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Vera Brittain and the First World War

John Simkin

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In 1913, Vera Brittain's brother, Edward Brittain, introduced her to Roland Leighton, one of his friends from Uppingham School. Leighton, who had just won a place Merton College at Oxford University, encouraged her to go to university and in 1914 her father relented and Vera was allowed to go to Somerville College.

On the outbreak of the First World War Roland and Edward, together with their close friend Victor Richardson, immediately applied for commissions in the British Army. Vera wrote to Roland about his decision to take part in the war: "I don't know whether your feelings about war are those of a militarist or not; I always call myself a non-militarist, yet the raging of these elemental forces fascinates me, horribly but powerfully, as it does you. You find beauty in it too; certainly war seems to bring out all that is noble in human nature, but against that you can say it brings out all the barbarous too. But whether it is noble or barbarous I am quite sure that had I been a boy I should have gone off to take part in it long ago; indeed I have wasted many moments regretting that I am a girl. Women get all the dreariness of war and none of its exhilaration."

Edward Brittain introduced Vera to his friend, Geoffrey Thurlow. He was suffering from shellshock after experiencing heavy bombardment at Ypres in February 1915. He was sent back to England and was at hospital at Fishmongers' Hall when he was visited by Vera. She wrote to Roland Leighton on 11th October 1915: "I liked Thurlow so much. Whatever Edward's failings, I must say he has an admirable faculty for choosing his friends well... But seeing Thurlow for a short time made me feel rather sad, for the nicer such people as he are, the more they serve to emphasize in some indirect way, the fact of your immense superiority over the very best of them!"

By the end of her first year at Somerville College she decided it was her duty to abandon her academic career to serve her country. During the summer of 1915 she worked at the Devonshire Hospital in Buxton, as a nursing assistant, tending wounded soldiers. On 28th June 1915 she wrote to Roland pointing out: "I can honestly say I love nursing, even after only two days. It is surprising how things that would be horrid or dull if one had to do them at home quite cease to be so when one is in hospital. Even dusting a ward is an inspiration. It does not make me half so tired as I thought it would either... The majority of cases are those of people who have got rheumatism resulting from wounds. Very few come straight from the trenches, it is too far, but go to another hospital first. One man in my ward had six operations before coming and is still almost helpless."

Vera applied to join the Voluntary Aid Detachment (VAD) as a nurse and in November 1915 was posted to the First London General Hospital at Camberwell. Vera found this a traumatic experience. On 7th November 1915 she wrote to Roland Leighton: "I have only one wish in life now and that is for the ending of the war. I wonder how much really all you have seen and done has changed you. Personally, after seeing some of the dreadful things I have to see here, I feel I shall never be the same person again, and wonder if, when the war does end, I shall have forgotten how to laugh... 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."

She found dealing with the parents of wounded soldiers particularly difficult: "Today is visiting day, and the parents of a boy of 20 who looks and behaves like 16 are coming all the way from South Wales to see him. He has lost one eye, had his head trepanned and has fourteen other wounds, and they haven't seen him since he went to the front. He is the most battered little object you ever saw. I dread watching them see him for the first time."

Vera Brittain wrote in her diary: "Sometimes in the middle of the night we have to turn people out of bed and make them sleep on the floor to make room for the more seriously ill ones who have come down from the line. We have heaps of gassed cases at present: there are 10 in this ward alone. I wish those people who write so glibly about this being a holy war, and the orators who talk so much about going on no matter how long the war lasts and what it may mean, could see a case - to say nothing of 10 cases of mustard gas in its early stages - could see the poor things all burnt and blistered all over with great suppurating blisters, with blind eyes - sometimes temporally, some times permanently - all sticky and stuck together, and always fighting for breath, their voices a whisper, saying their throats are closing and they know they are going to choke."

Vera became engaged to Roland Leighton, while he was on leave in August 1915. On his return to France he was stationed in trenches near Hebuterne, north of Albert. On the 26th November 1915 he wrote a letter to Vera that highlighted his disillusionment with the war. "It all seems such a waste of youth, such a desecration of all that is born for poetry and beauty. And if one does not even get a letter occasionally from someone who despite his shortcomings perhaps understands and sympathises it must make it all the worse... until one may possibly wonder whether it would not have been better to have met him at all or at any rate until afterwards. I sometimes wish for your sake that it had happened that way."

On the night of 22nd December 1915 he was ordered to repair the barbed wire in front of his trenches. It was a moonlit night with the Germans only a hundred yards away and Roland Leighton was shot by a sniper. His last words were: "They got me in the stomach, and it's bad." He died of his wounds at the military hospital at Louvencourt on 23rd December 1915. He is buried in the military cemetery near Doullens.

In her autobiography Vera recalled visiting Roland's family home in Hassocks. "I arrived at the cottage that morning to find his mother and sister standing in helpless distress in the midst of his returned kit, which was lying, just opened, all over the floor. The garments sent back included the outfit that he had been wearing when he was hit. I wondered, and I wonder still, why it was thought necessary to return such relics - the tunic torn back and front by the bullet, a khaki vest dark and stiff with blood, and a pair of blood-stained breeches slit open at the top by someone obviously in a violent hurry. Those gruesome rages made me realise, as I had never realised before, all that France really meant."

On 3rd January 1916, Vera returned to First London General Hospital at Camberwell. In his book, Letters From a Lost Generation (1998), Alan Bishop argued that "nursing proved an intolerable strain while her grief for Roland was still so raw on the support" of Victor Richardson and Geoffrey Thurlow, who were both recovering in military hospitals.

Edward Brittain arrived on the Western Front at the beginning of 1916. On 27th February he wrote to his sister, Vera Brittain. "Ordinary risks of stray shots or ricochets off a sandbag or the chance of getting hit when you look over the parapet in the night time - you hardly ever do in the day time but use periscopes - are daily to be encountered. But far the most dangerous thing is going out on patrol in No Man's Land. You take bombs in case you should meet a hostile patrol, but you might be surrounded, you might be seen especially if you go very close to their line and anyhow. Very lights are always being sent up and they make night into day so you have to keep down and quite still, and you might get almost on top of their listening post if you are not sure where it is."

On 8th January 1916 Victor Richardson suggested a meeting with Vera. "May I come and see you on Wednesday afternoon? I suggest this next Wednesday, because I am on guard at one of the Arsenal entrances during the week, and as it is not an important position I could leave my coadjutor in charge for the afternoon, and disappear - without leave..... Of course if you do not feel inclined to see people I shall quite understand. If I do not hear from you I shall assume this to be the case." Vera agreed to the meeting, as she told her brother, Edward Brittain: "I had tea with Victor on Wednesday. Of course we talked of Roland the whole time."

Vera wrote to her brother on 23rd February about her new friend, Geoffrey Thurlow: "I saw that Thurlow had been wounded - I suppose in the recent fighting at Ypres. I have almost loved him since his little letter to me after Roland died, and I can't tell you how anxiously I hope that he is not badly hurt." Vera went to visit Geoffrey on 27th February. Later that day she wrote to her brother about his condition: "I have just been to see Thurlow at Fishmongers' Hall Hospital, London Bridge. He is only very slightly wounded on the left side of his face; fortunately his eyes, nose and mouth are quite untouched. In fact he says he won't even have a scar left, and the wound is healing with a depressing rapidity.... He was apparently wounded in the bombardment, before all the trench fighting began. He thinks hardly any of his battalion are left now."

Vera told Edward Brittain that Thurlow was suffering from the consequences of serving on the front-line: "Thurlow was... sitting before a gas stove, with a green dressing gown on and a brown blanket over his knees. He seems to feel the cold a great deal, which must be owing to the shock, and also for the same reason his nerves are very bad, so he has been given two months sick leave."

Thurlow told Vera that he was keen to return to France. "Of course he doesn't want to go back a bit, but since he has to go, he's got the same feeling as he had before, that he wants to go out quickly and get it over. He says he finds the anticipation so much worse than the things themselves, whatever they are. He says he is not a bit of a success out there because he is so afraid of being afraid, and he hates the way all his men's eyes are fixed on him when anything big is on, partly to see how he will take it, partly because they are afraid of anything happening to him. He says he objects to war on principle, and is a non-militarist very strongly at heart. I think it was very brave of him to join almost at once as he did... It is easy to see he is suffering from shock; he looks rather a ghost now he is sitting up, talks even more jerkily than before, and works his fingers about nervously while he is talking."

Vera found nursing badly wounded men very difficult: "He (Victor Richardson) has been near death, I know, but he hasn't seen men with mutilations such as I have, though he may have heard a lot about them; I must admit that when, as I am doing at present, I have to deal with men who have only half a face left and the other side bashed in out of recognition, or part of their skull torn away, or both feet off, or an arm blown off at the shoulder."

Edward took part in the Battle of the Somme on 1st July 1916. The author of Letters From a Lost Generation (1998) has pointed out: "While his company was waiting to go over, the wounded from an earlier part of the attack began to crowd into the trenches. Then part of the regiment in front began to retreat, throwing Edward's men into a panic. He had to return to the trenches twice to exhort them to follow him over the parapet. About ninety yards along No-Man's-Land, Edward was hit by a bullet through his thigh. He fell down and crawled into a shell hole. Soon afterwards a shell burst close to him and a splinter from it went through his left arm. The pain was so great that for the first time he lost his nerve and cried out. After about an hour and a half, he noticed that the machine-gun fire was slackening, and started a horrifying crawl back through the dead and wounded to the safety of the British trenches."

Edward Brittain was sent to First London General Hospital at Camberwell where his sister was working as a nurse. According to Alan Bishop: "After receiving permission from his Matron to visit him, Vera hurried to Edward's bedside. He was struggling to eat breakfast with only one hand, his left arm was stiff and bandaged, but he appeared happy and relieved. Edward would remain in the hospital for three weeks before beginning a prolonged period of convalescent leave." On 24th August it was announced that Brittain had been awarded the Military Cross.

On 24th September, 1916, Vera received news that she was being posted to Malta. Her brother, Edward Brittain wrote on the 5th October: "The night of the day you left London the Zeppelins dropped 4 bombs at Purley somewhere up that hill where we walked one afternoon when I was still bad only about 600yds from the house but it did no damage. A foolish woman came out into the road and therefore received some shrapnel in one eye from one of our own guns but otherwise there was no damage except windows and a pillar box."

Vera continued to communicate with Victor Richardson and Geoffrey Thurlow. Richardson, who was a member of the 9th King's Royal Rifles was stationed on a quiet sector of the Western Front: "I have so far come across nothing more gruesome than a few very dead Frenchman in No Man's Land, so cannot give you very thrilling descriptions. The thing one appreciates in the life here more than anything else is the truly charming spirit of good fellowship and freedom from pettiness that prevails everywhere." Thurlow wrote on 18th November 1916: "Since my last letter much has happened - we have been to the war again and the weather treated us abominably: however our battalion did well taking an important Hun trench - we didn't go over the top but had to clean up and hang on to the trench. Luckily we had no officer casualties though there were many among the men. But as our number of officers is at present the irreducible minimum perhaps this accounts for it."

Edward Brittain received his Military Cross from George V on 16th December 1916. In a letter to Vera he wrote: "We were instructed what to do by a Colonel who I believe is the King's special private secretary and then the show started. One by one we walked into an adjoining room about 6 paces - halt - left turn - bow - 2 paces forward - King pins on cross - shake hands - pace back - bow - right turn and slope off by another door... The King spoke to a few of us including me; he said "I hope you have quite recovered from your wound", to which I replied "Very nearly thank you, Sir", and then went out with the cross in my pocket in a case. I met Mother just outside and we went off towards Victoria thinking we had quite escaped all the photographers, but unfortunately one beast from the Daily Mirror saw us and took us, but luckily it does not seem to have come out well as it is rather bad form to have your photo in a cheap rag if avoidable."

On 20th February 1917, Vera wrote a very personal letter to Edward: "But where you and I are concerned, sex by itself doesn't interest us unless it is united with brains and personality; in fact we rather think of the latter first, and the person's sex afterwards... I think very probably that older women will appeal to you much more than younger ones, as they do me. This means that you will probably have to wait a good many years before you find anyone you could wish to marry, but I don't think this need worry you, for there is plenty of time, and very often people who wait get something well worth waiting for."

In a letter to Edward Brittain on 2nd April 1917, Vera reported that some of the staff had been posted to Salonika. "I wish they would send some of us.... I would volunteer like a shot. Not because the city of malaria and mosquitoes and air-raids and odours suggests many attractions, but because this wandering, unsettled, indefinite sort of life makes one yearn to taste as much as one can of what the war has placed within human experience."

Victor Richardson was badly wounded during an attack at Arras on 9th April 1917. Vera wrote to her mother, Edith Brittain: "There really does not seem much point in writing anything until I hear further news of Victor, for I cannot think of anything else... I knew he was destined for some great action, even as I knew beforehand about Edward, for only about a week ago I had a most pathetic letter from him - a virtual farewell. It is dreadful to be so far away and all among strangers.... Poor Edward! What a bad time the Three Musketeers have had!"

Richardson was sent back to London where he received specialist treatment at a hospital in Chelsea. Edward Brittain, visited him in hospital, and then wrote to Vera, about his condition: "It is not known yet whether Victor will die or not, but his left eye was removed in France and the specialist who saw him thinks it is almost certain that the sight of the right eye has gone too... The bullet - probably from a machine-gun - went in just behind the left eye and went very slightly upwards but not I'm afraid enough to clear the right eye; the bullet is not yet out though very close to the right edge of the temple; it is expected that it will work through of its own accord... We are told that he may remain in his present condition for a week. I don't think he will die suddenly but of course the brain must be injured and it depends upon how bad the injury is. I am inclined to think it would be better that he should die; I would far rather die myself than lose all that we have most dearly loved, but I think we hardly bargained for this. Sight is really a more precious gift than life."

Geoffrey Thurlow was killed in action at Monchy-le-Preux on 23rd April 1917. Three days later, Captain J. W. Daniel, wrote to Edward Brittain, about Thurlow's death: "The hun had got us held up and the leading battalions of the Brigade had failed to get their objective. The battalion came up in close support through a very heavy barrage, but managed to get into the trench - of which the Boshe still held a part... I sent a message to Geoffrey to push along the trench and find out if possible what was happening on the right. the trench was in a bad condition and rather congested, so he got out on the top. Unfortunately the Boche snipers were very active and he was soon hit through the lungs. Everything was done to make him as comfortable as possible, but he died lying on a stretcher about fifteen minutes later."

Edward wrote to Vera about Thurlow: "Always a splendid friend with a splendid heart and a man who won't be forgotten by you or me however long or short a time we may live. Dear child, there is no more to say; we have lost almost all there was to lose and what have we gained? Truly as you say has patriotism worn very very threadbare."

Vera replied: "I can't tell you how I shall miss Geoffrey - I think he meant more to me that anyone after Roland and you. as for you I dare not think how lonely you must feel with him dead and Victor perhaps worse, for it makes me too impatient of the time that must elapse before I can see you - I may not even be able to start for two or three weeks. Geoffrey and I had become very friendly indeed in letters of late, and used to write at least once a week... After Roland he was the straightest, soundest, most upright and idealistic person I have ever known."

Vera decided to return home after the death of Geoffrey Thurlow and the serious injuries suffered by Victor Richardson. She told her brother: "As soon as the cable came saying that Geoffrey was killed, only a few hours after the one saying that Victor was hopelessly blind, I knew I must come home. It will be easier to explain when I see you, also - perhaps - to consult you about something I can't possibly discuss in a letter. Anyone could take my place here, but I know that nobody else could take the place that I could fill just now at home."

Edward Brittain went to visit Victor and on 7th May he told his sister: "He was told last Wednesday that he will probably never see again, but he is marvellously cheerful.... He is perfectly sensible in every way and I don't think there is the very least doubt that he will live. He said that the last few days had been rather bitter. He hasn't given up hope himself about his sight."

Vera arrived in London on 28th May 1917. The next ten days she spent at Victor's bedside. As Alan Bishop points out: "His mental faculties appeared to be in no way impaired. On 8 June, however, there was a sudden change in his condition. In the middle of the night he experienced a miniature explosion in the head, and subsequently became very distressed and disoriented. By the time his family reached the hospital Victor had become delirious." Victor Richardson died of a cerebral abscess on 9th June, 1917 and is buried in Hove. He was awarded the Military Cross posthumously.

Edward returned to the Western Front in June 1917. Vera decided she wanted to be as close to her brother as possible and in July she returned to duty with the Voluntary Aid Detachment and requested a posting to France. On 30th June 1917 Edward wrote to Vera: "The unexpected has happened again and I am in for another July 1st (Battle of the Somme)... You know that, as I promised, I will try to come back if I am killed. It is all very sudden and it is bad luck that I am here in time, but still it must be. All the love there is in life or death."

On 3th August 1917, Vera joined a small draft of nurses who were being sent out to the 24th General Hospital at Étaples. She wrote to her mother on 5th August: "I arrived here yesterday afternoon; the hospital is about a mile out of the town, on the side of the hill, in a large clearing surrounded on three sides by woods... The hospital is frantically busy and we were very much welcomed.... You will be surprised to hear that at present I am nursing German prisoners. My ward is entirely reserved for the most acute German surgical cases... The majority are more or less dying; never, even at the 1st London during the Somme push, have I seen such dreadful wounds. Consequently they are all too ill to be aggressive, and one forgets that they are the enemy and can only remember that they are suffering human beings."

Vera had to deal with men suffering from mustard gas attacks. She wrote to her mother on 5th December 1917: "We have heaps of gassed cases at present who came in a day or two ago; there are ten in this ward alone. I wish those people who write so glibly about this being a holy war and the orators who talk so much about going on no matter how long the war lasts and what it may mean, could see a case - to say nothing of ten cases - of mustard gas in its early stages - could see the poor things burnt and blistered all over with great mustard coloured suppurating blisters, with blinded eyes - sometimes temporally, sometimes permanently - all sticky and stuck together, and always fighting for breath, with voices a mere whisper, saying that their throats are closing and they know they will choke. The only thing one can say it that such severe cases don't last long; either they die soon or else improve - usually the former; they certainly don't reach England in the state we have them here, and yet people persist in saying that God made War, when there are such inventions of the Devil about."

In her autobiography, Testament of Youth (1933), Vera recorded: "Sometimes in the middle of the night we have to turn people out of bed and make them sleep on the floor to make room for the more seriously ill ones who have come down from the line.... The strain is very, very great. The enemy is within shelling distance - refugee sisters crowding in with nerves all awry - bright moonlight, and aeroplanes carrying machine guns - ambulance trains jolting into the siding, all day, all night - gassed men on stretchers clawing the air - dying men reeking with mud and foul green stained bandages, shrieking and writhing in a grotesque travesty of manhood - dead men with fixed empty eyes and shiny yellow faces."

In September 1917 Edward Brittain took part in a major offensive. He wrote to Vera on the 23rd: "We came out (of the front-line) last night... had about 50 casualties including one officer in the company - the best officer of course. I ought to have been slain myself heaps of times but I seem to be here still. Harrison has arrived back and it is quite a relief to hand the company over for a bit."

The following month Edward was sent to Ypres for the offensive at Passchendaele. He wrote to Vera on 7th October 1917: "My leave seems to have been stopped for the present for some reason or other and also we are probably going up to Ypres again tonight to provide working-parties etc. which is as unexpected as it is objectionable; it is filthy weather, cold and pouring with rain and I have just caught a bad cold and so am not particularly pleased with life."

In November 1917 Edward Brittain and the 11th Sherwood Foresters were posted to the Italian Front in the Alps above Vicenza, following the humiliating rout of the Italian Army at Caporetto. On 15th November 1917, he wrote to Vera: "We marched through the city yesterday - it is old, picturesque and rather sleepy with narrow streets and pungent smells; we have been accorded a most hearty reception all the way and have been presented with anything from bottles of so-called phiz, to manifestos issued by mayors of towns; flowers and postcards were the most frequent tributes."

While she was in Étaples Vera received a letter from her father informing her that her mother had suffered a complete breakdown and entered a nursing home in Mayfair, and that it was her duty to leave France immediately and return home to Kensington. Vera arrived back in England in April 1918 and arranged for her mother to return home. According to the author of Letters From a Lost Generation (1998): "Vera... took charge of the household. But it was with a strong air of resentment that she tried to reaccustom herself to the dull monotony of civilian life."

On 15th June, 1918, the Austrian Army launched a surprise attack with a heavy bombardment of the British front-line along the bottom of the San Sisto Ridge. Edward Brittain led his men in a counter-offensive and had regained the lost positions, but soon afterwards, he was shot through the head by a sniper and had died instantaneously. He was buried with four other officers in the small cemetery at Granezza.

Alan Bishop points out that his commanding officer, Lieutenant Colonel Charles Hudson, had ordered an investigation into Brittain's homosexuality: "Shortly before the action in which he was killed, Edward had been faced with an enquiry and, in all probability, a court martial when his battalion came out of the line, because of his involvement with men in his company. It remains a possibility that, faced with the disgrace of a court martial, Edward went into battle deliberately seeking to be killed."






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