The new film version of Vera Brittain’s classic First World War memoir Testament Of Youth arrives in UK cinemas on January 16th. It tells the true story of Brittain and three young men during the war, showing both how Vera’s experiences as a nurse changed her and how the carnage of war decimated an entire generation of young men.
However while it is a true story, it may not be the whole truth – as it could be missing how the fate of one of the young men who is central to the story, might have been tied to his sexuality. To be fair, the movie is actually more upfront than the book, as while Brittain’s tome has extremely vague allusions that her brother, Edward (played by Taron Egerton), had ‘difficulty’ with women, the film is a little more explicit on what that difficulty might have been.
There may have been much more to the story though, as Vera Brittain biographer Mark Bostridge believes that Edward had several affairs with men and the discovery of this may have led to his death. The official account, as recounted in Testament Of Youth, is that Edward was killed by a sniper – the only officer who died in a June 1918 attack against Austrian forces on the plateau of Asiago in the Italian Alps.
Bostridge believes there was far more too it than that, though. His research, as recounted by the Daily Mail and in his book, Vera Brittain And The First World War, suggests that Edward had written a letter to a man who he’d been having an affair with, and that this had been opened and read by the official censors, who then initiated an investigation of him. Perhaps just as bad in terms of the strict social structure of the military at the time, the letter also suggested Edward ‘fraternised’ with men in the lower ranks.
Although Edward shouldn’t have known about this, Bostridge’s research suggests that his Commanding Officer, Colonel Charles Hudson, took Edward to one side and broadly hinted about what was going on, telling him about how the letters they all wrote were opened and read before being delivered. Although it’s difficult to say exactly what happened next, Bostridge claims that knowing he was facing a court martial, imprisonment and the severe social stigma that was attached to homosexuals at the time, Edward deliberately courted death. If this version is correct there was less than 24 hours between Edward discovering he was under investigation and his demise.
“What seems to have happened,” says Bostridge, “is that, unable to face his family and the wider world with the truth of his sexuality in an age when being gay was considered criminal, he either shot himself, or more probably deliberately exposed himself to enemy fire. He was found shot through the head after running ahead of his men as they went over the top.”
Brittain’s novel says nothing about Bostridge’s version of events, and it appears that’s because Vera didn’t know herself at the time (even though her letters to him suggest she was aware that her brother had attractions to men). However the year after Testament Of Youth’s publication in 1933, Vera was visited by Colonel Hudson, who told her his account of her brother’s final days.
Vera never publicly acknowledged this, but there is one very clear hint she believed what she had been told, which is that in 1936 she wrote Honourable Estate, which includes an officer who deliberately chooses death rather than revealing his sexuality.
It is impossible to say exactly what Edward’s sexuality was, or if it really did contribute to his death. It’s clear he had romantic attachments to men, but his sister wrote him letters saying she believed he would eventually find a wife. That’s more than feasible, as it’s possible he was bisexual or, like many men at the time, he would have married a woman anyway even if he was aware he was more attracted to men. Indeed imposing a modern conception of sexuality onto those who lived in a time when gay sex was both illegal and one of the greatest social stigmas is always difficult (even Oscar Wilde, who is routinely labelled as ‘gay’, had a wife and children).
It’s something Edward’s family is aware of, as Bostridge knows Baroness Shirley Williams (the daughter of Vera). He told HamHigh recently, “Shirley doesn’t accept that [his ideas about Edward’s death], she thinks his death is as reported in Testament of Youth. But in the book he writes to Vera that he has issues with women so I think she knew (he was gay).”
“Shirley says, and she’s probably right, you can’t label him as gay. Uppingham school [which Edward attended] was full of what they called ‘filth’. A lot of boys who went into the army from that kind of school had homoerotic relationships. Had he lived he probably would have got married because (gay) men of that era couldn’t live openly.
“Shirley knows the story could be exploited in ways that are not true to the historical truth. Any family are going to want to protect a family member.”
There’s no doubt though that Vera and Edward were extremely close, so much so that after she died – more than 50 years after her brother – Vera’s ashes were scattered on Edward’s grave in the military cemetery in Asiago, Italy.
It’s also perhaps poignant/ironic that the new Testament Of Youth film is being released just four days after the 15th anniversary of when lesbians, gays and bisexuals were first allowed to serve openly in the British military.