Two medals belonging to the nurse, writer, and pacifist campaigner Vera Brittain have been acquired by London’s Imperial War Museum.
The announcement was made in November to coincide with Remembrance Sunday.
The museum has also obtained a photograph of her brother, Edward Brittain, pictured during an award ceremony, as well as his military identity card.
Vera Brittain was born in December 1893, and in 1914 was awarded an exhibition to Somerville College, Oxford, to study English Literature. The year after the outbreak of the First World War, she left Oxford to serve as a nurse with the Voluntary Aid Detachment (VAD). This role saw her working in hospitals in the UK, France, and Malta.
In later life, Brittain struggled to adjust following her experiences during the conflict. As well as her fiancé Roland Leighton, she lost two close friends in the fighting – as well as her own brother.
Edward Brittain joined the 11th Sherwood Foresters and was posted to France in February 1916. He participated in the Battle of the Somme in July that year, during which he was wounded and awarded the Military Cross.
Edward was killed two years later, on 15 June 1918, aged 22. He died while commanding a company of the 11th Sherwood Foresters at Asiago plateau during the Battle of Piave in Italy. This was the last major attack by the Austro-Hungarian army on the Italian front, which, with help from the United Kingdom and France, Italy successfully repelled over the course of a week’s fighting around the Piave river.
The exact circumstances of Edward Brittain’s death remain unclear, and at the time of his killing he was being investigated for homosexual relations with men in his own company.
It is unclear whether the possibility of a court-martial compelled Brittain to put himself in harm’s way, or even to take his own life on the battlefield. His body is buried at Granezza British Cemetery in Asiago, Italy.
In 1933, more than a decade after the end of the war, Vera Brittain published Testament of Youth, a widely acclaimed account of her wartime experiences, the dramatic societal changes of the post-1918 world, and her own losses.
‘There seemed to be nothing left in the world,’ she wrote in the book, ‘for I felt that Roland had taken with him all my future and Edward all my past.’
Brittain, having felt that the war had been ‘an interruption of the most exasperating kind to my personal plans’, later returned to Oxford to complete her studies. Aside from Testament of Youth, her other works included novels, biographies, poetry, and journalism. She died in London in 1970.
The Imperial War Museum received Brittain’s British War Medal and Allied Service Medal, along with her brother’s items, from Rebecca Williams, Brittain’s granddaughter. They will now form part of the museum’s First World War Collections.
‘This acquisition presents IWM with a unique opportunity to further develop and diversify our collection, not only in terms of the role of women in modern conflict, but also to better tell stories around war literature, the changed post-1918 world, pacifism and the peace movement,’ said Alan Wakefield, Head of First World War and Early 20th Century at the museum.
‘Now that the First World War has passed out of living memory, it’s our duty to keep telling the stories of veterans and eye-witnesses, which is why we continue to add to our First World War collections,’ Wakefield added.
‘We are committed to continuing to collect to ensure we properly reflect the experiences of a diverse range of individuals from across Britain and the former empire.’
Other recent acquisitions by the museum include a Victoria Cross belonging to Private Christopher Cox, and a collection of objects belonging to Captain Reginald Fowler Malerbi, including a uniform, a glass eye, and shell fragments that wounded him in September 1917.
Images: IWM/Vera Brittain Estate.