Reading Vera Brittain’s Testament of Youth

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I’ve become a lot more interested in understanding World War I over the past couple years, largely because of the research I had to do to teach a course called “Israelis and Palestinians” as an adjunct instructor in the Judaic Studies department at the U of Oregon. The more I read, the more I realized the enormous role that “The Great War” played in laying the groundwork for the future Israeli-Palestinian conflict and for the screwed up politics of the Middle East to this day. I guess, more specifically, I would say that I learned a lot more about the influence of WWI and the decisions and agreements made by the victorious Allies after the war on the Middle East.bible sword

That sparked my interest in gaining a better understanding of late 19th / early 20th century history. I had long ago read Barbara Tuchman’s Guns of August, but last year I discovered a lesser known book of hers, Bible and Sword: England and Palestine from the Bronze Age to Balfour, which helped me better understand the multiple motivations that the British had leading up to the British Mandate over Palestine.

And now, when I read books that mention people like Lord Herbert Kitchener, Herbert Samuel, Arthur Balfour, Harry St John Philby (and his traitorous son, Kim Philby), I have a better sense of how their beliefs and decisions shaped the dynamics of the Middle East to this day.

A British gov't WWI propaganda poster seeking to motivate men who hadn't enlisted through social pressure.

A British gov’t WWI propaganda poster seeking to motivate men who hadn’t enlisted through social pressure.

A couple weeks ago, I heard an NPR story about the recently released movie, Testament of Youth, based on Vera Brittain’s 1933 memoir of the same title. Whoever was being interviewed described Brittain’s book as hands-down the best memoir ever published in terms of describing the impacts of WWI on much of English youth.

I thought that by reading her book – the work of a woman who grew up in rural English society and became a nurse during the war – I might gain some insight into the mindset of the post-war British population, since their experiences, fears, hopes, and assumptions strongly influenced the political decisions the British government took in the decades to follow.

I’m about 200 pages in to the 650+ page book, and I’m a slow reader. But so far I already have some thoughts to share. First, Brittain is a gifted writer, and her description of being in her late teens during the years 1911 – 14 offer a window into how many young people in England responded to the incredibly rapid technological and cultural changes that were moving England swiftly out of the Victorian era. She writes about being a feminist (and uses that term), and about being an independent thinker who questions organized religion and other traditional authority systems and has clear ideas about what education should do for young people. Take a look at the paragraph I’ve marked below to see what I mean.

brittain 1Side note: I don’t know what “unwanted C3 children” means, and I’ve tried looking it up to no avail. If anyone knows, I’d love to hear.

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10 thoughts on “Reading Vera Brittain’s Testament of Youth

  1. Hello, I stumbled upon your blog as I was looking for the same thing! Just discovered what it means – apparently C3 is a military term which describes the command, control and communication system (http://fas.org/man/dod-101/navy/docs/fun/part20.htm). This would make sense form the context, as you can see, as Brittain is lamenting the plight of young men who are unthinkingly sent off to war.

    Quite a random contribution to your blog…
    By the way, I’m a supporter of Israel (and the two-state solution) – from Dublin in Ireland!
    All the best!
    Eoin

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    • Hi Eoin – thanks! I’m so glad to know what C3 meant in that context! I too am a supporter of Israel, as well as of Palestine, and of a two-state solution. I hope somehow the deeply entrenched hatreds and hard line positions will give way soon to compromise and an enduring agreement that will make things more just, more peaceful, more prosperous, more stable. i sometimes wonder if the Good Friday Agreement offers a kind of “best we can hope for” possibility. I say that because, having gotten to know a number of Palestinians as dear friends, I’ve come to understand that the 2-state solution is something that many Palestinians are willing to accept, for the sake of an end to the violence and a better future, but most would regard it as an agreement that is unjust to them. Most Jewish Israelis, in contrast, regard the 2-state solution as both just and pragmatic. I’m not that current on the politics of Ireland / Northern Ireland / and the UK, but my hazy understanding is that, for most in the Irish community, the Good Friday Agreement prioritized peace and partial-justice over what they’d consider full justice – the 100% departure of the British. And yet, for the most part the agreement has held, and I presume that the quality of life in Northern Ireland is a lot better than during the Troubles. I’d be curious to hear your thoughts and hope nothing I’ve written has offended.

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      • Yes you’re right about Ireland – the Good Friday Agreement is a compromise solution that came about when the Irish Republican Army finally realised that violence was futile. I’m from a Catholic background myself, but did not agree with the methods used by the Irish Republican Army, although I was sympathetic to their cause for grievance. As you probably know, the violence initially erupted against the corrupt and oppressive state that refused to give equal rights to Catholics. I think the cause of the IRA was justified (equal rights and representation for Catholics), but that the violent means by which they tried to achieve this was wholly wrong and unjustified. Through political pressure and civil disobedience and protest the Catholics could have achieved equality, in my view, as the British state had been granting independence and freedom to its former colonies in the decades after World War 2, and the unfair treatment of Catholics in Northern Ireland was starting to become a blot on the British reputation as they claimed to be a bastion of human rights. The IRA’s goal was not to drive the Protestants out of Ireland, but to achieve equal rights for Catholics.

        In my view, the main obstacle to peace in Israel/ Palestine is the religiously-based hated of Jews that is propagated by Islamic clerics and that seems to be deeply rooted in Palestinian culture. Moreover, Palestinians have had very bad leadership down through the years, and have been betrayed by a corrupt ruling class who expropriate international aid. The Palestinian media and government officials prevent peace by indoctrinating Palestinian society in anti-Semitic propaganda. In Northern Ireland, there was never such open hatred expressed towards the British as that put out by Palestinian TV and newspapers, and enunciated by PA leaders.

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      • Appreciate hearing your thoughts. I agree that deep seated hatred of Jews is a huge obstacle to peace. I also see settlement expansion and a growing Jewish/nationalist extremist movement as huge obstacles. The Oslo Agreement involved the Palestinian leaders committing to end extremist anti-Jewish and anti-Israeli media indoctrination and incitement, and the Israeli leaders committing to stop expanding their footprint in the West Bank. 20 years later, both sides have done precisely the opposite of what the agreement called for. And look – it hasnt worked.

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    • Thank you for the explanation of ‘C3 children’.

      I too have just come across that sentence in the book and googled but did not find the correct meaning.

      Many thanks for sharing.

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  2. Like Eoin, I came to your blog looking for the meaning of C3 children.

    The passage you highlighted is one that I too had noted for sharing. Brittain’s memoir has been on my shelf for years but I have struggled to get started. I reflection on me, not the writing. I have been avoiding the sadness and horror I know it contains. I have been pleasantly surprised by her account of her growing feminism.

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  3. Thanks to all for the explanations of ‘C3 children’. I too fell upon this blog in search of a deffinition during my read of Vera Brittsin’s ‘Testament of Youth’. I am however drawn to the discussion of the two state solution. It has always been opinion that a “one state solution” wou.ld be in the best interest of ALL the citizens of Israel. If the government would treat all its citizens equally the problems between Jewish and Arabic citizens would be nullified. It would appear that the same problems that were present in South Africa during the Apartheid Government aare present today in Israel. An argument can be made also by comparing the equal rights movement here to the struggle of the Arab population of Israel. When a people’s rights are suppressed, when they are made to feel less than their Jewish counterparts it’s no wonder why the problems persist. All I’m saying here is the two states solution will continue to divide Iseral’s current problems rather than unite their people. Racism is still occurring here and in South Africa but look hhow far we’ve all come. If they don’t take the right steps to get the best long term results for all their citizens soon, they can’t expect to have real peace for the foreseeable future.

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    • Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Randall. There are arguments to be made for one state or for two, and in the end what matters the most to me is that however many states there are that everyone living in them have equal civil rights and is able to live without being threatened by their neighbors. I hope you’ll keep in touch!

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