This volume is subtitled “The First World War Letters of Vera Brittain and Four Friends: Roland Leighton, Edward Brittain, Victor Richardson, Geoffrey Thurlow.” The editors, Alan Bishop and Mark Bostridge, explain in their ‘Note to the Text’ that they have abridged the letters, sometimes significantly, in order to “lay bare the vivid and moving personal stories they tell, against the historical background of a cataclysm that destroyed four of the five writers.” In their ‘Introduction,’ they sum up the story the letters tell, one of “idealism, disillusionment, and personal tragedy.” Though excerpts always make me wonder whether the material omitted might have changed the story, there’s no doubt that the letters as presented here do follow just that arc. The four young men in the correspondence are all products of the British public school system which taught them the values they lived and then died for: “traditions of chivalry,” the editors explain, “the values of self-sacrifice, fair play, selfless patriotism, honour, duty.” War, in their view, was the ultimate proving ground for these qualities as well as their defense. Remnants of what can only look to us like a narrow-minded as well as naive idealism linger on throughout their letters, especially in their poignant wish to show courage in the face of incessant horror and imminent death: “I only hope I don’t fail at the critical moment,” writes Geoffrey, in what turns out to be his last letter to Vera, “as truly I am a horrible coward: wish I could do well especially for the School’s sake.” But it doesn’t take long for the realities of the trenches to disillusion them about war itself. “I used to talk of the Beauty of War,” Vera’s fiancé Roland writes to hear early in August 1915, “but it is only War in the abstract that is beautiful.”
After Roland’s death, in late December 1915, Vera’s brother Edward writes to her that Roland “considered that in War lay our one hope of salvation as a Nation, War where all the things things that do not matter are swept rudely aside and one gets down to the rock-bottom of the elementary facts of life.” Their friend Victor, the most militaristic of them (Geoffrey, in contrast, is the least militaristic, telling Vera that “he objects to War on principle”) argues at one point to Edward that “the Allies are God’s instrument by which He will remove that spirit and doctrine which is the cause of such Wars as this one.” To Vera, Victor writes that “The thing one appreciates in the life here more than anything else is the truly charming spirit of good fellowship & freedom from pettiness that prevails everywhere.” But these theoretical, wishful, or compensatory arguments are inadequate bulwarks against passages like this one:
I have been rushing around since 4 a.m. this morning superintending the building of dug-outs, drawing up plans for the draining of trenches, doing a little digging myself as a relaxation, and accidentally coming upon dead Germans while looting timber from what was once a German fire trench. This latter was captured by the French not so long ago and is pitted with shell holes each big enough to bury a horse or two in. The dug-outs have been nearly all blown in, the wire entanglements are a wreck, and in among this chaos of twisted iron and splintered timber and shapeless earth are the fleshless, blackened bones of simple men who poured out their red sweet wine of youth unknowing, for nothing more tangible than Honour or their Country’s Glory or another’s Lust [for] Power. Let him who thinks that War is a glorious thing, who loves to roll forth stirring words of exhortation, invoking Honour and Praise and Valour and Love of Country with as thoughtless and fervid a faith as inspired the priests of Baal to call on their own slumbering deity, let him but look at a little pile of sodden grey rags that cover half a skull and a shin bone and what might have been Its ribs, or at this skeleton lying on its side, resting half crouching as it fell, supported by one arm, perfect but that it is headless and with the tattered clothing still draped around it; and let him realise how grand & glorious a thing it is to have distilled all Youth and Joy and Life into a foetid heap of hideous putrescence. Who is there who has known & seen who can say that Victory is worth the death of even one of these? (Roland to Vera, 11 September 1915)
“It seems to me now,” Vera writes back soon after, “that this War is scarcely for victory at all, for even if victory comes it will be at the cost of so much else, so many greater things, that it will be scarcely worth having. No, this War will only justify itself if it puts an end to all the horror & barbarism & retrogression of War for ever.” After Roland’s belongings are returned to his family, Vera writes to Edward,
I was glad that neither you nor Victor nor anyone else who may some day go to the front was there to see. If you had been you would have been overwhelmed by the horror of war without its glory. For though he had only worn the things when living, the smell of those clothes was the smell of graveyards & the Dead. The mud of France which covered them was not ordinary mud; it had not the usual clean pure smell of earth, but it was as though it were saturated with dead bodies – dead that had been dead a long, long time. All the sepulchres and catacombs of Rome could not make me realise mortality and corruption as vividly as did the smell of those clothes.
“Dear child,” Edward writes to Vera after the news of Geoffrey’s death, “there is no more to say; we have lost almost all there was to lose and what have we gained?”
What’s so surprising and touching about their letters is not what was gained or lost, but what was somehow retained–in spite of everything, you never lose the awareness that they are just (just!) five young people making their way forward a day at a time, in the best way they can find. They have school memories and career ambitions, favorite novels and poems, families that frustrate as well as comfort them. They worry, too, about how the war might be changing them. “I don’t think,” Roland writes to Vera, “that when one can still admire sunsets one has altogether lost the personality of pre-war days. I have been looking at a bloodred bar of sky creeping down behind the snow, and wondering whether any of the men in the trenches on the opposite hill were watching it too and thinking as I was what a waste of Life it is to spend it in a ditch.” Geoffrey’s final letter (paraphrased in Testament of Youth) includes an evocative description of the trenches in the setting sun, a line of men “outlined against a pale yellow sky with dark purple clouds low down in the sky: over to the right tall trees astride a river also looking gold in the last rays of the sun and beyond the river more ruined houses from which occasionally flashed a large gun.” Though his life will so shortly be wasted, he at least has not lost his ability to appreciate that “it was all quite beautiful.”
Geoffrey’s letter ends with lines from Rupert Brooke’s sonnet “Safety” – “War knows no power safe shall be my going / Safe tho’ all safety’s lost, safe where men fall / And if these poor limbs die, safest of all.” (Vera to Edward: “I had a letter from him, within 3 days before his death, which was in all ways a farewell. . .. it made you feel that Death could not conquer a person of such fine & courageous natures.”) He had written earlier to Vera about Brooke: “Yes! I love Rupert Brooke & took him up with some of the other verses which Edward gave to me, to the trenches the last time but owing to wet, mud and squashed cake in my pack, which, the cake, seemed to permeate everything my edition is somewhat dilapidated now tho’ the dearer for that.” But much of their daily life is much more mundane than poetry, and that’s really where we realize “the pity of war.” There’s the long saga of Edward’s missing valise, for instance. Apparently claiming lost luggage wasn’t any easier in the trenches than it is with Air Canada: “I have got various papers on which to write my claim but I don’t konw when I shall have time to write it all out as it will probably take about 2 hours as it has to be done in duplicate,” he writes in some frustration to Vera, asking her to send along new shorts and sundries. Then there are his confidential remarks to Vera that he never seems to meet any “decent girls”–“Can you throw any light on the matter and do you think I shall ever meet the right one because at present I can’t conceive the possibility?” (Vera replies, “I think very probably that older women will appeal to you much more than younger ones”). These are the moments that restore these painfully young men to the normalcy that their extraordinary circumstances have stripped away, the moments that help us see them as our own sons or brothers or loved ones. “The reason why your last letter was so beautiful,” Victor writes to Edward in May 1916, “was because it was so very human. And after all to be human is better, and greater, and more beautiful than anything else.”