had lost everyone and everything she cared for most.

Vera poured her anguish and disillusionment into her work as a writer. Making sure her personal losses and the losses of her generation had meaning motivated much of her work. Like many other survivors of the Lost Generation, she turned to the written word to process the hell she’d lived through. Vera is a key contributor to the literary legacy of World War I. She is also the most widely known female author in that group. Her most notable works in this genre are Verses of a VAD and Testament of Youth.

During the interwar years, Vera’s pacifism took the form of internationalism or, as she put it, “piping for peace.” She wrote articles and traveled throughout England speaking at meetings. She worked to educate the public about the philosophy and work of the League of Nations. She worried about the future of Europe as she witnessed survivors grappling with the insurmountable problems of the 1920s and 1930s handicapped by the absence of the best of her generation who would have been in their prime and better equipped to deal with complex issues.

In 1937 Vera Brittain joined the Peace Pledge Union and devoted the rest of her life to speaking out against war for any reason. However, she balanced her pacifism with a strong practical bent that was strongly rooted in her work as a nurse during World War I. She worked hard to ease the suffering inherent in war. Specifically, she actively supported hunger relief and refugee programs. True to form, she also worked to educate people about the truth of the war experience, most notably through her regular Letters to Peacelovers. The British government considered her letters to be one of the most reliable sources of anti-war information and therefore targeted her, restricting her travel and blacklisting her. The most controversial of her pacifist writings in World War II was Seeds of Chaos: What Mass Bombings Really Mean, an exposé of the saturation bombing of cities.

After the second World War she wrote her second memoir—Testament of Experience—and continued to write and talk about peace-related issues. She died in 1970. Over 40 years later, Testament of Youth remains a monument to the sacrifices of the Lost Generation and a masterful first-hand account of the futility of war.