Tuesday, April 24, 2012


If you’ve taken the Eurostar between London and Paris, you’ve seen them: quadrangles of orderly white headstones, dropped apparently at random across the empty fields of Northern France.

They’re not random at all, of course. For much of its length between Paris and Calais, the main high-speed railway line runs along the old Western Front, that network of sodden trenches called home by millions of soldiers for most of the First World War. Nearly a century later, the cemeteries still waypost the front's once-inexorable path southward, from Belgium to the border of Switzerland.

Obsessions do not ask permission before taking over your brain, and the first two decades of the twentieth century – that churning crucible of the modern era – are mine. I can trace the origins of my fascination to a single book: Vera Brittain’s classic war memoir Testament of Youth, which chronicles her journey from the golden sunset of the Edwardian age to the politics and domestic compromise of the threadbare Thirties, when the book was published. Not that I made it that far, at least at first. For me, the book ended with the death of Vera’s fiancé, Roland Leighton, at the end of 1915.

The Great War was famous for that. Military tactics did not catch up with the destructive power of modern weapons until the war’s end, and while millions of ordinary soldiers were slaughtered under the spray of rapid-fire machine guns, the junior officers leading the sacrificial waves faced particularly bleak odds. Memorial tablets at Oxford and Cambridge overflow with their names: gifted scions of England’s finest families, mowed down in their idealistic thousands. (The war’s other belligerent nations, it should be said, fared just as tragically.) Vera was hardly alone in watching her brother, Edward, and nearly all of his schoolfriends meet this fate, one by one; her gift was to bring alive their particular humanity among the millions killed, and no one more vividly than the first.

Roland Leighton was something of a nonpareil, winning six of seven prizes awarded by Uppingham School to its graduating class (Greek Iambics the only miss) and leading the other boys as color-sergeant of the school’s Officers’ Training Corps, a near-mandatory service at the time. As if that weren’t enough, he wooed Vera as much with his feminist principles as his knack for Latin hexameter. He fully supported her efforts to land a place at Oxford’s all-women Somerville College, “if,” as he wrote, “I may be allowed to see something of you on the other side.”

But by then it was August of 1914, and the bell had already tolled for their generation. Roland obtained a lieutenant’s commission in the Worcester Regiment, and Vera enlisted as a nurse at the 1st London General Hospital. Their courtship was carried on mostly by letter: “Good night and much love. I have just been kissing your photograph,” Roland wrote from the trenches in April 1915, to which Vera replied rather pointedly that she “env[ies] the photograph; it is more fortunate than its original.” Roland, ever-gallant, assured her that “[w]hen it is all finished and I am with her again the original shall not envy the photograph… But may it not perhaps be better that such sweet sacrilege should be an anticipation rather than a memory?”

By the autumn of 1915, the tone had changed. Roland wrote that he “feel[s] a barbarian, a wild man of the woods, stiff, narrowed, practical, an incipient martinet perhaps – not at all the kind of person who would be associated with prizes on Speech Day, or poetry, or dilettante classicism. I wonder… if I could ever waste my time on Demosthenes again.”

He would not, in fact. Vera was thrilled to learn that Roland had secured Christmas leave, and went about her duties – decorating the ward, making presents for the convalescents – with heady enthusiasm. The morning after Christmas, she received word that she was wanted on the telephone, and if you ever want to know how to break a reader’s heart in a few matter-of-fact sentences, here’s your primer:

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 [his younger sister] 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.

So ends Part I, and it was fully years before I was able to pick up the book again and read on.

Vera recovered, eventually. After the armistice in 1918, she went back up to Oxford and finished her degree, going on to become a prominent peace campaigner and woman of letters, with several published novels to her credit. Testament of Youth, however, remains her best-known work; for that alone, we can perhaps understand her implacable opposition to Britain’s role in the Second World War.

I have twice visited Roland Leighton’s grave, which inhabits a crossroads cemetery in the tiny village of Louvencourt in the Somme river valley, overlooked serenely by the Lutyens-designed Stone of Remembrance inscribed Their Name Liveth For Evermore. The place invites contemplation. It’s become proverbial, and a little too pat, to observe that the First World War ushered in the modern age; that a naïve and idealistic generation sacrificed itself for a world in which the word “intercourse” could no longer be said with a straight face. In fact, the years before the war teemed with social upheaval and hellbent scientific advancement, with the clash of traditional and modern: a rich setting for fiction, as any fan of Downton Abbey knows.

And for romance. Tenderness, yearning, conflict, suppressed passion: all these things leap from the pages of Vera’s memoir, and even more boldly in the diary and letters published after her death. (Romantics will be relieved to know that the longed-for snogging did, in fact, take place during Roland’s final leave – and on a moonlit sea-cliff, no less.) This is courtship firmly in the historical tradition, and if my fictional world represents a subconscious attempt to give Roland and Vera the consummation denied them in life, I guess I can live with that.


*an image from Roland Leighton’s poem Hédauville, written in the month before his death