Book review: Because You Died by Vera Brittain

For a conflict that was created and fought primarily by men, one woman’s voice has often served as a powerful and resonant reminder of the horrors of the First World War.

Friday, 12th November 2010, 6:00 am

‘Because you died, I shall not rest again,

But wander ever through the lone world wide,

Seeking the shadow of a dream grown vain

Because you died.’

Vera Brittain, a bright middle-class girl from Buxton in Derbyshire, lost all the young men she loved and cared for in those terrible years and yet, like a phoenix from the ashes, she rose from the depths of her despair.

Bowed but not broken, she vowed that the suffering and sacrifice would never be forgotten and spent the rest of her life preaching the wickedness of war.

Her moving book, Testament of Youth, a personal account of the impact of the war on herself and the lives of women and the civilian population generally, was first published in 1933 and is now considered a classic piece of literature.

This bittersweet book of Brittain’s own poetry and prose provides a commemoration of her loved ones as well as an eloquent and haunting elegy to a doomed generation.

Brittain, born in 1893, was brought up to believe that what happened on the world stage was unimportant in the grand scheme. What really mattered was ‘the absorbing incidents of our private lives – our careers, ambitions, friendships and love affairs’.

Human happiness was the norm and disaster was an exception that need not worry ordinary people. The war changed forever that utopian perception.

Within the space of four years, Brittain had to endure the deaths of her fiancé Roland Leighton, a gifted writer and poet, her beloved only brother Edward and two of their closest friends, Victor Richardson and Geoffrey Thurlow.

It was all a far cry from the joy of spring 1914 when she won an exhibition to Somerville College, academically the most rigorous of Oxford’s three women’s colleges.

Against the background of an increasingly brutal war, Oxford’s intellectual life became irrelevant to the young Vera and she gave up her studies to train as a Voluntary Aid Detachment (VAD) nurse.

She began work at a military hospital in London but in December 1915, her fiancé died at a casualty clearing station in Louvencourt as Brittain waited for him to arrive home on Christmas leave.

Her grief was all-consuming, particularly as his death – shot through the stomach while inspecting the wire in no-man’s-land – had been devoid of either glamour or military purpose.

Brittain’s need to memorialise those she had loved and lost found an outlet in verse and she had written enough to consider publication by the autumn of 1917.

In all, Brittain wrote 28 books before she died in 1970 but she was also a prolific lecturer and journalist, devoting much of her energy to the causes of peace and feminism.

Illustrated with many poignant and heart-breaking photographs from Brittain’s own album, Because You Died is an extraordinary snapshot of one woman’s war, one woman’s grief and one woman’s struggle to make sense of a cruel world.

Edited and introduced by Mark Bostridge.

(Virago, paperback, £8.99)