A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: ‘I read it in a tearing anguish’ - a nurse on receiving the telegram that brought news of her brother’s death

 

I had just announced to my father, as we sat over tea in the dining room, that I must do up Edward’s papers and take them to the post office before it closed for the weekend, when there came a sudden loud clattering at the front-door knocker that always meant a telegram. For a moment I thought that my legs would not carry me, but they behaved quite normally as I got up and went to the door.

I knew what was in the telegram – I had known for a week – but because the persistent hopefulness of the human heart refuses to allow intuitive certainty to persuade the reason of that which it knows, I opened and read it in a tearing anguish of suspense.

“Regret to inform you Captain EH Brittain MC killed in action, Italy, June 15th.” “No answer,” I told the boy mechanically, and handed the telegram to my father, who had followed me into the hall. As we went back into the dining room I saw, as though I had never seen them before, the bowl of delphiniums on the table; their intense colour, vivid, ethereal, seemed too radiant for earthly flowers.

From “The Testament of Youth” by Vera Brittain (first published by Victor Gollancz, 1933; republished by Virago with an introduction by Mark Bostridge, 2004). Included by permission of Mark Bostridge and Timothy Brittain-Catlin, literary executors for the estate of Vera Brittain, 1970

Tomorrow: The Chilwell explosion

The '100 Moments' already published can be seen at: independent.co.uk/greatwar

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