Shirley Williams at UCL Women's Dining Club
On 18 March 2014, over 60 members and guests of the Women's Dining Club heard Baroness Williams of Crosby, the Liberal Democrat peer, speak about her mother's life and experiences during World War One. Baroness Williams is of course better known as the former MP, cabinet minister and joint founder of the SDP, Shirley Williams. Her mother was Vera Brittain, the celebrated writer, feminist and pacifist who is best remembered for her memoir Testament of Youth which documents her life as a voluntary aid detachment (VAD) nurse and the impact it had on her growing pacifism.
Shirley's illustrated talk highlighted three main themes in relation to Vera's experiences; the importance of class, the relationship of women to men (women were considered marginal to the war effort) and women as nurses - the professional nurses were highly qualified and working class whilst the amateur VAD nurses were middle class, untrained and shocked by the terrible injuries of many of the servicemen. At the start of the war there was no effective anaesthetic apart from alcohol and many men died from infected wounds as the knowledge of how to treat infections was still very rudimentary.
Shirley discussed Vera's background - her mother Edith was one of four daughters who became a governess and married well into the family she had been working for. Vera was devoted to her brother Edward whom she described as her "most beloved companion". Edward applied for a commission in the army at the start of the war and in 1915, having struggled to overcome her father's resistance to her ambition to study at Oxford, Vera abandoned her studies at Somerville College when she decided it was her duty to support the war effort. By this time, her friend Geoffrey Thurlow had already been injured and was suffering with shell shock. Vera's view of the war as it progressed must surely have been influenced by the terrible experiences of Geoffrey, her fiancé Roland Leighton, another close friend Victor Richardson and Edward, who was eventually awarded the Military Cross - sadly none of them survived to see the armistice. These young men were all products of the public school system which provided the vast majority of the junior officers who were killed on the frontline, decimating a generation of men from the upper and middle classes. Many literally joined up straight from school and in a mere three months were transformed from schoolboys to officers.
As well as the impact the deaths of Edward, Roland and her close friends had one her attitude to conflict, Vera's pacifist outlook was strongly influenced by her experience of nursing dying German soldiers in France.
After the war, Vera eventually returned to her studies and graduated in 1921 but found her fellow undergraduates' lack of interest in the war hard to take. In 1925 she married George Catlin, the political scientist and her children John and Shirley were born in 1927 and 1933 respectively. Testament of Youth was published in 1933.
After she finished speaking, Shirley received a warm round of applause and took several interesting questions from the floor. She also mentioned that the BBC is to make a film based on Testament of Youth which all of us who heard her speak about her mother will look forward to keenly.