The Clara Barton Museum Blog

Vera Brittain: World War I Nurse

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Vera Brittain in WWI Red Cross Nurse's uniform

Vera Brittain was a young women living in England when World War I broke out. Her life changed. Her fiancé went to the front. She became a nurse.

“Personally, after seeing some of the dreadful things I have to see here, I feel I shall never be the same person again, and wonder if, when the war does end, I shall have forgotten how to laugh… One day last week I came away from a really terrible amputation dressing I had been assisting at – it was the first after the operation – with my hands covered with blood and my mind full of a passionate fury at the wickedness of war, and I wished I had never been born.”

By the end of the war, her fiancé, her brother, and several close friends had been killed.

After the war, she would record her experiences in both poetry and prose in order “to challenge that too easy, too comfortable relapse into forgetfulness which is responsible for history’s most grievous repetitions.” Her most famous prose work is Testament of Youth, which was recently made into a movie. Her poems include:

Epitaph On My Days in Hospital

I found in you a holy place apart,

Sublime endurance, God in man revealed,

Where mending broken bodies slowly healed

My broken heart

Roundel (“Died of Wounds”)

Because you died, I shall not rest again,

But wander ever through the lone world wide,

Seeking the shadow of a dream grown vain

Because you died.


I shall spend brief and idle hours beside

The many lesser loves that still remain,

But find in none my triumph and my pride;


And Disillusion’s slow corroding stain

Will creep upon each quest but newly tried,

For every striving now shall nothing gain

Because you died.

The Lament of the Demobilised

“Four years,” some say consolingly. “Oh well,

What’s that? You’re young. And then it must have been

A very fine experience for you !”

And they forget

How others stayed behind and just got on –

Got on the better since we were away.

And we came home and found

They had achieved, and men revered their names,

But never mentioned ours;

And no-one talked heroics now, and we

Must just go back and start again once more.

“You threw four years into the melting-pot –

Did you indeed !” these others cry. “Oh well,

The more fool you!”

And we’re beginning to agree with them.


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