VERA BRITTAIN
a short biography

 
       
 

PART ONE
PART TWO
PART THREE


- resources
- Vera Brittain- women and peace
  and selected texts

- desktop picture

 

Some of the 73,000 names of men killed in the battles of the Somme who's boies have not been found.

 

 
 




Tell a friend about this

  Vera Brittain is best known for her book ‘Testament of Youth’, in which she tells the story of her harrowing experiences in the First World War. It was then that she realised that war wasn’t the glorious adventure many young men thought it to be. Afterwards she became strongly - and famously - associated with the peace movement, to which she was committed for the rest of her life

 
 


"The destruction of men 
seems to me a crime to the 
  whole march of civilisation." 









  
Roland Leighton's grave in Louvencourt, France.

 

Vera Brittain was born in 1893 to a family with a comfortable income and middle-class attitudes. Home life oppressed Vera profoundly, and she was a rebel from the start. ‘The disadvantages of being a woman have eaten like iron into my soul.’ She had quickly realised that being female was a handicap in those days, and she struggled for recognition as an individual and independent person with the right to have further education and a career. She deeply envied her much-loved younger brother, Edward, who could leave home without having to get married to do it.

1913 was a significant year for Vera. A series of lucky chances led to her being accepted to study at Somerville College Oxford (an idea her father at first rejected entirely, as being an unsuitable step for a girl). She also met her brother Edward’s school friend Roland Leighton, and they fell in love. All three were going to study in Oxford: the future looked bright.

But in 1914 everything changed. War was something new and unsettling for Vera to understand. In the only way she knew then, she responded to the sense of crisis it created. Conditioned to the traditional public school view that a soldier’s life was a manly and heroic one, she urged her brother to enlist - once again in direct conflict with her father. She was still ignorant of the power and techniques of propaganda: to her, the cleverly-designed recruiting advertisements were honourable and sincere. War, in short, was part of the man’s world from which Vera felt unfairly excluded, a world in which one bravely went to battle when it seemed necessary and honourable to do so. As she said later, she was ‘carried away by the wartime emotion and deceived by the shining figure of patriotism’.

But three weeks after the war began, she was already writing this: ‘It was very hard to believe that not far away men were being slain ruthlessly.... The destruction of men, as though beasts, whether they be English, French, German or anything else, seems a crime to the whole march of civilisation.’ She was starting to understand what war really means.

‘Testament of Youth’ tells the story: how she left Oxford to train as a nursing auxiliary, how she went on to nurse wounded soldiers in England, Malta and France, and how one by one the friends she cared most about were killed, including her fiancé Roland and, in 1918, her brother Edward. In France, some of the suffering men in her care were German prisoners-of-war, and here she recognised a tragic and terrible absurdity: she was working hard to save lives, while her brother had been trying to destroy them. Vera now saw that there was nothing ‘holy’ or ‘just’ about war; and she never forgot what she had learned from it. She said later that her pacifism was ‘rooted in my experience of war’. continue...

 
   

     

     
         
 

 

 

  P E A C E  P L E D G E  U N I O N  41b Brecknock Road, London N7 0BT, Britain.
  phone  +44 020 7424 9444  fax: +44 020 7482 6390     CONTACT US