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Film Review…(or maybe “Reflection” would be a better term) – Testament of Youth.

December 19, 2015
Battle of the Somme (WW1) dead

Battle of the Somme (WW1) dead

Last summer with, family friends Jamie Roth and his Dutch friend Marion, we saw – at Jamie’s recommendation, two films, Testament of Youth – the film version of the memoir by Vera Brittain – and Ken Loach’s “Jimmy’s Hall,” the story of Irish radical Jimmy Grafton’s efforts to set up what amounted to a community center outside the purview of the Irish Catholic Church. Months – and many films seen – later, these two have stuck in my mind and my thoughts keep coming back to them. Both Nancy and I were moved, touched by both. Abbie, our younger daughter, had read Testament of Youth in college and still had her copy which I borrowed and read in its entirety. I also did some research on Jimmy Grafton to try to find out why a dance hall for Irish workers and farmers was so threatening to the powers that be. In any case, while both films have somewhat different themes I’ve decided to write about them in hopes that people might be interested in seeing them. Testament of Youth is the subject of this review; one on Jimmy’s Hall will follow.

A hundred years ago, December, 1915. The “world” – but more accurately mostly Europe and the Middle East was entrenched in what today is called World War One, but what earlier was referred to as “The Great War.”(1) And it was a great war – one the likes of which the world had never seen – until an even greater war, World War Two was unleashed a mere twenty years later.(2) In one battle alone, referred to as the Battle of the Somme, which took place on both sides of the Somme River in northern France between July 1 and November 18, 1916, more than a million men, French, British, German were either killed or wounded. Shortly before that, at this time a hundred years ago, according to Wikipedia’s “Timeline of World War One”, in mid December of 1915 the main fighting was taking place in the Middle East, around the town of Kut in Iraq where Ottoman forces were besieging the town’s largely Indian troops of the British Empire.  Not that far away, near Gallipoli, Turkey, another British defeat was unfolding as the Ottomans were winning a shattering victory over  British-held defenses  which were overstretched and under supplied. On the Western Front, the lines were drawn in Northern France but there was a lull between major mass slaughters. The first Battle of Ypes, where in April, the Germans had first used poisoned gas had stalled. The Battle of Verdun, which would start in February, 1916 was being prepared but had not yet begun. Still, trench warfare proceeded, tit for tat between the British and French lines on the one side and the German lines on the other. And it was there, just before Christmas in 1915, during a lull in the fighting that one Captain Roland Leighton, aged 20,  Vera Brittain’s fiance, died of wounds suffered from a sniper’s bullet. He is buried in the military cemetery at Louvencourt.

Three years and five months later, in June, 1918, just months before the war ended, Captain Edward Brittain, Vera Brittain’s brother, was killed in action on the Asiego Plateau, north of Venice in Northeastern Italy in what was known as the “Battle of Asiego” or the “Battle of the Plateau. Asiego had been the scene of a powerful battle in 1916 – more of a slaughter, where Austro-Hungarian troops engaged the Italian army and overran them. The battle produced nearly 250,000 casualties – (140,000 Italians, 100,000 Austro-Hungarians). After the battle, the front stabilized, until near the end of the war and Italy was considered a safe alternative to the high casualty number taking place in France. But in the spring of 1918, in a last-ditch effort to turn their poor fortune around, the Austro-Hungarians launched one last desperate effort, once again, in the Italian Alps. According to a letter that Vera Brittain received a few years later, on June 15, Edward Brittain was shot in the head by an enemy sniper and died a few minutes later.

The deaths of her fiancé, Roland Leighton earlier in the war and that of her brother, Edward Brittain, as it came to a close, stand out as emotional bookmarks, marking the personal tragedy that World War I became for Vera Brittain. In between these deaths, two other close personal friends of her youthful circle of friends also die in the war: Victor Richardson and Geoffrey Thurlow. Thurlow was killed in action at Monchy-le-Preux in April, 1917, Richardson was blinded at Arras the same month and died in London soon thereafter. Testament of Youth, Vera Brittain’s most famous work, is a moving memoir of the deepening friendships, hopes of these five young British youth on the verge of adulthood – all bright, sensitive, thoughtful people – probably destined to make a contribution to the common good in one way or another. But all that is destroyed by the horrors of war with only Vera Brittain herself left both to survive and to try to interpret its meaning.

The book is very much Vera Brittain’s autobiographical memoir, based heavily on letters, poems that Brittain wrote and received from her four friends along with comments on her personal journals. Published in 1933, some fifteen years after the armistice was signed at Compiègne, France, Brittain tries – and largely succeeds to detail the emotional roller coaster that was the war for herself and family. As such, in a way the book is both an honest intimate emotional history – a kind of private journal or diary on the one hand and on the other a most interesting personal perspective on the war itself from a person who is a volunteer for the Red Cross on the island of Malta and on the front in Northern France. The thematic thread, the emotional glue that keeps one interested (most of the time) in reading the entire 660 page volume is Vera Brittain’s own personal evolution – her battle to go to college when young women of her class were essentially programmed for marriage and babies, her need to contribute to the war effort and the very real personal hardships she suffered as a Red Cross nurses aid, her responses to the deaths of her loved ones, one at a time, and finally how she adjusted – or tried to – to life once the war was over. How does one go on after such a deluge of horror and death, a question that others would ask even more so after World War II. And it is a love story, that of falling madly in love, of a brief moment of sharing as their world collapses in warfare, of adjusting first to the war and then to the terrible losses that were the result…and finally, of healing. How do those that survive the horrors of war, with all their emotional and physical scars, to have seen so much suffering and bloodshed, return to “normality.” Many don’t, can’t. Vera Brittain never forgot – and turned the war experience into literature – her attempt to share that experience with those who have no idea what it all was like, meant.

Vera Brittain, during her service in the Voluntary Aid Detachment

Vera Brittain, during her service in the Voluntary Aid Detachment

2.

In the heat of the next war, World War II, Vera Brittain remained a pacifist. It was quite difficult to be a pacifist in face of the Nazi onslaught but she held steadfast to her pacifism. She was one of the few voices that openly criticized the firebombing of Dresden and Hamburg, understanding well that they had no military value other than to kill civilians, something decades later both historians and military people admitted was the case. It was her experience in the prior world war that shaped and solidified her pacifism.

Vera Brittain was the daughter of a paper mill owner, Thomas Arthur Brittain. Raised to be the wife of someone of her family’s status, the young Vera Brittain rebels against the norm and essentially fights her way into Oxford. Although politically naive to an impressive degree, she is determined to be more than a house decoration for some well-to-do upper class British bourgeois. Her life takes a turn when she is introduced to her brother’s close circle of friends which include Leighton, Richardson and Thurlow. She falls in love with Leighton just as World War One was about to explode. Her brother Edward and his three friends will all go off to war, all die there, leaving Vera Brittain emotionally shattered and isolated, her circle of intimates having been gobbled up by the horror.

Vera Brittain takes us on a journey from her  upper middle class life including her training as an intellectual at Oxford to the war hospitals of Malta, where the wounded and dying from Gallipoli and Kut came, to the trenches of Northern France. She leads us from her world of privilege to the horrors that come with war. Although in both the book and film Brittain will see some action, especially in France, for the most part Testament of Youth  describes the impact of World War One on the lives of the women on the home front as well as the many ways the war effected middle and middle upper class British people.

The anxiety of life in the trenches – where the fear of death or disfigurement is a constant companion – is contrasted with the tensions on the home front. The modest material privations (shortages of butter, coal, the “difficulty” in finding good maids), the lack of accurate information about the way the war was going, the unending fears – to be realized in her case – of the “deadly telegram” arriving – and the emotional trauma that people far from the fighting experienced – these are well described. War, it turns out, effects far more than those engaged in the fighting.

As the war begins Vera Brittain abandons her studies at Oxford, and against the advice of her parents, volunteers as a nurse in what was referred to as the Voluntary Aid Detachment, voluntary units of the British Red Cross (V.A.D.), voluntary units of the British Red Cross. She will work with the V.A.D. for most of the war first in London, then for a spell on the Mediterranean island of Malta and finally just behind the front lines in France at Étaples, France (sight of a military mutiny in 1917, briefly described in the book).  Not easy work as she transitions from her rather dainty past to a world of blood, gore, suffering and death. Even prior to her work on the Western Front, in France, the mask which hides the less-than-glorious side of war is ripped off. It is a testament to her character, to her humanity that rather than turning and running from the horror, she hangs in there, giving the nursing work her all, doing what she can to comfort, to heal in what is an avalanche of destruction.

Given her background, it is quite possible if not for her volunteer nursing work, that , that she would never have had  contact with working class and poor people, other than with maids and other servants. But as a volunteer nurse she served everyone and through that experience got to know people of all classes. She is repeatedly impressed with the quiet dignity of soldiers of modest backgrounds in great pain or approaching death and speaks of them with respect and affection. It seems to be the beginning of an incipient class consciousness on her part that would stay with her the rest of her life. She never gave up her upper middle class life style into which she was born and grew up, but her appreciation for the “hewers of wood and drawers of water” was genuine and lifelong.

There are parts of both the book and the film which, given my unsentimental nature, I found both tedious, if not boring. But that is me. I am not sure why it is that every human story has to be wrapped up in romance, whatever. That said, this is a powerful work, an honest book and after reading it one can better appreciate why it was that Vera Brittain dedicated her life to ending and preventing war. On this the 100th anniversary of one of the ugliest, systematically bloodiest chapters in human history, the film is worth seeing, the book worth reading.

_________________

Notes….

1. How to relate the horror of war in words? This has been a nagging problem here in the United States, how to de-romanticize war, which with the possible exception of the September 11, 2001 attacks, the people of the United States have not experienced in the same way as, for example in Europe and Asia. People living there know what war means in no uncertain terms. True enough, since World War 2, the United States has been involved in three major and dozens of smaller conflicts, the larger ones being Korea, Vietnam and Iraq. There, although the continental United States was spared, large numbers of Americans fought, were wounded, died or came back mentally or emotionally frazzled or spiritually broken. The latter two conflicts – Vietnam and Iraq – produced powerful anti-war movements as a result. While the United States has spent not billions but trillions of dollars to reduce U.S. troop size on the ground in order to limit Vietnam-like opposition to its many foreign ventures. This is largely a political move. So drones, special forces operations, air attacks with (not-so) precision missiles have become the order of the day. U.S. casualty rates, certainly from Vietnam days, have plummeted accordingly while those of the opponents remain very very high. There has also been a concerted media campaign that makes challenging the government’s public relations campaign difficult, and the likelihood of building Vietnam-like anti-war movements more challenging.

All this despite the fact that information about war – especially the wars the United States has been involved with or provoked – abounds, and is readily available. To give just a few examples. For those who want to read what the Vietnam War was actually about, try Nick Turse’s “Kill Everything That Moves” – based on military documents. The continued reports about U.S inflicted Abu Graib like torture in Iraq are readily available with just a google search. There are volumes about the slaughter of Mayan people in Guatemala by U.S. trained military as well as a wealth of information documenting Israeli abuses of Palestinian human rights in the Occupied Territories.  Yet these reports, investigations, movies, documentaries tend hardly to penetrate the bubble in which so many in this country function where it concerns contemporary warfare. Besides the way that the media slants, sanitizes warfare to make it palatable to American audiences, there are other reasons Americans tend to be generally oblivious to war.

  • They don’t know about it unless it affects them personally (ie – some one close to them, a family member, friend, is wounded or dies
  • the tensions of everyday life make following foreign affairs – and especially war – to distant, depressing to consider
  • the multitude of diversions offered by life in America keeps the focus of many away from the darker events transpiring here and abroad

More and more, I have come to conclude that it takes something of a shock to shake people out of their denial , lethargy about war, more often than not, some personal experience which opens an emotional door, otherwise slammed shut, to the horrors so many try to ignore, deny.

2.  The official figure given for the number of casualties in WW1 is generally given at 38 million, that included 17 million dead and 20 million plus wounded. Those same numbers for World War 2 stand at 60 million…give or take 10 million. WW2 is considered “the deadliest military conflict in history.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. John Kane permalink
    December 20, 2015 12:08 pm

    Rob, thanks for the clear review and the recommendation. As I tend to be something of a romantic I doubt I’ll be as bothered by that aspect :) John

    • December 20, 2015 7:22 pm

      John,

      You might try to catch the other one too – Jimmy’s Hall …Irish Catholic Church is featured (rather negatively)…

      Rob

      • Kane, John permalink
        December 21, 2015 2:53 pm

        Thanks, no surprise about negative views of Irish Catholic Church – power corrupts. John

  2. Sarge Cheever permalink
    December 21, 2015 2:01 pm

    good stuff, Robbie–I’ve gotten very deeply into Vera Brittain and Winifred Holtby and will eventually send you my notes. fsck

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