Brittain, Vera, Diary, 13 January 1916

Diary of Vera Brittain


Case Study: 
From Youth to Experience: Vera Brittain’s Work for Peace in Two World Wars
Brittain, Vera
13 January 1916
McMaster University Libraries
Vera Brittain estate; McMaster University has a non-exclusive licence to publish this document.


the clothes when living, the smell of those clothes was the smell of graveyards of the Dead. The mud of France which covered them was not ordinary mud; it had not the usual clean pure smell of earth, but it was as though it were saturated with dead bodies -- dead that had been dead a long, long time. All the sepulchres and catacombs of Rome could not make me realise mortality & decay & corruption as vividly as did the smell of those clothes. I know now what he meant when he used to write "this refuse-heap of a country" or "a trench that is nothing but a charnel-house." And the wonder is, not that he temporarily lost the extremest refinements of his personality, as Mrs. Leighton says he did, but that he ever kept any of it at all -- let alone nearly the whole. He was more marvellous than even I ever dreamed.
There was his cap, bent in & shapeless out of recognition; the soft cap he wore rakishly the back of his head -- with the badge coated thickly with mud. He must have fallen on top of it, or perhaps one of the people who fetched him in trampled on it. The clothes he was wearing when wounded were those in which he came home that time. We discovered that the bullet was an expanding one. The hole where it went in in front well below where the belt would have been, just behind the right-hand bottom pocket of the tunic -- was almost microscopic, but at the back, almost exactly where his backbone would have been, there was quite a large rent. The underthings he was wearing at the time have evidently had to be destroyed, but they sent back a khaki under waistcoat which was dark & stiff with blood, and a pair of khaki breeches also in the same state, which had been slit open at the top by someone in a great hurry -- probably the Doctor in haste to get at the wound, or perhaps even by one of the men. Even the tabs of his braces were blood-stained too. He must have fallen on his back as in every case the back of his clothes was much more stained & muddy than the front.
The charnel-house smell seemed to grow stronger and stronger till it pervaded the room & obliterated everything else. Finally Mrs. Leighton said "Robert, take those clothes away into the kitchen, & don't let me see them