The Nurse, the Author & the Poet

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VERA BRITTAIN
Vera Brittain was born in December 1893. Her family were well off as they ran paper mills and Vera attended a boarding school from the age of 13. Vera’s Aunt was the school principal and that must have had some sway with her parents with regard to letting her attend such a school. By 1914 Vera had gained a place at Somerville College , Oxford where she was to study for a degree in English. (1)
Vera managed to persuade her Father that going to University would be a good thing and by 1914 Vera was extremely excited about the prospects. As her brother and his friends were also at Oxford life must have appeared to be perfect. Vera was also experiencing life and friendship amongst other like- minded young women. She was also falling in love with her brother’s friend Roland Leighton, she and Robert sharing dreams of being writers and poets.

When the war was declared Roland, Vera’s brother and their friends all enlisted and after a few months Vera, a brilliant student, sacrificed her studies to follow

Vera and Robert continue to write and love each other and indeed he died when he was meant to be meeting Vera to celebrate Christmas.

Having lost Robert, her brother and friends Vera becomes determined to prove that their lives were not lost in vain and survives the war a stronger woman and a pacifist (peace) campaigner.

(1) We have to remember that by 1910 there were just over a thousand women students at Oxford and Cambridge. However, they had to obtain permission to attend lectures and were not allowed to take degrees.
Without a university degree it was very difficult for women to enter the professions. After a long struggle the medical profession had allowed women to become doctors. Even so, by 1900 there were only 200 women doctors. It was not until 1910 that women were allowed to become accountants and bankers. However, there were still no women diplomats, barristers or judges.
EXTRACT FROM HER BOOK DESCRIBING CHRISTMAS 1915
As Christmas Eve slipped into Christmas Day, I finished tying up the paper bags, and with sister filled the men’s stockings by the exiguous light of an electric torch. Already I could count, perhaps even on my fingers, the hours that must pass before I should see him.

In spite of its tremulous eagerness of anticipation, the night again seemed short; some of the convalescent men wanted to go to early services and that meant beginning temperatures and pulses at 3am. As I took them I listened to the rain pounding on the tin roof, and wondered whether, since his leave ran from Christmas Eve, he was already on the sea in that wild, stormy darkness.

When the men awoke and reached for their stockings, my whole being glowed with exultant benevolence; I delighted in their pleasure over their childish home-made presents because my own mounting joy made me feel in harmony with all creation.

At eight o’clock, as the passages were lengthy and many of the men were lame, I went along to help them to communion service in the chapel of the college. It was two or three years since I had been to such a service but it seemed appropriate that I should be there, for I felt, wrought up as I was to a high pitch of nervous emotion, that I ought to thank whatever God might exist for the
supreme gift of Roland and the love that had arisen so swiftly between us. The music of the organ was so sweet, the sight of the wounded men who knelt and stood with such difficulty so moving, the conflict of joy and gratitude, pity and sorrow in my mind so poignant, that tears sprang to my eyes, dimming the chapel walls and the words that encircled them: ‘I am the Resurrection and the Life: he that believeth in Me, though he were dead, yet shall he live: and whosoever liveth and believeth in me
hall never die.’

Directly after breakfast, sent on my way by exuberant good wishes from Betty and Marjorie and many of the others, I went down to Brighton. All day I waited there for a telephone message or a telegram, sitting drowsily in the lounge of the Grand Hotel or walking up and down the promenade, watching the grey sea tossing rough with white surf-crested waves and wondering still
what kind of crossing he had had or was having.

When, by ten o’clock at night, no news had come, I concluded that the complications of telegraph and telephone on a combined Sunday and Christmas Day had made communication impossible.

So, unable to fight sleep any longer after a night and a day of wakefulness, I went to bed a little disappointed but still unperturbed. Roland’s family, at their Keymer cottage, kept an even longer vigil; they sat up till nearly midnight over their Christmas dinner in the hope that he would join them and, in their dramatic, impulsive fashion, they drank a toast to the Dead.

The next morning I had just finished dressing, and was putting the final touches to the pastel-blue crepe-de-Chine blouse, when the expected message came to say that I was wanted on the telephone.

Believing that I was at last to hear the voice for which I had waited for twenty-four hours, I dashed joyously into the corridor. But the message was not from Roland but from Clare; it was not to say that he had arrived home that morning but to tell me that he had died of wounds at a Casualty Clearing station on December 23rd

Vera

POEM WRITTEN AFTER FIANCE WAS KILLED

PERHAPS (to R.A.L)
Perhaps some day the sun will shine again,
And I shall see that still the skies are blue,
And feel once more I do not live in vain,
Although bereft of You.

Perhaps the golden meadows at my feet
Will make the sunny hours of spring seem gay,
And I shall find the white May-blossoms sweet,
Though You have passed away.

Perhaps the summer woods will shimmer bright,
And crimson roses once again be fair,
And autumn harvest fields a rich delight,
Although You are not there.

Perhaps some day I shall not shrink in pain
To see the passing of the dying year,
And listen to Christmas songs again,
Although You cannot hear.'

But though kind Time may many joys renew,
There is one greatest joy I shall not know
Again, because my heart for loss of You
Was broken, long ago.

Vera

POEM TO HER BROTHER

Your battle-wounds are scars upon my heart,
Received when in that grand and tragic 'show'
You played your part,
Two years ago,

And silver in the summer morning sun
I see the symbol of your courage glow --
That Cross you won
Two years ago.

Though now again you watch the shrapnel fly,
And hear the guns that daily louder grow,
As in July
Two years ago.

May you endure to lead the Last Advance
And with your men pursue the flying foe
As once in France
Two years ago

Vera

HOSPITAL SANCTUARY

When you have lost your all in a world's upheaval,
Suffered and prayed, and found your prayers were vain,
When love is dead, and hope has no renewal -
These need you still; come back to them again.

When the sad days bring you the loss of all ambition,
And pride is gone that gave you strength to bear,
When dreams are shattered, and broken is all decision -
Turn you to these, dependent on your care.

They too have fathomed the depths of human anguish,
Seen all that counted flung like chaff away;
The dim abodes of pain wherein they languish
Offer that peace for which at last you pray.

Vera

Here we are looking at the role that women played during WWI, but are you sure you know how the war actually started?

If not, read more here!