Roland Leighton

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Roland Aubrey Leighton (27 March 1895 – 23 December 1915) was a British poet and soldier, immortalised in Vera Brittain's memoir, Testament of Youth.

Life and career[edit]

His parents, Robert Leighton and Marie Connor, were both writers. Marie was the more successful & wrote adventure stories that were serialized in The Daily Mail. Her husband was the first literary editor of the Daily Mail,& wrote adventure books for boys, probably the most well known being "Convict 99".[1] He 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 school contemporary remembers Leighton using a wheelbarrow to recover his haul from the 1914 annual school prize giving). He became a close friend of Vera Brittain's brother, Edward and Victor Richardson. At Uppingham he was acting cadet officer[2] in the Junior Division, Officers Training Corps. Mrs. Leighton called the friends "the three musketeers". Roland 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, who became his fiancée in August 1915.

On leaving Uppingham, Leighton 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. 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 converted to Roman Catholicism while at the Front in 1915, a course he had been considering before the war. He was initially highly motivated to join the fighting by ideas of patriotism and duty, but an analysis of his letters reveals that he quickly became unhappy and disillusioned by his experiences at the front. [5] 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 wire in front of a trench at Hébuterne, France. His last words were "they got me in the stomach and it's bad". He is buried in the Commonwealth War Graves Commission cemetery at Louvencourt, near Doullens.[6] 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 Vera:[7]

"Violets from Plug Street wood,
Sweet, I send you from 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".[8]

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.

Vera Brittain was to immortalise him 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, and his poetry.

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 2014 feature film of Testament of Youth Leighton was played by Kit Harington, alongside Alicia Vikander as Vera Brittain.

Roland's younger brother Evelyn, 5 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 O.B.E. His sister was Clare Leighton who became a talented woodcut artist. She wrote a biography of her mother, Tempestuous Petticoat.


  1. ^ "The Harvest of Sin". Women in the Literary Marketplace 1800–1900. Division of Rare & Manuscript Collections, Carl A. Kroch Library, Cornell University. 2002. Retrieved 17 October 2015. 
  2. ^ The London Gazette: no. 28945. p. 8404. 20 October 1914.
  3. ^ The London Gazette: no. 28945. p. 8404. 20 October 1914.
  4. ^ The London Gazette: no. 29112. p. 2963. 23 March 1915.
  5. ^ Simkin, John. "Casualties in the Trenches". Open University. Retrieved 14 August 2016. 
  6. ^ CWGC entry
  7. ^ Mark Bostridge (May 21, 2012). "Vera's Testament is young again". The Daily Telegraph. 
  8. ^ "Original manuscript for Violets - April, 1915". 

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]