In 1914 they left their bright summers behind. They deserted their tea parties – the china patterns, the decorative sandwiches, the hidden orchestras. They betrayed the silks, ribbons and diamante veils of their priviledged girlhood. Naive, romantic and foolish – against their parents' wishes, against their better judgement – they left their homes to go to war.
They left to become VADs. Since 1909, the Voluntary Aid Detachment provided nursing services for the hospitals of Great Britain. By World War I they were supporting the registrated nurses in France and Belgium – watching the stretchers in Mons lying in the rain, soothing the chaotic chlorine-choked breathing of the soldiers in Ypres. They scrubbed floors, changed sheets, cleaned wounds the world had never seen before, changed dressings that were stained and dank: healing was a messy process. They watched madness grow like parasites that fed on memories and turned the mind into bedlam.
What made them leave their measured and embroidered lives? Perhaps to follow their young men, their unknown suitors, for they were out there too. They fought during the day, uprooting the family trees of strangers, and at night they stared into the moon like wolves, seeing the face of a girl they once knew - little knowing that she might be close by, her hands as bloody as theirs,
"…gazing, half hypnotised, at the disheveled beds, the stretchers on the floor, the scattered boots and piles of muddy knaki, the brown blankets turned back from smashed limbs bound to splints by filthy blood-stained bandages." (Vera Brittain, 'Testament of Youth')
Maybe it was a sense of guilt, a sense of rebellion or a sense of adventure that made them journey to this place where a lady could no longer avert her eyes. Enemy planes did not respect these new homes, despite the red cross painted on the roof like a protesting hand. They stared at the dragonflies made of wood and paper swarming over the horizon.
And when peace was signed in 1918 – what happened then? They had matured in a forcing house of terror, grief and responsibility. They were caught between their own modest past and a new, fierce generation. Cynical and merciless, this glossy youth had no patience with the sad multitudes – silent obligations – returning from the war. They were lost between the past and present, and stood in the way of the deadly party that was about to begin.
"…I was now aware that I represented neither a respect-worthy volunteer in a national cause nor a surviving victim of history's cruelest catastrophe; I was merely a figure of fun…" (Vera Brittain, 'Testament of Youth')