In Wounded Fields (4)

If you've read anything by or about Vera Britten (mother of cabinet minister Shirley Williams) you'll know about the brilliant young academic, poet, soldier, Roland Leighton. If you haven't yet, then try Vera's Testament to Youth, which is largely modelled on her all time love for him and the generation lost in world war one.

As my poem suggests there are several interwined mysteries around the short life and the death of this brilliant young man. I'm not going to speculate here but there had to be a troubled mind behind Leighton's private decision to convert to Catholicism. And everyone knew where not to show yourself on that fateful night in the trenches...

To Roland Aubrey Leighton: March 1895 - December 1915

We searched the lanes, found you in Louvencourt’s
Small cemetry amidst a company
Of stones standing straight-rowed to attention,
Smart white in a slow rain, near where you died;
‘Lieutenant R A Leighton 7th Worcesters,’
Says your monument; said that telegram.
“I walk alone although the way is long,”
You said, in private lines in your black book,
“And with gaunt briars and nettles overgrown;”
What pain you meant by this we’ll never know.
Just such a light so bright as yours aligns
The many-splendoured ones on which it shines.

She capitalised your ‘Him’ as godheads do
Whenever afterwards she wrote of you.

Yes, “Life is love and love is you, dear, you”
You wrote, prize scholar bursting sweating out
Of your illicit wet night dreams of she,
Who’d written to herself ;’Impressive, he,
Of powerful frame, pale face and stiff thick hair.’
Would you we know had she not loved you so?
Dee likes to know you in those violets,
Pressed brown and withered, desiccated now,
You sent to Vee from shattered 'Plug Street' Wood,
Picked from red sticky ground around the head,
The horrid face and splintered skull that she
Must never see?... She, Vera of the V A D?

Who, from your sceptic pact with her enticed
Your secret taking of Rome’s hand of Christ?

And I, not knowing of you very much,
Looked in that brass bound book at Louvencourt
Read this year’s batch of private messages
To you, young friend, mostly from those unborn
When that one, shiv’ring in his field grey,
Unsurprised to see you that cold night, glad
Of the Christmas gift, squeezed the steel trigger,
Exploding pain into your youthful frame...
From far and wide they’d come to speak their grief,
So many words to you who wrote so few.
Why stood you there, why dare the guns, Roland?
‘Hinc illae lacrimae;’* your code...
I still don’t understand....

* Hence those tears’ .... (Terence)

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