December 23

This Day in History

World War I

Dec 23, 1915:

Vera Brittain loses fiance at Western Front

Roland Leighton, the fiance of Vera Brittain, a nurse in the British Red Cross who will become a famous author and feminist after the war, dies of wounds sustained in battle at the Western Front in France.

Brittain, born in 1893, grew up as part of a prosperous family in the north of England. In 1915, she abandoned her studies at Oxford to enlist in the armed forces as a nurse. Over the next three years, she served in London, Malta and on the Western Front. After the war ended, Brittain devoted herself to the causes of peace and women's rights. The author of 29 books in all, she is perhaps best known for her first book, the war memoir Testament of Youth, in which she chronicles her experiences of war and loss.

"The war at first seemed to me an infuriating personal interruption rather than a world-wide interruption," Brittain admits early in Testament of Youth. Her longtime dream to get out of the provinces and attend Oxford was just coming true when war broke out. By that time, she had met and fallen in love with Roland Leighton, a schoolmate of her younger brother Edward. Soon, both Roland and Edward had enlisted in the British army.

Roland went to the front on March 31, 1915. During a leave that year, he and Vera were formally engaged. She began working as a nurse at a hospital, first in Devonshire and later in London, and was preparing for his arrival on another leave at Christmas time when she received a telephone message informing her of his death. Roland had been shot in the stomach on December 22 as his company, the 7th Worcesters, battled the Germans in the trenches. He died the next day in a hospital bed in nearby Louvencourt, France.

By war's end, Vera Brittain's brother, Edward, was also dead—killed in action in Italy on June 15, 1917—as well as several of her good friends. In her memoir, first published in 1933, Brittain, a devoted pacifist, mourns the great sacrifices made by her loved ones and the rest of the younger generation for the sake of their ideals. Brittain writes in her foreword, as the rumblings of another great international conflict were already making themselves heard, that her object in writing Testament of Youth was at least in part to keep the horror of the Great War alive in the minds of a new generation—"to challenge that too easy, too comfortable relapse into forgetfulness which is responsible for history's most grievous repetitions."

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