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Losing a Fiancé

PoppyVera BrittainVera Brittain's account of the visit she paid to the grave of her fiance Roland Leighton accompanied by her friend and fellow author Winifred Holtby: from Testament of Youth (1933):

Today, tours of the battlefields in France are arranged by numerous agencies; graves are visited in parties, and a regular trade has been established in wreaths and photographs and cemeteries. But that level of civilisation had not been reached in 1921 so Winifred and I hired a car in Amiens, and plunged through a series of shell-racked roads between the grotesque trunks of skeleton trees, with their stripped, shattered branches still pointing to heaven in grim protest against man's ruthless cruelty to nature as well as man. Along the road, at intervals, white placards were erected in front of tumbledown groups of roofless, windowless houses ; were these really the places that we had mentioned with gasping breath at Etaples three and a half years ago ? I asked myself incredulously, as with chill excitement I read their names:
At Albert a circumspect row of Army huts, occupied by reconstruction workers, stood side by side with the humped ruin which had once been the ornate Basilica, crowned by its golden Virgin holding her Child aloft from the steeple. Was this, I wondered, apart from the huts, the place as Edward [her brother,  killed in the Italian campaign] had known it?

But the day's real purpose was my visit to Louvencourt as the words of the dead American poet, Alan Seeger, restlessly hammering in my head against the grinding of the car's sorely tried gears, had reminded me at intervals all afternoon:

I have a rendezvous with Death
On some scarred slope of battered hill

Edward, Roland and Victor
Roland Leighton (centre) with Edward Brittain (left) and Victor Richardson

As the car drove through the village to the cemetery, I realised with a shock, from its resemblance to a photograph in my possession, that the grey château half hidden by tall, drooping trees had once been the Casualty Clearing Station where Roland had drifted forlornly and unconsciously into death. We found the cemetery, as Edward had described it, on the top of a hill where two roads joined; the afternoon was bright and sunny, and just beyond the encircling wall a thin row of elms made a delicate pattern against the tranquil sky. The graves, each with its little garden in front, resembled a number of flower-beds planted at intervals in the smooth, wide lawn, which lay so placidly beneath the long shadow of the slender memorial cross. As I walked up the paved path where Edward had stood in April 1916, and looked at the trim, ordered burial-ground and the open, urbane country, I thought how different it all was from the grey twilight of the Asiago Plateau [where her brother was buried], with its deep, sinister silence. The strange irony which had determined the fates of Roland and Edward seemed to persist even after death: the impetuous warrior slept calmly in this peaceful, complacent earth with its suave covering of velvet lawn; the serene musician lay on the dark summit of a grim, far-off mountain.

Winifred HoltbyI left Louvencourt, as I thought, unperturbed ; I had read the inscription on Roland's grave and gathered a bronze marigold to keep in my diary without any conscious feeling of emotion. Whatever, I decided, might be true of 1918, I was beginning to forget the early years of the War and to recover from the anguish of its second Christmas.

But late that night, back in the Paris hotel, I picked a quarrel with Winifred [pictured left] over some futile trifle, and went to bed in a fury of tears.

PoppyOne of Vera's letters to her brother Edward tells the terrible story of the return of Roland's kit to his family while in Losing a father Lucy Walter shares her memories of the man she last saw in 1917, and in Losing a brother there is a touching little story about one woman's belief about the final resting place of her soldier brother.
Both Vera Brittain's Testament of Youth  and Letters from A Lost Generation us edition can be purchased from Amazon . The lesser known Chronicle of Youth - Vera's early diaries - is also available .

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Wednesday 14 December 2005