Roland Leighton

Roland Leighton

Roland Aubrey Leighton, the son of Robert Leighton (1858-1934) and Marie Connor Leighton (1865-1941), was born in London on 27th March 1895. His father was literary editor at The Daily Mail, and was the author of popular adventure books for boys. His mother was also a writer and had published several novels.

Leighton was educated at Uppingham School where he met Edward Brittain and Victor Richardson. They were described by Roland's mother, as the "Three Musketeers". The three men joined the Officers' Training Corps (OTC). A fellow student, C.R.W. Nevinson, described the mood of the school as "appalling jingoism". The headmaster told them on Speech Day that: "If a man can't serve his country he's better dead."

As Alan Bishop has pointed out in his book, Letters From a Lost Generation (1998): "The OTC provided the institutional mechanism for public school militarism. But a more complex web of cultural ideas and assumptions, some taken from the classics, some from popular fiction, some even developed through competitive sports on the playing fields, was instilled by schoolmasters in their pupils, and contributed to the generation of 1914's overwhelming willingness to march off in search of glory." Leighton was an enthusiastic patriot and he was appointed as colour-sergeant of the OTC.

In June 1913, Edward Brittain introduced him to his sister, Vera Brittain. They soon developed a close relationship. Roland gave her a copy of Olive Schreiner's The Story of an African Farm. He told her that the main character, Lyndall, reminded him of her. Vera replied in a letter dated 3rd May 1914: "I think I am a little like Lyndall, and would probably be more so in her circumstances, uncovered by the thin veneer of polite social intercourse." Vera wrote in her diary that "he (Roland) seems even in a short acquaintance to share both my faults and my talents and my ideas in a way that I have never found anyone else to yet."

Roland Leighton is on the left of the front row at the OTC camp in 1913.
Roland Leighton is on the left of the front row at the OTC camp in 1913.

In July 1914, Leighton was awarded the Classical Postmastership at Merton College. On the outbreak of the First World War, he decided not to take his place at Oxford University in order to join the British Army. Vera Brittain wrote to Roland about his decision to take part in the war: "I don't know whether your feelings about war are those of a militarist or not; I always call myself a non-militarist, yet the raging of these elemental forces fascinates me, horribly but powerfully, as it does you. You find beauty in it too; certainly war seems to bring out all that is noble in human nature, but against that you can say it brings out all the barbarous too. But whether it is noble or barbarous I am quite sure that had I been a boy I should have gone off to take part in it long ago; indeed I have wasted many moments regretting that I am a girl. Women get all the dreariness of war and none of its exhilaration."

He was initially rejected due to poor eyesight but two months later obtained a commission in the Royal Norfolk Regiment. Lieutenant Leighton transferred to the 7th Worcester Regiment in an attempt to get to the Western Front as soon as possible. He arrived in the trenches at Armentieres in April 1915. Before actually seeing any action he became aware of the reality of war. Soon after arriving at the front-line trenches he wrote to Vera Brittain: "I went up yesterday morning to my fire trench, through the sunlit wood, and found the body of the dead British soldier hidden in the undergrowth a few yards from the path. He must have been shot there during the wood fighting in the early part of the war and lain forgotten all the time. The ground was slightly marshy and the body had sunk down into it so that only the toes of his boots stuck up above the soil. His cap and equipment were just by the side, half-buried and rotting away. I am having a mound of earth thrown over him, to add one more to the other little graves in the wood." He soon became disillusioned with the war. He told Vera later that month: "There is nothing glorious in trench warfare. It is all a waiting and a waiting and taking of petty advantages - and those who can wait longest win. And it is all for nothing - for an empty name, for an ideal perhaps - after all."

In a letter to Edward Brittain a couple of days later he spoke of his desire to return home: "Our position here is very strong, and in consequence life tends to become somewhat monotonous in time. The snipers are a chronic nuisance, but we do not get shelled very often, which is a distinct advantage. We have been here 10 days and have had only 1 killed and 6 wounded (none seriously). Armstrong got a bullet through his left wrist and has been sent home - lucky devil! They have stopped all leave other than sick leave now, so that I may be stuck out here for an indefinite period. As far as I can see, the war may last another two years if it goes on at the same rate as at present."

The trenches at Armentieres were very quiet and it was not until May that Leighton lost the first of his men: "One of my men has just been killed - the first. I have been taking the things out of his pockets and tying them round in his handkerchief to be sent back somewhere to someone who will see more than a torn letter, and a pencil, and a knife and a piece of shell. He was shot through the left temple while firing over the parapet. I did not actually see it - thank Heaven. I only found him lying very still at the bottom of the trench with a tiny stream of red trickling down his cheek onto his coat. He has just been carried away. I cannot help thinking how ridiculous it was that so small a thing should make such a change... I was talking to him only a few minutes before... I do not quite know how I felt at the moment. It was not anger (even now I have no feeling of animosity against the man who shot him) only a great pity, and a sudden feeling of impotence."

Roland Leighton in 1915
Roland Leighton in 1915

While on leave during August 1915 Roland Leighton became engaged to Vera Brittain. On his return to France he was stationed in trenches near Hebuterne, north of Albert. On the 26th November 1915 he wrote a letter to Vera that highlighted his disillusionment with the war. "It all seems such a waste of youth, such a desecration of all that is born for poetry and beauty. And if one does not even get a letter occasionally from someone who despite his shortcomings perhaps understands and sympathises it must make it all the worse... until one may possibly wonder whether it would not have been better to have met him at all or at any rate until afterwards. I sometimes wish for your sake that it had happened that way."

On the night of 22nd December 1915 he was ordered to repair the barbed wire in front of his trenches. It was a moonlit night with the Germans only a hundred yards away and Roland Leighton was shot by a sniper. His last words were: "They got me in the stomach, and it's bad." He died of his wounds at the military hospital at Louvencourt on 23rd December 1915. He is buried in the military cemetery near Doullens.

His friend, Victor Richardson, later recalled: "In the first place the wire in front of the trenches has to be kept in good order under all circumstances. The fact that there was a bright moon early in the night would not prevent the enemy making an attack later on in the night, or at dawn; and there is always the chance that if the wire was down they might get through, especially as any weak spots would have been marked down in daylight. This view would almost certainly be held by the officer responsible for the defence of the sector."

In her book, Testament of Youth (1933) Vera Brittain recalled visiting Roland's family home in Hassocks. "I arrived at the cottage that morning to find his mother and sister standing in helpless distress in the midst of his returned kit, which was lying, just opened, all over the floor. The garments sent back included the outfit that he had been wearing when he was hit. I wondered, and I wonder still, why it was thought necessary to return such relics - the tunic torn back and front by the bullet, a khaki vest dark and stiff with blood, and a pair of blood-stained breeches slit open at the top by someone obviously in a violent hurry. Those gruesome rages made me realise, as I had never realised before, all that France really meant."

Primary Sources

(1) Roland Leighton, letter to Vera Brittain (21st August, 1914)

I am feeling very chagrined and disappointed at present. I expect Edward has told you that I have been trying for a temporary commission in the Regulars. Everything looked quite promising, and the Colonel of the Norfolk Regiment whom I had to go and interview volunteered some most flattering remarks in his report on "the suitability of the candidate". On Tuesday it only remained for me to go up for my Medical Exam. I got on very well until they stuck up a board at the end of the room and told me to read off the letters on it. I had to be able to read at least half, but found I could not see more than the first line of large letters.The Medical Officer was extremely nice about it, and tried his best to let me through by being as lenient as he could: but it was of no use, I am afraid...

I had set my heart so much on getting that commission that I am most depressed at being thwarted at the last moment. I had almost settled that after the war if all went well, I should remain in the Army professionally. That of course is quite out of the question now. (Do yon think that a military career would have suited me, I wonder? Possibly not.) I have since tried the Field Artillery and Army Service Corps, but find that they are just as particular about eyesight as the Infantry are. To make matters worse all the Territorial battalions - where wearing eve-glasses would have been permissible - have already many more officers than they want, so that I cannot get a commission of any kind now. I do not think I could go as far as trying the Legion Etrangere in the French Army, although someone did suggest it.

The war is very much of a reality down here. The harbour, bridges etc. are all guarded, and you are liable to be challenged suddenly by a sentry if you go out for a walk after dark. Tonight there is a flotilla of mine-sweepers with two cruisers anchored about a quarter of a mule out to sea immediately opposite the house. They are presumably laying mines, but they only came up after dark, and have put out all their lights so as not to be seen. Through field-glasses it is just possible line of their hulls. Earlier in the evening one of the cruisers fired two shots across the bows of an ultra-inquisitive tramp steamer which she considered was coming too near.

(2) Roland Leighton, letter to Vera Brittain (8th February, 1915)

I had a letter yesterday to say that Richardson is very dangerously ill with cerebro-spinal meningitis at Brighton. Edward and I have arranged to go down there, although it is very doubtful whether we shall be able to see him, as he is still unconscious and must be kept quiet. I am just off to London now and aim to meet with Edward at Brighton this morning.

This is all I know about it at present I do hope that he will get through it all right; although the doctor here says that this form of meningitis is more often fatal than not. I am feeling most distressed about him.

(3) Roland Leighton, letter to Vera Brittain (10th February, 1915)

I met Edward at Brighton on Monday at about 3 p.m. He had already been there since 10.30, but had not been allowed by the doctors to go near Richardson. His father and his aunt are permitted to see him for a few minutes only once a day. I am thankful to say that he seems decidedly better now, although the doctors will not say definitely that the danger is passed. When he was brought over from Horsham his case seemed quite hopeless.That was last Tuesday. Since then he has been delirious most of the time, but now is beginning to be conscious, although lie cannot yet realise where he is. He persists in repeating commands and seems to imagine that he is drilling inen.The chief danger is that, being so weak, he may have a relapse. Personally I have hopes that lie will be all right now.

(4) Roland Leighton, letter to Vera Brittain (12th April, 1915)

I am writing this sitting on the edge of my bunk in the dug-out that I am sharing with an officer.... One company of this regiment and half a company of our own men are occupying part of a line of trenches running parallel to the German and varying from 70 to 180 yards from them. At the moment there is practically no rifle fire on either side except for a German sniper or two who is having a few chance shots at a traverse two or three yards to the right of this hut. Two bullets have just skimmed along the roof, but as this is well covered with sandbags there is no danger inside. Our heavy artillery has been shelling a large disused brewery behind the German lines all the morning. The shells come straight over the trenches and you hear first the dull boom as they leave the muzzle of the gun, & then the scream of the shell passing overhead, ending in a crash as it bursts. This is going on as I write now. I have just been outside in the trench watching it all. You dare not put your head over the front parapet of the trench for even a second, of course, or the German snipers would 'pot' you. But by peeping round the corner or using a periscope you can just see the brewery (or rather the remains of' it) and the clouds of smoke from the bursting shells....

I am in the dugout now. It is a wooden hut built into the rear part of the trench, about 7 feet square and 5 feet high at the highest point. It has two low bunks for sleeping, some shelves, a small table & two wooden chairs. There is a window of sorts in the rear wall and the whole is covered all round with earth and sandbags.... On top is a small weather-cock of wood and tin stuck there out of bravado by a former inhabitant.

(5) Roland Leighton, letter to Vera Brittain (20th April, 1915)

Our trenches are in the middle of a vast wood of tall straight trees - at least the support and reserve trenches are inside the wood, the fire trenches on the front edge. We have held the whole of the wood since the beginning of November and it is all a maze of small paths and isolated huts and breastworks. My own dug-out is in the second line, about 180 to 200 yards behind the fire trenches on the wood-edge...

The portion of the line we are holding here is one of the best known, and much too strong to be retaken by the Germans. It is probable that they will keep us here for some time - perhaps as long as two months...

I went up yesterday morning to my fire trench, through the sunlit wood, and found the body of the dead British soldier hidden in the undergrowth a few yards from the path. He must have been shot there during the wood fighting in the early part of the war and lain forgotten all the time. The ground was slightly marshy and the body had sunk down into it so that only the toes of his boots stuck up above the soil. His cap and equipment were just by the side, half-buried and rotting away. I am having a mound of earth thrown over him, to add one more to the other little graves in the wood.

(6) Roland Leighton, letter to Vera Brittain (21st April, 1915)

We are going out of the trenches this afternoon at 4.0 o'clock. It is now 11.30 a.m. I shall be glad of the rest, as it has been a tiring four days here. I was up nearly all last night mending the barbed wire entanglements in front of our trenches, and this morning can hardly keep my eyes open. There is nothing glorious in trench warfare. It is all a waiting and a waiting and taking of petty advantages - and those who can wait longest win. And it is all for nothing - for an empty name, for an ideal perhaps - after all.

(7) Roland Leighton, letter to Edward Brittain (27th April, 1915)

Our position here is very strong, and in consequence life tends to become somewhat monotonous in time. The snipers are a chronic nuisance, but we do not get shelled very often, which is a distinct advantage. We have been here 10 days and have had only 1 killed and 6 wounded (none seriously). Armstrong got a bullet through his left wrist and has been sent home - lucky devil! They have stopped all leave other than sick leave now, so that I may be stuck out here for an indefinite period. As far as I can see, the war may last another two years if it goes on at the same rate as at present.

(8) Roland Leighton, letter to Vera Brittain (9th May, 1915)

One of my men has just been killed - the first. I have been taking the things out of his pockets and tying them round in his handkerchief to be sent back somewhere to someone who will see more than a torn letter, and a pencil, and a knife and a piece of shell. He was shot through the left temple while firing over the parapet. I did not actually see it - thank Heaven. I only found him lying very still at the bottom of the trench with a tiny stream of red trickling down his cheek onto his coat. He has just been carried away. I cannot help thinking how ridiculous it was that so small a thing should make such a change... I was talking to him only a few minutes before... I do not quite know how I felt at the moment. It was not anger (even now I have no feeling of animosity against the man who shot him) only a great pity, and a sudden feeling of impotence.

(9) Roland Leighton, letter to Vera Brittain (17th May, 1915)

I have had a most interesting afternoon. I went along with Captain Chamberlain to the trenches of the regiment a little farther down the line... Their trenches are the most interesting I have yet seen anywhere. I cannot go into technical details; but at one point they hold a forward barricade 40 yards from the Germans and just in front of a ruined house. From here they had sapped out and made a mine a little time back. A few days ago they heard the Germans mining towards them on a slightly higher level. Two officers and two men went down their own tunnel and found the Germans just breaking in to a small gallery on the right. They had a fight down there in a space barely large enough to crawl along, and succeeded at last in driving the Germans back a few yards and firing our mine, which blew up the ground about half way between the two lines of trenches....

I am just off to give my platoon an impromptu lecture on asphyxiating gases. We have been served out with goggles and respirators now. The latter are soaked in a chemical that neutralises the chlorine or bromine in the gas and makes it quite harmless. No gas has been used in this part of the line yet, but we are quite prepared for it if it comes.

(10) Roland Leighton, letter to Vera Brittain (August, 1915)

Among this chaos of twisted iron and splintered timber and shapeless earth are the fleshless, blackened bones of simple men who poured out their red, sweet wine of youth unknowing, for nothing more tangible than Honour or their Country's Glory or another's Lust of Power. Let him who thinks that war is a glorious golden thing, who loves to roll forth stirring words of exhortation, invoking Honour and Praise and Valour and Love of Country. Let him look at a little pile of sodden grey rags that cover half a skull and a shine bone and what might have been its ribs, or at this skeleton lying on its side, resting half-crouching as it fell, supported on one arm, perfect but that it is headless, and with the tattered clothing still draped around it; and let him realise how grand and glorious a thing it is to have distilled all Youth and Joy and Life into a foetid heap of hideous putrescence.

(11) Alan Bishop, Letters From a Lost Generation (1998)

Roland's leave lasted for just under a week, during which he and Vera agreed to become officially engaged "for three years or the duration of the War". After spending the first night at Buxton, they travelled down to Lowestoft to be with his family. In some ways it was an unsatisfactory time for both of them, getting used to each other again after so many months of separation. They enjoyed only one true moment of intimacy as they sat alone on a cliff path, the afternoon before their departure. Silently drawing Vera closer to him, Roland rested his head on her shoulder for a while, and then kissed her. As Vera had to report for duty, back at the Devonshire, on 24 August and Roland was not returning to France until the end of the week, they had agreed that he should see her off at St Pancras. At the station, on 23 August, he kissed her goodbye and then, almost furtively, wiped his eyes with his handkerchief: "I hadn't realized until then that this quiet and self-contained person was suffering so much," Vera wrote in her diary. As the train began to move she had time to kiss him and murmur "Goodbye". She stood by the door and watched him walk back through the crowd: "He never turned again. What I could see of his face was set and pale."

(12) Roland Leighton, letter to Vera Brittain (26th November, 1915)

Just a short letter before I go to bed. The Battalion is back in the trenches now and I am writing in the dugout that I share with the doctor. It is very comfortable (possessing among other things an easy chair, stove, an oil lamp, a table complete with tablecloth) and I am feeling pleasantly tired but not actually sleepy. Through the door I can see little mounds of snow that are the parapets of trenches, a short stretch of railway line, and a very brilliant full moon. I wonder what you are doing. Asleep I hope - or sitting in front of a fire in blue and white striped pyjamas? I should so like to see you in blue and white pyjamas You are always very correctly dressed when I find you; and usually somewhere near a railway station. I once saw you in a dressing gown with your hair down your back playing an accompaniment for Edward in the Buxton drawing room....

It all seems such a waste of youth, such a desecration of all that is born for poetry and beauty. And if one does not even get a letter occasionally from someone who despite his shortcomings perhaps understands and sympathises it must make it all the worse... until one may possibly wonder whether it would not have been better to have met him at all or at any rate until afterwards. I sometimes wish for your sake that it had happened that way.

(13) Roland Leighton, letter to Vera Brittain (28th November, 1915)

I have just been out for a walk behind the trenches to get warm. It is very cold, and unless you keep moving about your feet soon become more like ice than feet. The men have begun to get "trench feet" from standing still on sentry duty at night... Personally I like cold weather very much, provided I can move about enough to keep warm: and I am one of the fortunate persons who don't get troubled with chilblains.

(14) Roland Leighton, letter to Vera Brittain (30th November, 1915)

The snow has melted and rain taken its place, with the result that the trenches are half full of liquid mud, suddenly-thawed traverses have fallen and blocked the way with earth and sandbags, and everyone is wading around in what the Ordnance Stores describe as "boots, gum, thigh". I am wearing some now, and came into the dug-out a moment or two ago looking like a peripatetic ball of mud, which proceeded to peel off various outer garments, shake some superfluous mud on the floor, and sit down to write a letter. My top half is now more or less normal, but I am a sticky mess all down below.

(15) Roland Leighton, letter to Vera Brittain (9th December, 1915)

I was recalled to my regiment unexpectedly suddenly yesterday morning and am now in the trenches with them. Very wet and muddy, and many of the communication trenches are quite impassable. Three men were killed the other day by a dug-out falling in on top of them and one man was drowned in a sump hole. The whole of one's world, at least one's visible and palpable world, is mud in various stages of solidarity or sickliness. But the men all take it as a joke and are splendidly cheerful. One consolation is that the German trenches seem to be, if anything, worse than ours.

(16) Vera Brittain, Testament of Youth (1933)

I arrived at the cottage that morning to find his mother and sister standing in helpless distress in the midst of his returned kit, which was lying, just opened, all over the floor. The garments sent back included the outfit that he had been wearing when he was hit. I wondered, and I wonder still, why it was thought necessary to return such relics - the tunic torn back and front by the bullet, a khaki vest dark and stiff with blood, and a pair of blood-stained breeches slit open at the top by someone obviously in a violent hurry. Those gruesome rages made me realise, as I had never realised before, all that France really meant. Eighteen months afterwards the smell of Etaples village, though fainter and more diffused, brought back to me the memory of those poor remnants of patriotism.