Testament of Youth is based on Vera Brittain’s remarkable First World War memoir. Published in 1933 and covering the years 1900 to 1925, it is an account of falling in love, coming of age and devastating wartime loss. Vera lost her brother Edward, her fiancé Roland Leighton and close friends Victor Richardson and Geoffrey Thurlow. They, along with almost three-quarters of a million British soldiers perished in the trenches and on the battlefields of Europe.
Brittain’s brutal awakening after a comfortable middle class start in life — albeit one in which her choices as a woman were severely limited — is rendered both real and moving in this adaptation.
The film depicts Vera as independent, an admirer of the suffragettes, and angry at her parents for wanting her to find a husband while she dreams of attending Oxford and becoming a writer.
Her determination to gain an education pays off as she persuades her father to allow her to take the entrance exam at Somerville College. She is looking forward to her studies and spending time with fiancé Roland, but her excitement is soon thwarted as he and thousands like him enlist. The scenes of the Yorkshire countryside where Vera grew up are juxtaposed against trench and field hospital scenes. In 1915 Vera left Oxford University to join the Voluntary Aid Detachment nurses and worked in London, Malta and at the front in France.
Vera is one of only a handful of nurses in the Étaples camp struggling to tend to wounded and dying soldiers who lie stretched out as far as the eye can see. Testament of Youth is a powerful and important account of the futility of war, the loss of a generation of men and the struggles of women during and after the war told through Brittain’s personal story.
It is invaluable because it is a rare account from a woman in a period when women were making a vital contribution to the war effort and struggling for equality.
Towards the end of the film Vera is shown making a passionate intervention at a meeting about how she nursed dying German prisoners and officers, arguing that the only meaning from all this death is that we must always say no to war. This is a message for now as much as it was then and is Brittain’s great pacifist legacy.