International Women’s Day: Vera Brittain
Born in December 1893, Vera Brittain was a feminist, nurse, author, and a figurehead of the pacifist movement in the early-twentieth century. Despite enjoying a comfortable childhood as the daughter of paper mill owners Thomas Brittain and Edith Brittain, her halcyon days were to come to an abrupt end at the age of 20. It was 1914, the year that she enrolled at Oxford University to study English Literature but, undoubtedly more pivotal to the story of her life, also the year in which the First World War began.
Just a short time into her studies, Brittain decided to accompany her younger brother Edward, fiancé Roland Leighton, and friends Victor Richardson and Geoffrey Thurlow in joining the war effort, choosing to volunteer as an auxiliary nurse. She served in Buxton, London, France, and Malta, bearing witness to grotesque scenes of human suffering and experiencing death and destruction that would taint her view of the world forever.
Shortly before Christmas 1915, when Leighton was expected home from the conflict at any moment, Brittain received a phone call. What she hoped would be confirmation of his safe arrival turned out to be a far more distressing conversation. She was informed that her future husband had been killed by a sniper whilst repairing barbed wire in no man’s land. At a later date, in 1916 when Brittain was working in a hospital in Camberwell, she felt the personal weight of warfare once more. Her younger brother Edward, her closest companion in childhood, arrived in that same hospital to recover from wounds he had suffered on the first day of the infamous Battle of the Somme. Whilst Edward did survive this ordeal, his luck ran out whilst fighting in Italy where he was tragically killed in June 1918. His grave would become a regular pilgrimage for Brittain and she would later request that her ashes be scattered over it when she passed away. The two friends, Victor Richardson and Geoffrey Thurlow, also died during the duration of the war.
It is hard to underestimate the toll that these experiences had on the young Vera Brittain. Speaking to The Guardian, Brittain’s daughter and Liberal Democrat peer Shirley Williams described how her mother “didn’t have that capacity to either laugh at oneself or at the world when something very serious was happening in it”. 
Yet in addition to the darkened veil that the First World War placed over Brittain’s life, the struggles that she had undergone bestowed upon her a motivation to fight for the cause of pacifism, a fight that intensified with the rise of fascism of Europe and the outbreak of World War Two. She joined both the Peace Pledge Union and the Anglican Pacifist Fellowship in 1937 and from the 1930s onwards was a frequent contributor to Peace News, a pacifist magazine that would later feature Brittain as part of their editorial team.
She came under heavy fire for arguing against the bombing of Germany during the Second World War in her booklet Massacre by Bombing, with accusations of Nazi sympathising levelled against her and her colleagues for their beliefs. So great was her influence in British society that in 1945 her name could be found amongst those listed in the Nazi’s Black Book of individuals who would have faced immediate arrest had the invasion of Britain been a success.
Brittain penned a number of works during her life but she was most noted for her trilogy of autobiographical novels: Testament of Youth (1933), Testament of Friendship (1940), and Testament of Experience (1957), as well as her extensive contributions to pacifist literature.
What she left behind after motor neurone disease claimed her life on 29th March 1970 was not just her astounding list of publications, but the inspiring story of a defiant and principled woman. She was ready to dedicate her every waking moment to preventing the repetition of the horrors that she had seen, no matter what her opponents would throw at her. Vera Brittain’s legacy remains deeply influential even today and, sadly, her writings feel just as relevant as they must have done when first published.
Brittain will be featured in our upcoming exhibition, Bombs…Away!, which explores the use of bombing against civilians in World War Two and its impact on the peace movement. The exhibition will open on Thursday 7th May and is made possible thanks to funding recieved from the National Lottery Heritage Fund.
Written by Jake Roberts (Museum Volunteer)