Born in Newcastle-under-Lyme, Vera Brittain spent her childhood with her younger brother Edward in Buxton. In 1914, as she was preparing to commence her studies at Somerville College, University of Oxford, the First World War broke out. She watched as her brother and their closest friends, Victor Richardson and Roland Leighton enlisted in succession. She was later engaged to Roland, and in 1915 she chose to halt her studies in order to take up a position as a Voluntary Aid Detachment (V.A.D) nurse.
On December 23rd 1915, Roland was shot and killed. Vera was informed of his death while waiting for him to arrive home on leave. Devastated, she traveled to Malta the following year to serve as a nurse at St. George’s hospital.
On the 9th of April, 1917, Victor was shot in the head and blinded during the Battle of Arras,and on the 23rd of April, a close friend of her and her brother, Geoffrey Thurlow, was killed in action at Monchy-le-Preux. She traveled back to England at the end of May, intending to propose a marriage of convenience to Victor, however, his condition worsened, and after a descent into delirium, he died on the 9th of June.
In January 1918 she saw Edward for the last time before his death on the 15th of June during an assault on the Asiago Plateau. He was the last of her friends. She wrote: “I decided in the first few weeks after his loss that nothing would ever really console me for Edward’s death or make his memory less poignant and in this I was quite correct, for nothing ever has.”
After the war she returned to Oxford and it was there that she met Winifred Holtby, a fellow aspiring novelist. She was to become her closest friend until Winifred’s death in 1935. Vera married political scientist George Catlin in 1925, but chose not to take his name. On their wedding day, she carried pink roses down the aisle in commemoration of those once given to her by Roland. They had two children, John Edward, and Shirley, who later served as a Member of Parliament, and is now the Baroness of Crosby.
In the post-war years, Vera became a dedicated feminist, socialist, and pacifist activist. During the Second World War, her named was among those found in The Black Book which detailed the individuals who were to be immediately arrested following a Nazi takeover of Great Britain. Her memoir, and the most famous of her published works, ‘Testament of Youth’ recounted her experiences during the Great War was published in 1933. She died on the 29th of March, 1970, and, at her request, her ashes were scattered over her brother’s grave on the Asiago Plateau.