Saturday, November 10, 2012

The pacifist clings to hope...

Vera Brittain

Remembrance Day, November 11, 2012

"The pacifist clings to hope." I remember writing that in an essay during my fourth year of university. I took a fascinating course about war in literature. We had 10 books to read, and I just couldn't get them all finished. My favourite was English writer Vera Brittain's Testament of Youth. The book jacket describes it as "one woman's unforgettable record of the First World War - a haunting elegy for a lost generation." Haunting is an appropriate word for it. I cried sometimes while I was reading it. Vera Brittain's real life losses were many and painful. But this book is also strikingly beautiful with eloquent, poetic writing.

The thing is, I never finished it. It's over 600 pages and I found I had to move on to other things. That was many (many!) years ago. As we honour our veterans this Remembrance Day, I am hoping to pick up the book and start it all over again.

I will also be thinking about family members who served in the First World War, like my dad's father, who came down with the Spanish Flu in England and never made it to the battlefield. Luckily, he survived. The flu claimed up to 70 million lives around the world until it finally disappeared in 1919.  In fact, the virus killed more people than the war itself.  My dad's uncle also served, and had to get drunk to round up dead soldiers on the field. Another of my dad's uncles suffered from post-traumatic stress for the rest of his life, and would go into trances now and then.

Vera Brittain's young love, Roland Leighton, wrote this poem from Ploegsteert Wood (Plug Street Wood), a sector of the Western Front in Flanders, in April of 1915.


Violets from Plug Street Wood,
Sweet, I send you oversea.
(It is strange they should be blue,
Blue, when his soaked blood was red,
For they grew around his head;
It is strange they should be blue.)

Violets from Plug Street Wood--
Think what they have meant to me--
Life and Hope and Love and You
(And you did not see them grow
Where his mangled body lay,
Hiding horror from the day;
Sweetest, it was better so.)

Violets from oversea,
To your dear, far, forgetting land
These I send in memory,
Knowing You will understand.


  1. What a beautiful poem. So sad.

    I hope you get to finish the book. I remember those courses too, where there was so much reading that you couldn't get through it all. But it was all so good. It always made me wonder why they packed so many books onto a reading list, when inevitably each would only get the fastest read (or not) possible and therefore the excellent writing and story would be lost.

    I took a Fantasy Literature class once and read The Hobbit in just over a day! I missed so many details. I was interested to see that it has just been rereleased, so I might give it another go.

    1. I have to push myself to read. Once the kids are sleeping, I find it easier to put on the TV. Bad habit. I want to finish that book! You are so right, why not put a few less books on the reading list, and really get into them? I have never read The Hobbit. Another one for my (long) list! :)

  2. So beautiful! A fitting tribute. Sadly, we don't remember the boys of the great war nearly as much as we should out here in America. And equally sadly, we are prone to arrogance in regard to that war as well as the second. We talked about the poets of WWI in my humanities class not too long ago-- Ivor Gurney, Wilfred Owen and the others. Always an eye opener for my students...

    1. Oh, yes, I have a Wilfred Owen book. Painful to read. My son is reading Hana's Suitcase at school. Tough stuff, but good for the kids to know.