Vera Brittain: ‘Human Mercy Turns Alike to Friend or Foe’

Vera Brittain
My summer reading includes Jacqueline Winspear’s Maisie Dobbs novels set in England during and after World War I. Maisie is an intriguing character is an age when much is changing for women–as suffragettes they are taking to the Parliament their fight for the right to vote; at the same time, the war with Germany is bringing many women to a very different “front line.”

Winspear’s novels prompted me to re-read some of the WWI “war poets,” whose description of war’s realities make them anything but jingoistic. Below is a poem by Vera Brittain who served as a Voluntary Aid Detachment (VAD) nurse and requested to be sent to France in 1917. She was stationed at 24 General Hospital at Étaples, where she nursed German prisoners of war. The poem below reflects her experience:

THE GERMAN WARD by VERA BRITTAIN

When the years of strife are over and my
recollection fades
Of the wards wherein I worked the weeks
away,
I shall still see, as a visions rising ‘mid the War-
time shades,
The ward in France where German wounded
lay.

I shall see the pallid faces and the half-sus-
picious eyes,
I shall hear the bitter groans and laboured
breath,
And recall the loud complaining and the weary
tedious cries,
And the sights and smells of blood and wounds
and death.

I shall see the convoy cases, blanket-covered
on the floor,
And watch the heavy stretcher-work begin,
And the gleam of knives and bottles through
the open theatre door,
And the operation patients carried in.

I shall see the Sister standing, with her form
of youthful grace,
And the humour and the wisdom of her
smile,
And the tale of three years’ warfare on her thin
expressive face-
The weariness of many a toil-filled while.

I shall think of how I worked for her with
nerve and heart and mind,
And marvelled at her courage and her skill,
And how the dying enemy her tenderness
would find
Beneath her scornful energy of will.

And I learnt that human mercy turns alike to
friend or foe
When the darkest hour of all is creeping
nigh,
And those who slew our dearest, when their
lamps were burning low,
Found help and pity ere they came to die.

So, though much will be forgotton when the
sound of War’s alarms
And the days of death and strife have passed
away,
I shall always see the vision of Love working
amidst arms
In the ward wherein the wounded prisoners
lay.

From Verses of a V. A. D. (August 1918)

For more on Vera Brittain, read Vera Brittain: A Feminist Life by Deborah Gorham

Denise Giardina: Mourning in the Mountains

Chris Keane/Reuters
Chris Keane/Reuters
There was a lovely reflection in today’s NYT by novelist Denise Giardina about the Upper Big Branch mine explosion in West Virginia. Denise spent some time with Sojourners community in the late ’70s and early ’80s when she was working on her first book Storming Heaven. Since then she’s gone on to write Unquiet Earth, Saints and Villains, and Emily’s Ghost. Currently, Denise is the writer-in-residence at West Virginia State University. Below is an excerpt from her column:

Halfway through Saturday night’s semifinal against Duke, our star forward, Da’Sean Butler, tore a ligament in his knee, and the Mountaineers crumbled. And on Monday evening, while Duke and Butler played in what for us was now merely a game, West Virginians gathered around televisions to watch news of a coal mine disaster.

On Tuesday, the headline in The Charleston Gazette read instead: Miners Dead, Missing in Raleigh Explosion . And we cried.

Despite the sunny skies and unseasonably warm weather, the mood here in southern West Virginia is subdued. As of Tuesday afternoon, 25 men have been confirmed dead, two are critically injured, and four are missing and presumed dead. Their fellow West Virginians work round the clock and risk their own lives to retrieve the bodies.

Already outrage is focused on Massey Energy, owner of the Upper Big Branch mine. Massey has a history of negligence, and Upper Big Branch has often been cited in recent years for problems, including failure to properly vent methane gas, which officials say might have been the cause of Monday’s explosion.

It seems we can’t escape our heritage. I grew up in a coal camp in the southern part of the state. Every day my school bus drove past a sign posted by the local coal company keeping tally, like a basketball scoreboard, of “man hours” lost to accidents. From time to time classmates whose fathers had been killed or maimed would disappear, their families gone elsewhere to seek work.

We knew then, and know now, that we are a national sacrifice area. We mine coal despite the danger to miners, the damage to the environment and the monomaniacal control of an industry that keeps economic diversity from flourishing here. We do it because America says it needs the coal we provide.

Read the whole column here.