His parents, Robert Leighton and Marie Connor, were both writers. Leighton was a pupil at Uppingham School, where he became a close friend of Vera Brittain's brother, Edward. Leaving Uppingham in July 1914, Roland was awarded the Classical Postmastership at Merton College, Oxford, but the War broke out before he took his place. He obtained a commission in the Norfolk Regiment and served with the Worcestershire Regiment in France. He died of wounds on 23 December 1915 at the age of twenty (although his gravestone incorrectly states that he was nineteen), having been shot by a sniper through the stomach while inspecting wire in front of a trench, and is buried in the military cemetery at Louvencourt, near Doullens, France. Brittain biographer Mark Bostridge has reported that Leighton's grave is often covered by violets in tribute to a poem he wrote for her. He converted to Roman Catholicism while at the Front in 1915, a course he had been considering before the war.
Although Leighton never took up his place at Merton College, his name is on the war memorial there.
Vera Brittain, who had accepted his proposal of marriage four months before his death, was to portray him and quote some of his work in her writing at the time, and later in Testament of Youth. Many of Leighton's letters are included in Letters from a Lost Generation, a compilation of her wartime letters, edited by Alan Bishop and Mark Bostridge, published in 1998. His mother anonymously published a memoir of him called Boy of My Heart in 1916. Brittain's Chronicle of Youth, which contains her diaries 1913-1917, includes entries about Roland Leighton and their relationship and excerpts from his letters from the battlefield.
In the 1979 TV adaptation of Testament of Youth Roland was played by Peter Woodward. The role was taken by Rupert Graves in the 1998 BBC Radio 4 adaptation of Letters from a Lost Generation and by Christian Brassington in BBC 1's documentary Vera Brittain: A Woman in Love and War in 2008. In the feature film of Testament of Youth Leighton was played by Kit Harington, alongside Alicia Vikander as Vera Brittain.
Roland's younger sister was the artist Clare Leighton.
- Marie Leighton, Boy of My Heart (1916).
- Paul Berry and Mark Bostridge, Vera Brittain: A Life (1995)
- Alan Bishop and Mark Bostridge (eds), Letters from a Lost Generation (1998)
- Vera Britain, "Chronicle of Youth" (1981)
- The Roland Leighton Collection in The First World War Poetry Digital Archive by Oxford University contains images of all Leighton's's War poetry manuscripts, letters to Vera Brittain, plus a searchable text corpora.
- Biography including some of his poetry on the Western Front Association website
- Leighton’s gravestone at Peace Pledge Union website
- Notes about their relationship by Nancy Huntting
- Image of Leighton