Vera Brittain and Roland Leighton Struggle to Keep Their Spirits Up; Donald Hankey Again Acknowledges a Hero

Roland Leighton managed both a letter and a telegram yesterday. Today, then, Vera Brittain received both the telegram and the letter of two days’ past. Roland is at a loss for words of his own. Yet he is well supplied, still:

Friday August 27th

I had both a letter & a wire from him to-day. The wire simply said “Till we may live our roseate poem through.” The letter was quite brief. “Nearly at Folkestone now. I am trying not to think of it, but the thought will come. Oh damn, I know it–

Goodnight, sweet friend, goodnight,
Till life and all take flight
Never goodbye.”[1]

Vera wrote back immediately:

Buxton, 27 August 1915

It seems to me that things are still more unfinished, still more ‘left off in the middle’ than they were before. The world, of course, won’t think so—but we learnt in those few days that the farther you go, the farther you see there is to go. I thought when I saw you off in March that nothing in the world could make me feel more deeply than I did then. I was mistaken.

I thought then that if you had kissed me once and we had had even that much of fulfilment, I should be more resigned to whatever cruel thing fate had in store for me. There again I was wrong.

Resignation is a thing of the devil; it can’t come until one has abandoned the hope that hurts so. So now, because you have kissed me, instead of being resigned, I feel an insane impatience quite unlike anything I have known before ‘to be able to hold you & kiss you again even for a moment.’ So much so that last night, looking out at the dark earth lying silent beneath the midnight stars, I said in my mind ‘Oh Roland! Why ever did you exist! And why do I exist! What have we poor mortals done that we should have to suffer so much pain.’ . . .

Writing. This whole project is in praise of writing. And yet writing is sometimes so terribly insufficient. How much of this is about the new intensity of their love and regard for each other, now that they have had a few good days in each other’s company, now that they have formalized their relationship for the benefit of others? And how much is about that kiss, about the sexual awakening of these passionate late bloomers?

Roland has had the more surreal journey, being thrown from home and London and engagement back into the trenches. But Vera, too had gone straight back to war work, and sooner.

My hospital work has lost the little glamour it ever had. I think that glamour didn’t belong to the work at all, but arose from my suddenly getting the thought in between my prosaic duties ‘Perhaps I shall hear to-day that he is coming back.’ But now in the midst of those prosaic duties instead there comes the thought of you saying ‘I don’t want to go back to the Front’—and I wonder if you are finding it as dreary now as I am finding this. Or worse still, just when I have to do the dullest and most practical things, there comes the remembered sensation of the half-bitter, half-sweet thrill of your arm around me, and then I have to clench my hand very tight to keep down—not tears—but the fierce desire to throw everything violently about the room.

And yet all the time I have the feeling that I shall see you again very soon, much sooner than I think. Reason of course says no to this, but intuition keeps saying yes…[2]

We must now again endure the separation–by a few hundred miles, and by the two to four day time lag of the (impressive) postal system–of Vera and Roland. They cannot any longer, but by chance or intuition, match their moods one to the other. So Roland, who has been launching all those romantic missives, is constrained to reply today to Vera’s first letter after her return home. This detailed her rough return from the weekend away into a home atmosphere pressurized with growing concern for the person closest to both of them–her brother Edward, who is proving to be something of a misfit subaltern. Roland, the senior member of their friendship and the more experienced soldier, must offer what advice he can.

France, August 27th

I have just written to Edward. I don’t quite know what to make of it, except that his C.O. probably dislikes him and has taken this opportunity of showing it. In the letter he wrote to me which arrived during my absence he says that the C.O. is a perfect beast and ‘I know he loathes me and I loathe him’. I don’t for a moment think that there is any question of Edward’s not being a competent officer. But it seems to have been all so unexpected. And to be sent back to Lichfield instead of to France must have infuriated him to desperation. . . I am so very sorry about it. I do hope he will not get too depressed and disheartened.

The question of what exactly–what combination of factors–makes it so difficult for Edward Brittain to fit in with certain units is one that will occupy us for some time. But back now to Roland.

I am still very much so myself, I am afraid, and much more than ‘depressed because Vera has gone’. I cannot take an interest in anything out here for its own sake. There doesn’t seem anything worth living for. It is hard that one should have to pay for everything in the way of pleasure: but perhaps the gods will count this as part-payment for Next Time. And yet was it not worth all the pain in the world, dearest?

So they are, by chance or intuition–squint and clap for Tinkerbell and together they can look like fate–in much the same mood after all.

I am very glad that neither you nor Mother were at Victoria to see me off. It was very sad. The men were boisterously cheerful in a manner that deceived no one; the officers walked up and down the platform or stood in little groups, all very quiet and self restrained. There were not very many women there, but there was a look in their eyes that made one turn one’s face away in reverence. ‘It would be so much better if they would not come,’ I overheard one weather-beaten major saying. ‘It only makes it harder.’ They stood very still as the train moved out, each as unconscious of the rest as if she were in a separate world. Only one actually cried–a young girl of about twenty. I thought of you, and I turned my face away again. It hurt so.[3]

Roland is a good writer too. And this enhanced ability to write directly of his own feelings–even as he more closely observes the feelings of others–is surely a product of his intense few days with his new fiancée.

 

Finally, today, a different sort of love and “worship” in wartime. Donald Hankey wrote back to the widow of his “beloved captain.” I don’t know what precisely she had written in answer to his initial letter of condolence, but it can more or less be inferred:

August 27, 1915

Dear Mrs. Hardy,

Thank you very much for your kind letter. I am very glad indeed to think that I have been able to help you at all to bear what I know must be a terrible loss; and indeed it was a relief to myself to write what I did. I have lived a varied sort of life in a good many parts of the world, but I have never met with any one who gave me such a willingness to follow and obey as Captain Hardy did. As long as I live I shall remember him as the one man whom I would have been content to serve under anywhere and in any enterprise…

I remain,

Yours truly,

Donald Hankey

P. S. I do not know whether it is a great impertinence of me to ask; but if you could spare me a photograph of Captain Hardy, I should value it tremendously. He was my officer, and I his sergeant–nothing more than that, except that he was also my hero, and I have not had many.

P. P. S. I have just heard of a saying of our Sergeant Major, which I think might please you. We were discussing an officer who had adopted a very hectoring and bullying manner towards the men, and the Sergeant-Major a very fine simple man said, “But the boys won’t work for ‘im. Now look at Captain ‘Ardy. Why, they’ll work like little neddies for Captain ‘Ardy!”

So they would, because they loved him.[4]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Chronicle of Youth, 265. The telegram quote is a catch-phrase (or "code"--see good commentary on the Testament of Youth blog, here) of their own--a line from a poem of Roland's that acknowledges his (partial) awareness of their helpless, poetry-addled plight. The force of "may," here is future subjunctive... The poetry is a snippet from William Henley. As best as I can guess, this is the century-back equivalent of quoting from "Wish You Were Here." Or, possibly, the seven-or-eight-decades-back version, and I am old and ignorant of today's sentimental refrains...
  2. Letters of a Lost Generation, 150-1.
  3. Letters of a Lost Generation, 149.
  4. The Letters of Donald Hankey, 305-6.