23 November 2021
Imperial War Museums (IWM) has announced the acquisition of a British War Medal and Allied Victory Medal awarded to renowned feminist, writer and pacifist Vera Brittain.
The acquisition will help IWM in telling the story of women in conflict, as well as telling the stories of pacificism and the peace movement. IWM has also acquired a photograph of her brother, Edward Brittain, attending an award ceremony for his Military Cross, as well as is military identity card.
Vera Brittain was born in December 1893 and in 1914 went to Somerville College, Oxford, to study English Literature. The following year she left Oxford to serve as a nurse with the Voluntary Aid Detachment (VAD). War service saw her serving at hospitals in the UK, in Malta and in France. During the war she suffered the loss of her fiancé, Roland Leighton, close friends Victor Richardson and Geoffrey Thurlow, and her brother Edward.
Although she returned to Oxford after the First World War to read history, her life had been forever changed by her wartime experiences and greatly marked her quickly growing literary output. Her widely read and admired autobiography Testament of Youth, is an account of her wartime experiences and emergence into the changed post-1918 world. Her other literary works encompassed novels, biographies, poetry and newspaper and magazine articles.
Edward Brittain joined the 11th Sherwood Foresters and was posted to France in February 1916. He participated in the first day of the Battle of the Somme, during which he was wounded and awarded the Military Cross. He was killed in action, aged 22, on 15 June 1918 whilst commanding a Company of 11th Sherwood Foresters at Asiago Plateau during the Battle of the Piave in Italy. The circumstances surrounding his death remain unclear. At the time of his death, Edward Brittain was being investigated for homosexual relations with men in his company. It remains unclear if the likelihood that he would be court-martialled when his company came out of the line influenced a decision by him to deliberately put himself in harm’s way, or to take his own life. He is buried at Granezza British Cemetery, Friuli-Venezia, Guilia.
Alan Wakefield, Head of First World War and Early 20th Century said, “We are delighted to acquire the British War Medal and Allied Service Medal of Vera Brittain, as well as a photograph and military identity card of her brother Edward. We are grateful to Rebecca Williams, Vera Brittain’s granddaughter, for her generous donation. This acquisition presents IWM with a unique opportunity to further develop and diversify our collection, not only in terms of the role of women in modern conflict, but also to better tell stories around war literature, the changed post-1918 world, pacifism and the peace movement.”
“Now that the First World War has passed out of living memory, it’s our duty to keep telling the stories of veterans and eyewitnesses, which is why we continue to add to our First World War collections. We are committed to continuing to collect to ensure we properly reflect the experiences of a diverse range of individuals from across Britain and the former empire.”
Other significant objects that have been acquired and now form part of IWM’s First World War Collections include:
- A Victoria Cross (VC) belonging to Private Christopher Cox, who was awarded the medal not for a single act of gallantry, but for sustained bravery over the course of four days in an unarmed capacity, rescuing wounded and assisting his unit during operations to take the village of Achiet-le-Grand in 1917. When asked about his actions Private Cox stated that he was simply doing his duty. His VC is now on display in the Lord Ashcroft Gallery at IWM London.
- A collection of objects belonging to Captain Reginald Fowler Malerbi, including items of uniform, letters, a glass eye and shell fragments from the projectile that wounded him in September 1917. During the Battle of the Menin Road Ridge (20–26 September 1917) Reginald was wounded by artillery fire whilst rescuing one of his comrades. It was on this occasion that he lost an eye.
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