Armageddon in Europe!

Vera Brittain by Howard Coster, 1936
NPG P712 © National Portrait Gallery, London

It was in 1915 that Vera Brittain left Somerville College, Oxford to become a nurse during the First World War, a decision that would profoundly shape her life and literary career. Eighteen years later, having experienced the devastating realities of the battlefield, Brittain shared her experiences of the horrors of war in “Testament of Youth”, an acclaimed memoir based on her extensive war diaries that articulated the profound effects of the conflict on her generation and made Brittain a prominent figure in the peace movement. Her diaries, too, were published decades later. She wrote the following entry months before leaving full-time education, on 3rd August 1914, a day before the United Kingdom declared war on Germany.

The Diary Entry

Monday August 3rd

To-day has been far too exciting to enable me to feel at all like sleep—in fact it is one of the most thrilling I have ever lived through, though without doubt there are many more to come. That which has been so long anticipated by some & scoffed at by others has come to pass at last—Armageddon in Europe! On Saturday evening Germany declared war upon Russia & also started advancing towards the French frontier. The French, in order to make it evident that they were not the aggressors, wasted some hours & then the order to mobilise was given. Great excitement in France continued throughout the night & yesterday the Germans attacked France without declaring war. Unconfirmed rumour says that in one place they have been repulsed with heavy losses. They also broke a treaty in occupying the neutral Duchy of Luxembourg. Luxembourg’s neutrality was guaranteed in 1807 by England, France & Germany, & thus Germany’s attack upon it is said to be a direct challenge to Great Britain. Some of the papers seem to think that the Austrian-Servian war was only a blind & that Germany was at the bottom of the whole affair—the ‘mailed fist’ anxious to strike. At any rate Germany has destroyed the tottering hopes of peace and has plunged Europe into a situation the like of which, The Times says, has never been known since the fall of the Roman Empire. The great fear now is that our bungling Government will declare England’s neutrality. If we at this critical juncture were to refuse to help our friend France, we should be guilty of the grossest treachery & sacrifice our credit for ever. Besides we should gain nothing, for if we were to stand aside & let France be wiped out, a terrible retribution would fall upon us from a strengthened & victorious Germany.

I sat this morning after breakfast reading various newspapers for about two hours. A rumour is going round to-night that England has declared to Germany that if a German sets foot in Belgian territory her (England’s) navy will immediately act. There are many who think that this policy of vacillation is losing us the opportunity to strike a telling blow—that we should send troops to prevent the Germans getting into Belgium instead of waiting till they are in.

I should think this must be the blackest Bank Holiday within memory. Pandemonium reigned in the town. What with holiday-trippers, people struggling for papers, trying to lay in stores of food & dismayed that the price of everything had gone up, there was confusion everywhere. Mother met Mrs Whitehead in the town; she is in great anxiety because she has one son in Russia, one—Jack—in Servia, and another on his way from India. Marjorie Briggs, who was to have been married on Saturday, was married in a hurry on Friday as her husband had to have joined his regiment on Saturday. The papers are full of stories of tourists in hopeless plights trying to get back to England. Paper money is useless & the majority of the trains are cut off. It is rumoured that there is fear in Paris that a fleet of German Zeppelins are going to destroy Paris from above in the night.

Further Reading

Vera Brittain’s diaries form part of The Vera Brittain Archive, held in the Special Collections at McMaster University, Hamilton, Ontario. In 1981 they were edited by Alan Bishop and published by Victor Gollancz, bearing the title, Chronicle of Youth: Great War Diary, 1913-1917. These compelling, intimate, and beautifully written diaries had been the foundation of her bestselling 1933 memoir, Testament of Youth.


Diary entry excerpted from Chronicle of Youth: Great War Diary, 1913-1917 © The Literary Executors of the Vera Brittain Will Trust (1970). Reprinted with permission.

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