Vera Brittain

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.


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!






Mairi Chisholm

 51uRL4zJc4L._AA160_Aged just eighteen years-of-age,  Mairi Chisholm was one half of the two most photographed women of World War One.

Mad keen on motor-cycling, she met Elsie Knocker (30) at various motorbike competitions around the country. Following the declaration of war on August 4th, 1914, Elsie suggested to Mairi that they join the Women’s Emergency Corps.

After spending the first month of the war as dispatch riders in London, they were asked to join the newly formed Flying Ambulance Corps assisting wounded Belgian soldiers.  Mairi and Elsie landed in Belgium on September 25th, 1914 where their first job was ferrying casualties to a military hospital in Ghent.

51rJcwzV3bL._AA160_In November, they moved to Pervyse and spent the next three and a half years only 100 yards from the front line, performing first aid, transferring the wounded to hospital and retrieving bodies from No Man’s Land, from a cellar only six feet high. They funded this work themselves and often had to return to the UK to raise money.  Their work only ended on 17th March, 1918 when they were both almost killed in a gas attack.

Mairi Chisholm died in Scotland in 1981 aged 85.

Their full story has been told in the books Elsie and Mairi Go To War and, The Cellar House of Pervyse.



The Past Is A Foreign Country…

… they do things differently there.  L.P. Hartley

I, along with thousands of my generation, learned about The Great War at school. And what a boring subject it was. The Schlieffen Plan. Gallipoli. Trench Warfare. Who cared? If World War Two (which my parents lived through) was ancient history, then World War One was positively prehistoric.  What relevance could it have to my life?

It’s probably only as one grows older and – I hope – a little wiser, that one starts to realise that EVERYTHING that went before influences the lives we live now.

In commemoration of the Centenary of The Great War, the BBC has commissioned a four-year project of 130 programmes and 2,500 hours of TV and Radio Programming (documentaries, drama, children’s, news, arts) exploring the period from 1914-18.

The opening programme was Jeremy Paxman’s four-part TV series Great Britain’s Great War – with accompanying book. I have to say, this is the first time I feel I’ve ever ‘got’ the First World War, and it’s a fascinating story.

Of course he talks about the politics and battles of the war,  but he also examines the personal stories behind the conflict:  The notice that appeared in the personal column of The Times:  Lady, fiance killed, will gladly marry officer totally blinded or incapacitated by the War; The stories of men, so hideously injured either physically or emotionally, they remained within the walls of the hospitals where they were treated for the rest of their lives.

But stirring stories too. Of unscrupulous landlords who tried to take advantage of the male population’s absence at the front to raise domestic rents – only to be beaten down by a rebellion of women.

The war years laid the path for so much change that it’s interesting to think that the Britain of 1919 would be more recognizable to someone from the 21st Century, that someone from 1913.

So what had it all done to Britain?  Men who had fought together in the trenches – and women who had worked together in the factories – had first-hand experience of what ‘the other half’ was like… The efforts made and the risks taken by all classes meant that proper democracy in Britain could be denied no longer.  Jeremy Paxman.  Great Britain’s Great War.  p 285

Even if you don’t live in Britain, it’s worth checking out this book as I’m sure many of the experiences were shared by those living in Canada, Australia, New Zealand and other countries around the world.