In 2014, the film The Testament of Youth was released, which is an adaptation of the memoirs of Vera Brittain’s first book, also titled The Testament of Youth. This harrowing memoir which was published in 1933, puts a perspective of how the First World War shaped Brittain into the person she became because of that war, a remarkable feminist and pacifist of her time who like many people of her generation experienced lost.
Vera Brittain (29 December 1893 – 29 March 1970) was a strong, determined, woman from an early age. She worked hard to prove to her parents that she was intelligent enough to earn a place at one of the most prestigious universities in the country, Somerton College, Oxford. In the early twentieth century, women were still second class citizens and paying for a university tuition fee instead of marriage was deemed a waste of money.
When war was declared in 1914, everything changed. The war seemed like an exciting adventure for young men, and many signed up almost immediately. This was also the case for Vera’s brother, her fiance, and close friend. At first there was hope as another close friend of hers, Victor was deemed medically unfit but as time went on he had managed to join the war also. So how did Vera manage with her loved ones away? She decided to postpone her university degree and become a nurse, nursing on both the home front and on the front line. For Vera, to carry on doing her degree would be to ignore those suffering and nursing was one of the only ways that a woman could get to the front to help. Nursing and war had changed her thinking; this is evident in a letter that she wrote to her fiance, Roland. On the 7th November 1915, she had admitted to him that she wanted the war to be ended immediately after her first few weeks of being on a ward. She began to question her own thinking, and if she could ever be the same person she was before the First World War had begun. This wasn’t just how Vera felt about the war, but a whole generation that didn’t want war and suffering again after the Armistice.
Vera lost her fiance, her brother and two close friends during the First World War. When the war was over, and the victory bells started to chime, Vera felt like she couldn’t celebrate; what was there to celebrate? 17 million people had died during WWI and 20 million more were injured. Vera felt alone and knew everything she knew before the war was changed forever. The Testament of Youth is an understanding of how a young woman felt during the war, without glamourising it in any way, shape or form. As Vera describes it, The Testament of Youth was a “passionate plea for peace.” Around the same time of its publication, Hitler had just risen to power in Germany and maybe she thought that war was again on the horizon in them early days.
As we commemorate the centenary of the First World War, we tend to focus on the fighting and not as much on the female perspective of loss. Reading or watching The Testament of Youth can serve as a reminder of the other casualties of war.