Roland Leighton

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Roland Aubrey Leighton (27 March 1895 – 23 December 1915) was a British poet and soldier, made posthumously famous by his fiancée Vera Brittain's memoir, Testament of Youth.[1]

Life and career[edit]

His parents, Robert Leighton and Marie Connor, were both writers. Marie was the more commercially successful and wrote adventure books (the best known being Convict 99) and also stories that were serialised in the Daily Mail. Her husband was the first literary editor of the Daily Mail and wrote adventure books for boys. Roland was brought up initially at "Vallombrosa" 40 Abbey Road, St John's Wood, North London, and later at "Heather Cliff" a large Edwardian house above the beach at Lowestoft. Leighton was a prizewinning Classical scholar at Uppingham School (a pupil remembered Leighton using a wheelbarrow to recover his haul from the 1914 school prize-giving) - his hope was to one day become the editor of a national newspaper. At the school, Leighton did not have a wide circle of friends as he was regarded as being rather cold and conceited by his peers. He did however become a close friend of Vera Brittain's brother, Edward and Victor Richardson; Mrs Leighton called the friends "the three musketeers". At Uppingham he was acting cadet officer[2] in the Junior Division, Officers Training Corps. Leighton developed an interest in reading poetry, and writing his own verse whilst at Uppingham. He subsequently used the medium of poetry to express his burgeoning love for Vera Brittain, Edward's sister, whom he first met when visiting Edward at his home in Buxton in 1914. She subsequently became his fiancée in August 1915.[1] The pair only saw each other fleetingly during Leighton's brief periods of leave from the front before his death in late December 1915.

On leaving Uppingham, he applied to Oxford University and was awarded the Classical Postmastership at Merton College, Oxford. However, when the Great War broke out he sought a place in the Royal Navy, but was turned down due to short-sightedness. However, after he procured a "general fitness" certificate from a local GP which did not make reference to his myopia, he received a commission in the Norfolk Regiment on 21 October 1914,[3] and was promoted a lieutenant with the Worcestershire Regiment on 26 March 1915.[4]

Leighton served with the Worcestershire Regiment in France, and was engaged in the fighting around Ypres in Belgium. He was initially highly motivated to join the fighting by ideas of patriotism, honour and duty, but an analysis of his letters reveals that he quickly became unhappy and disillusioned by his experiences at the front describing it as "a mere trade".[5] He converted to Roman Catholicism while at the Front in 1915, shortly before his death.[6] He died of wounds on 23 December 1915 at the age of 20 (although his gravestone incorrectly states that he was 19). He had been shot by a sniper and sustained a catastrophic abdominal and spinal injury, while inspecting the wire, in bright moonlight, in front of a trench at Hébuterne, France. His last words on the battlefield were "they got me in the stomach and it's bad" before he was rendered semi-conscious by morphine. Leighton underwent emergency abdominal surgery at Louvencourt, but only survived for a short time. His burial service was held at Louvencourt church. He is buried in the Commonwealth War Graves Commission cemetery at Louvencourt, near Doullens.[7] Brittain's biographer Mark Bostridge has reported that Leighton's grave is often covered by violets in tribute to a poem he wrote for his fiancée:[8]

"Violets from Plug Street wood,
Sweet, I send you oversea.
(It is strange they should be blue,
Blue, when his soaked blood was red,
For they grew around his head:
It is strange they should be blue.)
Violets from Plug Street Wood,
Think what they have meant to me—
Life and hope and love and you.
(And you did not see them grow,
where his mangled body lay,
Hiding horror from the day;
Sweetest it was better so)
Violets from oversea,
To your dear, far, forgetting land,
These I send in memory,
Knowing you will understand".[9]

Roland's final poem, which was found in his clothes after his death was "Hedauville". Brittain found the poem unsettling and difficult to fully understand. Did Roland predict his own death in "Hedauville", and foresee a different life for Vera, with a new love?

Vera Brittain wrote several poems commemorating Leighton's life which were published in her 1918 work, Verses of a V.A.D., and her later volume Because you died. She immortalised him in her memoir Testament of Youth.[1] 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. Brittain's Chronicle of Youth, which contains her diaries 1913–1917, includes entries about Leighton and their relationship, excerpts from his letters from the battlefield and his poetry. His mother anonymously published a memoir of him called Boy of My Heart in 1916.

Leighton is commemorated on the war memorial in the school chapel at Uppingham and, although he did not take up his place at Merton College, his name is on the war memorial there.[10]

His brother Evelyn, five years his junior, joined the Royal Navy, reaching the rank of captain; he was involved in the evacuation of Dunkirk in 1940 and awarded the OBE. His sister Clare Leighton became a talented woodcut artist; she wrote a biography of her mother, Tempestuous Petticoat.


In the 1979 TV adaptation of Testament of Youth Leighton was played by Peter Woodward, with Cheryl Campbell taking the part of Vera. 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 2014 feature film of Testament of Youth, Leighton was played by Kit Harington, alongside Alicia Vikander as Vera Brittain.


  1. ^ a b c "The Roland Leighton Collection". The First World War Poetry Digital Archive. Retrieved 19 March 2017.
  2. ^ "No. 28945". The London Gazette. 20 October 1914. p. 8404.
  3. ^ "No. 28945". The London Gazette. 20 October 1914. p. 8404.
  4. ^ "No. 29112". The London Gazette. 23 March 1915. p. 2963.
  5. ^ Simkin, John. "Casualties in the Trenches". Open University. Retrieved 14 August 2016.
  6. ^ Anne Powell (6 October 2014). A Deep Cry: Soldier-poets Killed on the Western Front. History Press. pp. 81–. ISBN 978-0-7524-8036-7.
  7. ^ Roland Aubrey Leighton on CWGC
  8. ^ Mark Bostridge (21 May 2012). "Vera's Testament is young again". The Daily Telegraph.
  9. ^ "Original manuscript for Violets - April, 1915".
  10. ^ "Merton's Roll of Honour". Merton@750. Retrieved 19 March 2017.

Further reading[edit]

  • 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 Brittain, Chronicle of Youth (1981)

External links[edit]