15 June 2018

Remembering Captain Edward Brittain

Today (15 June) marks 100 years since Edward Harold Brittain – the brother of writer and Voluntary Aid Detachment (V.A.D.) nurse Vera Brittain – was killed in action while serving on the Italian Front.

Captain Edward H Brittain headstone image © Simon Jones Photo Gallery

Captain Edward Harold Brittain

11th Battalion, Sherwood Foresters (Notts and Derby Regiment)

Died: 15 June 1918

Aged: 22

Buried in: Granezza British Cemetery, Italy

Early life

Born in November 1895 in Macclesfield, Cheshire, to paper manufacturer Thomas and Edith Brittain, Edward had one sibling his older sister Vera, to whom he was very close.

Edward was educated at Uppingham School, where he made two close friends, Roland Leighton and Victor Richardson. He also served in the Officers' Training Corps. A talented violinist, he hoped to become a composer.

The First World War

Edward left school in July 1914. He had been admitted to New College, Oxford, but after the outbreak of the war he joined the British Army and was commissioned as a temporary second lieutenant into the Sherwood Foresters (Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire Regiment) in November 1914. He remained in England for the first year and a half of the war. During this period, he became close friends with fellow officer Geoffrey Thurlow.

Edward’s childhood friend Roland Leighton had been serving on the Western Front and died of wounds in December 1915. Soon after, in early 1916, Edward was posted to the Western Front. He was wounded in the left arm and the right thigh on the first day of the Battle of the Somme on 1 July 1916, and was sent to First London General Hospital where his sister was then working as a V.A.D. nurse. He was subsequently awarded the Military Cross for his service on the Somme. The citation stated he was awarded the MC: "For conspicuous gallantry and leadership during an attack. He was severely wounded, but continued to lead his men with great bravery and coolness until a second wound disabled him."

Edward’s friend Geoffrey Thurlow was killed in action at Monchy-le-Preux in April 1917 and is commemorated on the CWGC Arras Memorial. His childhood friend Victor Richardson was blinded at Arras in April 1917 and died from a cerebral abscess in London in June 1917, and is buried in Hove Old  Cemetery in Sussex. These losses transformed Edward, in his sister's words, into "an unfamiliar, frightening Edward, who never smiled or spoke except about trivial things ... Silent, uncommunicative, thrust in upon himself."

Edward returned to the Western Front almost exactly a year after he had left and was immediately sent into battle. He was then sent to the Italian Front with the 11th Sherwood Foresters in November 1917. He saw his family for the last time on leave in January 1918.

On 15 June 1918 on the Asiago Plateau, Edward was shot in the head and killed during an early morning counter-attack against an Austrian offensive, part of the Battle of the Piave River. He is buried in Granezza British Cemetery, Italy.

Vera Brittain

Many of Edward's letters are published in Letters from a Lost Generation: First World War Letters of Vera Brittain and Four Friends. Edward and his friends Roland Leighton, Vera’s fiancé Victor Richardson, and Geoffrey Thurlow, are also commemorated by Vera in her book Testament of Youth.

In 1979 there was a television adaptation of Testament of Youth, there was a BBC Radio 4 adaptation of Letters from a Lost Generation in 1998, and in 2014 a film adaption of Testament of Youth.

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