The Pity of War: More from Vera Brittain’s Testament of Youth

Testament of Youth is long; I have about 200 pages still to go. We’re well into the war now, and her account is a compelling mix of immediacy–especially through the long excerpts from letters and diaries written ‘to the moment’–and reflection. I’m fascinated by the almost portentous sentimentality of much of her youthful writing and her self-conscious reflections on just that quality in it, in her retrospective commentary: “It all sounded, like most of my youthful diary,” she observes wryly at one point, “very earnest and sentimental; only an experienced writer can put aspirations and prayers and resolutions into words without appearing a sententious prig.” Still, the stories of life and death she has to tell deserve a certain sentimentality. Here’s her moving account of receiving a posthumous letter from a dear friend. As the scale of loss in the war is no secret, I think there’s no point in changing names to prevent ‘spoilers.’ I’m reading along, really, in the full expectation that everyone she knows who’s at the front will die. At least this way I can only be happily surprised (not so far, just by the way).

By one of those curious chances which occurred during the War with such poignant frequency, a mail came in that evening with a letter from Geoffrey. It had been written in pencil three days before the attack; reading it with the knowledge that he had been so soon to die, I found its simple nobility even less bearable than the shock of the cablegram [bringing the news].

As I took in its contents with a slow, dull pain, the silent, shadowy verandah outside the door seemed to vanish from my eyes, and I saw the April evening in France which Geoffrey’s words were to paint upon my mind forever–the battened-out line of German trenches winding away into the shell-torn trees, the ant-like contingent of men marching across a derelict plain to billets in the large town outlined against the pale yellow sky, the setting sun beneath purple clouds reflected in the still water at the bottom of many “crump-holes.” How he wished, he said, that Edward could have been with him to see this beauty if it were any other place, but though the future seemed very vague it was none the less certain. He only hoped that he would not fail at the critical moment, as he was indeed a “horrible coward”; for his school’s sake, where so often he had watched the splendours of the sunset from the school field, he would especially like to do well. “But all this will be boring you.”

Characteristically he concluded his letter with the haunting lines that must have nerved many a reluctant young soldier to brave the death from which body and spirit shrank so pitifully:

War knows no power. Safe shall be my going . . .
Safe though all safety’s lost; safe where men fall;
And, if these poor limbs die, safest of all.

“Rupert Brooke,” he added, “is great and his faith also great. If destiny is willing I will write later.”

Well, I thought, destiny was not willing, and I shall not see that graceful, generous handwriting on any envelope any more.

The whole memoir is full of poetry, much of it composed by Brittain and her friends. When the belongings of another fallen friend are sorted out, among the muddy, bloody remains of his kit she and his mother find “the black manuscript note-book containing his poems.”

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