Thursday, November 11, 2010


In the United States, today is Veterans' Day, a day to honor the men and women who serve, or have served, in the nation's military. Across much of the rest of the world, however, the 11th of November will always be Armistice Day: the day the guns fell silent across Europe and the First World War stumbled to its abrupt and Pyrrhic end.

It's impossible for the mind to corral the scale of tragedy enacted during the four years of the Great War. We say "millions died," as if two words could communicate the infinity of loss and sorrow that accompanied each individual death, and then multiply that infinity by millions. Grief needs a human face, a single human story, and Edward Brittain represents no more and no less than any of the young men thrown into the crucible of 1914-1918.

We know a great deal about Edward because he was the beloved brother of Vera Brittain, writer and peace activist, whose Great War memoir Testament of Youth stands as one of the classics of its age. Like Roland Leighton, Vera's brilliant fiancé, Edward obtained a lieutenant's commission in the British army shortly after the outbreak of war, and saw extensive action across the Western Front.

You might think that Edward -- tall, broodingly handsome, sensitive, a talented musician -- wasn't cut out to be an army officer, and perhaps you're right. But he fought on bravely nonetheless: on the catastrophic first day of the Somme, he led his panicked men in the first wave of attack, going back twice to the trenches to urge them over the top. Within ninety yards he'd been shot in the right leg by a machine gun, and followed that up with a shell-splinter going through his left arm. Eventually he crawled his way back to the trenches, recovered from his wounds, and earned a Military Cross for his actions.

Yet for all his battlefield heroics, Edward shines most brightly in the role of brother and friend. He and Vera were exceptionally close, and in the prewar years, as she fought to gain entrance into Oxford and pursue a career of her own, he supported her efforts against the opposition of their Victorian parents. Vera's relationship with Roland Leighton began at Edward's own introduction, and Roland's death -- and those of his other schoolfriends -- hit his sensitive nature with devastating power:

I suppose it is better to have had such splendid friends as those three were rather than not to have had any particular friends at all [he wrote to Vera in June 1917], but yet, now that all are gone it seems that whatever was of value in life has all tumbled down...

We started alone, dear child, and here we are alone again: you find me changed, I expect, more than I find you; that is perhaps the way of Life. But we share a memory which is worth all the rest of the world, and the sun of that memory never sets. And you know that I love you, that I would do anything in the world in my power if you should ask it, and that I am your servant as well as your brother...

In June of 1918, having outlived all the friends of his childhood years, Edward was shot in the head by an Austrian sniper on the Asiago Plateau in the mountains of northern Italy and buried in his blanket in the remote cemetery at Granezza.

After the publication of Testament of Youth in 1933, Vera learned that Edward had, at the time of his death, been facing an official enquiry into allegations of homosexual activity between himself, another officer, and men in their company. Whether the possibility of public exposure led Edward to take risks an officer of his experience should have shunned is almost irrelevant: either way, the end of the war came too late to save him.

This sense of loss and futility still infuses the anniversary of the Armistice. "The war was over," wrote Vera, "but the dead were dead and would never return." Or as Thomas Hardy described it in his poem And There Came A Great Calm:

Calm fell. From Heaven distilled a clemency;
There was peace on earth and silence in the sky;
Some could, some could not, shake off misery:
The Sinister Spirit sneered: "It had to be!"
And again the Spirit of Pity whispered, "Why?"

(Sources: Vera Brittain, Testatment of Youth, 1933; Paul Berry and Mark Bostridge, Vera Brittain: A Life, 1995; Letters from a Lost Generation, ed. Alan Bishop and Mark Bostridge, 1998)

Earlier posts on Roland Leighton and Julian Grenfell can be found here and here.

1 comment:

  1. Brilliant. I knew that you, as a student of WWI, would remember 'The Great War' today. Thank you for sharing.