First World War Poetry Digital Archive

The Roland Leighton Collection

‘I used to talk of the Beauty of War; but it is only War in the abstract that is beautiful. Modern warfare is merely a trade...’

Letter to Vera Brittain, 2nd August 1915

Roland Leighton

Biography

Roland Leighton (1895–1915)

Roland Aubrey Leighton was born in London on 27th March, 1895, the son of Robert Leighton, a writer of boys' adventure stories, and Marie Connor Leighton, a prolific romance novelist. He was sent to Uppingham School in Rutland in 1909, where he edited the school magazine, took the classics prizes and became a quartermaster-sergeant in the Officers' Training Corps. There he also met Edward Brittain, as well as Victor Richardson. They became close friends; Roland’s mother dubbed them the 'Three Musketeers'. He met Edward's sister, Vera Brittain, at Uppingham in 1913, whom he began to court.

'Violets' manuscript

Contemplating whether or not to take up a place at Oxford in 1914, where Vera was scheduled to commence her scholarship at Somerville College, Roland instead volunteered for the British army, initially enlisting as a second lieutenant in the 4th Norfolks in October 1914. Both Edward’s and Victor’s commissions were delayed: Edward’s until 1916, when he departed for France with the 11th Sherwood Foresters; and Victor’s, owing to ill-health, until 1917. Following numerous attempts to be sent to the front, Roland received a commission to the 7th Worcestershire Regiment, and was posted to France in early 1915. He and Vera became engaged on leave in August of the same year. From France Roland wrote Vera numerous letters discussing British society, the war, the purpose of scholarship and aesthetics, as well as their relationship, which she preserved in her diaries and later writings. Within his correspondence he also sent a limited number of poems.

Of those who had been school prefects with him in 1914, only a quarter survived for a further two years. On 23rd December 1915 Roland died of wounds in the Casualty Clearing Station at Louvencourt, France, having been shot through the stomach by a sniper while inspecting wire in the trenches at Hébuterne. His gravestone in the military cemetery at Louvencourt, near Doullens, France, incorrectly states that he was 19 when he died; he was 20 years old. Victor Richardson was blinded in the battle of Vimy Ridge in 1916, and succumbed to his wounds on 9th June 1917. On 15th June 1918 Edward Brittain was killed on the Austro-Italian front.

In December 1915 Vera Brittain was working in the First London General Hospital in Camberwell. She received news of Roland’s death by telegram in Brighton, where she was waiting to meet him for his Christmas leave. She continued her nursing in London, which was followed by postings to Malta and Étaples. In August 1918 she published Verses of a VAD, which included elegies to Roland, Victor and Edward. In the post-war years she became a writer and an active pacifist, publishing Testament of Youth in 1933, which included letters, poems and descriptions of Roland and copies of his poems. Roland’s mother, Marie Conner Leighton, also published an anonymous memoir of her son called Boy of My Heart in 1916 and was instrumental in encouraging Vera Brittain in her literary career.

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