The tragic First World War tale of a Sunderland couple who shared just one kiss before he was killed in action

Early 1930s housing in Sunderland
Early 1930s housing in Sunderland
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Vera Brittain was a young woman in 1914 who wrote about her experiences during the First World War.

It was a conflict which claimed the lives of her fiancé, brother and some of their friends.

Edward Brittain watched the shooting down of a Zeppelin over the North East coast

Edward Brittain watched the shooting down of a Zeppelin over the North East coast

Her story was tragic and it is shared with us thanks to Sunderland Antiquarian Society member Trevor Thorne.

The book, Testament of Youth, was recently been made into a film.

Vera herself worked as a VAD (Voluntary Aid Detachment) nurse both at home and abroad.

Her first connection with Sunderland came when her brother, Edward Brittain MC, who had been wounded during the Battle of the Somme, was carrying out light duties with his regiment the Sherwood Foresters.

Like many young people at the time, although engaged, they had only been alone together once. They only shared one kiss and that was at the railway station as Ronald left with his regiment for the Front.

Trevor Thorne, Sunderland Antiquarian Society

Edward was stationed in Sunderland in June 1917 and then between November 1916 and March 1917, before returning to fight in France.

Vera corresponded with Edward while he stayed in the area. The two addresses given on the letters he wrote were Cleadon Hutments and then Lonsdale Road, Roker.

During his time here there were two invasion scares and he describes in one letter how he had a fear not of death, but wounds causing blindness.

Edward also describes an event in November 1916 when a Zeppelin was brought down a short distance from Sunderland at Seaton Carew, the fire from which could be seen right along the North East coast.

He wrote: “Suddenly it caught fire at one end, and the fire spread lighting up the whole sky, and amidst cheers from the Cleadon detachment, the ball of fire fell to the earth”.

Edward’s death arose after he had been posted to the area around the River Piave in Italy.

It was unusual for officers’ mail to be censored but Edward’s letters to a brother officer were read and a senior officer decided their content meant action needed to be taken.

It was left to his commanding officer to have a discussion with him.

It peacetime, that may have involved a bottle of whiskey and a revolver but the next day Edward led a suicide attack on an enemy position and was killed.

Vera’s fiancé Ronald Leighton, who had been a brilliant scholar and poet, was also killed in action.

Like many young people at the time, although engaged, they had only been alone together once.

Sadly, they only shared one kiss and that was at the railway station as Ronald left with his regiment for the Front.

Vera Brittain’s second connection with Sunderland came when her husband, George Catlin, unsuccessfully stood as a Labour candidate for the town.

His campaign hit problems when in the weeks before the election, he suffered from glandular fever. As a result his wife had to take on more of the campaign canvassing duties.

Vera wrote of her experiences in Sunderland in November 1935 and the chronic housing problems she found stating: “An afternoon spent canvassing in houses with pitch dark stairs worn and broken in places, tin baths and buckets in the landing with habitation more fit for monkeys than human beings”.

Then she added: “Terrible slums, crowded rooms which included indescribably filthy bedding, worse than anything I have seen elsewhere.”

At the time, nearly half the houses in the town had no water supply and much of the housing was in very poor condition, particularly around the river.

It took a large post-war building programme to improve Sunderland’s housing.

George Catlin (eventually Sir George) was born in Liverpool and was one of the first political scientists.

Much of his work was in America where he was appointed director of the National Commission to study prohibition.

Vera and George had two children, one of whom is Shirley Williams, one of the founders of the Social Democratic Party, who is now Baroness Crosby.