The Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC) Giavera Memorial to the Missing and Cemetery are located in the Piave River valley about twelve miles northeast of Treviso, Italy. There are 417 graves and a large stone plaque listing 151 names under the inscription:
TO THE MEMORY OF THOSE OFFICERS, NON-COMMISSIONED OFFICERS AND MEN WHO FELL IN ITALY DURING THE GREAT WAR 1914-18 AND HAVE NO KNOWN GRAVE.
The site was designed by the Scottish architect Sir Robert Lorimer (1864 – 1929), who also designed the Doiron and Naval Memorials for the CWGC.
The memorial inscription is misleading as there is another CWGC Memorial to the Missing in Italy, which is at Savona.
This site is atypical for the CWGC in that it is a plot inside the Savona City Cemetery, which means that the CWGC site is only open according to scheduled times. There are 85 graves and 274 names on the memorial wall, all casualties from the troopship S.S. Transylvania, which was torpedoed on May 4th, 1917 by U-63. Incredibly, another S.S. Transylvania was torpedoed on Aug. 10th, 1940 by U-56.
In late October 1917 the Italian armies were surprised and routed at the Battle of Caporetto, so in November the British 7th, 23rd and 48th Divisions, plus two French Divisions, were rushed out to stiffen the Italian’s last-ditch line at the Piave River. This may not have been necessary as the Austro-German offensive had run out of gas; after advancing some 70 miles the troops were exhausted, they were low on everything, the supply lines were long and the German Stoßtruppen were needed elsewhere.
In March, the line was deemed to be stable enough that the British and French were switched to the Asiago plateau, which had been a quiet sector since 1916, thereby freeing up Italian units needed on the plain as Gen. Armando Diaz was rebuilding his forces for a counter-offensive.
However, the Austro-Hungarians struck first.
On June 15th, 1918, twenty –two year old Capt. Edward H. Brittain MC, a company commander in the 11th (Service) Battalion, Sherwood Foresters (Notts and Derby Reg’t.), was killed in action during the Battle of the Solstice.
A graduate of the Officer Training Corps at his public school, Brittain had left New College, Oxford after only four months of study to take up the King’s Commission in November 1914. His brigade arrived in France on August 27th, 1915 as reinforcements to the veteran 8th Division. He was severely wounded at Ovillers on the first day of the Battle of the Somme, and he didn’t return to duty until June 1917, but he soldiered through the thick of the Battle of Messines and the assault on Pilckem Ridge in the Third Ypres Offensive, before his battalion was transferred to bolster the defenses on the Asiago.
Edward isn’t listed on the Giavera memorial because his grave is marked. He lies with 138 others in the CWGC Granezza Cemetery, which is situated in a remote setting, accessible only by foot, and a short distance from where he fell.
His would have been just another of the countless tragic stories of the war, except that his older sister was Vera Brittain (1893 – 1970), whose dark and somber memoir Testament of Youth (1932) was probably the most powerful statement of the impact of this war on her generation to be written in English.
Vera didn’t just see the war through the eyes of Edward’s sister. In the summer of 1915 she too left her studies at Oxford and joined the Voluntary Aid Detachments (VAD), a large body of women who served under the direction of nurses. She served in hospitals in the UK, Malta and France and dealt with many hundreds of wounded, many of whom survived to live shattered lives.
Born into a wealthy family, Vera and Edward were quite close, and Edward’s public school friends were hers, too. She became affianced to one of them, the aspiring Romantic poet Roland Leighton, who was killed just before Christmas in 1915, and there were also Geoffrey Thurlow, who was killed in April 1917, and Victor Richardson, hit in the head and blinded in the same month. Vera was able to see him in May when he was transferred to specialist care at a nearby hospital in London. She promised to marry him and care for him but he died ten days later from an infection.
After the war Vera returned to Oxford and finished her degree. While there she developed a close relationship with Winifred Holtby, who introduced Vera to Feminism, and they lived in the same residence until Holtby’s death in 1935, even after Vera married political scientist George Catlin in 1925. Their marriage was characterized by long periods of separation, as her husband worked mostly in North America, with guest appointments in India, China, Germany and the USSR. Nevertheless, she bore two children: John (1927 – 1987), who became an artist and Shirley (1930 – present), who went into politics and eventually became a life peer.
Beginning in 1923, Vera authored a number of books, mostly autobiographical in the sense that they were about events and times during which she was an observer or participant.
In the mid-1930’s she became devoted to Pacifism, even writing a series called Letters to Peacelovers during WW2. In the 1950’s and 60’s she was a regular contributor to the magazine Peace News, of which she became an editor.
There have been four biographies of Vera published, and Testament of Youth has been made into a 1979 BBC series (which also played in the US on PBS) and a feature film in 2014. Her unpublished letters were collected in a 1998 volume called Letters from a Lost Generation which became a BBC Radio Four series. Here’s a link to a BBC article about her written by her daughter.
After Vera’s death, Shirley, who was the shadow Home Secretary at the time, obtained permission from the CWGC to inter Vera’s ashes in Edward’s grave at Granezza, probably the only such double burial in any CWGC cemetery.