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Letters from a Lost Generation - First World War Letters of Vera Brittain and Four Friends: Roland Leighton, Edward Brittain, Victor Richardson, Geoffrey Thurlow Paperback – 4 Nov 1999
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The events set in motion by the outbreak of the First World War in 1914 changed many lives irrevocably. For Vera Brittain, an Oxford undergraduate who left her studies to volunteer as a nurse in military hospitals in England and France, the war was a shattering experience; she not only witnessed the horrors inflicted by combat through her work, but she lost the four men closest to her at that time--her fiancé Roland Leighton, brother Edward and two close friends, Geoffrey Thurlow and Victor Nicholson, who all died on the battlefields. Letters from a Lost Generation, a collection of previously unpublished correspondence between Brittain and these young men--all public schoolboys at the start of the war--chronicles her relationship with them and reveals "the old lie": The idealised glory of patriotic duty which was soon overtaken by the grim reality of the Flanders' trenches. The letters are lively, dramatic, immediate and, despite the awfulness of war, curiously optimistic: "... somehow I feel the end is not destined to be here and now. We have not fulfilled ourselves--and someday we shall live our roseate poem through", wrote Vera to in one of her last letters to Roland in December 1915, just days before he was killed by a sniper's bullet. Following his death, and later those of their mutual friends Victor and Geoffrey, Vera's letters take on a new, raw intensity as she concentrates all her emotions on her brother--a hero awarded the Military Cross--until his death on the Italian Front in June 1918. These letters formed the basis of Vera Brittain's remarkable autobiography, Testament of Youth and vividly bring to life the voices of the "lost generation" whose words threaten to be lost forever as the First World War recedes even further from living memory. --Catherine Taylor
Unique...a remarkable portrait of five young people caught up in the cataclysm of war (INDEPENDENT ON SUNDAY)
Immensely moving...As the first world war slips out of living memory, this is a timely reminder of what was lost - and how we lost it (SUNDAY TIMES)
Touching, angry, bewildered...they demand to be read (MAIL ON SUNDAY)
Beautifully edited and with excellent notes. (TLS)
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"Nothing in the papers, not the most vivid and heart rending descriptions, have made me realise the war like your letters."
This passage, written by Vera Brittain to Roland Leighton as he acted as an officer in the trenches, is just one of many containing so much truth. Nothing has made me realise the war like these letters - so much is contained within them. More striking than the visible horrors of war is the raw emotion and pain of such perfect relationships as they are torn apart in such hideous circumstances. Through this intrusion into five people's lives via these breathtaking letters, we witness them growing together simply to be blown apart suddenly, unjustly, by shellfire and sniper bullets.
The five people featured are all academics at Oxford. None of them have completed their time their when the war begins, and Vera Brittain has not even started. All of them, then, are people of 'words rather than action', and had not formally considered military life. Vera becomes a V.A.D nurse after her first year at Oxford because she cannot stand being useless any longer whilst those that she loved were suffering on the country's behalf. All of the men act with the highest nobility by heading to the front as soon as they can, and becoming respected and courageous leaders. All of the characters are so incredibly brave and admirable as the situation, making the outcome more tragic and the enhancing the feeling that the men deserve to live, and that Vera deserves them to live for her. As Edward puts it, the loss of friends means that "whatever was the value in life has all tumbled down like a house of cards."
If the same plot had been used in fiction, I would have hated the book. It would have come across as over the top in its sentiment. The honesty, emotion and pain contained in it would have come across as almost unrealistic, and the tragedy would have been just too tragic - to the point of trivialising the true horror. However, because the letters, the emotion and the pain were all real as this was written, the book does the direct opposite. In this case, it seems that truth is far, far sadder than fiction.
The book consists of letters from and to Vera Brittain, and between her and her brother Edward, her finance Roland Leighton, Edward and Roland’s friend, Victor Richardson (the three were all at Uppingham School together) and a further friend, Geoffrey Thurlow, who trained with Edward. This book takes us from the 28th September, 1913 to the 24th June, 1918.
In 1913, Vera had just rejected a marriage proposal and was planning to go to Oxford – as was her brother. However, plans for Edward and his friends were interrupted by the declaration of war and Vera is present at the school speech day, when the prophetic speech by the Headmaster, included the words; “Be a man – useful to your country; whoever cannot be that is better dead.” As Vera initially takes up her place at University, the young men in her sphere are all desperate to get a commission and Vera, initially, is encouraging their efforts.
As time passes though, and those they know start to be killed, all of these letter writers will change their thoughts on the glory of war. Vera finds that she needs to do something, especially after getting engaged to Roland, and volunteers as a nurse. The distance between them is difficult for either to accept and they often talk of what their life should have been. As Roland later writes from the trenches, “I sometimes think I must have exchanged my life for someone else’s….” Much of the first half of this book concerns the relationship between Vera and Roland and their letters are extremely moving.
Little things in these letters bring events immediately to life. Whether it is Edward’s concern over losing his valise and the practicalities of trying to move his belongings as he is constantly on the move, Vera going from hospital in London to Malta and later France, where she finds herself nursing wounded German soldiers (trying to save, she writes ironically, the very men her brother is trying to kill), unpacking the belongings and clothing of one of the young men who has been killed, or Edward musing in letters, as he reads, “The Loom of Youth,” by Alec Waugh (brother of Evelyn and an author I have enjoyed reading myself). I don’t think I have ever cried on my daily commute before, but I have now. A wonderful, moving, if terribly sad, read.
Following an intelligent youthful fivesome in their tracks, the trade or art, let alone, ecstasy image of the war is quickly left behind as its gruesome realities cause the inevitable questions on the glorification of warfare to crop up. Centre-stage is Vera, a brave and empathic VAD nurse, who sets out to acquire her own place inside, not out of, the war. As she loses one by one of her nearest and dearest, she turns her personal involvement in the war into an attitude of uncompromising sacrifice for life.
In so doing, the book, which is ultimately an intimate war memoir, reaches greater emotional intensity and richness as one turns the pages and notices how desperately Vera is trying to come to terms with the impossible. Just that very feminine line of approach makes this book an all the more worthwhile read. There can be no doubt that this is an indispensable work and one for everyone to cherish.
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