Food for Thought: One Soldier’s Story


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Screen shot 2015-10-31 at 7.01.04 PMTestament of tortured youth: Vera Brittain’s heartbreaking WWI memoir of love and loss is now a major movie. But here’s what it WON’T show – her ‘hero’ brother’s suicide dash into the guns to keep his gay affair secret

  • Vera Brittain’s Testament Of Youth is a compelling portrayal of Great War
  • Memoir tells how slaughter stole Vera’s fiance, best friends and finally, her younger brother Edward
  • But what never appears in her book or blockbuster based on it is the story of what truly became of her beloved brother
  • Now it has been revealed that Edward Brittain MC was actually homosexual
  • At the time, it was illegal and had he been found out, he faced the imminent prospect of court martial and imprisonment
  • According to Vera’s famous memoir, her brother was killed by a sniper
  • But historian Mark Bostridge believes it is more likely that he threw himself on enemy fire

     The memoir, suffused with loss, tells how the slaughter successively stole Vera’s fiance, her best friends and finally her younger brother Edward. Yet there is one overpowering sadness that does not appear in either Vera’s book or in a new blockbuster film based on it – and which until now has never been revealed. And that is the story of what truly became of her beloved brother, a decorated hero, on the Western Front.

     For aside from the appalling privations of the trenches, Edward Brittain MC also carried a very private burden, according to a new biography of Vera: the dangerous secret that Edward was homosexual – which was at the time illegal – that he had been found out, and that he faced the imminent prospect of court martial and imprisonment.

     Vera Brittain, right, never got over the death of her brother Edward Brittain, left. According to Vera’s memoir, her brother was killed by a sniper but a historian believes it is more likely he threw himself on enemy fire.

     To add to his shame, Edward – an officer – had been conducting affairs with ordinary soldiers; men, in other words, from a lower social class. The discovery was made by author and historian Mark Bostridge, whose new account has cast an already tragic death in an even more poignant light.

     Unearthing private and previously unpublished memoirs, Bostridge has constructed an intriguing new theory about Brittain’s secret life and about his death that says much about the social and sexual mores of the time. According to Vera’s famous memoir, her brother was killed by a sniper, but Bostridge believes it is more likely that, maddened by despair, he threw himself on enemy fire.

     Testament Of Youth has become a major part in the way the Great War, which started 100 years ago, is remembered and understood.

     It reached a vast new audience with the acclaimed BBC serial starring Cheryl Campbell in 1979. Thanks to the movie, released on January 16 and starring Swedish actress Alicia Vikander as Vera, it is about to reach millions more.

     An Army nurse during the war, Vera later became a leading pacifist author and was the mother of the Labour-turned-Liberal Democrat politician Baroness Shirley Williams.Edward Brittain was born in 1895, the only son and heir to his father Thomas, a wealthy paper manufacturer, and the apple of his mother Edith’s eye.

     He had a privileged childhood in the Derbyshire spa town of Buxton and grew close to his sister Vera, who was two years older.

     At his public school, Uppingham in Rutland, Edward formed a close friendship with Roland Leighton and Victor Richardson. The trio became almost inseparable, and were known as ‘the three musketeers’.

     Roland and Victor eventually vied for the love of Vera, who they met during idyllic holidays in the Peak District. According to Bostridge, Edward’s love interests, however, lay in another direction. The atmosphere in Britain’s single-sex public schools before 1914 was laced with homo-eroticism, and the biographer believes that Edward – gradually realising that he was gay – formed at least one such relationship while he was at Uppingham.

     What does not appear in either Vera’s book or in a new blockbuster film based on it – and which until now has never been revealed is the story of what truly became of her beloved brother. Pictured, Alicia Vikander (Vera) and Kit Harington (fiancee Roland) in the new film.

     Edward won a place to study at New College, Oxford, and played a major part in persuading his reluctant parents to let his sister study at the same university. They, like many other upper middle-class couples, only saw a future for their daughter in terms of her finding a suitable husband.

     But the year was 1914, and the likelihood of war cast its shadow over the Britain siblings.

     Like thousands of others, Edward, who had served in Uppingham’s Officer Training Corps, deferred his studies, and enlisted, gaining an officer’s commission in the Sherwood Foresters regiment.

     Vera began to read for an English literature degree at Oxford’s Somerville College, but as the conflict continued and her suitors Roland and Victor also joined up, Vera decided that she had to do her bit too, and became an Army nurse. By then, Roland had won the battle for her heart, and they were engaged. Their love was short-lived. In December 1915, Roland was killed, shot in the stomach by a sniper while repairing barbed wire in no man’s land.

     On July 1, 1916, the first day of the battle of the Somme, almost 20,000 British soldiers died and twice that number were wounded within a few appalling minutes. Edward was one of them. He was hit in the thigh and arm attempting to rally his troops. In agony, he crawled back to the British trenches, through corpses turning yellow and green in the summer heat. The experience, he later told his sister, had made his patriotism ‘wear rather threadbare’.

     Finally, they were together again… with Vera’s ashes scattered on his grave

     Recovering from his injuries in England, he was awarded the Military Cross, which was pinned to his chest by King George V at Buckingham Palace.

     While training for the trenches, Edward had met and formed an intimate relationship with Geoffrey Thurlow, a sensitive scholar who wanted to become a priest, but had returned to the front despite being badly shell-shocked.

     To judge from the nature of their correspondence, it might ‘have gone beyond the bounds of a chaste friendship’, says Bostridge.

     Vera became a penpal of her brother’s new friend too, but nothing could sever Vera’s bond with Edward – and there are hints in the letters they exchanged that she strongly suspected the true nature of his sexual orientation.

     ‘Where you and I are concerned,’ she wrote in February 1917, ‘sex by itself doesn’t interest us unless it is united with brains and personality. In fact we rather think of the latter first and the person’s sex afterwards… you will probably have to wait a good many years before you find anyone you could wish to marry, but I don’t think this need worry you for there is plenty of time…’

     But Vera’s hopeful words were wrong. Time, for Edward, was fast running out.

Edward Brittain won the Military Cross at the Battle of the Somme, pictured, on the Western Front in 1916

     Edward Brittain won the Military Cross at the Battle of the Somme, pictured, on the Western Front in 1916.

     In the spring of 1917, the war took both Thurlow – shot through the lungs – and the second of Uppingham’s three musketeers, Vera’s former suitor Victor.

     Now all Vera’s love and desperate anxiety focused on the last surviving musketeer – who was enduring the muddy hell of the battle of Passchendaele.

     Then, in November 1917, came what seemed to be a reprieve.

     Edward and his battalion, the 11th Sherwood Foresters, were pulled out of the Western Front in Flanders and sent south to support Britain’s ally, Italy.

     German and Austrian troops had smashed through the front in the Alps, routing the Italians. With Britain’s help, the front was successfully stabilised and by the summer of 1918 Italy seemed like a quiet place to see out the war.

     Vera allowed herself to breathe with relief once again.

     But the reprieve was not to last. On June 22, 1918, the telegram boy delivered the terrible news of Edward’s death to the Brittain’s home in Buxton.

     So how and why exactly did Edward die?

     There were puzzling discrepancies in the accounts the Brittains received of his last hours.

     It remained a possibility, for example, that Edward had shot himself. The official story as recounted by Vera in Testament Of Youth – published to acclaim in 1933 – was that he had been shot by a sniper on June 15 while heroically leading his men in a triumphant counter-attack against Austrian forces on the plateau of Asiago, 4,000ft up in the Italian Alps.

     He was the only officer killed in the battle.

     What seems to have happened is that, unable to face his family and the wider world with the truth of his sexuality in an age when being gay was considered criminal, he either shot himself, or more probably deliberately exposed himself to enemy fire.

     Historian Mark Bostridge

     In 1934, Edward’s Commanding Officer, Colonel Charles Hudson, a career soldier and a holder of the Victoria Cross, sought Vera out and told her what had really happened to her brother.

     What he said in that private meeting remained a secret until only recently, when Bostridge dug out the story.

     It’s reasonable to assume that Hudson told Vera that Edward had either shot himself, or deliberately courted death rather than endure the shame and disgrace of a court martial. Bostridge was able to put the pieces together because he tracked down Hudson’s son in Devon, who showed him a private memoir, written by his father.

     The author discovered that the day before Edward’s death, Hudson had heard from the Provost Marshal in charge of the local military police that a letter from Edward to another officer had been opened by censors. The letter made clear not only that the two men were in a gay relationship, but that Edward had also been similarly involved with ordinary soldiers in his company.

     He had crossed the barriers outlawing homosexuality and – perhaps more damningly in consorting with men of lower rank – the strict class divides of his time too.

     Though forbidden by the Military Police to tell Edward that he was under investigation and would certainly face a court martial and public disgrace as well as probable imprisonment, Hudson decided to drop a broad hint of what awaited him to his subordinate officer.

     ‘I didn’t realise that letters written up here were censored at the base,’ he said. Edward made no reply, but went as ‘white as a sheet’ and quietly left the room.

     Within hours he was dead, at the age of 22.

     ‘What seems to have happened,’ says Bostridge, ‘is that, unable to face his family and the wider world with the truth of his sexuality in an age when being gay was considered criminal, he either shot himself, or more probably deliberately exposed himself to enemy fire.

     ‘He was found shot through the head after running ahead of his men as they went over the top.’

     We may never know what truly happened to Edward, although his courage is beyond question.

     Vera never openly acknowledged what she had been told about her brother’s tragic fate, preferring to carry the secret to her grave. There is no hint in Testament Of Youth.

     Yet there is one more intriguing twist. In 1936, after learning the truth from Hudson, she wrote a novel called Honourable Estate in which a fictional officer hero deliberately chooses death rather than revealing his homosexuality.

     ‘She never got over Edward’s death,’ says Bostridge.

     Vera Brittain died in March 1970. That year Shirley Williams made a pilgrimage to Asiago where Edward lies with 141 of his comrades, killed in the same battle, in the lonely military cemetery of Granezza.

     In accordance with Vera’s wishes, she scattered her mother’s ashes on Edward’s grave. After almost half a century’s separation, the loving siblings were at last reunited.

     Vera Brittain And The First World War, by Mark Bostridge, is published by Bloomsbury.

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