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Return of a Dead Officer's Kit

Vera Brittain's fiancé Roland Leighton had been expected home on leave just after Christmas 1915. He died 23 December of wounds received during a night-time wire inspection a day earlier. What follows here is an extract from a letter written by Vera to her brother Edward on 14 January 1916 from the London hospital where she was working as a VAD. She had travelled to Brighton to visit Roland's family...

Roland Leighton 1915
Roland Leighton 1915

...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.) These 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’. 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 below 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 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 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.

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 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. After the clothes had gone we opened the window wide & felt better, but it was a long time before the smell and even the taste of them went away.

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 - will be available in a new edition from July 2000 but can be ordered now.


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Wednesday 14 December 2005