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Historical Notes: Hero of the Somme fatally outed

WRITING Testament of Youth, her account of her First World War experiences in which she served as a VAD nurse and lost the four men closest to her, took Vera Brittain three years. Much of the book is based on Brittain's own diaries and her letters of the time, especially her correspondence with her fiance, Roland Leighton, and with her younger brother, Edward.

Edward Brittain had become a family hero after he was awarded the Military Cross for his part in his battalion's action on the first day of the Battle of the Somme in 1916. In the last year of the war, Edward was transferred with the 11th Sherwood Foresters from Flanders to the snow-capped mountainous regions of northern Italy.

"What a long war this is!" Edward had written to his sister at the end of 1917. "It seems wonderful to have lived so long through it when everyone else is dead." But five months before the signing of the Armistice, Edward too was dead, and buried with four other officers in the British cemetery at Granezza. He had been killed at Asiago in the morning of 15 June 1918 leading a counter-offensive against the Austrians.

Edward's death was the loss from which Vera Brittain never wholly recovered. She had adored him as the closest companion of her youth and, as she wrote the sections of Testament of Youth describing his grave, she found herself blinded by tears. She was also haunted by a dream in which he appeared to have survived the war, though as a more depressed and less vital individual than the Edward she had once known. This dream formed the basis of a short story by Brittain called " Re-encounter" which was published in Time and Tide in December 1932.

Published in August 1933, her autobiography quickly became a best-seller, acclaimed as the woman's book of the war. However in the summer of 1934, almost a year after the book's appearance, Vera Brittain received a letter from Edward's commanding officer, informing her that certain facts of a "personal" nature surrounding Edward's death had been withheld from her. On further questioning, the officer revealed that shortly before the action in which Edward was killed, he had learned that Edward was being investigated by the military police. Letters written to Edward by another officer, while on leave, had been censored at the base. From these it was apparently plain that Edward had been involved in homosexual relations with men in his company. The commanding officer had given Edward a warning of the investigation, and, the following day, Edward had been killed.

There were some strange discrepancies in the reports of Edward's death: some described him as being shot by the enemy in full view of his men while others claimed that Edward had insisted on going ahead of the rest of his company, and that his body had only been found later, after the fighting, with a bullet through his head. Faced with the prospect of a court-martial when the battalion came out of the line, not to mention imprisonment and subsequent disgrace, had Edward shot himself, or deliberately courted death by presenting himself as an easy target for the sniper's bullet?

Vera Brittain never found a satisfactory answer to these questions. It was painful for her to acknowledge that there had been a side to his character which Edward had felt forced to conceal even from his beloved sister. On reflection, though, she recalled the wartime letters to her in which Edward had dropped his guard of self-containment, and spoken of his difficulties with women and his belief that he would probably never marry. What was most distressing was not the disclosure of her brother's sexuality, but the almost "unendurable" thought "of how bitter his last days must have been".

Alan Bishop and Mark Bostridge are the editors of `Letters from a Lost Generation: the First World War letters of Vera Brittain and four friends' (Little, Brown, pounds 18.99)