Vera Brittain on Memorial Notices and the Consolations of Distance; Robert Graves is Back in France; Edmund Blunden’s Sussex Are Raided

It has been some time since we have heard from Vera Brittain–an oversight on my part, since her letter to her brother Edward on January 12th speaks to a central concern of hers, and ours. With the slow pace of epistolary conversations carried on between England, France, and Malta, she is still reacting to aspects of the anniversary of Roland‘s death.

Mother sent me out the ‘Times’ with Roland’s ‘In Memoriam’ notice in it; the Leightons sent it too. Though I would never say so to them, I am afraid I don’t like it very much, for I don’t think He would have liked it; I can’t exactly say why, unless I can express what I mean by saying He wouldn’t have cared for anything so adjectival. I always remember the night He spent with me in Buxton 2 years ago next March just before He first went to the front, & how He said to me ‘I do hope if I am killed no one will put that I was the “dearly beloved” son of anyone in the paper.’ If
I am alive next December it will be my turn & I will put one in myself ‘in proud & undying memory’ certainly, but more of the quieter kind I think He would have appreciated. What do you think yourself?

Given the intensity of Vera’s love for Roland and the very different but surely no less intense mother’s love of Marie Leighton,the surprising thing is that there has been no open break, yet, over the mourning of Roland. And hard as it is to question bereaved parents (and easy as it is to point to the generational gap and leave it at that) surely Vera is right: Roland would have squirmed to know that he has been subjected to such a public adjective-ing. But the dead don’t know their own publicity.

That was nearly two weeks ago, and by today, a century back, the concerns of the grieving near-widow have faded, and we hear the voice both of the old campaigner and of a woman grown circumspect about the rush of wartime emotions. Roland has been the love of her life, but there is at least one other soldier she loves.

Malta, 25 January 1917

You ask me how long I mean to stay in Malta; well, as you know, we sign on for 6 months at a time, & I think it more than likely that when Stella & I have done our first 6 months, which is in two months time, we shall sign on again for another 6. They are making it more & more difficult & disadvantageous for us to resign now, & one can only leave by resigning & joining up again, to be sent goodness knows where. I can’t possibly do anything else but nurse till the war is over; even if I meant to do nothing (which I certainly do not) I think it very unlikely under the present more energetic system of government that either I or anyone else would be able to do nothing for long. Since I am in for nursing I may as well do it not only in its highest form (which Foreign service is) but in a place where I am happy… I think if one has to be in hospital it is better to be far away from home; it is very unsettling to be able to go home or  to friends’ houses & then have to go back on duty just as you are getting into the home atmosphere; it makes you hate hospital so much more, & then you never get interested in the hospital because you have so many interests outside.

…in the end I realise that the only person’! really mind about not seeing for a long time is yourself, & I am afraid that by coming back to England in April I shouldn’t be much nearer seeing you than I am here…

I feel sometimes that I don’t want to see you again until I know that you are safe & I can go on seeing you for a long time, comprenez-vous this feeling?[1]

I imagine that Edward does, and will. But true though these sentiments no doubt are–or were, in the moment of writing–this gives rather short shrift to two other officers already in France, and likely to be there in April. What of “Tah” Richardson and Geoffrey Thurlow?

Still, this letter is a precise evocation of the feeling I’ve been calling the “irony of proximity.” Vera Brittain has never served in France, but her brother, her lover, and her friends have, and she has worked in wartime London, and she knows now that one benefit of great distance is that it avoids the psychological wear of constant, incomplete dislocation. The stress and strain of war are difficult, but they are not eased by a false hope–or a hope that can never be fully realized–of relief, rest, and the soothing pleasures of ordinary life.


Vera Brittain at twenty-three can now claim the status of overseas veteran, while Robert Graves, all of twenty-one, is a true old soldier. In France now on his fourth tour of duty, he writes immediately to Siegfried Sassoon, left behind in Litherland Camp.

No. 5 IBD

25 January 1917

My dear old Sassons,

I have been posted to the 2nd Battalion and go up tomorrow: all the other fellows are going to various RWF Battalions–chiefly 38th Divisional…[2] It’s most damnably cold here, especially in tents…

On the 48 hours leave I saw Peter and had a long talk with him: he was extraordinarily intelligent and seems now to have read about four times as much poetry as myself–makes me rather afraid of him.

Also I met Robert Nichols

I spent today going round the Rouen churches and the Cathedral–by God, they are wonderful, almost persuade one to be a Christian.

With emphasis on the “almost,” one imagines. Graves goes on to advise Sassoon on what maneuvers to attempt in order to be sent back to the 1st Battalion, where he had been so happy in July. He then remarks that the first book he saw upon arriving in the base Orderly Room was his own first collection of poetry, Over the Brazier. Can that be true?

In any case, it signals a transition, in this brief letter, to matters poetical. But only Sassoon is expecting full publication of a new collection, and Graves must acknowledge this.

I’m looking forward like anything to the Old Huntsman: it’s going to be a hell of a book…[3]

The letter closes with what seems like a superstitiously oblique reference to his own next book, which is being printed in a sort of vanity edition; Sassoon is in charge of overseeing the printing, and Graves asks him to send on the bill–an awkward inequality…

The post-script to the letter, I believe, is proper to tomorrow…


So Graves has reached the base camps,[4] which means that the line awaits. It will not be pleasant.


Edmund Blunden, his battalion holding a frozen bit of the line in the Ypres Salient, is learning hard lessons about the brutality of winter warfare. He has been ordered, with a select group from his battalion, to plan and rehearse a raid of the German trenches opposite, a directive which “sent more than that winter’s ugly cold down our spines.” But the raid was canceled, and shortly thereafter–early this morning, a century back–his battalion was raided by the Germans instead. Blunden is currently stationed in the support lines, with the small headquarters unit that assists his C.O., Colonel Harrison.

I had had a heavy day, and the patrol was dreary and laborious; so that afterward I went down to the battalion headquarters and there, in my small sandbag house (not then to be exchanged with any other), “got down to it.” Two or three hours afterward the most brutal bombardment began on the right of our line, and, as I hurried out and watched, it seemed to be falling on the battalion there neighbouring us — but this was wrong. Harrison, who had been in the middle of his nightly tour, came panting down the road and along the duckboards to his headquarters; the cruel and shattering concentration went on, and no news came through from the right company, though the telephones were busy. Presently the bombardment ended, and it was the general conviction that it had fallen on the flanking battalion’s line in Railway Wood.

I went back to my blanket, and at nine or so was out ready for the day; meeting Harrison, I was surprised at his looks of reproach and disappointment. “A nasty bit of bombardment on the 12th, sir.” “Not on the 12th, on us. We have lost ten men killed and prisoners. Clark took his company over the top to reinforce. You’d better go up and see what you can see.” This bad news surprised me, and I knew that I ought to have gone up at the time of the bombardment; but I had given in to the customary feeling, “business as usual,” and the usual illusion that we were the lucky ones. It was a sparkling, frost-clad morning, and the guns were still. As I went along that lonely little trench by Gully Farm I found that there were many new details of landscape, great holes and hunks and jags of timber; one had to hurry over mounds that had been excavations; the raided bombing post soon after appeared, trampled, pulverized, blood-stained, its edges slurred into the level of the general wilderness. An unexploded shell lay in it, and many scraps of iron. Like fragments of dismantled masonry here and there, ponderous frozen clods had been hurled out by the minenwerfers, which had blown enormous pits in the stony ground. Our own dead had been carried away, but just ahead were stretched two or three of the raiders. One was an officer of forty, sullen-faced, pig-nosed, scarred, and still seeming hostile. In his coat pocket were thirty or forty whistles which evidently he had meant to issue to his party before the raid. Another corpse was of a youth, perhaps eighteen years old, fair-haired, rough-chinned. He was lying in the snow on his back, staring at the blue day with eyes as blue and icy; his feet were toward the German lines, and his right hand clutched the wooden handle of a bomb.

The raiders had approached the British line on the blind side of the railway embankment which marked our battalion boundary; then they had turned in at a little culvert, and waited for their guns and mortars to hurl over the barrage which had so completely shut in our unfortunate bombing post. That culvert, hitherto unnoticed, although only twenty yards ahead of our trench, now appeared painfully obvious. Some few details of the fighting came to light: one of the Lewis gunners had carried his gun forward and fired it, it seemed, from the shoulder at the coming raiders. He was found dead among the hummocks with his hand to his gun.[5]


References and Footnotes

  1. Letters From a Lost Generation, 311-5.
  2. This, we may recall, is the "Welsh Division," composed largely of "Welsh" regiments that actually did draw many of their men from Wales. The Division had been terribly battered in the early weeks of the Somme, and for David Jones and Wyn Griffith, both Royal Welch Fusiliers of Kitchener battalions, Mametz Wood was the center of their harrowing Somme experience. Graves, because of his early volunteering via the side-door of the Special Reserve, is assigned to the Second (Regular) Battalion once again rather than to one of the war-raised battalions in the 38th Division.
  3. In Broken Images, 63-4.
  4. He tells stories of the "Bull-Ring" at this point in Good-Bye to All That; but, as R.P. Graves points out, he was at Rouen, not Harfleur, and is either fudging his location since the "Bull Ring" there was better known or accidentally transposing elements from a previous trip up the line.
  5. Undertones of War, 140-2.

Vera Brittain and the Two Musketeers: Stars for Roland Leighton; A Fable and an Argument from Olaf Stapledon

This is one of those days on which the literary coincidences are somewhat uncanny. Our most ardent lover, these days, is Olaf Stapledon, the dreamy pacifist ambulance driver whose pen can turn anything–even found fairy tales–into love letters, full of the promise that as soon as this little annoyance of the war is out of the way, he and Agnes will begin a long and wonderful life together. So first, today, Olaf’s letter to his love-across-the-world; then Vera’s anniversary of crushing loss.

SSA 13
23 December 1916


There is an old, old, very old woman who lives near us and goes out into the forest to gather sticks. Sometimes she goes by herself, sometimes a little girl goes with her. Many times a day the old woman passes the place where we keep our cars, and each time that she is coming back with her load she is bent so low that her face is on a level with her hips and it is only with difficulty that she can raise her eyes to see before her. Her steps are very slow and unsteady, and her burden is always so unwieldy that the mere swinging of it nearly upsets her. She carries it in a curious way over one hip, so that her whole body is twisted like the face of a flat-fish. As she is passing one sees her ancient face, withered and very placid. Because of her very great stoop no one ever sees her face full, but only in profile. She never looks at anyone, but goes plodding on with her eyes to the ground. When she has passed one looks after her and sees her as a great moving bush of twigs and branches, with one mighty gnarled hand spread queerly over the waist of her bundle, holding it to her back. The girl also carries a bundle, but her going is in swift staggering stages, each followed by a long rest while the old woman comes up and passes her with never a pause. The girl is fresh to look at–fair-haired, blue-eyed. The labour is irksome to her. She looks round for things of interest, jerks her bundle into a more comfortable position and at last drops it with a sigh, her whole body stretching with the relief of the sudden freedom. But the old woman creeps on as steadily as the hand of a clock, and almost as imperceptibly. She wears a funny old dirty white sunbonnet, and on her feet wooden shoes that look loose. One expects them to clatter on her bony ankles. There is something weird about her. She is like a witch, but too serene.  She is like some ancient woman in an ancient myth. There is something classic about her, something inevitable, and a divine calm. She has none of the childlike joy of the old woman in the picture “Words of Comfort.’’ She is too wise to accept comfort. She has found out the world and she has no more dreams about it, nor about any other world. Yet she is not sad, still less bitter. She has seen the vanity of life; but she seems strangely content, as if all the while she held some great and solemn secret that was deeper than the vain world of pain-dreaders and joy-desirers, of little self-seekers and inflated idealists. I thought at first that she was like old, bent France, carrying load after load of sticks to the fire of war. But now I think she is the Wise Woman who takes whatever she chooses from the forest that is mankind to keep alight her magic hearth fire. And what purpose she has, and what good or evil potions she brews in her cauldron, no man knows, but only she. . . .

Last night as I was going to bed (first time), there was a great discussion. Picture: a dark but starry night, a line of cars in a forest glade, one car a tourer with hood up, and in it arranging his rugs and strapping himself in by the light of a little petrol lamp, Olaf; outside, prowling round the car. Big Smell [Routh Smeal], sometimes poking his head in, the better to talk, sometimes listening and watching the stars. The discussion was the usual that takes place between us. The gist of it was, on Smeal’s part, “Nothing is any good really. There’s no point about living. What is the object of it all? Goodness? Beauty? What are they for? What are they?” And on my part, “Why, Good Heavens, man alive, you seem to forget that you can’t get right to the bottom by pure reason, simply because
reason is only a guide, and must begin on some initial feeling. You can’t explain the feeling. The world is very beautiful. Why? Good God, man, I don’t know why; but it just is. What more do you want? If you care for a person you don’t dissect the feeling & explain it all away and then say, ‘What’s the use of it?’ You just love, & act accordingly… after much talk and much fumbling with rugs on my part, and prowling about on his, he said slowly in his deep voice, “I think I see what you mean.” Then there was a long silence a stillness. Then he said, “Well, I’ll be going to bed.” Smeal is a seeker after reality. No fairy tales for him, no comfortable self deceptions. And what he thinks, he lives. He thinks cynically, so he talks & acts cynically. But he wants to grasp some more worthy truth…

Bed time now. Perhaps there will be a letter from you tomorrow. Christmas Eve, or on the day itself. It won’t be Christmas without a letter from you. One more Christmas with the globe between us, but this will be the last, I do hope.[1]


A year ago–and a century back–Roland Leighton, after being shot while leading a patrol, died.

December 23rd

The anniversary of Roland’s death—and for me farewell to the best thing in my life. I am glad I am far from Keymer–far from London; I could not have borne the associations of either. And now I am in Malta, working hard to try & make other people happy for their Christmas in exile, & in so doing, happier than I have been for months. Yes, even on this foreign service I dreaded so much, on which I told Him I would go if He died. I wonder where He is–and if He is at all; I wonder if He sees me writing this now. It is absurd to say time makes one forget; I miss Him
as much now as ever I did. One recovers from the shock, just as one gradually would get used to managing with one’s left hand if one has lost one’s right, but one never gets over the loss, for one is never the same after it. I have got used to facing the long empty years ahead of me if I survive the war, but I have always before me the realisation of how empty they are and will be, since He will never be there again. One can only live through them as fully and as nobly as one can, and pray from the depths of one’s lonely heart that

Hand in hand, just as we used to do,
We two shall live our passionate poem through
On God’s serene to-morrow.[2]

It is not surprising that Vera Brittain would solemnly mark this anniversary. Nor that she would open her diary for the first time in a month and once again confront unresolved religious questions–and reaffirm that certain questions of eternal love and devotion very much resolved, not least by quoting a fragment of verse by Roland that had served as a sort of shorthand representation of their love. But how–other than fulfilling her promise to see dangerous and difficult service of her own–she will fulfill the vow to live “as fully and as nobly as one can” is something of an open question.

And if anyone would question whether we can really take the measure of a man from his fiancée’s profession of loss, there are also resounding ratifications from his friends. Both of the surviving “Three Musketeers” of Uppingham, though weighted with their own cares as young infantry officers, remembered the date and wrote to Vera about it–and one even addressed the same question with the very same quotation.

Edward Brittain Vera’s brother, will write:

Dearest, I know it is just a year, and you are thinking of Him and His terrible death, and of what might have been, even as I am too. This year has, I think, made him seem very far off but yet all the more unforgettable. His life was like a guiding star which left this firmament when he died and went to some other one where it still shines as brightly, but so far away. I know you will in a way live through last year’s tragedy again but may it bring still greater
hopes for ‘the last and brightest Easter day’ which you and I can barely conceive let alone understand, when

‘We too shall live our passionate poem through
On God’s serene to-morrow’.

How happy I would be to see you meet again!


And Victor Richardson will write to Vera a few days hence. The capitalization of Roland’s pronoun is common to all of their letters.

We came out of trenches on the anniversary of the day on which He was mortally wounded. That afternoon was the most glorious sunset I have seen out here. Only a coincidence of course, but it appealed to me. I have felt His loss more in the last three months than ever before. I feel that He would have been able to banish all my doubts and fears for the future.[3]

I don’t have Vera’s reply to Victor, but although she sometimes condescends when writing about him, I would imagine that she would approve of these sentiments. Roland is an inspiration, still, and despite Victor’s formal profession of skepticism–i.e. the notable sunset as “coincidence”–he joins fully in the ratification of Roland’s special status as their dearly departed but eternal leader.

Vera will receive her brother’s letter next week, and in writing back to him she will tell him about tonight. From France to Malta the sky tonight is numinous and significant, and Vera’s adherence to reason and skepticism–again, “just coincidence of course”–feels more tenuous even than Victor’s.

It seems rather curious that on the night of Dec. 23rd I was kneeling by my bed in the dark thinking about Him & that night last year when suddenly just before 11.0 at the very hour of His death the whole sky was suddenly lighted up & everything outside became queerly & startlingly visible. At first I thought it was just lightning, which is very frequent at night here, but when the light remained & did not flash away again I felt quite uncanny & afraid & hid my face in my hands for two or three minutes. When I looked up again the light had gone; I went to the window but could see nothing at all to account for the sudden brilliant glow.

A day or two after I heard that there had been a most extraordinary shooting-star which had lit up the whole sky for two or three minutes before it had fallen to earth. Shooting stars also are common here, or rather, there is so much less atmosphere between us & the stars than there is in England that we can see them much more clearly; but this was quite an extraordinary star; of course they never light up the sky like that one did. (Someone suggested it was the Star of Bethlehem fallen to earth because it could no longer shine in the dark horror of War.) Just coincidence of course, but strange from my point of view that it should have happened at that hour. I remember one day last winter how Clare pointed out to me a star, which shone very brightly among the others & said ‘Wouldn’t it be strange if that star were Roland’…[4]


References and Footnotes

  1. Talking Across the World, 193-6.
  2. Chronicle of Youth, 336.
  3. Letter From a Lost Generation, 307.
  4. Letters From a Lost Generation, 307-11.

Lord Dunsany and the Trumpets of Peace; Noel Hodgson and the Theology of Sacrifice; Gas and Smoke at Ypres; Thomas Hardy and a Coincidental Kiss; Edward Brittain Makes a Pilgrimage

…on Sunday morning I heard a triumphant sound, and looking out of the window I saw a triumphant sight. Poets may picture Victory with her trumpet, walking the field of battle, but who has seen with his eyes anything quite so like her as I saw them? I saw one corporal going alone through Dublin, blowing the Cease Fire every now and then on his bugle.

Both sides seemed to obey him.[1]

And so Lord Dunsany pipes peace back into Dublin. He will not linger for the retribution that Britain will now mete out to the rebels.


I have been neglecting Noel Hodgson a bit of late. Back from hospital, he is with his battalion, the 9th Devonshires, in reserve. Sunday and reserve means, of course, Church Parade. The Rev. Ernest Courtenay Crosse gave

one of his inimitable sermons–if you don’t stop a bullet–bon; if you do & get a blighty–très bon; but if you get killed it is more bon still–for though you may not realise it, you give your life for others.

Did this sort of sermon reach many men? It’s difficult to tell. On what, really, could opinions differ more dramatically than religion-combined-with-institutional-lecturing-combined-with the society-of-men-in-combat-combined-with-the-fear-of-death? Many officers seem to be of the opinion that such sermons were good for the men–simple, to the point, something to cover your fears with, something to move forward on, etc…

They themselves might have finer feelings, of course–but the British class system was surely tolerant of the idea of such dual messaging. The chaplain spoke in useful simplicities to the men while befriending the officers. Hodgson’s biographer, Charlotte Zeepvat, notes that the previous chaplain had been “killed on the battlefield while attending to the wounded”–surely the most efficacious message of all. But Crosse was quite young, and soon became intimate with “Smiler” Hodgson and the tight-knit subalterns of the 9th Devonshires.[2]


And here’s a curio: Thomas Hardy, the flinty old poet that the young subaltern poets will continue to respect, writing to Hamo Thornycroft, the sculptor and uncle of Siegfried Sassoon. Hardy writes to praise Thornycroft’s bust of himself, but this is close to immodesty, so he must choose another work to praise even higher. He chooses a sculpture called “The Kiss,” which, oddly, bears the same title as Sassoon’s most recent poem.

My dear Thornycroft:

We are much struck with the photographs. That of my head shows what a good & forcible likeness the bronze is. I must try to live up to such a reproduction of life: but I feel a feeble person beside it.

My wife says that your marble “Kiss” is the most beautiful thing in the Exhibition, with all the distinction of Greek art at its best…

Always sincerely

Thomas Hardy.[3]


From Wessex, now, to Ypres. We haven’t read the Master of Belhaven much in recent weeks, as his unit, like many artillery units, has settled into a rhythm. A rhythm which was disrupted, today, a century back, by a German gas attack, long suspected to be in the works.

Kemmel, 30th April, 1916

The gas attack came off at last, and was very serious while it lasted… At 1 a.m. I had just lain down int he hope of getting an hour’s sleep, when the gas alarm syren[4] on Kemmel Hill started… terrific rifle and machine-gun fire started from the trenches, followed a few seconds after by all the field-guns on the front. I laced up my boots as quick as possible and lit the lamp. I was only just in time. Suddenly the cattle and dogs set up a piteous noise and we smelt the chlorine gas. Helmets were put on immediately, but not before I could feel the irritation in my throat.

The night was very dark, and it was very difficult to get about with the goggles over one’s eyes… We had never expected to be shelled so far back as this, and consequently has not prepared any dug-outs…

There was a terrible scene with the local inhabitants, who had hysterics, and got in our way. They had not got enough masks to go round, and had refused to send away their children as I had frequently warned them for the last two days. It was not till the gas-cloud was just on us that they could be persuaded to fly to Dranoutre. The gas being very heavy travels along valleys, so I told them to keep to the ridge. Apparently they were not caught, as they had mostly turned up again this morning.

With our helmets on, we could not taste the chlorine, and in the darkness it could not be seen: but we knew it was on us by the way the howls of the dogs and the bellowing of the cattle ceased…

Next, news arrives at Hamilton’s command post that the Germans have seized a small salient of the British line (not the salient, of course, which is miles around, but a small protuberance that had affected fields of fire or the aesthetic appeal of certain trench maps). Hamilton begins interdiction fire, lobbing shells into the open areas that German reinforcements would need to traverse. Soon, news comes that the British positions positions have been retaken. Hamilton begins an immediate analysis.

The way in which the Germans got into our trenches is rather interesting, as it is the first time I have heard of this method being used, except by poachers. The gas-cloud was accompanied by dense volumes of smoke. Under cover of this, the Germans came out of their trenches, crossed No Man’s Land, which at this place is only 30 yards wide, and stood on the top of the parapet. They worked in pairs, one man holding a very powerful electric torch, the other having his rifle ready. As they stood on our parapet, the man with the lamp flashed it on to one of our men in the trench beneath him, so blinding him for a moment. The other man than shot him at point-blank range. This ruse was so successful that all our men in that part of the trench were almost immediately shot down…

This, we should note, is hearsay–Hamilton himself is thousands of yards away. Did it really happen like this? I don’t know, but it sounds rather too fearfully effective for a new and less-than-ubiquitous tactic.

In any case, the grim fights to the death are being conducted at a remove. Hamilton’s account of his own activities today, a century back, is that of a man writing in the aftermath of a rush of excitement, but not terror or mortal combat:

I found Birch in great spirits, having had only three casualties, all gassed. He was really the funniest sight I have ever seen. I am sure he has set up a record for battery commanders. He actually fought a battle in his pyjamas!! His get-up was positively the limit; a cap, a cloak, his pyjamas showing under his cloak, and bedroom slippers!

…Some very gallant things were done to-day. A sentry in the front line, on first smelling the gas, gave the alarm to the other men by striking his gong before putting on his gas-helmet. The restful was that he fell dead…

We have had about 500 casualties, I think, in our division. The gas cases were dreadful to see; most of them will die.[5]

Death, comedy, horror, heroism, all in alternating sentences. It sounds callous or unhinged, but it’s the essence, I think, of the immediacy of daily writing–it’s why the not particularly literary diary of a not particularly noteworthy soldier is worth reading. Steadfast changeability, as it were.



Finally, today, we have Edward Brittain’s account of a pilgrimage.

France, 30 April 1916

On Sunday April 9th, 3 weeks ago to-day. . . I bicycled from the town, which you must now know, through 4 villages . . . to the place where Roland’s grave is, going in a Northwesterly direction all the way.

Thus the requirements of censorship are complied with. Edward is telling Vera that he bicycled out from Albert–home of the ever-diving Golden Virgin–to Louvencourt.

It was a fine but dull evening . . . and about 6 o’clock I was coming up the hill from the valley south of the village. I came upon the small military cemetery quite suddenly before I was quite in the village as it is at the southern end where 2 roads meet and run together through the village. It is very small and the graves are in neat rows all close together; I should think there are about 50 or 60 buried there; some are French but most are English. . . There were several men about looking at the graves and I asked one when I first came up where the officers’ graves were and he pointed them out to me.

There are more graves, now at Louvencourt Military Cemetery, but not so many that Roland Leighton‘s grave is difficult to find.

I walked up along the path and stood in front of the grave……..  And I took off my cap and prayed to whatever God there may be that I might live to be worthy of the friendship of the man whose grave was before me…….. But I did not stay there long because it was so very clear that He could not come back, and though it may be that He could see me looking at His grave, yet I did not feel that He was there.[6]


References and Footnotes

  1. Patches of Sunlight, 288.
  2. Zeepvat, Before Action, 174.
  3. Letters, V, 159.
  4. I feel compelled to put the rare [sic] down here.
  5. War Diary, 183.
  6. Letters From a Lost Generation, 252.

Vera Brittain Conducts an Examination of Remains; Noel Hodgson is Awarded the Military Cross

Today, a century back, Noel Hodgson was publicly recognized for his courage and gallantry during the battle of Loosa–decorations as well as commissions and promotions were officially announced in the London Gazette. The Military Cross is a significant honor, not an award for vaguely distinguished service, but a recognition of outstandingly cool or brave behavior in a specific action. Short of a higher award for spectacular heroism–the Victoria Cross standing above all others–the MC was the young officer’s most desired decoration. Today’s gazette included a long list of identical awards, but it should take little away from Hodgson’s courage to note that the army bureaucracy has begun attempting to distract attention from its failures by broadcasting the bravery of the young men who had carried out the ill-planned attack.

The most-hoped-for concomitant of an award–might there be special leave to travel home and receive the medal from the king?–was out of the question, and Hodgson, like so many others, contented himself with wearing the medal’s ribbon on his uniform. His attitude toward the award may be glimpsed in a story, ‘Nestoria,’ written this winter, in which Hodgson pokes fun at a proud young subaltern who simultaneously affects both the young hero and the old soldier by wearing a tunic ‘as weatherbeaten and old as the mauve-and-white ribbon over his left pocket was new and bright’.[1]


Yesterday Vera Brittain was with Roland Leighton‘s sister and mother when his own weatherbeaten tunic, and worse, were delivered. The personal effects of an officer were generally collected by his servant and brought to company or battalion headquarters where they were packed and sent to the next of kin. We will see many examples in which brother officers stepped in to remove any embarrassing or indelicate items, but opinions and practices as to just what might be appropriate for a dead soldier’s womenfolk to receive varied significantly. It seems as if there has been no attempt to launder Roland’s effects, figuratively or literally.

Vera today wrote at length to her brother Edward, Roland’s best friend from school, reusing, and then expanding on, her diary entry from yesterday:

1st London General Hospital, 14 January 1916

It is a very important budget I am sending you to-night. Not only am I returning you his photograph, but I enclose a great deal else of more interest still–things which to me are a realisation sufficient to enrich all life for ever more.

But to explain these enclosures I must first tell you what happened yesterday. I was suddenly presented with another night–Thursday–off-duty, it being the usual date for the person who happened to be in my present ward, so yesterday morning I tore off to Brighton, had lunch at the Dudley and (needless to remark) immediately after went over to Keymer, where I stayed till 9.0. I arrived at a very opportune though very awful moment. All Roland’s things had just been sent back from the front through Cox’s; they had just opened them and they were all lying on the floor. I had no idea before of the after-results of an officer’s death, or what the returned kit, of which so much has been written in the papers, really meant. It was terrible. Mrs Leighton and Clare were both crying as bitterly as on the day we heard of His death, and Mr Leighton with his usual instinct was taking all the things everybody else wanted & putting them where nobody could ever find them. (His doings always seem to me to supply the slight element of humour which makes tragedy so much more tragic.)

Vera is clearly “processing” this unexpected confrontation with Roland’s physical presence–or absence. His remains. It’s not the place for clever readings, really, but I do think it’s true that this next section of the letter is indicative of a coming transformation. When Roland was alive, Vera aspired to be the best helpmeet she could be, to keep the experiential gulf between civilian and soldier as narrow as possible. Only two weeks ago she was still deferring to his vision of the war and its meaning, casting his remaining friends as a supporting cast of Arthurian sidekicks for her Heroic Beloved.

But today she asserts herself in a new way. On the basis of her new knowledge–a visceral knowledge of what war leaves behind when it does its worst–she is presuming to instruct a young officer in the meaning of his vocation.

There were His clothes–the clothes in which He came home from the front last time–another set rather less worn, and underclothing and accessories of various descriptions. Everything was damp & worn and simply caked with mud. And I was glad that neither you nor Victor nor anyone else who may some day go to the front was there to see. If you had been you would have been overwhelmed by the horror of war without its glory. For though he had only worn the things when living, the smell of those clothes was the smell of graveyards & the Dead. The mud of France which covered them was not ordinary mud; it had not the usual clean pure smell of earth, but it was as though it were saturated with dead bodies–dead that had been dead a long, long time. All the sepulchres and catacombs of Rome could not make me realise mortality and decay and corruption as vividly as did the smell of those clothes. I know now what he meant when he used to write of ‘this refuse-heap of a country’ or ‘a trench that is nothing but a charnel-house’.

This, then, amounts to our first explicitly anti-war “mud piece.” Vera is swift to the point: as the war has befouled even the soil, it will destroy the minds and bodies of the young men sent into its ghastly embrace.

And the wonder is, not that he temporally lost the extremest refinements of his personality as Mrs Leighton says he did, but that he ever kept any of it at all–let alone nearly the whole. He was more marvellous than even I ever dreamed. There was his cap, bent in and shapeless out of recognition–the soft cap he wore rakishly on the back of his head–with the badge coated thickly with mud. He must have fallen on top of it, or perhaps one of the people who fetched him in trampled on it. The clothes he was wearing when wounded were those in which he came home last time. We discovered that the bullet was an expanding one. The hole where it went in in front–well below where the belt would have been, just beside the right-hand bottom pocket of the tunic–was almost microscopic, but at the back, almost exactly where his back bone would have been, there was quite a large rent.

The forensic assumptions here are probably not correct, but that is hardly the point here. There is a terrible overlap between the grieving passion for exact knowledge, for the establishment and conservation of the last facts pertaining to the dead beloved, and the magical or religious desire to power memory with physical aids, with relics.

The under things he was wearing at the time have evidently had to be destroyed, but they sent back a khaki waistcoat or vest (whatever that garment is you wear immediately below your tunic in cold weather) which was dark and stiff with blood, and a pair of khaki breeches also in the same state, which had been slit open at the top by someone in a great hurry–probably the Doctor in haste to get at the wound, or perhaps even by one of the men. Even the tabs of his braces were blood-stained too. He must have fallen on his back as in every case the back of his clothes was much more stained & muddy than the front.

But there is no solace in facts, and these relics lack the power to transcend total loss.

The charnel-house smell seemed to grow stronger and stronger till it pervaded the room and obliterated everything else. Finally Mrs Leighton said ‘Robert, take those clothes away into the kitchen, and don’t let me see them again; I must either burn or bury them. They smell of Death; they are not Roland, they even seem to detract from his memory & spoil his glamour. I won’t have any more to do with them.’ And indeed one could never imagine those things the same as those in which he had lived & walked. One couldn’t believe anyone alive had been in them at all. No, they were not Him. So Mr Leighton took them away; they are going to keep only that blood-stained vest he was wounded in, if it can be sterilized, as I think it can–and his Sam Browne belt…

Even all the little things had the same faint smell, and were damp & mouldy. The only things untouched by damp or mud or mould were my photograph, kept carefully in an envelope, and his leather cigarette case, with a few cigarettes, a tiny photo of his Mother & George Meredith & the three little snapshots Miss Bervon took of us, inside. He must have had those things always with him, and the warmth of his body overruled the damp & decay of everything. There was his haversack crammed full of letters–he seemed to keep all he received. I found the rest of mine and also several of yours, which I return in this…

These were kept, and, eventually, published, hence our ability to read along in them at the century’s remove. And yet here is archival preservation and self-censorship in the same breath: we might not have all of Edward Brittain’s letters to Roland Leighton after all.

I seized them at once; I thought you would like them because they had been close to him, and also Mr Leighton has a habit o f regarding everybody’s letters to Roland as public property, much the same as Father regards yours to other people. He would be quite capable of reading mine; I saw him carefully engrossed in some of Mrs Leighton’s, much to her dismay, and he was handling one of Victor’s in a suspicious manner…

The catalog comes down, in the end, to the secret writings.

Then there was the box of cigarettes you gave him recently–opened & sampled but not much used–the socks Mother knitted him, the pen & pipe and book I gave him, and your present ‘A Tall Ship’. Among his letters were one or two envelopes addressed to Mrs Leighton & me, having no letters inside. And there was one which interested me very much; it was from the same Father Purdie who has written to me lately. The one we found was written in the summer, before he came home on leave; it is about contributions & details for the ‘Catholic Journal’, and shows him to have [been] a confessed & acknowledged Roman Catholic all that time ago. But he never said anything to us about it when he was home. How reserved he was about some things…

But, most important of all, a Book, a private exercise book, came back in his haversack containing some poems o f his own, in various stages of completeness, mostly written in pencil, beside which even ‘Violets’ does not stand out as the height of his achievement. Some of the poems, like ‘Triolet’ & ‘Lines on a Picture by Herbert Schmaltz’, we already know. But the others, apparently, he has never shown anybody. There are seven of them. They are mostly love-lyrics–and I read them with a queer inward exultation over what his death has revealed. He was always reserved–less so in letters than in himself, but until I read these poems I think I never quite realised–I copied them all out. I don’t think any were meant to be in their finished state, and transcription with some was quite difficult, there were so many substitutions & alternative expressions…

Hédauville’ is perhaps the most wonderful of all the poems. And it was his last–it must have been written only about a month before he died. And I wonder if he was prophetic in that–and I wonder quite what he meant. Oh! there are such millions of things I want to ask him–now.

But I feel immensely triumphant–exalted; I could not cry over those poems. How could I, being I–Can you, being not I, but you? For in them ‘He, being dead, yet speaketh’ and after all, the words I quoted in his Rupert Brooke are still true–

We have built a house that is not for Time’s throwing
We have gained a peace unshaken by pain for ever
War knows no power.

I feel, now that I have read these poems which only Death was allowed to reveal, a worthier, nobler, loftier person, both now and forever.

As it is rude to snoop on grief it would be unseemly to puncture this exaltation. But there is a fairly clear–eerie, but not unfair–reading of Hédauville. There is still a lot that Vera doesn’t see, and if she begins to assert herself as an interpreter of the war’s disasters, there is no accompanying critical revolution. And why should there be, in the immediate aftermath of loss?

It’s painful, still, to see Roland, who scorned Brooke’s sentimental obfuscation of death and war’s waste, memorialized as “marvelously” impervious to their evil effects, to be held up as “worthy” and “lofty,” a sacrifice on an altar he was–if we can indulge now in our own speculative interpretations–just beginning to undermine when it crashed down and finished him.

Roland is cut off forever, but Vera will continue to develop, not least in her attitude toward the war and its requisite oblations.

The letter goes on–she seems to have added to it before sending it–to mention meeting Victor Richardson for tea. But it ends on a note of passionate fealty:

I have brought back with me a little case containing a packet of letters, a packet of his, the pipe & fountain pen I gave him, the Rupert Brooke–much read, damp & mildewed–which I gave him in July, my own photograph, and a tablet of the soap–which Mrs Leighton says I am to use. And above all, a copy I made of the poems. I am so much richer than I ever was before. And I have brought also a little Worcestershire coat badge, taken from his clothes; I bought a silver chain for it this morning and had a link put on it, so that I can have it always round my neck. I am wearing it now.[2]


References and Footnotes

  1. Zeepvalt, Before Action, 152.
  2. Letters From a Lost Generation, 210-215.

Mischance strikes the Royal Welch; Vera Brittain Learns More, and Contemplates the Hereafter

Dr. Dunn is generally a decorous chronicler of the 2/Royal Welch. Although he is a medical man and not a career soldier, his heart is with his battalion, and he absorbs the sardonic-yet-usually-not-quite-cynical tone of the old regular officers who run it. But decency must be maintained, however broad the winks… Which is why the frankness of today’s bit is more surprising than it would be coming from, for instance, a Robert Graves:

January 2nd. …A strafe started to-day when H.Q. [of the battalion] was at lunch. As the shells hurtled overhead Robertson remarked, “I like to hear that, the people behind are getting it.” By mischance 3 dead and 2 wounded of “the people behind” belonged to one of D Company’s working-parties, sand-bagging the gable of Brigade H.Q.[1]

As with so many of the war’s “mischances,” this one is attributed both to the impersonal, rather superlunary workings of the war and to the local idiocy of officers further back (even only just further back) than the real trench fighters. Brigade HQ–the next formation up from the battalion–has chosen an exposed position and gotten three men killed because of it. And then there is also the fact that a local German offensive underway, which explains the suppressing fire, if not the precise target, and there are the tiny variations in machine manufacture of artillery shells and sights, and who can measure the wind…


Vera Brittain, meanwhile, continues to try to cope with the aftermath of Roland’s death. She and Roland’s family had sent letters begging for more details. But in a history so personal and so painful, where does one put the new facts? The answer, I think, is wherever they seem most needed in the desperate shoring-up of the levees one’s imagination is piling up against the surging tide of despair.

Sunday January 2nd

We had more details to-day–fuller, more personal, more interesting, & so much sadder. So the day opened once more–it has begun so all too often this week–with our sitting round the breakfast table scarcel touching our breakfast, but trying with eyes that tears had made to ache acutely, to see to read messages sent us concerning Him. Two letters came–one from Colonel Harman, and one from the Roman Catholic Chaplain, who was with Him in the hospital at Louvencourt the afternoon of the day He died…

Vera now begins to piece together the circumstances of Roland’s death–I’ll spare the reader here, since we read it on the day itself. The details are already presented largely as she will write of them afterwards. But today, with Roland’s sudden and permanent silence so incomprehensibly new, she dwells on two particular points:

Two sentences–one in the Colonel’s letter & one in the Chaplain’s–hurt me more than anything. The Colonel says “The Boy was wonderfully brave,” and the Chaplain “He died at 11 p.m. after a very gallant fight.” Yes, he would have been wonderfully brave; he would have made a gallant fight, even though unconsciously, with that marvellous vitality of his. None ever had more to live for; none could ever have wanted to live more.

“Someday we shall live our roseate poem through–as we have dreamt it.” I wonder if he thought of that. Perhaps he thought that the very pain he was suffering was a guarantee that those words were coming true very soon indeed. Will they ever, I wonder? Oh, if only we knew that, all would be well.

Vera must also contend, during these awful days, with the revelation that Roland has kept at least one significant event secret from her. This summer–the same summer that he first came to the war, the same summer that he and Vera were engaged, Roland had converted to Catholicism, and told neither Vera nor his family. Vera, naturally, seizes every fact and makes a rough and permanent peace with it:

I am glad he died a confessed Roman Catholic. For the Roman Catholic Church holds out a fairer and surer hope of a Life hereafter than any other faith in the world. If ever I felt inclined to enter any Faith, it might well be that one–at any rate I shall certainly examine it closely as I have never done before, and shall care more for that Interpretation of Religion than any other. After all–I cannot sweepingly state that I have no faith–no hope of something more beyond this puzzling life. And even if I cannot utterly believe in [a Life hereafter], I would like to act as if in the hope of one–to live and act on the chance that there may be one, rather than as if I were certain there is not. It seems to be this that He did–& I can wish to do nothing better than to act as He has acted…

It’s never too late for Pascal’s Wager. But this is desperation, not conviction. Testament of Youth, written long after these events, is beautiful and moving. And in it–for those who are concerned with such trifles–Vera Brittain takes pains to allow much of the raw youthfulness of her contemporary self remain. But not all of it. A great memoir is never merely a fixed-up diary, and there is no way a writer as strong-willed as Brittain can both represent and comment upon her youthful self without wishing away some of the tergiversations of a shocked and grieving personality.

Atheism with an admixture of Romantic proto-Catholicism today; soon a sort of weird Romantic literalism in which the capitalized Beloved bids fair to become an Arthurian Immortal. The latter-day Brittain does not so much conceal these brief manias as over-write them with the stronger coming story, which is her decision to memorialize Roland by rededicating herself to the care of soldiers, both the strangers who come to her hospital and Roland’s bereft comrades.

But I’m getting too far ahead.

They buried Him on Sunday afternoon, Dec. 26th, in the little military cemetery at Louvencourt, the small village behind the lines where the Clearing Station was to which they took him…  The Colonel says in his letter that as they carried His body out of the little church the sun came out & shown brilliantly. But all the same, I cannot feel He is dead–even though they talk about “His body”. I remember I told him on the cliff at Lowestoff that if he died I should find it impossible to believe in his death. And when I remember his closeness to me that Sunday evening on the cliff I feel as if it will be impossible always…

Vera is probably fortunate, in these early stages of mourning, to have both her own family and Roland’s around her. Just as she will be fortunate, soon, to have exhausting work, and to be surrounded by immediate physical suffering.

After supper I sat long with Mrs Leighton before the dying fire, discussing problems of the future–my future, and trying to find out how best to face the old ghostly enemies whom Roland’s death has caused to rise again from the graves where His love had buried them.[2]


References and Footnotes

  1. Dunn, the War the Infantry Knew, 175.
  2. Chronicle of Youth, 302-4.

Edward Thomas has a Bad Day in London; Ivor Gurney Defends Perfection; Vera Brittain Mourns as Guinevere

Edward Thomas has been fortunate in his leave-attainings, getting several days around Christmas and now New Year’s Day as well. Or less than fortunate, depending on how you look at it.

Christmas at home with his reunited family was nice, but he returned to a reorganized Hare Hall Camp, finding himself head of a new hut with responsibilities for training new recruits. He wrote to Robert Frost that “[w]e rather dread losing the freedom of the last 2 months.” As for his New Year’s Day leave in London, well, it went from bad to worse. Thomas spent the morning with several fellow poets, and ended up tangling with the influential Harold Monro, proprietor of the Poetry Bookshop and recent host to his fellow Artist Wilfred Owen:

It will be a good thing if I don’t see Monro again. He seems to delight in expressing opinions that he knows won’t please me, just for the sake of perhaps asserting himself…

Thomas has more poets’ gossip for Frost, but then he went from poetry to family, and from needling nastiness to outright anger. What follows sounds like a most unhappy version of the one-sided argument he recently turned into verse.

In turn I saw my father too,–he made me very sick. He treats me so that I have a feeling of shame that I am alive… Nothing much happened. We argued about the war & he showed that his real feeling when he is not trying to be nice & comfortable is one of contempt. I know what contempt is & partly what I suffered was from the reminder that I had probably made Helen feel exactly the same. I came more drearily back to camp than ever before. I shall recover, but it makes a difference & I am inclined not to see him again for a time.[1]

This unsparing realization about one troubled relationship and another is… terrible. In theory I am opposed to making hay with writers’ personal lives–with, that is, something as private and troubled as Helen and Edward Thomas’s marriage. The bad relationship with the father we can almost handle–this is a distant Victorian man with unsavory political opinions, a distant presence hardly mentioned in Thomas’s recent letters or the memoir of his boyhood, an ogre to be escaped. Conflict of the generations! But to see Thomas recognize the recapitulation of the cruelty in his own behavior to his loving wife is very sad.

Helen and Edward Thomas got married because they had to–she was pregnant. Many hard times followed, and I don’t think Edward is reproving himself for being distant, or for pursuing too much badly paid work, or for taking off on weeks-long writing jaunts with his friends, or for leaving her to cope with the three children, the keeping of several remote and primitive (and scenic!) houses, and work to make ends meet. He is reproving himself for being cruel and, it would seem, for thinking little of his wife’s intellect.

And yet I am inclined to forgive him, to praise the insight and sigh away the contempt. For one bad reason and one perhaps acceptable one: because Thomas has struggled with deep and debilitating depression, and if Helen was its collateral damage, he suffered the direct hit; and because she did, again and again.

But, you know, back to camp, and the agonies of deciding whether to be an officer, and where, and how…


Ivor Gurney is another one of our illustrious pre-Ghosts. As with Ralph Mottram, few but local enthusiasts or deep readers of the literature of the war will have any idea who he is. Yet he has turned up here from time to time–no doubt frustrating regular readers who are trying to keep the other twenty writers straight–in token of an important presence in future posts. Gurney is the gentle Gloucestershire lad from humble circumstances who had felt compelled to give up his scholarship to the Royal Academy of Music (he is already both a composer and a poet) and enlist.

Gurney’s fortunes will vary, but he has been very lucky in one friend, Marion Scott. Scott–to whom Gurney wrote many letters, including the one below–was a pioneering professional woman musician, a poet, and a prolific music critic and musicologist. She had studied at the Royal Academy and remained very active in aiding and abetting its members, and she had adopted Gurney–a young man who often seemed to others as if he could use aid and guidance–as a protegé soon after his arrival. Gurney is not as poor as Rosenberg, for instance, but he is worse off in other ways. It’s really only the unusual gender situation that seems to prevent the word “patron” being applied. But Scott has taken on that role, providing unwavering moral support, expert advice, and well-considered gifts–not least assuring that his scholarship is held for him. (Money is not the core of the issues, anyway, for men who have joined up–they are fed and housed, however poorly. And it’s not as if our other young poets are getting fist-fulls of cash from the Eddie Marshes of the world, anyway).

1 January 1916
Pte Gurney, 2/5 Glosters

Dear Miss Scott: Thank you very much for your presents–the first of which was perfect; the second I am only regretful to have because most of the extracts are taken from the “Path to Rome”, a book I have read. But very much “Thank you”!

…You shall have the songs right enough; but I hope to get leave in a little while, and to rummage them out, and perhaps retouch them. Would a fortnight be too long? If so, you shall have them before…

Please let me have the Poetry Book when you have done with it. The markings were, almost, random guesses, or things I knew to be good. I hope to know it better before opinionising. How good our younger writers are. It is arguable that we have no great writers, but how good a foundation for another Colossus is this fashion of writing in clear direct and coloured English verses containing, as a general thing, no moralising, no recommendations save to love life, and to seize on its sweet moments when possible, and to make as many as possible; and still more to make existence a many coloured thing of joy.

This must be the second volume of Georgian Poetry, which has fallen into so many of our hands over past month. Gurney–again, those keywords: gentle, rural–loves the Georgians, but he does not seem to recognize what they would like to draw attention to, namely that which is (somewhat) new in their work. He seems to see them as the heirs of the (gentle, rural) gauzily Romantic Victorian pseudo-medievalists. So Gurney’s Georgians are almost continuators of the pre-Raphaelite mood, belated 19th century men rather than the moderately progressive harbingers of the new. (As, again, they would see themselves, for the Georgians are generally unable to perceive David Jones quietly carving his way forward, let alone Pound and Eliot electing not to fight, in the captain’s tower or elsewhere.)

Still, for all that, this is a funny trio:

…And I really feel, begin to feel, competent at last to feel and express dissatisfaction with Shakespeare. A great step. W.S. is not perfect often, but how much of the greatest things is perfect. Let us leave perfection to Tennyson and William Morris—in lengthy things, I mean…

But here go I walking common ways;
Drab-souled things on every hand;
A sulky mist is all its haze . . . .
It’s very dead desert this land.

Although my expertise (googling the above, that is) does not permit certainty, these lines are Gurney’s own. They don’t seem to fit the rest of the letter, do they?

Here I will wish you a happy new Year, full of keen experiences, and quietly joyful times of fallowness.

May the War end soon, and let us dream again, but nobly and to active ends. May England grow dearer, sweeter in herself (for we deserve better weather and more amiable smiles) and in our memories. And may the President of the Women Musicians be preserved to sanity. With best wishes:

Yours very sincerely

Ivor Gurney[2]


Lastly, today, some brief extracts from a long, lost diary entry by Vera Brittain.

Saturday January 1st    Keymer

This day last year was the first New Year’s Day I had had with Him in my life. To-day is, the first New Year’s Day I have had with my life empty through he loss of Him. I am immeasurably richer than I was this day two years ago; I am incomparably poorer than I was this day last year. Clare and I went over to Brighton in the morning to see about her mourning [i.e. clothes] at a shop on the front. Brighton was terribly windy & garish & heartless & cold. The general air of indifference made me almost lose my temper, & I felt it would be impossible ever to go back there at all…

We went back by ’bus, which took quite an hour. We were glad of it, Clare & I, for we had the most intimate conversation we have ever had, and wept quite unashamedly at the beginning of it. I made her promise that if ever she wanted any help of any sort, or anything done for her, she would ask me–for I can gain nothing now in life except by giving, and, even as I would have given all to Him, would rather give to His nearest than to anyone else on earth.

It feels churlish to break in here, to condescendingly provide “context” to someone writing in fresh grief. But, like Robert Graves, I aim always to put my foot on the kitten–for the benefit of literary history, of course. Vera Brittain in grief sounds–at least today–younger and more reflexively Romantic than she did even in the happiest throes of young love. And I do mean the 19th century English sort of Romantic–in all its pre-Raphaelite perfection, as with Gurney, above. This sort of Capitalized Sentimentality may be jarring to our jaundiced eyes, yet it is natural, really, in this situation, to subside, overwhelmed, into childish comforts.

Which in this case involves seeing two other tragic mourners–the two bereft “musketeers” of Uppingham School–as knights in mourning:

Edward & Victor had already arrived when we reached the Crescent. They both looked tall and fine and knightly, with their handsome faces grave with sorrow–like courtiers without a king. Victor’s manner was still shy and abrupt, but his eyes were full of a sincerity and steadiness almost disconcerting; they seemed to arrest your very soul and make you wonder if you had committed any secret sins to render you unworthy of his scrutiny. I used to call Roland Sir Galahad, but the name suits Victor still better, for while both have the chevalier’s purity and uprightness of heart, Roland was too much of a leader for the rôle. Sir Galahad was like Victor–one who follows in simplicity and humility the ideal that is set before him.

Before they went we had the “Morning Hymn” on the gramophone. If anyone had told me that, I should ever cry openly before two lieutenants of the British Army I should not have believed it. But as it was, not only, I but they wept quite shamelessly as the music made more vivid our vision of how the world ended for what was–and still is–the most terribly dear of all things on earth. It calls up rather a different vision for me since I learnt the details of his death. I do not so much see him lying amid a heap of fallen soldiers with his white face upturned to the glory of the Eastern sky, and the Archangel in the Heavens with his wings spread protectingly over them. Now I see a small room in a Hospital, and a bed with all that remains of Him lying upon it; the few objects in the room are becoming faintly visible, and gradually filtering through the window with growing intensity the cold blue light of Dawn falls upon his dear dead face–upon the “queer bristly head” that rested against my shoulder–upon the closed beautiful eyes that I loved more than my soul–upon the firmly shut lips that I kissed in the first agonizing awakening of passion…[3]


References and Footnotes

  1. Elected Friends, 114-5.
  2. War Letters, 53-4.
  3. Chronicle of Youth, 301-2.

Vera Brittain is Called to the Phone

Vera Brittain had been on night duty, two nights ago, a century back.

As Christmas Eve slipped into Christmas Day, I finished tying up the paper bags, and with the Sister filled the men’s stockings by the exiguous light of an electric torch. Already I could count, perhaps even on my fingers, the hours that must pass before I should see him. In spite of its tremulous eager-ness of anticipation, the night again seemed short; some of the convalescent men wanted to go to early services, and that meant beginning temperatures and pulses at 3 a.m. As I took them I listened to the rain pounding on the tin roof, and wondered whether, since his leave ran from Christmas Eve, he was already on the sea in that wild, stormy darkness. When the men awoke and reached for their stockings, my whole being glowed with exultant benevolence; I delighted in their pleasure over their childish home-made presents because my own mounting joy made me feel in harmony with all creation.

At eight o’clock, as the passages were lengthy and many of the men were lame, I went along to help them to the communion service in the chapel of the college. It was two or three years since I had been to such a service, but it seemed appropriate that I should be there, for I felt, wrought up as I was to a high pitch of nervous emotion, that I ought to thank whatever God might exist for the supreme gift of Roland and the love that had arisen so swiftly between us. The music of the organ was so sweet, the sight of the wounded men who knelt and stood with such difficulty so moving, the conflict of joy and gratitude, pity and sorrow in my mind so poignant, that tears sprang to my eyes, dimming the chapel walls and the words that encircled them: “I am the Resurrection and the Life: he that believeth in Me, though he were dead, yet shall he live: and whosoever liveth and believeth in Me shall never die.”

Directly after breakfast, sent on my way by exuberant good wishes from Betty and Marjorie and many of the others, I went down to Brighton. All day I waited there for a telephone message or a telegram, sitting drowsily in the lounge of the Grand Hotel, or walking up and down the promenade, watching the grey sea tossing rough with white surf-crested waves, and wondering still what kind of crossing he had had or was having.

When, by ten o’clock at night, no news had come, I concluded that the complications of telegraph and telephone on a combined Sunday and Christmas Day had made communication impossible. So, unable to fight sleep any longer after a night and a day of wakefulness, I went to bed a little disappointed, but still unperturbed. Roland’s family, at their Keymer cottage, kept an even longer vigil; they sat up till nearly midnight over their Christmas dinner in the hope that he would join them, and, in their dramatic, impulsive fashion, they drank a toast to the Dead.

The next morning I had just finished dressing, and was putting the final touches to the pastel-blue crêpe-de-Chine blouse, when the expected message came to say that I was wanted on the telephone. Believing that I was at last to hear the voice for which I had waited for twenty-four hours, I dashed joyously into the corridor. But the message was not from Roland but from Clare; it was not to say that he had arrived home that morning, but to tell me that he had died of wounds at a Casualty Clearing Station on December 23rd.[1]


References and Footnotes

  1. Testament of Youth, 235-6.

Christmas Eve: Edward Hermon at Work, Scott Moncrieff at Mass, Phillip Maddison at the Theater, Richard Hannay in Bavaria, George Coppard on an Island, Vera Brittain Wandering Toward Victoria

It’s Christmas Eve, now, the second of the war. Many of our officers are on leave, or due to begin it. Others yet in France are taking advantage of what they expect–for reasons of wet weather rather than religious sentiment–to be a quiet day.

christmas eve hermonThis would include Edward Hermon, who wrote home today with “no news” other than his work on the construction of winter stables (see the image at right). “How I wish I was going to spend tomorrow with you & the chugs & have them running in, in the morning, with their things.

C. K. Scott Moncrieff, a combat-tested officer of the King’s Own Scottish Borderers, was recovering from “trench fever” and jaundice in a hospital in the South of France. He went to Midnight Mass at the cathedral in Nice and spent several hours waiting in line for communion. It was to be his first Christmas away from home.


I’ll follow Moncrieff’s debut with a much-belated check-in on our most elaborately fictional-to-semi-fictional figure, Henry Williamson‘s fiercely self-lacerating doppelganger Phillip Maddison. When we last saw Phillip, he was playing the part of a semi-intentional cad and accidental hero at the Battle of Loos, but he has since returned to England and, fully embracing his paralyzing fear of returning to battle, wangled a transfer into a “navvies battalion,” where he will command politically-shielded laborers expected to do only home service. There has been plenty of time in this slack and socially disparate battalion for Phillip to take leave, head to London, purchase a small motor car (in addition to his obnoxious motorcycle), and make his best effort yet at obtaining an actual girlfriend. But he continues to pinball around within his own head, lurching from one poorly-controlled emotion to the next.

Phillip’s Christmas Eve began with a test to qualify him and several fellow officers for promotion. It consisted of desultory drill maneuvers and then a timed march to test physical fitness, which was immediately diverted by the cynical instructor into a pub. Thus qualified, Phillip took off for London, where he was stood up by the girl and spent the end of Christmas Eve alone in an expensive box in a theater. He finds himself, of course, longing for the comradeship of war–and forgetting that this had been intermittent at best, and usually overshadowed by loneliness, terror, ostracism for cowardice, and various other miseries:

Christmas Eve! Eleven o’clock in London, midnight in Berlin. Now the lighted fir-trees would be on the parapets, voices singing Heilege Nacht. Why was he not there, how could it be the same without him, he thought, as he stood to attention for God Save the King.

And so to Baker Street station, through the darkness without meaning, and the long walk to camp, while he lived in memory upon the frozen battlefield, where the morning star shone white and lustrous in the east.[1]


A far punchier fictional Christmas was had by Richard Hannay, the British secret agent who is traveling all across Germany in the guide of a Boer sympathizer in order to reach Constantinople and threaten the German eastern flank by raising an Islamic revolt (of course). He is now involved in “one of the craziest escapades you can well imagine.” Indeed!

Yesterday, while traveling with a minder–the brutish German agent Stumm–Hannay had met the Kaiser and had a nice chat about Africa and Imperial loyalties. Later in the afternoon Hannay was cornered by the suspicious Stumm and forced to drop his role. After a nice left jab and some rough-housing he succeeded in knocking out the ape-like German, and escaping into the snowy woods, only a few miles from the Danube.

But after a long night and day stumbling through the Bavarian hinterlands, Hannay is feverish and despairing. Until, on Christmas eve, he stumbled from the nightmare Germany of enraged sadomasochists and sad-eyed tyrants into the fairytale Germany of kindhearted cottagers.

He finds a homely light in the snowy wilderness:

The shock of warmth gave me one of those minutes of self-possession which comes sometimes in the
middle of a fever.

‘I am sick, mother, and I have walked far in the storm and lost my way. I am from Africa, where the climate is hot, and your cold brings me fever. It will pass in a day or two if you can give me a bed.’

‘You are welcome,’ she said; ‘but first I will make you coffee…’

Poverty was spelled large in everything I saw. I felt the tides of fever beginning to overflow my brain again, and I made a great attempt to set my affairs straight before I was overtaken. With difficulty I took out Stumm’s pass from my pocketbook. ‘That is my warrant,’ I said. ‘I am a member of the Imperial Secret Service and for the sake of my work I must move in the dark. If you will permit it, mother, I will sleep till I am better, but no one must know that I am here. If anyone comes, you must deny my presence.’

She looked at the big seal as if it were a talisman.

‘Yes, yes,’ she said, ‘you will have the bed in the garret and be left in peace till you are well. We have no neighbours near, and the storm will shut the roads. I will be silent, I and the little ones.’

My head was beginning to swim, but I made one more effort.

‘There is food in my rucksack – biscuits and ham and chocolate. Pray take it for your use. And here is some money to buy Christmas fare for the little ones.’ And I gave her some of the German notes.

After that my recollection becomes dim….I seem to remember that she kissed my hand, and that she was crying. ‘The good Lord has sent you,’ she said. ‘Now the little ones will have their prayers answered and the Christkind will not pass by our door.'[2]

Spies and getaways and fairytales… but this is a fantasy, literal escapism. Where Buchan’s spy darts nimbly through the woods, Henry Williamson‘s books rumble through the woods like a dogged giant, huge and ungainly, knocking the symbolic snow from every tree below. Williamson aims to represent the historical whole, and–just like innocent, foolish, passionate, striving Phillip Maddison–the war is stuck in a rut, churning against itself. It was not over by its first Christmas, nor this one, and–despite that big push due in the Spring–few believe it will be over by the next.

So there is a lull of sorts, and both Williamson and Buchan manage to play on the theme of Silent Night. Yes, well: but the trenches still need to be held, and George Coppard was holding one–or, rather, since the area around Festubert was so thoroughly flooded, he held not a trench but a sandbagged breastwork “island.” This, he will write, would be “one of the worst of my experiences,” which involved crouching “on a small strip of earth” above the water for two days, with only four feet of protective wall in front.

Bent nearly double, unable to stand, we waited as the hours dragged on, longing for darkness so that we could stretch our limbs a little. Watch was kept by periscope. Several times a sniper trimmed the top of the breastwork, making us sweat blood. The barbed wire in front was nearly submerged…

It was Christmas Eve, and just after dark a second lieutenant came to visit us. I think his name was Clark. Among other things, he came to remind us that by order of the Commander-in-Chief there was not to be any fraternising with the enemy on Christmas Day. The whole world knew that on Christmas Day, 1914, there was some fraternising at one part of the line, and even an attempt at a game of football. Troops in the front line a year later were naturally speculating on whether a repeat performance would develop and, if so, where. Speaking for my companions and myself, I can categorically state that we were in no mood for any joviality with Jerry… we hated his bloody guts. We were bent on his destruction at each and every opportunity for all the miseries and privations which were our lot…

Sad it is for me to tell that Mr. Clark was shot through the head shortly after arriving on the island.  A machine gun swept the breastwork and got him. He died on the little strip of earth in the early hours of Christmas Day.[3]


The last person I want to write about today is Vera Brittain. After yesterday there is no bittersweet pleasure in irony, and, if the conceit of the precise century’s absence and presence permits an imagined emotional connection between then and now, today it seems only cruel.

Still on night duty, Vera spent the early morning hours of Christmas Eve “filling the soldiers’ red bags, which we made, with crackers, sweets and nuts.” She felt little of the Christmas spirit, but she wrote today that

there is at least joy in my heart; I can think of nothing else but the probability of seeing him in two days’ time. For I cannot, dare not, call it certainty yet,–dare not even allow myself to feel thrilled.

No. She has one more night of duty before her own leave begins, but Roland is coming, and she hopes, perhaps, that they might… So she will prepare:

In the morning I had my hair washed at a pleasant little shop near Victoria. I found by enquiring at Victoria yesterday that the only boat-train from Folkestone arrives at 7.30 p.m. As it is sure to be late and he may not even come that way, it is of no use my waiting so late on the chance of seeing him, so apparently I shall have to give up any idea I had of seeing him to-morrow. And perhaps after all his family has first right to him.[4]


References and Footnotes

  1. The Golden Virgin, 113.
  2. Buchan, Greenmantle, 120-138.
  3. Coppard, With a Machine Gun to Cambrai, 59-60.
  4. Chronicle of Youth, 295.

Roland Leighton Departs


Roland Leighton

Last night, a century back, Roland Leighton was shot through the stomach as he led a wiring party out toward No Man’s Land.

[H]e fell on his face, gesticulating wildly, in full view of the company. At the risk of their lives, his company commander and a sergeant rushed out and carried him back to the trench. Twenty minutes afterwards the doctor at the dressing-station put an end to his agony with a large dose of morphia, and from that moment Roland ceased–and ceased for ever–to be Roland.

Thus, writing long afterwards, does Vera Brittain begin her narrative with an excruciating distinction. When today began, a century back, Roland was already gone. But the dying took all day.

Heavily anesthetized, Roland was transferred from the aid post to the nearest Casualty Clearing Station where, early this morning, a surgeon strove to save his life.

[B]ut the wound had caused so much internal mutilation that the doctors knew he was not likely to last longer than a few hours. The machine-gun bullet had injured, amongst other things, the base of the spine, so that if by some combined miracle of surgical skill and a first-rate constitution he had been saved from death, he would have been paralysed from the waist downwards for the rest of his life. As it was, he only came round from the operation sufficiently to receive, “in a state of mazy contentment,” Extreme Unction from the Jesuit padre who, unknown to us all, had received him into the Catholic Church early that summer. ” Lying on this hillside for six days makes me very stiff,” he told the padre cheer-fully. They were his last coherent words. At eleven o’clock that night… Uppingham’s record prize-winner, whose whole nature fitted him for the spectacular drama of a great battle, died forlornly in a hospital bed…


Of her subsequent efforts to learn the details of Roland’s death–reflected above and in yesterday’s post–Vera wrote this:

That was all. There was no more to learn. Not even a military purpose seemed to have been served by his death; the one poor consolation was that his routine assumption of responsibility had saved the wiring party.[1]

Roland is dead, and Vera will now take up a new labor. Much of her writing had been driven by love, by her romantic dreams for the future. Now it will be driven by grief and, at least at first, by a mourner’s hapless sifting of the past. We flash forward a few days or weeks, as her memoir stumbles on:

Later, night after night at Camberwell, watching the clouds drift slowly across the stars, I dwelt upon these facts until it seemed as though my mind would never contain the anguish that they brought me. Had it been heroism or folly, I asked myself for the thousandth time, which had urged him forth to inspect the wire beneath so bright a moon? In those days it seemed a matter of life or death to know.

“All heroism,” I argued desperately in my diary, “is to a certain extent unnecessary from a purely utilitarian point of view…. But heroism means something infinitely greater and finer, even if less practical, than just avoiding blame, and doing one’s exact, stereotyped duty and no more.”

All the same, gazing fixedly out of the ward window at a tall church spire blackly silhouetted against banks of cloud pierced by a shaft of brilliant moonshine, I would whisper like a maniac to the sombre, indifferent night: “Oh, my love!–so proud, so confident, so contemptuous of humiliation, you who were meant to lead a forlorn hope, to fall in a great fight–just to be shot like a rat in the dark![2] Why did you go so boldly, so heedlessly, into No Man’s Land when you knew that your leave was so near? Dearest, why did you, why did you?”[3]

Her anguish will be enhanced, in the coming months, by the sense that he had been “so cruel, so baffling” to leave no message, no Last Letter. (And the discovery of the poem Hédauville will not ease her way toward a more pure grief, either.)

But there will be a very long “afterwards.” I must now entirely break that fourth-dimensional wall which I so cherish, and draw upon Vera’s after-the war. There will be the great memoir, Testament of Youth, but also poetry, including this:


Perhaps (To R.A.L.)

getimage (5)

Oxford University, First World War Poetry Digital Archive

Perhaps some day the sun will shine again,
And I shall see that still the skies are blue,
And feel once more I do not live in vain,
Although bereft of You.

Perhaps the golden meadows at my feet
Will make the sunny hours of spring seem gay,
And I shall find the white May-blossoms sweet,
Though You have passed away.

Perhaps the summer woods will shimmer bright,
And crimson roses once again be fair,
And autumn harvest fields a rich delight,
Although You are not there.

Perhaps some day I shall not shrink in pain
To see the passing of the dying year,
And listen to Christmas songs again,
Although You cannot hear.

But though kind Time may many joys renew,
There is one greatest joy I shall not know
Again, because my heart for loss of You
Was broken, long ago.


So: long ago. It’s at this point, usually, that snapping back out of the old story and breathing back into the elapsed century brings a good measure of relief. After all, while I chose to work at a century’s remove because 100 is a nice round number, it’s only a number–what matters more is that a century is… long enough. Even Harry Patch is dead and buried these six years, and with him the most immediate pain. There are, of course, still survivors of the war’s horrors–the children of heart-broken parents, themselves now old. But it has been a long time–who can mourn, really, a century later? Or perhaps mourning means many different things.

Yet for the sentimental reader there is now a cruel twist (likely anticipated): Roland’s story will go on, as his survivors cope with his death, his memory. He was a good writer, but it was Vera who brought us here, and Vera who will have to carry on. Brooke and Grenfell welcomed death, to some degree, and their legacies, at least, subsided gently into the panegyrics of friends, admirers, and mothers. Charles Sorley died silently here, out with his battalion, but he will have an unexpected legacy through his poetry, published posthumously through the efforts of his parents. But these are only echoes, here. Roland’s death will remain present in Vera’s letters and diary, which we will continue to read on a regular basis.

We’ll stay with Vera as she picks up the pieces and tries to take care of not only her own grief but also the misery of others. His parents, a little–but especially his friends.

Worst of all, today, dear reader, there is the basic rule of all these epistolary relationships, still in force. I’ve skipped ahead to Vera’s poetry and memoir because I couldn’t let Roland’s death pass in paraphrase or third-hand prose. But the old century will continue to move at its own pace. Letters take three or four days, usually, to traverse the short, interminable distance to London. Telegrams are a little quicker.

Vera is now, a century back, waiting for Roland to come home, expecting him to arrive on Christmas Day at the start of his long-promised leave.


References and Footnotes

  1. Vera's account does not shrink from apportioning blame for this unnecessary heroism. This, again is plausible: the outgoing battalion--the 4th Ox and Bucks, although she doesn't name them--had (apparently) done a lousy job maintaining the wire, and they had not carefully informed their relief of particular danger spots. If the German machine gun had indeed already showed attention to this spot, that information should have been carefully passed on to the relieving officers. Yet Vera seems to take a bitter solace from the fact that his death was not only "meaningless" but also the result of a combination of his dutiful assumption of risk and the simple carelessness of others. It was a waste.
  2. Vera Brittain makes a precise point here: a "forlorn hope"--the doomed but tactically necessary volunteer storming unit of early modern siege warfare--is the epitome of (insane courage and) "utilitarian" heroism. As she well knows, there are no more forlorn hopes, and trench warfare provides much opportunity for dangerous duty and little for useful heroism. He couldn't do well and do other than his duty: "like a rat in the dark" is the opposite of a heroic death in the breach of a fortress, and yet the breach is there--it's only a that it's an entire war of endless fortress and no final heroic storms. Many secondary accounts make Roland's killer a "sniper," probably because this seems somehow more tragic, or more cruel. This is thematically askew, since Vera's point is not that he was gunned down in a dastardly way but rather that he was reduced to scuttling about in the dark. Nor is it factually correct: Vera's own account, based on "letters from his colonel, his fellow officers, the Catholic padre who had buried him, and his servant" is quite clear that it was a burst--"volley," as she has it, is not quite right--from a machine gun, not a rifle. It's possible that this is a misunderstanding, although I'm not sure where the confusion would have arisen. We should always doubt the reports from comrades to next at kin, especially women, since they frequently obscured painful details--details of pain--or simply lied to "spare the feelings" of the weaker sex. But Vera Brittain was certainly persistent, and she may well have written insisting upon the truth and asserting her ability--as a V.A.D. nurse--to cope with it. Since she was told that he was shot in the stomach--a terribly painful wound, and far from the typical epistolary fiction that turns most deaths by bullet into instantaneous head shots--we do not have our usual reason to doubt the accounts...  Still, it is odd that a machine gun was waiting on a spot, rather than traversing (or perhaps it was traversing) and it's certainly possible that a "fixed rifle" has been set up to fire on the gap in the hedge as soon as any movement was spotted. Nor is it impossible that Roland was indeed killed by a sniper, although this would be, even with a bright moon, unlikely. But... it doesn't matter, does it? Running down the details, a century on, is only an enormously attenuated version of Vera's helpless, grieving search for grains of fact, to be snatched at as the rush of life from the broken vessel drains away.
  3. Testament of Youth, 240-3.

Roland Leighton Leads the Way Forward

Under a bright moon tonight, a century back, the 7th Worcesters took over a new position in the forward trenches near Hébuterne. The barbed wire belt in front of the trench had apparently been neglected, and Roland Leighton‘s platoon was detailed to repair it. A conscientious officer, Roland led the way, no doubt forcing from his mind the fact that his leave would begin as soon as he made it through two final days of trench duty.

The communications trench was flooded, so the way to No Man’s Land led overland, through a gap in a hedge. The gap was known to the Germans, and it was being watched by a machine gun crew.

One bullet from the first burst caught Roland in the stomach, tearing through his body. His captain and a sergeant reached him quickly, and in about twenty minutes–twenty minutes of agony–stretcher bearers brought him to the battalion’s Advanced Dressing Station, where the doctor administered morphine. During the night Roland was transported, unconscious, to the nearest Casualty Clearing Station.[1]


References and Footnotes

  1. Testament of Youth, 241-2, on which more tomorrow.