Vera Brittain’s works, Testament of Youth and maybe even more Chronicle of Youth: Great War Diary, 1913-1917 are among the most moving books I’ve ever read about WW1. As most of my readers know, this great writer and pacifist lost her fiancé (Roland Leighton), two other close friends (Victor Richardson and Geoffrey Thurlow), and her brother Edward Brittain during the war.
Edward Brittain was killed on the Italian front. Indeed in November 1917, the 11th Sherwood Foresters, Edward Brittain’s regiment, was posted to the Italian Front in the Alps above Vicenza, following the defeat of the Italian Army at Caporetto.
On June 15, 1918, the Austrian Army launched a surprise attack with a heavy bombardment of the British front-line along the bottom of the San Sisto Ridge. Edward led his men in a counter-offensive and had regained the lost positions, but soon afterwards, he was shot through the head by a sniper and had died instantaneously. He was buried with four other officers in the small cemetery at Granezza.
Vera Brittain visited the cemetery in 1921. This visit is described in Testament of Youth:
How strange, how strange it is,” I reflected, as I looked, with an indefinable pain stabbing my chest, for Edward’s name among those neat rows of oblong stones, “that all my past years-the childhood of which I have no one, now, to share the remembrance, the bright fields at Uppingham, the restless months in Buxton, the hopes and ambitions of Oxford, the losses and long-drawn agonies of the War- should be buried in this grave on the top of a mountain, in the lofty silence, the singing unearthly stillness, of these remote forests ! At every turn of every future road I shall want to ask him questions, to recall to him memories, and he will not be there. Who could have dreamed that the little boy born in such uneventful security to an ordinary provincial family would end his brief days in a battle among the high pine-woods of an unknown Italian plateau?”
Close to the wall, in the midst of a group of privates from the Sherwood Foresters who had all died on June 15th, I found his name “Captain E. H. Brittain, M.C., 11th Notts. and Derby Regt. Killed in action June 15th, 1918. Aged 22” In Venice I had bought some rosebuds and a small asparagus fern in a pot; the shopkeeper had told me that it would last a long time, and I planted it in the rough grass beside the grave.
“How trivial my life has been since the War ! “I thought, as I smoothed the earth over the fern. “How mean they are, these little strivings, these petty ambitions of us who are left, now that all of you are gone! How can the future achieve, through us, the somber majesty of the past? Oh, Edward, you’re so lonely up here; why can’t I stay for ever and keep your grave company, far from the world and its vain endeavors to rebuild civilization, on this Plateau where alone there is dignity and peace?”
But when at last I came from the cemetery, the child, who had been playing with his father near the car, ran up to me holding out a bunch of scabious and white clover that he had picked by the roadside.
“For the little signorina,” he said.
Vera Brittain never fully got over the death of her brother. When she died on March 29, 1970, aged 76, her will requested that her ashes be scattered on Edward’s grave on the Asiago Plateau – “…for nearly 50 years much of my heart has been in that Italian village cemetery“.
To know more about the death of Edward Brittain, please see this site.