Vera Brittain – her Testament of Humanity

Two weeks ago an opportunity presented itself to write about one of my heroes, Anne Frank. In this week’s blog, I write about another: Vera Brittain.

I was drawn to reading Vera Brittain’s seminal book Testament of Youth last summer almost as an aside from my on-going research into aspects of the First World War in preparation for my third novel, part of which concerns the story of my grandfather who was taken prisoner of war in France in 1915. Most of my research has focused on my grandfather’s experience while held captive. Vera Brittain’s book appealed to me because she worked as a VAD (Voluntary Aid Detachment) nurse in London, Malta and in France during WW1 and, although, her story seemed peripheral to my grandfather’s experience, I have been reading as much as I can about WW1. At the time, I thought that the experience of a VAD, albeit a famous one, would merely add to the overall picture.

However I soon became completely immersed in Vera Brittain’s story and finished reading Testament of Youth towards the end of the summer and immediately began reading Testament of Experience, her follow-up book about her life after the end of WW1 up to the end of the 1940s. Taken together these two books are a marvelous testament to a remarkable woman. I have just begun reading the third installment of the ‘testament’ series: Testament of Friendship. This is Vera Brittain’s account of the life of Winifred Holtby and their sixteen-year friendship that began at Somerville College at Oxford University when Vera returned to her undergraduate studies after she interrupted them to become a VAD nurse.

The reason that I am blogging about Vera Brittain’s story is that sometime in the autumn of last year I read somewhere that a film of Testament of Youth would be released in early 2015: I was very excited at the prospect of a new film version of this powerful true story.

David Cox in the Guardian, a couple of weeks ago, called the film “bland”. He is, of course, entitled to his opinion. However as an avid admirer of Vera Brittain’s work, I found the film anything but bland: I found the film very moving indeed. Spoiler alert: if you have not seen the film, it is well-known that Vera Brittain lost those who were close to her during WW1. Whilst I have no hesitation in highly recommending the film, be prepared to join Vera (as she is portrayed wonderfully on screen by Alicia Vikander) in her sorrow, not just once but more than once.

As my wife, Annette, pointed out as we left the film theatre: “It is no wonder that she became an advocate for peace after what she went through during the First World War.” Wise words indeed.

When Vera and Winifred came down from Oxford in the early 1920s, they both became actively involved in the peace movement and activities that fought for the rights of women. Both women worked tirelessly for the cause of world peace between the wars, becoming involved in work for the League of Nations. Winifred’s untimely death in the late 1930s left Vera to continue the fight for world peace without her dear friend and this she did with vigour and energy, even though she was vilified for some of her peace-oriented activities during WW2. Vera’s endless struggle to promote world peace even during WW2 was vindicated when it was discovered that her name was on a Nazi hit list, presumably so that she could be ‘dealt with’ in the event if a Nazi victory.

It was lovely to hear Vera Brittain’s daughter, Baroness Shirley Williams on the Today programme a couple of weeks ago, say how much she enjoyed seeing the film about her mother: “I’ve seen it five times”. This only increased my eagerness to see the film.

Vera Brittain passed away in 1970. According to her daughter, she fought for peace until the end of her life. The release of the film Testament of Youth will, it is to be hoped, bring Vera’s story to a new and younger audience. Although most of the film tells the story of Vera and those around her that she loved and lost during the war, there are two key scenes towards the end of the film that point towards her future. In the first, although she has a small part, Winifred Holtby introduces herself to Vera in the library at Oxford and, in the second, Vera makes an impromptu speech about the futility of war, drawing upon her experiences as a VAD nurse. During this scene, Vera tells the hostile audience that she cared for German soldiers in northern France, suggesting to the audience that these wounded men were equal to any other soldier in that their wounds needed the same attention as any other soldier, in other words that she shared a common humanity in that field hospital where British and German wounded were cared for. (In fact, it is only towards the end of Vera’s second ‘testament’ book Testament of Experience that she writes that her experience in treating wounded German soldiers was partly instrumental in driving her towards working for peace for the rest of her life.) On the stage in the same scene is George Catlin, the man who Vera would marry. I reacted to Vera’s impassioned speech with tears: it gave us, the audience, an indication of the work that Vera Brittain would spend the rest of her life pursuing.

As I’ve probably said already in this blog post, I highly recommend the film. It doesn’t matter is you haven’t read any of Vera’s books; the film is a testament in itself, a testament to her spirit, her fortitude, her passion for the cause of peace. The world needs to be reminded to “Give Peace a Chance” (John Lennon). Vera Brittain’s world and her life were torn apart by what happened to her loved ones during WW1 and she strove for the rest of her life in an effort to join like-minded spirits in their work for peace so that the world would not make the same mistake.

We know, of course, that humankind does not seem to be capable to learn from its mistakes and has drifted into war many times since Vera’s death. However her message is as relevant and true today as it was during the several decades in the 20th century when she worked tirelessly for what is a fundamental cause for humankind to strive towards: peace.

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