I’ve read a lot about the Great War: poetry, history, memoirs. As I’ve described in an earlier blog post, it seemed to me the moment when everything changed for western civilization. Of course the more I read about earlier eras, the more I see that such cataclysms were nothing new. Yet, there is something peculiarly wrenching for me when I think of the ranks of young men, blinded by visions of patriotic glory, being mown down into the mud of the Somme and Ypres.
What I haven’t thought much about are the women. The land girls, yes, and the misguided women handing out white feathers, but not about the nurses or the women waiting for the next letter from the front and anxiously scanning the lists of the dead.
Vera Brittain’s memoir fills that gap. Written in the early 1930s, she describes the horrors that stunned her “cursed generation” in a calm yet unforgiving voice, the voice of the sternly practical and compassionate nurse she became. Brittain generously quotes from her journals and letters, both her own and those received, to give us the genuine flavor of the time. She also includes a few poems written at the time by her and by her fiancé, Roland. I think it was the poems that moved me the most, with their distillation of emotion.
While the book is a daunting 600+ pages, I was irresistibly drawn forward by this mix of voices.
(from a letter to Roland) “One day last week I came away from a really terrible amputation dressing I had been assisting at—it was the first after the operation–with my hands covered with blood and my mind full of a passionate fury at the wickedness of war, and I wished I had never been born.”
No sudden gift of second sight showed me the future months in which I should not only contemplate and hold, but dress unaided and without emotion, the quivering stump of a newly amputated limb–than which a more pitiable spectacle hardly exists on this side of death.
For contrast, she gives us a bit of her early life, growing up in Macclesfield and Buxton. Desperate to escape the provinces and have a career, she resists the strong pressure of family and neighbors to leave school and marry young. Instead she sits for admission to Oxford, although by the time she gets in, the war has started; her fiancé and beloved younger brother have enlisted; and Oxford no longer seems relevant.
She becomes a nurse, and it is through the lense of her nursing career in London, Malta and France that we experience the war. In 1918 soldiers from the front tell her of seeing their mates who’d died on the Somme in 1916, saying “‘And it’s our belief they’re fightin’ with us still.'” She responds:
But at the time I merely felt cold and rather sick, and when I had finished the dressing I put down my tray and stood for a moment at the open door of the hut. I saw the Sisters in their white overalls hurrying between the wards, the tired orderlies toiling along the paths with their loaded stretchers, the usual crowd of Red Cross ambulances outside the reception hut, and I recognised my world for a kingdom of death, in which the poor ghosts of the victims had no power to help their comrades by breaking nature’s laws.
After the war, stunned by grief, going mechanically through her days, she finds meaning in working for peace, both as a journalist and for the League of Nations. She calls this the terrible responsibility of the survivors.
Perhaps, after all, the best that we who were left could do was to 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.
In this strong memoir, Brittain fulfills that goal. I look forward to finding the two sequels to it.
What book have you read that might teach our children to take the courage that has in the past been dedicated to war instead devote it to peace?