Vera Brittain made a good reputation as a writer by publishing twenty books and several journalistic pieces. She was a female activist and a witness for peace and internationalism. The book that solidified her reputation as a writer is the “Testament of Youth”, which is an autobiography. This autobiography is an account of what she went through and an elegy for vanished generation. It outlines Vera Brittain’s world before, during, and after the war. As a female activist, she was determined to liberate herself from the restraints endowed on females in England. Brittain made remarkable contributions to the cause of feminism and her book was the most significant contribution to feminism (Brittain 2). The main goal of this paper is to describe the role of Vera Brittain in World War 1. To achieve this, the paper we analyze her experiences in the war that will help to explain the impact of the war on women and families.
In World War 1, a number of women posed as nurses to assist the embattled soldiers in nursing their injuries. Brittain was among them though she played the role of untrained nurse. Sisters and the Red Cross personnel were the only trained medical professionals who were available at the time. Their numbers were very minimal as compared to the number of patients who required their attention. Not to mention the number of injured soldiers which was far much bigger compared to the number of medical professionals. To compensate for minimal number of nurses, young ladies were invited to join them as untrained nurses. That is how Brittain joined the nurses and assisted them in a number ways.
Untrained nurses faced many difficulties in their assigned hospital, but Brittain was determined to continue serving her wanting citizens (soldiers). There were unavoidable discomforts since no one seemed to care for the untrained nurses. In fact, there were no assigned responsibilities in terms of taking care of the untrained nurses. That is, no one was assigned duties to direct and monitor the untrained nurses. All what was needed was their services in the wards. This was the situation that faced Brittain in her first hospital (209). Untrained nurses were never allowed to sit in the wards and were considered as amateur intruders by nurses who could not be fitted in the rigid framework of hospital discipline (209). They worked for long hours and their daily duty used to begin at 7.30 am in the morning till 8 pm in the evening.
Brittain first assignment as untrained nurse was preparing dressing-trays and supporting limbs (211). She never liked what she was doing; in fact, she never wanted anything to do with the nursing career. Being associated with the nursing group made her feel as if she was “imprisoned in one of the less ‘highbrow’ circles of Dante’s Porgatorio” (212). Never the less, she carried on with nursing for years. It did not matter whether she was doing things the right way and she noted that, she had no time to wonder whether she was doing things right or not, but things had to be done right. Although she did not like nursing as career, she continued to practice it even when she was off duty. For instance, when she was waiting for her lover at the station, she helped lame men passengers. She did her duties with passion and when her father requested her to go back home, she realized that if she does not make a concise decision, she might stay in France for a long period working as a nurse. Her worry of making up her mind whether to continue serving the soldiers or go back home to help her parents is portrayed by her statement that read as follows “ so long as wounded men remained in Etaples, there would ‘no retirement’” (420).
There are several experiences that Brittain went through during the World War 1 that leaves an impression on the reader of the book in relation to understanding the impact of the war on women and families. The first experience that helped me understand what families and women were undergoing during the war period is the death of her lover Ronald (236). During the war, women were losing their loved sons and husbands. Brittain lost her lover in the war and her experience was very sour since Ronald had confirmed to be with her during the Christmas. His death occurred two days prior to Christmas and Brittain went to the railway station to wait for him not knowing that he was already dead. This was a painful experience and many women and families may have undergone the same experiences during that period.
Another experience that helped me to understand what families and women underwent through is letter she received from her father. When she read the letter that requested her to leave France immediately, she was confused as to whether her father was worried she might die there or it was the reason given on the letter. According to her father letter, her parents could no longer live on their own since her mother had “broken down” and there was no one to help them with the domestic work. This experience confused her lot and she was torn between lines because she could not make her mind at once on the best step to take. That is, she was unable to decide on whether to leave France or continuing serving the soldiers. Her confusion is portrayed by the statement she made that “if I were dead or a male, it would have to be settled without me” (421). She later decided to take a long leave and leave France. According to Brittain, what exhausted women in the war time was the incessant conflict between personal and national claims that wears out their energy and breaks their spirit (421). This experience indicates that women and families endured hard times in making decisions concerning their loved ones who were away from them. Families always missed their loved ones who were serving in the war and could have done anything to bring them home. This is indicated by how Brittain’s father used a convincing tone in her letter to make sure her daughter leaves the war zone and join them.
I chose the two experiences since they relate to how family relationship was affected by the war. Families could not live together due to the immense effect of the war as portrayed by the two experiences. Women suffered mental torture as they were not aware of the state of their loved sons and husbands. This is portrayed by how Brittain and Ronald family were mentally tortured when they went to the station to wait for someone who is already dead. Some family members and Brittain were already celebrating not knowing that they would never see Ronald alive.