Love, loss and distorted memories

We've allowed memoirs to shape our perception of the First World War without paying due attention to their drawbacks for the historian, says Mark Bostridge

Vera Brittain, who worked as a nurse during the First World War and went on to become one of the leading writers of the interwar years. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

This article was first published in the July 2018 edition of BBC History Magazine

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In the early weeks of the First World War, a young woman in an English provincial town happened to bump into a man whose proposal of marriage she had rejected in no uncertain terms the previous year. In her diary she recorded her strong disapproval of him for not having responded immediately to the call of duty by enlisting in the army.

The language she used to describe him was reminiscent of the ‘White Feather Brigade’, the band of women across Britain who had recently begun a campaign to humiliate men perceived as ‘idlers and loafers’ into enlisting. White feathers were being distributed to any man who appeared to fit the description ‘selfish shirker’. The woman meeting her former suitor didn’t go so far as to present him with a white feather, but in her diary she recorded “his obvious strength and suitability for military work”, and branded him a “shirker”.

Not long before, this same woman had shown her younger brother an appeal in the newspapers for unmarried men between the ages of 18 and 30 to join the army. Her brother had immediately become enthusiastic about volunteering, and had set about trying to offer himself as a recruit. His sister’s eagerness to support his desire to enlist was matched only by their father’s obduracy in opposing the plan. As the brother was 18 and under military age, he needed his father’s consent before his application could be accepted by the War Office; this his father at first withheld, much to his sister’s fury. In her diary she fulminated against her father, reproaching him for his “unmanliness” and for not possessing the “requisite courage”.

Her younger brother did eventually obtain their father’s permission, and was gazetted as a second lieutenant in a battalion of the Sherwood Foresters. Two years later, he showed great courage in action on one of the most terrible days of slaughter in the history of the British Army, the first day of the battle of the Somme. He was later awarded the Military Cross for his “conspicuous gallantry and leadership” during an attack on Mouquet Farm near Thiepval. For his sister, by now serving as a Voluntary Aid Detachment nurse, there was understandable pride in her brother’s heroism, but also a belief that the Somme offensive had opened “very successfully”, and a conviction that 1 July 1916 was “one of the greatest dates in history”.

None of these scenarios is unusual. Indeed, each of them is strongly representative of its time and place. The brother, Edward, was killed in the final months of the war during the British rout of the Austrian offensive on the Asiago Plateau in northern Italy in June 1918. His sister, Vera Brittain, went on to become a leading writer of the interwar years, as well as a campaigning feminist and latterly a major pacifist figure during the Second World War. Her name will immediately strike a chord as the chronicler of the so-called lost generation in her most famous book, Testament of Youth, a memoir of her war experiences and of the cataclysmic impact of the Great War on her own life and the lives of her closest male friends.

However, what may come as a surprise to the many readers of Testament of Youth is that the first two of the incidents I’ve described above are completely absent from the book, while the third, her reaction to Edward Brittain’s part in the battle of the Somme, has been extensively rewritten from her contemporary accounts in diaries and letters, and overlaid with sentiments much more in keeping with the antiwar views that Vera Brittain had held since 1918.

Writing her autobiography 15 to 20 years after the events it described, Vera Brittain was evidently reluctant to probe too deeply her younger self’s susceptibility to what the mature Brittain described as “the glamour of war”, the patriotic excitement (verging at times on jingoistic fervour) that she exhibited in 1914, or her absolute conviction of the need to defeat German militarism. Instead she constructed a narrative in which her predominant themes are disillusionment with war and a firmly held belief of the conflict’s futility.

None of this is to deny the lasting power of Testament of Youth as a great work of literature, nor even to suggest that the book doesn’t have a significant contribution to make to our understanding of the First World War. It remains arguably the greatest work of love, loss and remembrance to emerge from the war. As Brittain’s closest friend, the writer Winifred Holtby, recognised – in a description that is as true today as it was when she wrote it 85 years ago – “Others have borne witness to the wastage, the pity and the heroism of modern war; none has yet so convincingly conveyed its grief.”

Originally published in 1933, at the tail-end of the boom in war literature, Testament of Youth quickly became a bestseller on both sides of the Atlantic. The book tells of Brittain’s struggle to win an education for herself at Oxford University, of her growing love for her brother Edward’s school friend Roland Leighton, and of her decision to postpone her university education to enrol as a VAD nurse. She served in hospitals in London, Malta and close to the frontline in France. Following the armistice, she returned to Oxford. But she went up without the company of her male contemporaries, because by that time all of them– fiancé Roland, brother Edward and two close friends, Victor and Geoffrey – had been killed in the war.

Triumphantly republished by Virago 40 years ago in 1978, the book became a bestseller again when the BBC adapted it the following year for television. In 2015, Testament of Youth topped the bestseller charts once more on the release of the feature-film adaptation starring Alicia Vikander and Kit Harington. A century on from the armistice that finally silenced the guns, Testament of Youth is the most widely read British autobiography of the First World War, ironically probably more familiar to readers today than the famous male memoirs by Graves, Sassoon and Blunden that inspired it.

The canonical autobiographies of the war, such as Robert Graves’s Goodbye to All That, Siegfried Sassoon’s trilogy beginning with Memoirs of a Fox-Hunting Man, and Edmund Blunden’s Undertones of War – as well as Brittain’s book, the best-known by a woman – have done much to shape later generations’ perceptions of the First World War. Second only to the poetry produced in the years 1914–18, these memoirs have decisively influenced the way the First World War is taught in schools and universities, portrayed on television and in cinema, and written about in modern fiction and non-fiction. This has been for good and bad – bad not least because they are hardly representative of the enormous variety of autobiographical writing thrown up by the war. As we approach the end of the centenary period of 1914–18, it’s worth considering the strengths and limitations of these books, and what they have to tell us about larger questions of memory and detachment in relation to remembrance of the war.

The first and most obvious proviso to make about any autobiographical piece of writing is that it is inherently subjective. The second is that, as a literary form, autobiography is a hybrid: it combines elements of fact with fiction in order to create a continuous, flowing narrative. What is more, autobiography, as the critic Candace Lang has observed, is everywhere one cares to find it. For example, many of the novels produced in the aftermath of the war are so closely based on the writers’ experiences that they can almost be legitimately regarded as memoirs. A clear case of this is Frederic Manning’s The Middle Parts of Fortune, published in 1929 (better known in its expurgated version, Her Privates We). Manning’s prefatory note makes his autobiographical intent transparent. His book was “a record of experience on the Somme and on the Ancre fronts… and the events described in it actually happened”.

Sassoon had it both ways, and his Memoirs of George Sherston are an illustration of the complex relationship between autobiography and fiction. The publisher initially described Memoirs as fiction with a difference: “The author… has himself lived the life of his hero.” But Sherston, the trilogy’s protagonist, is not Sassoon. For a start, he is not a poet. Yet his wartime exploits often reflect Sassoon’s – increasingly so as the trilogy reaches its close, where Sassoon’s own war diary is reproduced without being transmuted into fiction.

Meanwhile, both Graves and Brittain produced fictional versions of their war experiences before settling on autobiography to tell their stories. Graves destroyed his war novel, but one page survived to be inserted unrevised into Goodbye to All That – or, as Graves put it, without having to “re-translate it into history”.

Goodbye to All That was written hurriedly in 11 weeks, largely as a money-making enterprise. Its tall stories are among the book’s most enjoyable features. For instance, Graves tells us that machine-gun crews often fired off several belts without pause to heat the water in the cooling-jacket for making tea. This rather assumes that they preferred their tea laced with oil! However, in the face of criticism by Sassoon and Blunden of more serious inaccuracies in Goodbye to All That – they unkindly dubbed it “Mummy’s Bedtime Story Book” – Graves made a passionate defence of the book as the emotional truth about his war. He argued that the memoirs of any man who had experienced trench warfare weren’t truthful if they didn’t contain “a high proportion of falsities”. The “old trench-mind”, he wrote, “is at work in all overestimation of casualties… mixing of dates and confusion between trench rumours and scenes actually witnessed”.

Sassoon’s own ruminations about the memoirs of the First World War come close to confirming one overriding truth that applies to most of them: what these books have in common is that the writers are looking back cathartically to a fundamentally altered self – irreparably changed, often even damaged, by the war. But the conundrum for Sassoon, as it is for the other memoirists, is that there is an “essential disparity” between ‘“being alive [,] and memorialising it long afterwards”. The German philosopher Walter Benjamin once wrote that the survivors of the First World War returned not enriched “but impoverished in communicable experience”, and that “what was widespread 10 years later in the flood of war books had nothing to do with any experience”.

Sassoon took a more optimistic view of the task. He believed it was possible, long afterwards, to describe aspects of an individual’s experience of the war while at the same time acknowledging that some elements of it would be lost or changed. He saw “the living present” as a “jigsaw puzzle loose in its box”. Eventually it would be possible to fit the pieces together “and make a coherent picture of them”, but only when they’d become “static and solidly discernible”.

Edmund Blunden was less sanguine about the desirability of doing this. In a sense, nothing could evoke the confusion of what the combatants of 1914–18 had been through other than a narrative that acknowledged the impossibility of attempting to convey the experience to its readers. In his description of the area around Ypres, where he had been stationed in 1917, Blunden declared that “a peculiar difficulty would exist for the artist to select the sights, faces, words, incidents which characterised the time. The art is rather to collect them, in their original form of incoherence.”

By contrast, Vera Brittain asserted the superiority of the women memoirist over her male counterparts by arguing that “a woman who worked with the armies can give a wider and more truthful picture of the war as a whole than the active-service man whose knowledge was confined to a small corner of the front”. To buttress this claim, she carefully researched the background to the war in historical records such as the collections of the British Red Cross and Imperial War Museum. She also employed a patchwork of quotations from her diary and wartime correspondence. Nevertheless, she was fearful of “numerous inaccuracies through queer tricks of memory”. For her highly inaccurate account of the Étaples mutiny (of British empire troops in France), which had occurred in September 1917 while she was serving at the camp as a nurse, she was forced to rely on little more than the memory of an ex-soldier and friend of Winifred Holtby, who had had no direct involvement in the events either.

Brittain’s account of the period she spent as a VAD nurse at Étaples does not possess the reliability of chronology of earlier chapters of Testament of Youth. In part this is because she had ceased to keep a diary after returning from Malta in 1917, and had to depend on a few letters and rushed notes along with a sometimes hazy recollection of events some 15 years after they had taken place. Most tellingly, though, her description of nursing German prisoners of war highlights something more significant: the extent to which Testament of Youth is coloured by the spirit of internationalism and pacifism that Vera Brittain developed only in the years after the First World War.

Contrary to Brittain’s narrative of German prisoners dying in vast numbers at Étaples, the official records for the hospital in the National Archives show a very low mortality rate – as low as 2 per cent – for the prisoner-patients during the time Brittain nursed there. Her chilling picture of the plight of her German patients is therefore largely fictional, but fits with the over-arching antiwar, war disillusionment theme of Testament of Youth.

It may be a truism that time erodes memory and alters perspective, but it’s one that cannot be overstated when considering the autobiographies and memoirs of the First World War.

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Mark Bostridge is an award-winning author whose books include Vera Brittain and the First World War (Bloomsbury, 2014).