If you’ve read Vera Brittain’s Testament of Youth (or indeed seen the recent film adaptation) you’ll no doubt remember the part in which Vera’s fiancé Roland Leighton’s belongings are returned to his family following his death at the front.
Roland had been serving in France for almost a year when he was struck on 23rd December 1915 by a sniper’s “expanding” bullet, whilst inspecting the barbed wire at the front of his unit’s trenches. He was 20 years old. His returned kit arrived at his family home in Sussex on 13th January 1916.
Roland’s returned possessions included:
- A “black manuscript notebook” of his poems, including Hédauville
- A “tunic torn back and front”
- A “khaki vest dark and stiff with blood”
- A “pair of blood-stained breeches slit open at the top by someone obviously in a violent hurry”
- A “cap, bent in and shapeless out of recognition”
- A box of cigarettes, collar and braces (a present from Vera’s brother Edward)
- Underclothing and accessories
- A number of toiletries, including scented soap and solidified “Eau de Cologne”
- Photographs of Vera
- Leather cigarette case and cigarettes
- Small photographs of family and friends
- A haversack “crammed full” of letters
- Two unpaid bills
It seems impossibly callous for raw and grieving families to be sent items of clothing in which their nearest and dearest had died or received fatal injuries, but soldiers’ uniforms were considered their legal property and as such were sent back to their next of kin along with the rest of their effects.
Aside from material possessions, something else arrived at the Leightons’ cottage with Roland’s things that day: an overpowering, inescapable, unmistakable smell. Vera describes it as the smell of “mud”, of “the charnel house, of “death”; “saturated with dead bodies”. The only items it hadn’t pervaded were the small things Roland carried with him every day; tucked away in his inside breast pockets: the photographs of Vera and his family, and his cigarette case. It’s the same pernicious smell as seeped noxiously into the homes of millions of other families between 1914 and 1918. A heart-stopping grief gas, persisting painfully. As Vera confirms, “It was a long time before the smell and even the taste… went away”.
In Testament of Youth, published in 1933, Vera was uncertain as to what had happened to some of the items from Roland’s returned trunk. Had the “gruesome rags” forming the remainder of his uniform been thrown onto the Leightons’ fire or buried in their garden? “What actually happened to the clothes I never knew”, Vera writes.
Roland’s sister, Clare, sheds light on the matter in her preface to Chronicle of Youth, Vera Brittain’s 1913-1917 diary, published in 1981:
It is a cold morning in January and I am in the garden of our cottage in Sussex. My father is with me. I carry two heavy kettles. They are filled with boiling water, for we are about to bury the tunic – blood-stained and bullet-riddled – in which Roland had been killed… Father watches the windows of the house, for my Mother must not see this tunic that Father has hidden from the packages of Roland’s effects returned from France. I am to thaw the frozen earth so that it may be buried out of sight.
This blog post first appeared on lorajones.com