It’s never been hard to find books chronicling men’s experiences in war. However, the first account I can remember reading of a woman’s experience during World War One was that of Vera Brittain in her book Testament of Youth. It’s the harrowing true account of a young woman who loses her fiance, her brother and many of his friends in the killing fields of Europe. Not willing to sit idly by and watch the war from the sidelines, Vera trained as a nurse and served overseas.
Vera Brittain’s story was first told on-screen by the BBC in an adaptation which can be found on Youtube. Just weeks ago, filming began on a new adaptation of Testament of Youth, a feature-length film, also by the BBC. It will be released in 2015.
Although I knew Vera Brittain was a novelist, I didn’t realise she’d also written poetry. Here is one of her most famous war poems, The Sisters Buried at Lemnos, written in 1916 after she visited the graves of two Canadian Army Nurses buried on that island.
THE SISTERS BURIED AT LEMNOS
O golden Isle set in the deep blue Ocean,
With purple shadows flitting o-er they crest,
I kneel to thee in reverent devotion
Of some who on thy bosom lie at rest!
Seldom they enter into song or story;
Poets praise the soldier’s might and deeds of War,
But few exalt the Sisters, and the glory
Of women dead beneath a distant star.
No armies threatened in that lonely station,
They fought not fire or steel or ruthless foe,
But heat and hunger, sickness and privation,
And Winter’s deathly chill and blinding snow.
Till mortal frailty could endure no longer
Disease’s ravages and climate’s power,
In body weak, but spirit ever stronger,
Courageously they stayed to meet their hour.
No blazing tribute through the wide world flying,
No rich reward of sacrifice they craved,
The only meed of their victorious dying
Lives in the hearts of humble men they saved.
Who when in light the Final Dawn is breaking,
Still faithful, though the world’s regard may cease,
Will honour, splendid in triumphant waking,
The souls of women, lonely here at peace.
O golden Isle with purple shadows falling
Across thy rocky shore and sapphire sea,
I shall not picture these without recalling
The Sisters sleeping on the heart of thee!