I've read too much WWI-revisionism lately, so it is heartening to see someone pick up diligently that contrary to what so many reviA refreshing book!
I've read too much WWI-revisionism lately, so it is heartening to see someone pick up diligently that contrary to what so many revisionist historians want to tell us, the British public and the soldiers themselves by no means were oblivious to the disastrous management of the war and its not exactly so clearcut and humane background as per allied interests.
I started reading Testament of Youth mainly for the information on WW1, not knowing that apart from suffering heartbreaking losses andWhere to start?
I started reading Testament of Youth mainly for the information on WW1, not knowing that apart from suffering heartbreaking losses and being a VAD nurse, Vera Brittain also was a feminist of the first hour and a writer of great astuteness.
In consequence she proceeded to reduce me to openmouthed admiration as early on as her description of youth and life prior to the Great War. Never before have I truly understood the massive societal changes wrought upon people during that short phase of time. Brittain writes so that you are there *with* her, that inevitably you get reminded of your grandparents and their often tentative and still excruciatingly backward stance in many personal matters.
Never before was I able to appreciate what it truly meant to have no privacy, at all, to be directed in every manner by parents and their peers. Brittain made it accessible to me, by giving me such simple signposts as e.g. the fact that no woman was ever private, to herself and alone except very early in the morning and late in the night. That indeed a lot of women didn’t rise very early because they had to, but because they cherished those few moments they could have to themselves.
Nor did I truly grasp what it might mean to an 18 year old VAD nurse to be thrust into a ward filled with men and having to tend to their most private needs, oftentimes themselves. Up to then any middle-class girl wouldn’t have been aware of male anatomy, yet suddenly she would have to deal with helping arm-amputated to take a leak and perforce also discover the pure plumbings of the male sexuality and what it might mean in terms of her later duties as a wife. It made me finally understand some things discussed with friends who grew up in extremely repressed households.
Her descriptions of budding love, of Roland, Victor and Geoffrey, and of course her brother Edward, and her unconventional approach to these men, were sweet and all the more ingenious to read when juxtaposed to their later letters from the front depicting how much they changed or wrestled with what they considered their duty.
*That* also was something I, a post WW2 child with a sound hatred of warfare, finally grasped, which was so utterly heartbreaking because it meant that so many, many gallant young men on any of the sides had been viciously misled.
I could go on and on, especially as I have read, prior to this, enough factual books on WW1 to know just what horrors she was so calmly writing about. A feminist, a pacifist and yet she still managed to display that special kind of stiff upper lip which was and is particular to the British middle and upper classes. She slips but rarely, this here I consider such a slip:
I wish those people who write so glibly about this being a holy War, and the orators who talk so much about going on no matter how long the War lasts and what it may mean, could see a case--to say nothing of 10 cases--of mustard gas in its early stages--could see the poor things burnt and blistered all over with great mustard-coloured suppurating blisters, with blind eyes--sometimes temporally, sometimes permanently--all sticky and stuck together, and always fighting for breath, with voices a mere whisper, saying that their throats are closing and they know they will choke.
For a brief moment that stiff upper lip slips and she lets us see the horror thrust upon her. By the end of the war she had lost everything dear and close, her beloved fiancé, her brother, her best friends. Brittain convincingly writes about the schism which separates the post-war self from her pre-war self, one which is likely to mark almost everyone of that generation.
A note of warning: I cried a lot, for all those young men, for their lovers, sisters, mothers, for the poor men feeling they let down their country and peers because they had to stay at home, for a generation of women confronted with a future alone. At times I was unable to keep going, simply because I was unable to breathe, I was so clogged up from crying. But I’d inevitably come back to the book, pressing on, reading on, wishing to learn where it all ended for her. What to me, child of those who fought and survived in WW2, was the worst was knowing that she was writing this in 1933, just a few months before everything started off again, to the same if not worse result.
I very much recommend this book for a personal look at this war, for insights which you won’t find in the usual books written by men and less feministic women and for a close look at what it meant to be a woman born in the Victorian era. ...more
Extremely interesting: this book has quite a bit of information we associate with a far later time period. E.g. it details correctly what for the clitExtremely interesting: this book has quite a bit of information we associate with a far later time period. E.g. it details correctly what for the clitoris is and what it relates to in male anatomy, it considers the female orgasm a necessity to the well-being of a couple and is on the whole very forward. Not what you'd expect of something which originally was published the first time around 1870!...more
I stumbled across The Backwash of War while looking for accounts and diaries from medical personnel.
Already then I had been aware of something curiousI stumbled across The Backwash of War while looking for accounts and diaries from medical personnel.
Already then I had been aware of something curious in some of the (nurses') diaries I had been reading. You get to think, and it's maintained then as now, that all these nurses, whether professionals or VADs, were "angels in white", relieving the pain, sadnesses and stress of the freshly wounded soldiers, or holding their hands as they died. That sort of thing, the propaganda.
However, while there were a very few accounts which clearly showed very compassionate nurses, the vast majority were anything but. Some of these diaries came over as downright cold, distracted even, as if the patients were a nuisance, some disturbence to whatever else for they actually had undertaken this work.
It was quite awful considering all those broken men, shuttled through the medical system like so much barely alive meat and treated without much compassion at all. I was puzzled. I mean, why would anyone risk their life and well-being, ostensibly to help, only to treat the wounded patients worse than one would treat cattle on the way to the slaughterbank?
So, I came upon La Motte's small booklet, started reading and my jaw dropped so far under the table, I had to go hunt for it. This book is dripping with the most vicious kind of sarcasm and cynicism you can imagine. It is red-hot aflame, aggressive, so brutal that you back off a bit for fear it bites you, and badly at that!
Ellen La Motte is clearly very very angry about a lot of what happened during her time at the front. She tells it in short vignettes, the length of a letter, and she doesn't spare anyone. Not the cold fellow nurses, either too religious to dress a naked man, or too intent on meeting an officer for marriage, or simply out at the front to be away from a stifling home. Not the many callous surgeons, often experimenting on the fresh meat cycled through their OP theatres and wards, or testing how much the human body could deal with before dying. The army, which on one hand forces nurses and doctors to put together the deserters, so they can be shot, or pinning medals on the chests of those about to die. The soldiers and the veterans themselves, and those gullible people at home. She gave them all her anger and rage.
Acid will drip hotly from your brains after reading, but I finally grasped why so many accounts of medical people read so very curiously. It took another book, Not So Quiet...: Stepdaughters of War, also written by a woman, an ambulance driver, to set matters really into perspective for me. Because--I have to confess--I initially thought La Motte had to be way over the top.
Smith settles the score with her book, however. La Motte quite clearly was even comparatively mild in her accusations and descriptions. She also was absolutely truthful, as Smith's book bears out by referring to many exact same things, just from another perspective.
These two women have helped me to a deeper insight into what really was taking place at the front and directly behind it during the Great War than practically everyone else put together, maybe with the exception of several of the war artists.
It is by the way absolutely not astonishing that both books, La Motte's and later Smith's were forbidden rsp. taken out of print. They both do what George Scott Atkinson demands in his A Soldier's Diary: that the truth be told to the public without belittling it....more