To my chagrin, I was so engrossed in what I was doing this morning that I almost forgot to mark the Armistice at 11 o’clock. It was only the Husband knocking on the window to request a cup of tea and me flicking the radio on whilst it brewed which meant I caught the announcement of the upcoming two minutes silence. “It’s eleven!” I whispered as he opened the back door to reach for something on the worktop, and we grimaced sadly at each other before he backed out again and shut the door.
To think that I nearly forgot! And it’s a special Armistice Day, too – 11.11.11, a date believed to have special significance because of the synchronicity of the numbers. As I thought about it, I glanced up at the kitchen clock which, kept fast to stop me being late for things, was showing 11 minutes past 11 – the time that the Armistice was signed in 1918. And thinking of this made me remember who first told me that fact: Vera Brittain, in her autobiography, A Testament of Youth.
I studied the book for English A level as a ‘mature’ 25 year old and was completely overwhelmed by the sadness of the story Brittain told. The daughter of a businessman, Brittain was studying at Somerville College in Oxford at the outbreak of the First World War and quickly signed up as a VAD (Voluntary Aid Detachment) Nurse, serving initially in France and, later, in Malta. Her fiancé, Roland Leighton, a school friend of her brother Edward, died of sniper wounds in 1915 just four months after the couple became engaged. Two other close friends, Geoffrey Thurlow and Victor Richardson, died in 1917 – Geoffrey in April and Victor in June. Edward himself was wounded on the Somme in July 1916 but was thought fit enough to return to the battlefields eleven months later. He died under sniper fire in Italy on 15th June 1918.
The death of her brother affected Vera for the rest of her life and though she would eventually marry and have children (her daughter is the British politician Baroness Shirley Williams), she admitted to having lost her youth and energy and being a sadder, more disillusioned person than she had been before the war. Brittain became a pacifist and peace campaigner, travelling war-damaged Europe as an advocate of the League of Nations (which would later be replaced by the United Nations) and, in the 1960’s, co-founding the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) alongside other notable campaigners. After she died in 1970, Vera’s ashes were taken to Italy and scattered over the grave of her brother Edward, as she had asked for in her will.
|The First Remembrance Day in London on 11 November 1919|
In A Testament of Youth published in 1933, Vera describes the first ever Remembrance Day in London in November 1919. She talks of bells announcing the beginning of the two minutes silence and of standing in the street as everything and everyone around her came to a halt. She talks of how she spent the time thinking of Roland, Geoffrey, Victor and, most especially, of Edward, and how memories of them flooded her mind, of the days she had spent on leave with them in the self same city. And she talked of how her tears had come as she stood still and remembered.
And ever since I first read about it, it is Vera Brittain I think of every Armistice Day at 11 o’clock. In my mind I see her tiny, vulnerable figure standing alone in the grey November street, shaking with grief, and I mourn with her the loss of her friends and her brother, people who died more than 90 years ago and have no relationship to me whatsoever. I mourn for Vera herself, for the happy young woman she’d been and the future she lost when the call to war was made in the summer of 1914. And it surprises me to find how tearful I am in those two silent minutes, thinking of people who if they had survived the war, would have been very old indeed when I first entered the world.
But that, I guess, is the power of the written word and its ability to say something meaningful to us, even across the divide of time.