Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Perhaps



Christmas is supposed to be a season of comfort and joy, but many people struggle through the holidays, especially those who have lost someone they love.  The empty place at the table – the voice that will never be heard again:  despair and loneliness are too often the unwelcome guests at festive gatherings of families and friends.

Vera and Roland, 1915
One hundred years ago, in December of 1915, Vera Brittain, a young VAD nurse just shy of her 22nd birthday (29 December), was excitedly awaiting a visit from her fiancé, Roland Aubrey Leighton. In the last week of November, Roland had written to Vera, “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….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.” 

On December 17th, Vera received a message from Roland suggesting he might get his wish to see her -- pyjamas aren’t mentioned: “Leave from December 24 – 31st.  Land on Christmas Day.” 

That Christmas Eve, Vera worked with other nurses filling soldier’s stockings with candy and nuts, and on the following morning, she attended Christmas communion at the hospital chapel, where she knelt to “thank whatever God there be for Roland and for all my love and joy.”

She then caught a train to Brighton, where she waited for her fiancé’s arrival.  With time on her hands, she wrote on December 26th, “I walked along the promenade, and looked at the grey sea tossing rough with white surf-crested waves, and felt a little anxiety at the kind of crossing he had had.  But at any rate he should be safely in England by this time, though he probably has not been able to send me any message to-day owing to the difficulties of telephones and telegrams on Sunday & Christmas Day combined….So I only have to wait for the morrow with such patience as I can manage.” 

On Monday December 27th she received news of Roland:    
“I had just finished dressing when a message came to say that there was a telephone message for me.  I sprang up joyfully, thinking to hear in a moment the dear dreamed-of tones of the beloved voice. But the telephone message was not from Roland...it was not to say that Roland had arrived, but that instead had come this telegram...'Regret to inform you that Lieut. R.A. Leighton 7th Worcesters died of wounds December 23rd...'"

Perhaps by Vera Brittain
(To R.A,L. died of wounds in France , December 23rd 1915)

Perhaps some day the sun will shine again,
And I shall see that still the skies are blue,
And feel once more I do not live in vain,
Although bereft of You.

Perhaps the golden meadows at my feet
Will make the sunny hours of spring seem gay,
And I shall find the white May-blossoms sweet,
Though You have passed away.

Perhaps the summer woods will shimmer bright,
And crimson roses once again be fair,
And autumn harvest fields a rich delight,
Although You are not there.

Perhaps some day I shall not shrink in pain
To see the passing of the dying year,
And listen to Christmas songs again,
Although You cannot hear.'

But though kind Time may many joys renew,
There is one greatest joy I shall not know
Again, because my heart for loss of You
Was broken, long ago.

On his last day of duty, Leighton had volunteered to proceed before his men into No Man’s Land, where they were repairing wire in front of their trench.  Almost immediately the target of German machine gunfire, he was severely wounded in the stomach and spine.  Carried by stretcher to a hospital clearing station, Roland died the next evening. 

On New Year’s Eve, Vera wrote her last diary entry for 1915: “This time last year He was seeing me off on Charing Cross Station after David Copperfield – and I had just begun to realize I loved Hjm.  To-day He is lying in the military cemetery at Louvencourt—because a week ago He was wounded in action, and had just 24 hours of consciousness more and then went ‘to sleep in France.”  And I who in impatience felt a fortnight ago that I could not wait another minute to see Him, must wait till all Eternity.  All has been given me, and all taken away again – in one year.  So I wonder where we shall be – what we shall all be doing – if we all still shall be – this time next year.” 

Vera Brittain
Roland Leighton
She writes that her friends, in an effort to help, “counselled patience and endurance; time, they told me with maddening unanimity, would heal.  I resented the suggestion bitterly; I could not believe it, and did not even want it to be true.  If time did heal I should not have kept faith with Roland, I thought, clinging assiduously to my pain, for I did not then know that if the living are to be of any use in this world, they must always break faith with the dead.” 

It would be interesting to know what John McCrae, the author of “In Flanders Fields” would have responded.   





6 comments:

  1. What a shattering 'thing' Vera's life was (and remained). However, turning, as she did, her grief into something positive and thus healing her emotional wounds, she moved on and crept the barricades making herself a champion of women's rights. She was a feminist, if any. Then she made herself instrumental in the world of politics and, finally, pacifism. Her unique 'Letters to peeace-loving people', which she wrote in the run-up to the 2nd World War, remain to this day a gut-wrenching and heart-warming statement.

    Is it any wonder that her daughter, (Baroness) Shirley Williams, was to become not just the first woman ever to lead the LibDems in the UK, but even more, a lady who came to deserve widespread respect both Nationwide and worldwide.

    For the interested reader Vera's shattering Testament of Youth (recently filmed, featuring Kit Harington and Alicia Vikander), and Letters from a Lost Generation, from which she was later to distil her 'Testament' and biography are required reading.

    Roland L.'s poem Villanelle (aka Violets from Plug Street Wood) is a poetic masterpiece. 'Plug Street Wood' was one of these popular British coinages referring to 'Ploegsteert Bos', Ploegsteert being a small village on the Belgian-French border where Roland saw action in early 1915. The romantic woods there still hide to this day three small military cemeteries. In one of these, one of the youngest soldiers to participate in the War lies buried. He was one R. Barnett, a 15-year-old (young?) London boy of Jewish descent. A recent addition to the war-related sites in our region is the 'Plug Street Experience'; in this one of the focuses is on the tunnelers, also known as 'the moles'. In order to break through the stalemate (ie, the static trench war) tunnels were dug under the enemy lines and filled up with high explosive charges. The intention was to detonate these in order to create a breach in the enemy front and force a breakthrough. In order to achieve this, the BEF employed former members of the companies that had done the preliminary digging work on the London Underground.

    A personal review of Vera Brittain's Letters from a Lost Generation can be accessed on Amazon.co.uk.

    It may perhaps be of interest to you to learn that the In Flanders Fields Museum (Ieper/Ypres) is currently showing an unique exhibition devoted to the participation of Canadian forces in the War here in Flanders Fields. The exhibition is entitled "Canada 1915". The museum derived its name from the seminal poem that Lt. John McCrae wrote (early May 1915) in what is now known as Essex Farm Military Cemetery, just north of the city of Ypres.

    Keep up the good work!
    Chris

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    1. Chris, thanks very much for sharing your expertise and this information. I hope that others reading this blog are able to attend the exhibit you mention.

      For those wishing to read Leighton's "Villanelle," I've posted the poem here:
      http://behindtheirlines.blogspot.com/2015/08/violets-from-oversea.html

      And McCrae's poem can be read here:
      http://behindtheirlines.blogspot.com/2015/04/breaking-faith-in-flanders-fields.html

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  2. Connie and Chris - thanks so much for this wonderful article, poem and information. Absolutely heart-wrenching and profound. I shall explore the film and book you mention Chris.

    Warm Wishes, Leighton @WiltshireatWar

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    1. Thanks so much for reading and following my blog project. Wishing you a very happy new year....

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  3. Thank you for posting this. I love Vera Brittain and her writing. I so wish there were a recording of her reading her own poetry.

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  4. Wouldn't that be special?! Thanks for reading, C. George.

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