Watching the film dramatization of Vera Brittain’s Testament of Youth, there were moments to ponder the sheer strength of personality that allowed Brittain to engage voluntarily with the bloody horror of the Great War whilst living through successive private tragedies. The human capacity to find touches of beauty in a landscape of hell is baffling to someone who would have crumpled in the first minute of such an existence.
On 20th April 1917, Geoffrey Thurlow wrote to Vera Brittain to say that he had heard from her brother Edward who said that their friend Victor Richardson was badly wounded and was in the military hospital at Rouen. Thurlow then continued:
“After tea tonight wanting to be alone — we came back last night for a day or two & then we go up for a stunt — I walked out along a high embankment and everything was fresh and cool quite in contrast to the heated atmosphere of our dugout. As I looked westward I saw just below me in front of the embankment the battered outline of Hun trenches with 2 long straggling communication trenches winding away into some shell tom trees: the setting sun reflected in the water at the bottom of many crump holes making them look masses of gold. Over this derelict plain a thin line of men going back to billets in a large town, which stood outlined against a pale yellow sky with dark purple clouds low down in the sky: over to the right tall trees astride a river also looking gold in the last rays of the sun and beyond the river more ruined houses from which occasionally flashed a large gun. Well! It was all quite beautiful & I wish Edward could have been with me if it were any other place than this. I walked on along the line broken in many places by shell holes until I came to a gap where a large bridge had been blown up over the river which swirled along in a yellow torrent below: along the bank a line of pack mules carrying up ammunition & they were reflected in the quieter side of the river. Everything seems very vague but none the less certain here & I only hope I don’t fail at the critical moment as truly I am a horrible coward: wish I could do well especially for the School’s sake. I think you would love Chigwell — everything is so peaceful there. Often have we watched the many splendours of the Sunset from the School field. But all this will be boring you.
‘War knows no power safe shall be my going
Safe tho’ all safety’s lost, safe where men fall
And if these poor limbs die, safest of all.’
Rupert Brooke is great and his faith also great.
If Destiny is willing I will write later
In haste .”
The landscape through which Thurlow walked is almost unimaginable. Endless mud, craters filled with filthy water, blackened tree stumps, mile upon mile of barbed wire, the inescapable smells of excrement and death, and he is still able to look up to see light and shape and colour and write “it was all quite beautiful.” Did he write such words because he felt it was expected that he would do so? Or is there something in the human spirit that is indestructible?