My latest reads have very much been of the meandering kind I described in my first blog. One book had led me to another, taking me back into the past and throwing up different perspectives to a story I though I knew well.
I first read Testament of Youth almost 20 years ago. It is the account of Vera Brittain, an Undergraduate who gave up her hard won place at Oxford to become a VAD Nurse for the duration of the World War One. What makes this story truly remarkable and inescapably tragic is the level of personal loss that Brittain suffered during the war. Both her brother Edward, her fiance, Roland Leighton and two close personal friends, Victor Richardson and Geoffrey Thurlow were killed.
Testament recounts not only her personal experiences but shows how the War coloured and marked the rest of Brittain’s life, namely by putting her on the road to pacifism. The story is haunting and has been hailed as ‘the woman’s story’ of the War.
It is also a well known story , so when I discovered Chronicle of Youth : Vera Brittian’s War Diary, 1913 – 17 I was interested but really wasn’t expecting to learn anything new.
I was wrong. The diaries, published, despite Brittain’s endeavours, after her death, are able to achieve something Testament can’t. That is a feeling of the War unfolding before your eyes, a steady and sinking realisation that this isn’t the big patriotic adventure, but rather a terrible and bloody conflict that will change lives and society for ever. Couple this book with the brilliantly edited Letters from a Lost Generation: First World War Letters of Vera Brittain and Four Friends, and the War comes to life in your hands, whether you want it to or not. Rather than the accomplished, heartfelt account of Testament, written some years after the events, within these texts raw, real time events are unfolding before your eyes.
At the forefront of both books is the relationship between Vera and Roland Leighton. Roland was a close friend of Edward Brittain. Roland and Edward had attended Uppingham Public school, training with the OTC – Officers Training Corp. So, when war broke out in August 1914, both sought Commissions, as did their close companion Victor Richardson. Roland found himself in France by March 1915. Aged just 19.
In her relationship with Roland, Vera finds a man who will treat her intellectually as an equal. Vera writes
But to me you, in this respect most of all, have been an oasis in the desert. A man who could see from a woman’s point of view was something to me quite undreamed ofVera Brittain writing to Roland Leighton. Buxton, 1st September 1915.
A rare man for the time, he never shys away from telling her the truth of his situation. While his letters are accomplished and poetic, matched by Vera’s equally impressive replies, he is often starkly truthful in his descriptions of life in the Trenches.
Let him who thinks that War is a glorious thing, who loves to roll forth stirring words of exhortation…let him but look at a little pile of sodden grey rags that cover half a skull and a shin bone … and let his realise how grand & glorious a thing it is to have distilled all Youth and Joy and Life into a foetid heap of putrescence.Roland Leighton writing to Vera Brittain. France, 11th September 1915.
Both these books serve to show us how letters are the sustaining force of the War. The only method of communication, they provide information, hope and comfort. Vera and Roland admit that open up in letters in a way they never can in public.
Yes, it is absurd that we should be so intimate in letters, & then when we are together that you should touch my hand almost as if you weren’t doing right, & I even hesitate to meet your eyes with mine.Vera writing to Roland. Buxton, 11-12th September 1915
And an absence of letters provokes despair. In Chronicle of Youth Vera writes desperately of her need to hear from Roland, particularly at those times when a big push is expected. When letters arrive her relief and joy are palpable, only to be replaced almost immediately by the horror of waiting again. Within Letter from a Lost Generation the power held by the letters lies in the way they are organised; chronologically by date written, crucially not by date received. There are few things more heartbreaking as a reader than the crushing realisation that a beautiful letter was never received.
The letters are telling in more than just words.Autumn and Winter 1915 sees an exchange of short and sometimes angry letters between the Vera and Roland, the war is becoming more relentless and real. Letters from Roland which have been so composed and eloquent arrive without shape or punctuation, a spontaneous stream of consciousness, ahead of his time. Already these young people. who sometimes address letters as ‘Dear Child’ are talking in terms of lost youth.
Some letters will touch even the hardest of hearts . Writing to Roland on what she believes will be the eve of a great battle Vera says:
And if this word should be a ‘Te moriturum salute’, perhaps it will brighten the dark moments a little to think how you have meant to Someone more than anything ever has or ever will. That which you have done & been will not be wasted; what you have striven for will not end in nothing ], fo as long as I live it will be a part of me & I shall remember, always.Vera writing to Roland. Buxton , 26th September 1915.
Most of us would settle for just one letter like that in a lifetime.
More heartbreaking though than any letters are the diary entries of late December 1915 when Vera is excitedly awaiting Roland home on leave. Her guard is down, she is sure he is safe for the first time in months, she is in a hotel awaiting his arrival.
Monday 27th December 1915
Had just finished dressing when a message came to say that there was a telephone message for me. I sprang up joyfully, thinking to hear in a moment the dear dreamed- of tones of the beloved voice.
But the telephone message was not from Roland but from Clare; it was not to say that Roland had arrived but instead had come this telegram …
T223. Regret to inform you that LIEUT. R.A.Leighton 7th Worchesters died of wounds December 23rd.pg 376 Chronicle of Youth – Vera Brittain.
Roland’s death defines Vera’s whole war. She will go on to suffer other shattering losses including her brother’s death and that of Victor and Geoffrey, but it is Roland’s loss that pushes her forward. As in their relationship, she searches for truth in his death. She is frustrated by differing accounts of his death, told by well meaning officers. She needs the truth, no matter how hard it maybe. It is important to her that Roland understood he was to die, she feels that this would be the ultimate betrayal of his trust.
In January 1916 Vera writes to Edward describing coming across the Leighton family, having just taken delivery of Roland’s tattered and bloodied uniform. Despite it reeking of death and filthy with putrid mud Vera inspects it in a forensic matter, continually searching for answers. Their relationship was based on truth and complete honesty. Vera is determined his death shall be the same.
Whether Vera and Roland’s relationship would have survived the war who can say. One estimate is that they spent only 17 days in each other company. However in the aftermath of his death he is turned into a hero, a Godlike figure who Vera describes with as He, always using a capital letter. It is a habit that is taken up by Edward and Victor, the school champion immortalised, never growing old and never tarnished.
Roland was extremely close to his mother, Marie Connor Leighton book, a successful, popular and sentimental pre-war novelist. In 1916 she published a book in praise of Roland called Boy of my Heart. An extended eulogy for her lost son, by today’s standards it is mediocre and saccharine sweet, but it summed up the mood of nation of Mothers. These women were mourning the very thing that they loved best, their boys given over to serve their countries. After the book’s release Mrs Leighton received scores of letters identifying with Roland. Edward writes with scorn to Vera, he is horrified that mother’s of a mere Tommy should compare their son to the deity that is Roland. But of course they would, Roland was just one precious boy lost.
There is so much more I could write about these books. Despite my better judgement I have become tied up with Vera and Roland ‘s tale. I haven’t even touched upon the delightfully bumbling, public school letters of Geoffrey, always jovial, always terrified and often, inexplicably with a cat in his dug out! Or the earnest and religious Victor who was kept of the war for so long by substandard eyesight, only, with cruel irony to be blinded, dying before Vera could make her offer on life long nursing and companionship. And there is Edward, struggling to understand his place in the world, still worshipping Roland, even after he receives the Military Cross for his part in the Somme.
If you haven’t read Testament of Youth please do. If you have, consider looking beyond. There is so much more to discover.
Books mentioned in this post:
- Testament of Youth – Vera Brittain
- Chronicle of Youth – Vera Brittain’s War Diary 1913- 1917
- Letters from a Lost Generation : First World War Letters of Vera Brittain and Four Friends. Edited by Alan Bishop and Mark Bostridge
- Boy of My Heart – Marie Connor Leighton