Letters from a lost generation

The correspondence between Vera Brittain and Roland Leighton are a powerful insight into personal experiences during the First World War. Within this post I will be analysing one of the letters contained in Letters from a Lost Generation. The collection as a whole is a powerful read but I have condensed my focus to the one letter dated 25th April 1915 where I analyse the shift in gender roles that took place during the war period. letters-from-a-lost-generation

25th April 1915, Vera Brittain writes to her fiancé Roland Leighton. Leighton was stationed in France, corresponding with Brittain from the trenches. As this is a personal letter it allows for a true insight into an individual’s emotions and views during the war. During this period there was a definite divide occurring between the genders and their positions within society were shifting. The war opened jobs and wages for the females left at home providing a sense of liberation. To expand this gap, men were coming back from the war shell-shocked or with a jaded opinion of woman. There are a few key phrases that will be extracted from the source which highlights the shift in gender roles.

Men fighting on the frontline were subject to certain horrors, horrors that had been inconceivable until this point. Brittain wants to know ‘all the gruesome things [Leighton] see[s]’[1]. She expresses desire for her life to be as much as her husbands, and hearing detail through letters allows that[2]. The description of war and life for Leighton is a common subject between them, even within the last letter she received from Leighton he describes a dead body lain forgotten in marshy ground[3]. Vera was not in imminent danger; she was writing from the safety of Somerville College, Oxford[4]. Yet the fact that she was not on the frontline left her disconnected and in a state of anxiety, not knowing if she was about to lose loved ones. She writes about the juxtaposition of her life to that of her husband’s expressing dismay at the pleasantness of her surroundings[5]. It is as if she is expressing a sense of guilt at the ease of her position[6]. This ease of life does not allow a true reflection of the majority of woman during the war, there was a great change and liberation of woman occurring. ‘Woman are no longer the sheltered & protected darlings of man’s playtime, fit only for the nursery & the drawing-room – at least, no woman that you are interested in could ever be just that’[7]. Through Brittain’s words it is identifiable that this empowerment of woman was coursing strongly through the country, expanding far enough to have effect even within the cloistered universities. The emotive language Brittain uses reflects a dissociation with previous ideals of woman. The exclaimed “you” highlights opinion that this new woman is the type of woman that her and her and her husband should now keep as friends. Through reading this extract and previous letters sent from Brittain a romanticised notion of war is portrayed. ‘Your letter…came this morning. I can’t tell how it interested & thrilled me.’[8] This was in direct response to descriptions of violence. Even within this letter she finds herself dreaming over it, thinking of ‘[Leighton] among barbed-wire entanglements at night’[9]. Again highlighting the separation between the genders. If the experiences of fighting on the frontline are received through letters such as these, then it would be impossible for woman to truly attain the true horrors without conjuring up romanticised imagery.

Life in Britain during the war period enabled a liberation for many women, the expansion of woman’s rights were being heavily pushed and fought for. With the men fighting overseas woman had to pick up the work left behind. There was a large drive in agriculture work with the Woman’s Land Army, woman working within the agriculture industry increased from 80,000 in 1914, to 113,000 by the end of the war[10]. Also a large amount of work was needed within arms and munition manufactory. The previous idealised ‘protected & sheltered’[11] woman had died. Woman were working hard labour and proving their strength. The visual image of woman was also changing, as the practical trouser was often the choice wear now.

There was a 24 per cent overall increase in employment for woman during the war period, increasing 4.9 to 6.2million by 1918[12]. These figures are often disregarded by many historians as they argue roles were only filled as temporary agents until the men returned from work, also there was a reduced income received by females which was not equivalent to what males would have received for the same work[13], Pyecroft argues that this reflects that woman and woman’s work was treated as if it was of a lower status[14]. But regardless, woman where earning. Madelaine Ida Bedford sang about the prosperous lifestyles that wages allowed for[15]. This independent earning woman provided a foundation of the emerging “Flapper” that arose during the “Roaring Twenties”, bringing empowerment to females as females.

Working the home front was not entirely safe or prosperous as Bedford depicts. The term “Canary Girl” was quickly coined for many munition workers due to the toxic jaundice they were suffering from, causing yellowing of skin and hair. Large amount of workers were inflicted with long term health conditions or even death due to the conditions they worked in.


Woman found themselves not only suppressed through wages, yet also within the political sphere. The Woman’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) was a response to woman’s social unrest. 1912 saw the rise of militant action by the WSPU. From humiliating political figures[17] to arson attacks of public buildings. Suffragette’s were seen everywhere; chained to fences, on the front pages of newspapers or just their destructive trail across Britain. Their attacks were bold and brash, attempts were even made at Westminster Abbey and David Lloyd George’s home, yet both of these bombs were uncovered[18].

‘If men use explosives and bombs for their own purpose they call it war, and the throwing of a bomb that destroys other people is then described as a glorious and heroic deed. Why should a woman not make use of the weapons as men. It is not only war we have declared. We are fighting for a revolution.’[19]

The words of Christabel Pankhurst are strong and poignant, the strength of woman has been brought to the attention and a demand for rights and political standing was being demanded.

To add further confusion to gender roles, men were returning back from the frontline wrung with hysteria. The men who had left, and the “Brave Tommy’s” who fought were returning home effeminate. With hindsight we can see that these men were suffering from post-traumatic stress, they were “shell-shocked.” The figures are staggering in 1916, 40% of casualties were effected with post-traumatic stress[20]. The psychological effect of war was also creating a rise in asexuality, Aldington writes that he ‘had seen so many men’s bodies mangled, suffering and dead, the thought of human flesh was repulsive to [him]. [he] said [he] hated the thought of woman’[21]. This is proving more reason for the gender divide to be widening. Public awareness of homosexuality was also on the rise, within the army between 1914-19; 22 officers and 270 soldiers were court marshalled for homosexual acts[22].

There was a growing unease towards woman. A belief that woman had caused the war, and that they had sent the men off to fight was arising. Propaganda images reinforced this belief. Poster boawoman-of-britain-say-gords displaying “Woman Say Go”, planned to instil a sense of chivalry and bravado, became hated and put the female population up for blame in many men’s eyes. Until the institution of conscription in 1916, recruiting propaganda relied heavily on a patriotic appeal that welded masculinity to military service and branded the unenlist civilian as a coward beneath contempt’[24]. “The White Feather Brigade” a movement, initiated by Admiral Charles Penrose Fitzgerald on August 30th 1914 inspired many women to shame and humiliate those men who had not stepped up and gone to fight. The actual shaming of men only provoked more anger and blame.

Through Brittain’s letter it is evident of the rising empowered woman emerging on the home front. The way in which she writes allows insight into her personal empowerment, her future in nursing supports this. As this source is a personal letter it is a non-biased and a true reflection of Vera Brittain’s opinion. The strong idealist woman that she identifies with can be seen within the wider sociological situation. Woman during this period were become empowered and acquiring an elevated stance within society that had not previously been available to them. Regardless of Pyecroft’s claims that woman where merely used as a reserve pool of labour, woman prospered from the war and became viewed differently, as Brittain expresses ‘Woman are no longer the sheltered & protected darlings of man’s playtime’[25].

[1] Vera Brittain to Roland Leighton (her fiancé) 25 April 1915, Letters from a lost generation (Great Britain: Abacus 1999) p. 88

[2] Ibid

[3] Roland Leighton to Vera Brittain (his fiancé) France 20-21 April 1915, Letters from a lost generation (Great Britain: Abacus 1999) p. 86

[4] Edited by Alan Bishop and Mark Bostridge, Letters from a lost generation (Great Britain: Abacus 1999) p.  xv


[5] Brittain to Roland 25 April 1915

[6] It is only a few months after this letter was penned that she was able to leave the university and begin work as a nurse. June she nursed as a VAD at the Devonshire Hospital in Buxton. Later on that year, November 1st she started nursing at London General Hospital.  Letters from a lost generation p. xvi

[7] Brittain to Roland 25 April 1915

[8] Vera Brittain to Roland Leighton (her fiancé) Buxton 15 April 1915, Letters from a lost generation (Great Britain: Abacus 1999) p. 81

[9] Ibid

[10] Gerry Holloway, Women and work in Britain since 1840 (Oxon: Routledge 2005) p. 134

[11] Brittain to Roland 25 April 1915

[12] Holloway, Women and work in Britain since 1840 p. 134

[13] Ibid

[14] Susan Pyecroft, ‘British working woman and the first World War’, Historian. (Summer94, Vol. 56 Issue 4) pp. 699- 71, in EBSCO EJS <http://eds.a.ebscohost.com.ezproxy.glos.ac.uk/eds/pdfviewer/pdfviewer?vid=10&sid=0c10c87b-4269-4708-bd6f-5016b5ffceb8%40sessionmgr4006&hid=4213> [accessed 09 November 2016]

[15] Madelaine Ida Bedford, Munition Wages (1917)

[17] 1909, Theresa Gurnal attempted to whip Winston Churchill on November 14th 1909.

[18] Fern Riddell, ‘The Weaker Sex?, History Today (Mar2015, Vol. 65 Issue 3) pp. 18-24 <http://eds.b.ebscohost.com.ezproxy.glos.ac.uk/eds/pdfviewer/pdfviewer?vid=4&sid=5add595a-bd84-4c45-8cc8-a1b542f7f004%40sessionmgr107&hid=119> [accessed 11 November 2016]

[19] John Simkin, Woman’s Social & Political Union: Suffragettes, (Spartacus Educational Publishers Ltd.)

<http://spartacus-educational.com/Wwspu.htm> [accessed 11 November 2016]

[20] Vicky Morrisroe, Lecture: The first world war and British culture (13/10/2016)

[21] Richard Aldington, The Case of Lieutenant Hall (1930)

[22] Vicky Morrisroe, Lecture (13/10/2016)

[24] Nicolette F. Gullace, ‘White Feathers and Wounded Men: Female Patriotism and the Memory of the Great War’, The Journal of British Studies (April. 1997 Vol. 36 No. 2) pp. 178-206

<https://web.viu.ca/davies/H482.WWI/WhiteFeathersPatriotismWomenWWl.pdf> [accessed 11 November 2016]

[25] Brittain to Roland 25 April 1915







Letters from a lost generation

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